We all know about the historical gems in Virginia. The first landing in Virginia Beach, the Jamestown Settlement, Fredericksburg and Old Town Alexandria. We appreciate the historical and political significance of our capital in Richmond – and we most certainly know about Colonial Williamsburg. But what about some of the smaller towns where history was made?
The following Virginia towns may be small, but what they offer in historical significance is beyond measure. Each of these places played a part in shaping Virginia’s story through events that became legend, moments that changed history, or people who grew to become larger than life.
1. Bedford: The Bedford Boys
In 1941, the small town of Bedford sent a company of soldiers overseas to fight during World War II. Thirty of these men were on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944 during the invasion of Normandy, but only 11 survived the day. Their death represented the nation’s highest per capita loss in a community on D-Day. In 2001, The National D-Day Memorial opened and has since been named the #1 Attraction in Virginia by TripAdvisor.
2. Hardy: Birthplace of Booker T. Washington
Now a national park, Burroughs Plantation in Hardy is the where the legendary educator, innovator and Civil Rights Activist Booker T. Washington was born and spent his boyhood as a slave. The historic land has been turned into a national monument honoring Washington’s humble beginnings and substantial accomplishments.
3. Front Royal: Belle Boyd, Siren of the Shenandoah
At the age of 18, Belle Boyd became one of the most famous spies of the Civil War. Known for her beauty and bravery, Boyd provided critical information to Stonewall Jackson from Front Royal, where she ran her father’s hotel. Her infamous career included three arrests, six imprisonments, and more than a few bullet holes in her skirts. She received the Southern Cross of Honor from General Jackson before leaving for England in 1864. She went on to have 3 marriages, 5 children, and a successful acting and speaking career.
4. Farmville: Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County
The historic case of Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (1952-1954) was used as part of the Brown v. Board of Education case that eventually overturned segregation in public schools. The Davis case was the only one in which students had protested the poor conditions in their school. The protests had been held at R.R. Moton High School, an all-black school in Farmville, after the all-white school board denied additional funding to the school. When anti-segregation law were finally passed, Prince Edward County closed their schools rather than integrate. The schools remained closed for 10 years before finally reopening as an integrated system. Today, the R.R. Moton High School building is a National Historic Landmark and houses the Robert Russa Moton Museum.
5. Raphine (Rockbridge County): Cyrus McCormick's Mechanical Grain Reaper
In 1831, near the towns of Steele’s Tavern and Raphine, Cyrus McCormick combined the work of multiple farming tools to create the first mechanical reaper. His invention allowed farmers to increase crop yields up to 200% and is the basis of today’s commercial combine harvesters. McCormick was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1976 and his farm and workshop at Walnut Grove now operate as a free museum.
6. Capron: Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion
With a population of just over 160, Capron definitely qualifies as tiny, but it was once the site of huge history. In August 1831, Nat Turner, a slave from Southampton County, led a rebellion in which 55 to 65 people were killed, making it the bloodiest slave uprising in the South. The rebellion was put down within a few days at Belmont Plantation.
7. Courtland: Nat Turner's Capture and Execution
After the slave rebellion in Capron was supressed, Nat Turner escaped and survived in hiding for another two months before being captured, tried and executed, along with some of his cohorts, in the small Southampton town of Courtland.
8. Radford (Ingle’s Ferry): The Long Journey of Mary Draper Ingles
Born in Philadelphia, Mary Draper settled with her family in the western frontier of Virginia in 1748. Soon after, she married William Ingles and they had two sons.
In July 1755, during the French and Indian War, she and her sons were taken captive by raiding Shawnee following the Draper's Meadow Massacre in which both her mother and niece were killed. The captives were taken to Lower Shawneetown at the Ohio and Scioto Rivers and Ingles was separated from her sons. Several months later, Ingles escaped with another woman and walked 500–600 miles over the Appalachian Mountains to find her way home. Her older son died in captivity, but her second son was ransomed 13 years later at the age of 17.
Ingles was reunited with her husband, and in 1762, they built a ferry and tavern near their farm that eventually carried hundreds of thousands of westward pioneers across the New River. Today, the site is is a working farm that replicates life as it would have been in the 1700s, including a reconstruction of the Ingles' original cabin.
