He would have gazed across a beautiful stretch of the Valley, set off by the southern extremity of the Massanutten Mountain range. He would have also been looking across what is now Elkton, Va., a tiny, eastern Rockingham County crossroads. For many backroads tour visitors heading in that direction today, Elkton is often a first stop and jumping-off point for touring the Valley.
The area around Elkton was first settled in the 1740s and, by the early 1800s, had become a small community centered around a store built by a man named Joseph Conrad. The community eventually became known as Conrad's Store, and by 1816 had its own post office.
During the Civil War, Conrad's Store was headquarters for Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson during his famous 1862 Valley Campaign, one that is now being commemorated during this year's Virginia Civil War Sesquicentennial. The house that had served as his headquarters is currently home to the Miller-Kite Museum.
After the railroad came through the area, the town was renamed Elkton and by 1908 was officially incorporated. A 1920s-era fire that devastated much of the downtown area may be one reason why the town exists more as a gateway than a destination, according to Heidi Findlay, Executive Director of the Elkton Welcome Center, Inc., a combination visitor center-musuem that was organized as a community-operated non-profit in 2011.
“I know they're just not coming here to see Elkton, but they're here for other reasons,” she says.“
U.S. 33 runs east-west through Shenandoah National Park and on into West Virginia, with the huge Massanutten Resort just up the road. U.S. 340 runs north-south through town, following the western edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains from Front Royal in the north to Waynesboro in the south; nearly all of it is scenic driving.
Findlay says that most of the people that stop in are Massanutten Resort visitors. Others are campers from up on Skyline Drive who venture down into the Valley on day trips. Then there are the people from Charlottesville and the Piedmont region who simply want to head over the mountain, just to see what's on the other side. The first place they'll encounter is Elkton.
Other visitor groups include Appalachian Trail hikers making pit stops in the town to catch a hot shower and check email. A majority of the names on the visitor center guest register hail from outside the Valley, and among them are numbers from outside the United States. Canadian cyclists will show up during April and May to train on the network of scenic, bike-friendly country roads surrounding the town.
Findlay says that the Welcome Center, which is located in an old building at 306 W. Spotswood Ave., has been developing a new kind of identity as a museum for the community. It's as much that as it functions as an information center for tourists. While many Valley visitor centers have paid directors, Findlay volunteers her time.
And although she says that the visitor center is officially designated by the Virginia Tourism Corporation, it's also served as a catalyst for bringing a new sense of community unity and spirit.
For example, the Welcome Center organization's mission statement calls for preserving area history, participating with the community, and promoting the town.
“The 'preserve' and 'promote' are being taken care of with the museum and tourism,” she says. “But the 'participate with the community' is this idea that, together, we'll accomplish more.”
Elkton is home to Virginia's largest and oldest bur oak tree. A public boat landing near the bridge at the North Fork of the Shenandoah River provides access for canoeing, kayaking and tubing. An avid biker, Findlay says that many of the paved roads in the surrounding countryside offer relatively level rides and routes that can be ridden as a loop.
The Welcome Center's museum attracts antique-lovers, who in turn often bring in their collectables for display.
“I don't have antique toys,” Findlay explains. “I'm not getting them from another museum. They bring their own things and and then they go back in they tell folks, 'You've got to to see what somebody's put in there.' And then take a look at what we've got. It's fun. And it is neat. And it gets the community involved in who we are.”
The Elkton Welcome Center is open seven days a week during the summer of 2012, Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends. Their phone number is (540) 405-7084, the website is here, and the Welcome Center is also on Facebook.
Photos courtesy Elkton Welcome Center, Inc. and are used by permission. SoLace Studio photo and story copyright ©2012 by Shenandoah Valley Productions LLC.