Tour 10 -- Staunton to Steeles Tavern
Historic homes, Shakespeare, a folk life museum, and an inventor’s farm
Staunton is a beautiful old Valley crossroads town with plenty of history to explore. The area offers plenty of other activities as well, including a respected Shakespeare theater, museums, arts, shopping, scenic drives, and dining options. An easy exit off I-81, it’s convenient to I-64, making it less than an hour’s drive from Charlottesville and two hours from Richmond; it is two and a half hours from the Washington, DC, metro area, three and a half hours from Norfolk and Virginia Beach, and just over four hours from Raleigh, NC.
Staunton (pronounced “Stanton”) has been called the “Queen City of the Shenandoah Valley.” Many of its original homes and buildings from the 1800s and earlier still stand, thanks to the fact that it was spared destruction during the Civil War. It is the county seat of Augusta County, which was settled largely by Scotch-Irish beginning in the mid-1700s. The National Register of Historic Places has designated five historic districts in downtown Staunton, and a free brochure with self-guided walking tours of all five districts can be picked up in the downtown visitors’ center. (Touring the Shenandoah Valley Backroads contains an abbreviated historic district walking tour.) The home where U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was born in 1856 stands next door to his presidential library and museum. Another popular Staunton destination is the Blackfriars Playhouse, home to the American Shakespeare Center; performances are given year-round.
Not far from the downtown area, near I-81, is the Museum of Frontier Culture. This outdoor living history museum contains actual (and a few replicated) homes and buildings that give visitors an idea of how immigrants to America from England, Germany, Ireland, and West Africa once lived.
If you continue on U.S. 250 east from the Museum of Frontier Culture for 12 miles, you will come to Waynesboro, a once-important industrial town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains; the Appalachian Trail runs above the town. The Plumb House Museum tells the town’s story, including its role in the Civil War.
The driving tour leaves Staunton by way of U.S. 11, known in town as Greenville Avenue. Heading south, it passes by an 1818 brick home built by an admirer of Thomas Jefferson’s architectural designs. After a few miles, the tour turns west, passing by a very old Presbyterian Church. Many men from the Bethel Church fought in the American Revolution, and twenty-three of them are buried in its cemetery. Some of the most scenic, pastoral roads in the Shenandoah Valley are in this area. It truly does have the look and feel of a long-ago era, as the road takes you past dairy farms and rolling fields and pastures through the villages of Middlebrook, Newport, and Raphine.
The tour ends near Steeles Tavern, home to the historic site known as McCormick Farm, operated by Virginia Tech. This is where Cyrus McCormick invented a wheat-cutting machine known as the Virginia Reaper in the 1830s. The mechanization of farming that began here helped speed the settlement of the American Midwest and changed world agriculture forever.
To learn more about the Shenandoah Valley’s history and its scenic backroads, and for detailed driving directions and more in-depth information for the tours on this website, get a copy of Touring the Shenandoah Valley Backroads (2nd ed., 2010; ISBN 978-0-89587-3-866; $19.95) by Andrea Sutcliffe.
It’s available through your favorite bookseller (go to www.indieBound.com to find an independent bookstore near you), at many Shenandoah Valley gift shops and museum stores, or directly from the publisher, John F. Blair www.blairpub.com, 1-800-222-9796.
Original text and photographs for the tour descriptions on this website © 2012 by Andrea Sutcliffe