A Fascinating Glimpse Into Woodrow Wilson’s Presidency

A visit to the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum demonstrates why the study of history is so important. Though Wilson was president a century ago, much of the collection on display at his birthplace in Staunton, Virginia is surprisingly relevant to life today.

Though Wilson only lived in the house that was his birthplace for his first year (his father was a pastor and the church called  him to Georgia and then South Carolina), he regularly returned to town to spend summers with family. He later visited frequently while attending the University of Virginia Law School before going on to earn a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. (He is reportedly the only U.S. president to hold an earned doctoral degree.) Staunton has always claimed him as its own, and the city was home to the first “Wilson for President” club. wilson tix

Wilson was elected President of the United States in 1912 and served two terms. He is one of the few presidents to have married while in the White House (he was widowed in 1914 and remarried the end of 1915) and is known for his social and economic reforms such as the Federal Reserve Act and the Child Labor Reform Act, as well as his efforts to establish the League of Nations after World War I.

IMG_0046The Woodrow Wilson Museum offers seven galleries of artifacts that take a visitor through his early years, his presidency, suffrage, prohibition and World War I. Enlarged copies of ads and newspapers as well as promotional materials IMG_0050displayed on the walls show women’s fight for equality and the public’s very diverse opinions on immigration, indicating that these issues were as fiercely debated then as they are now. One panel proclaims the U.S. “A Nation of Immigrants” and discusses the fears some Americans had that these newcomers were a threat to American values.  Wilson was staunchly pro-immigration and vetoed a bill to use literacy requirements to restrict the flow (as did his predecessors Cleveland and Taft). However, Congress was determined to restrict the flow of immigrants into the country and overrode his veto in the next session.

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Besides personal items belonging to Wilson and his family, the president’s prized original 1919 Pierce-IMG_0042Arrow limousine is also on display. Though it began as part of the fleet, the president liked the car so much, his friends purchased it for his personal use after he left the White House. On the lower level of the museum, a WWI trench has been created to simulate the sights and sounds of soldiers in battle. Display cases also hold a full uniform, various weapons and everyday items used by soldiers in the field.

IMG_0011During his presidency, the U.S. saw the introduction of a federal income tax and the Internal Revenue Service, the outbreak and resolution of World War I, and the passage of the 19th Amendment. Wilson was the first president to hold regular press conferences, starting a tradition that has lasted until today. As World War I came to a close, he was the first president to visit Europe while in office where he fought to establish a League of Nations, which he hoped would be a diplomatic way to prevent further conflicts from escalating to war.

IMG_0055Admission includes a tour of the home that was Wilson’s birthplace, a Greek Revival that recreates life in a Shenandoah Valley home in 1856, the year Wilson was born. The house, which has a strictly-enforced policy of no photography inside, is decorated with both authentic Wilson furnishings and period reproductions. A Victorian-style terraced garden sits behind the house, which was installed by The Garden Club of Virginia in the early 1930s. Once owned by the Presbyterian Church, this 1846 National Historic Landmark has three floors and was designed to be “the best house in Staunton” when it was finished. From the rear of the home you can easily see the steeple of the nearby Presbyterian Church.

The Wilsons moved into the home in March of 1855. Four other ministers’ families later lived in the home before it was purchased with funds that were largely raised by the trustees of nearby Mary Baldwin College. In 1938, the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace Foundation was established to preserve the property as a birthplace museum for the former president. Renovations were completed in 1941 and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dedicated the museum as a “shrine to freedom.”IMG_0077

The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Research Center houses documents and 3-D objects as well as almost 3,000 library titles. Research is free, but appointments are necessary to access these collections.

The city of Staunton VA can be found in western Virginia, where Routes 81 and 64 meet. Besides the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace (said to be the first in Virginia), the town also boasts the Blackfriars Playhouse and the Frontier Culture Museum, an outdoor living history museum depicting life in the area from the 1600s through the 1850s.

Named one of “America’s Favorite Mountain Towns” by Travel and Leisure and one of The 20 Best Small Towns in America of 2012” by Smithsonian Magazine, Staunton (pronounced STAN-ten by the locals) was the first town in Virginia to win a Great American Main Street award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  The town dates back to the mid-1700s and served as a major remote trading center for the back country, and served as Virginia’s capital in June of 1781. It’s reputation as a trading center was cemented when the railroad came through in 1854 and it was an important supply are for the Confederacy. A long-time home to musicians, the town annually hosts the Staunton Music Festival in early August. It has also been the backdrop for several movies including Gods and Generals and Hearts and Atlantis.