9. Fincastle: Starting Point of Lewis and Clarke’s Great Exploration
Founded in 1772 and named after the son of Virginia's last royal governor, Fincastle might be small in size, but its historical significance is huge. When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the Louisiana Purchase, they left from Fincastle. Today, the town is a designated Lewis and Clark community and at least 10 significant sites in Fincastle are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That's pretty impressive for a town of less than 400.
10. Danville: Last Capital of the Confederacy
After Petersburg fell to Union troop in early spring of 1865, Richmond, the capitol of the Confederacy, was evacuated. Following the evacuation, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet fled to Danville, where Major William Sutherlin offered his home, the Sutherlin Mansion, as a headquarters. Davis and his men stayed in the house from April 3-10, 1865, making Danville the temporary capitol. It was here that the decision was made to end the war.
11. New Market: VMI Cadets and the Field of Lost Shoes
On May 15, 1864, Confederate troops defeated Union troops just south of the town of New Market. The battle was significant in that it included 257 cadets from the Virginia Military Institute, marking the only time in U.S. history that the entire student body of one school fought as a unit in actual battle. A portion of the battlefield earned the moniker “Field of Lost Shoes” when the VMI cadets charged into battle across muddy ground, many losing their shoes along the way. Ten cadets were killed, while another 47 were wounded - and yet the boys never broke their line of defense.
12. Appomattox: End of the Civil War
The present-day town of Appomattox is home to just 2,000 residents, but during the Civil War it was the site of a significant railroad depot between Petersburg and Lynchburg. In early April 1865, General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army was trying to reach this depot to join with other forces when they were cut off by Union troops. This led to Lee’s surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865, thus ending the Civil War.
(Pictured above are Union soldiers on the courthouse steps in April 1865.)
13. Catawba: Final Landing for Audie Murphy
Audie Murphy is considered to be the most decorated American combat soldier to have fought in World War II. He received every U.S. Army military combat award for valor, including the Medal of Honor at the age of 19, as well as both French and Belgian awards for acts of heroism. He went on to enjoy a 20 year acting career before he died when the private plane he was traveling in crashed into Brush Mountain, near Catawba. Today, a monument at the crash site honors his memory and incredible accomplishments.
14. Waverly: Home of the First Commercial Peanuts
Although peanuts were most likely brought to North America by African slaves in the 1700s, the first commercial crop of peanuts in the U.S. was grown in Sussex County near Waverly in the early 1800s. Considered a poor man’s food, it wasn’t until the Civil War, when both sides used them as part of their staple diet, that peanuts increased in popularity. Today, peanuts are the 12th most valuable cash crop grown in the United States.
15. Smithfield: World Famous Ham
Not to be outdone by Waverly for famous foods, Smithfield is world renowned for its unique country ham. The ham was developed in Smithfield in the 1700s, with the first receipt for a commercial sale dating back to 1779. The special curing process is said to be based on Native American curing techniques learned by settlers of the region in the 1600s. By law, the hams can only be produced within the town limits of Smithfield to guarantee consistent flavor that comes from the unique combination of local air quality, humidity and airborne enzymes that flavor the rind.
16. Schuyler: Birthplace of the Waltons
Located in Nelson County, Schuyler may not have a large population, but it made a big name for itself in the 1970s and 80s with the TV series “The Waltons.” Based on the books by author and Schulyler native, Earl Hamner, Jr., “The Walton’s” provided a semi-autobiographical account of growing up in rural Virginia during the Depression Era. Today, the Walton’s Mountain Museum in the old Schuyler High School offers replicas of John-Boy’s bedroom, the family’s kitchen and living room and, of course, Ike Godsey’s Store. Since it opened in 1992, the museum’s admission price has helped the Schuyler food bank and volunteer fire and rescue squad.
17. Hiltons: Home of the Carter Family Fold
At the foot of Clinch Mountain, in an area once called Mace's Spring, sits the Carter Family Fold. The Carter Family is known as "The First Family of Country Music," having been part of the original "Bristol Sessions" in 1927. These recordings are considered to be the birth of modern country music and are recognized as one of the most important recording events in history. Today, visitors can see the cabin where the famous Carter Family lived and made the music that has inspired generations. A museum dedicated to the music and life of this family is open for tours, with live music performances available every weekend.
Tell us about some of your favorite small towns where an unexpected piece of history took place. We would love to hear your contributions in the comments below!