The Scenic and Historic Shenandoah Valley of Virginia
 

Early Page County settlement sought religious freedom in the Shenandoah Valley

Mennonite alter in Elk Run Meeting House, Luray Valley Museum

 

The Luray Valley Museum is located on the sprawling campus of Luray Caverns, one of the largest Shenandoah Valley tourism attractions. In terms of number of annual visitors to this region, it's perhaps only second in size to nearby Shenandoah National Park.  The entire attraction covers several hillside acres rising on the west side of the town of Luray, Va., along U.S. Route 211.

The caverns themselves are clearly the main attraction. Smaller venues are also located there, including antique toy and automobile museums, an outdoor garden maze and rope course, interactive mining sluice activity, carillon tower and others. In 2010, the heritage museum was added.

The heart of the Luray Valley Museum is a visitor center that houses a number of galleries interpreting centuries of Shenandoah Valley history. A collection of authentic 19th century buildings have been painstakingly relocated here from various parts of the county.

Historic artifacts, folk art and other artwork, and old tools, as well as antique furniture, clothing and other items are on display. Various historical periods are represented, ranging from pre-Colonial days to around 1925.

The galleries certainly have something to offer for any age level. There also is a lot there for serious historians.

“The museum is about the everyman,” says Luray Caverns Corp. Senior Vice President, Rod Graves.

“It's about the little guy. And there are a few famous people in here, but even those famous people were everyday people that made America what it is today. And a lot of American culture. This was kind of a gateway to the West. And a lot of that culture was brought out of this place, right here.”

Mr. Graves says that the museum‘s “cornerstone” is a 1536 Bible that had been printed in Switzerland and later accompanied a group of Mennonite immigrant families when they traveled to the American colonies in the early 1700s. The Mennonites were a group associated with the Christian Anabaptist denomination.

After a brief layover at Ephrata, in Lancaster County, Pa.,  this particular Anabaptist community migrated into the Shenandoah Valley and settled along the South Fork of the Shenandoah River in what is now Page County. The area they settled into was almost completely uninhabited at the time.

Fort Egypt, on the Shendoah River.

The small, but devout community had been fleeing religious persecution in Europe and sought refuge in the Shenandoah Valley.  Although the Anabaptist form of religious worship had been illegal in Virginia at the time, this group was tolerated by the Colonial government, mostly as a matter of convenience. The tiny settlement formed part of a Colonial buffer zone against Native American lands, as well as from parts of the French army that had threatened this region during the French and Indian war.

19th century chest on display at Luray Valley Museum.

 

After a relatively prosperous period during the mid-1700s, the isolated Mennonite family farmsteads along the South Fork had increasingly come under direct attack, mainly by Native Americans led by French agitators.

“They were on their own. And they were pacifists. You know, your Kentucky Rifle was your best friend,” Graves notes.

The hostilities culminated in the massacre of Mennonite preacher John Rhodes and his family. His farm was completely destroyed.

The community never totally recovered from the horrific violence suffered during the attacks. By the late 1800s, the Page County Mennonite Community was gradually fading away.

Restored Elk Run Meeting House at Luray Valley Museum.

 

During his boyhood, Rod Graves had become familiar with one of the few surviving Page County Mennonite  churches, also referred to as “meeting houses.” When he first discovered the Elk Run Meeting House, it lay on private land, abandoned and dilapidated.

Graves had many opportunities to explore the building and it made a lasting impression on him. It ultimately inspired his idea to build the Luray Valley Museum. In 2010, Graves was finally able to buy the meeting house and have it relocated to the Luray Caverns property. It was then totally restored and is now open to the public.

The Elk Run Meeting House had helped bind together these close-knit settlers. As religious wars continuously raged throughout Europe, it seemed that this group was always on the move. But at least for a time, they prospered. They had finally found their own place, their refuge, in the Shenandoah Valley.

Years later, as members of the community began to drift away, many of them moving westward to Ohio, some of the original families managed to stick together.

It's a centuries-long saga: A religious group struggles to reach America, their beliefs compelling them to seek a new life in a new land. It's an amazing story.

They find that harsh, unforeseen realities in a frontier land ultimately challenge their hope for a better life. Eventually, they migrate again, this time even further west. It's a very American story, Graves says.

He also says that he believes that the peace-loving, early Mennonites have left an indelible mark on many of the people living today in the scenic Shenandoah Valley. “They're hospitable,” he says. “They're kind. They're very unique. They have a very close-knit history.”

While he acknowledges there are special communities nearly everywhere in the United States, he believes that this is one story and memory worth preserving, both within the Luray Valley Museum and among the authentic old buildings that are there now, such as the Elk Run Meeting House.Restored schoolhouse at Luray Valley Museum.

 

“This is a very important structure that represents a very special people,” he explains. “I've always been a history nut. That, and art have always been the driving force in my life. And my parents were incredibly supportive of me and my passion for history. Wanting to know more. But, at a very young age, I fell in love with the people of the Valley. They are very special.”

Along with a large wooden chest that had belonged to early Page County Mennonite Johannes Spitler, Graves says that the historic Bible on display may be the first one ever printed that includes both the Old Testament and the New Testament.

16th century bible on display at Luray Valley Museum.

 

“It's a very important Bible, as theological artifacts are considered,” he says. “But we consider it the cornerstone, because it tells this story, about this meeting house, in that community. In essence, you cannot talk about that community without their background, their faith background. It's huge.”

Hank Zimmerman talks with Rod Graves in the Elk Run Meeting House on the March edition of Travel Shenandoah.

Shenandoah Valley blog story by Hank Zimmerman, ©2017 by Shenandoah Valley Productions, LLC

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