There are several bed and breakfasts and chain hotels to choose from in Staunton as well as the Stonewall Jackson Hotel and Conference Center, a 124-room member of the Historic Hotels of America (a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation).  If you appreciate a good pizza, Maria’s Pizza and Pasta may have the best crust south of the Mason Dixon line. (Try a slice of their veggie pizza.) The city has plenty of parks, shops and restaurants to choose from and the Staunton Trolley makes it easy to get around. Visitors centers can be found both downtown and at the Frontier Culture Museum.

Note: No compensation was provided by any businesses mentioned in this article. Opinions are those of the writer.

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A Walk on The Appalachian Trail Is What You Make of It

a panoramic view of mountains with trees on both sides and rocks in the foreground
Bearfence Mountain Viewpoint, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Now the Appalachian Trail (AT) may seem like an unusual travel destination to some, but the trail has a mystique that calls to thousands each year. The 75-year-old trail, a 2189 mile footpath along the Appalachian Mountains in the Eastern U.S. has been the subject of many books as well as conversations among hikers for generations. It takes careful planning and five to seven months to complete the hike. Since the shelters actually on the trail are limited, one needs to carry both shelter and supplies as well as enough food to get to the next resupply location, which can sometimes be several days. The trail does go near and even through some towns where hikers can resupply, shower and maybe even stay at a hotel or hostel for a night or two, but through-hikers need to expect to spend most nights on the trail.

The Appalachian Trail was conceived by Benton McKay, a regional planner in October 1921, and the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) was organized in 1925 when work seriously started to create a contiguous walking path from Mount Katahdin, Maine to Springer Mountain, Georgia. The trail was completed in 1937. The ATC has grown and changed a bit over time (it is now the Appalachian Trail Conservancy) but it still plays a primary role in maintaining the trail and the corridor lands that border it. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s stated mission is “to preserve and manage the Appalachian Trail – ensuring that its vast natural beauty and priceless cultural heritage can be shared and enjoyed today, tomorrow, and for centuries to come.”  This responsibility is shared with the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, a number of state agencies, and countless volunteer groups.

a cement trail marker post with the AT logoIn 1968 the AT became the first National Scenic Trail; it was added to the National Park system in the 1970s, when the National Trails System Act called for state and federal government to purchase corridors surrounding the AT footpath; the last stretch of land was acquired in 2014.a teal blue marker set in a block of cement

There are a number of ways to hike the AT, which has seen several variations of trail markers over the years; older versions can still be found on the trail. Most people enjoy the beauty of the AT on day hikes and for many, this is enough, but serious hikers may want to tackle all 2189 miles. Few people have the luxury of being able to spend half of a year without obligations (not to mention the cost: approximately $3,000 plus gear, according to the Appalachian Mountain Club), so many hike the trail in sections. This can be a number of day hikes, or multi-day backpacking trips. Those who are really serious do decide to hike the entire trail, either from end to end or in a “flip-flop hike.” Most who start do not complete the full hike, it is estimated that only about a third of those who start a through-hike complete it.

Since much of the trail’s geography takes one through states that experience (sometimes harsh) winters, through-hikers have a window during which they need to start in order to complete the full hike. Most travel from Georgia, with March 1 through April 15 the most popular dates to start. There are some who start in Maine but, due to the snow, can’t start until May or June. This northern section of the trail is also said to be the most difficult, so most experts suggest building up to that level.

Flip-flop through-hiking is also an option. The ATC gives several plans to do this, which involves starting at a location somewhere on the trail, hiking one direction to the end, then returning to your starting point and completing the trail in the other direction. Although this is a bit non-traditional, there are good reasons to do this. Aside from the fact that certain mid points are easier hiking to start with (so you would then progress to more difficult terrain) there is also the fact that it reduces the crowds found at the traditional starting points.

Preparing for your hike

the trail is a series of rocks
This IS the trail (in Tennessee)
a trail with a downed tree across it that has been cut out to provide access
A section in Shenandoah

switchbacks on a trail with leafy trees above a path through the woods with trees on each side and rocks off to the left

There are a number of excellent websites and  books to help you determine what you need. Guide books and trail maps provide even more information. You might want to select a trail name for yourself, or wait and see what name feels right after a couple days out. Learn about or review Leave No Trace principles so that you minimize your impact on the outdoors and help keep it enjoyable for everyone.  Start hiking smaller distances to get in better shape, and get used to carrying a full pack. A hike this challenging is not something to just jump into unprepared. Make sure someone knows you are going and leave them a rough itinerary. (This is of course a good practice anytime you are traveling.) Know the regulations, for example on where camping is allowed and if cooking fires are permitted. Some sections of the trail go through state and national parks that require permits (you can get some of these in advance through the ATC website).

Planning the hike with a partner is a good idea. Besides having someone to share experiences with and encourage you (not to mention helping with preparations), it is also safer. While the risks are minimal, the trail does go through wildlife habitat and run-ins with bears or snakes are possible. Much of the terrain is rocky, so there is a chance of injury. And, although the majority of people found on the trail are good people, as with anywhere else, there are some out there with evil intent.

Know that your personal mileage may vary. Trail sections are sometimes rerouted. Note: hiking the trail usually means hiking more than the trail. There are interesting side trails, sometimes leading to incredible overlooks which it would be a shame to miss. Leaving the trail for a trip into town also adds to your total distance.

The ATC now has a voluntary through-hike registration, which is free and includes a membership to the ATC and other perks. The idea behind the registration is to minimize the crowds at the early stretch of the trail. News about closures and other alerts can be found on the National Park Service website.

Enjoy the trail’s beauty

Although I would love to say that I think I could through-hike this trail, I am a realist and am fairly certain that I will never be in good enough shape to do this. So, instead, I have the almost as ambitious hope (not even a goal) to someday be able to say I have section-hiked all or at least most of it. Bill Bryson’s popular memoir A Walk in the Woods is an entertaining story of his journeys on the trail. It is largely his writings that made me realize that through-hiking is likely not for me.

The trail is beautiful and demanding. I have completed short sections of it in Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee (the latter two states essentially at the same time as a portion of the trail straddles the border).  I have not as of yet backpacked on the trail, instead doing day hikes from a campsite.

The Virginia section goes through Shenandoah National Park and this is the state where I personally have logged the greatest number of miles on the trail. The trail also goes through Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which is where I hiked Tennessee and North Carolina. I had quite a bit of fun with this stretch, near Clingman’s Dome, hopping into NC, then back to TN and back to NC once again.

a man looks at a map in front of a trail sign
We happened upon the trail in Tennessee, near Clingman’s Dome. Of course we couldn’t resist following it for a bit!
trees and a rock jutting out with a woman perched on the end
Just off the trail in Tennessee
the foggy view of a mountain through trees bare of foilage
The view looking into North Carolina

A couple years ago, I completed a stretch of about 3-4 miles of the trail (with side hikes, total of 10 miles) while camping at Lewis Mountain Campground in Shenandoah. We set up camp late in the day and the next morning I ventured out and happened to see the white blazes marking the trail that went right behind our tent! As luck would have it, the trail heading north went up to the Bearfence Rock Scramble and to a 360 degree overlook that I had read about just a few months before. The campground map indicated it was only about a mile, so it was an easy decision. It was mostly uphill and had several switchbacks to get to the overlook, but the view was well worth it. We ended up missing the scramble, as we followed a trail marker that led to the overlook instead. Total miles for this trip (there and back, plus the detour) was 3.6.

The next day we headed south on the trail, with our destination the ruins of the Episcopal Pocosin Mission, which dates back to 1902, about a mile off the trail, with total miles 5.7. The trail started downhill, and coming back I remember thinking that there was no end. I kept telling myself I would stop for a breather at the next plateau, but the trail seemed to just keep going up. This hike came in at 5.7 miles (again this is there and back, plus about 2 miles off the trail to the mission).

a stone foundation of a ruined building
The ruins of the Episcopal Mission
a crude shelf holding objects presumably found among the ruins
A makeshift shrine to the Pocosin Mission

a wood structure partially collapsedparts of a stone foundation among trees

While perusing the ATC website this week, I discovered the 14 State Challenge, where the goal is to hike a section of the AT in each of the 14 states the AT goes through. And, there is no time limit to complete this! Now that sounds like a manageable goal!

 

This was previously published as A Walk on The Appalachian Trail

Virginia’s Breathtaking Natural Bridge Is a National Treasure

 

Natural Bridge, Virginia’s 37th state park showcases one of the oldest geologic features on the East Coast. Part of a limestone cavern system, the bridge likely formed when the James River changed course and the existing cave collapsed, leaving only part of the ceiling intact. The history of the ownership of this “natural bridge” and its surrounding property goes back to colonial days.

rock face with initials G.W. carved into it, boxed in with white paint
This G.W. engraved in the rock is said to have been carved by George Washington

The recorded history of the 215-foot bridge goes back to 1750, when Lord Fairfax hired Washington to survey the bridge. It is said that at or around this time, he carved his initials into the stone under the bridge where they can still be seen today.

a plaque on a white pillar: George Washington surveyed the patent 1750, granted to Thomas Jeffersn 1774
Plaque commemorating George Washington’s survey of the patent and its granting to Thomas Jefferson

In 1774, Thomas Jefferson purchased the bridge, along with another 157 acres of land, from King George III for 20 shillings. He later built a two-room log cabin on the property, one of these rooms was to be used for guests. In 1833, the property was sold and the new owner build the Forest Inn to accommodate the increasing number of visitors to the area. During the 1880s, while owned by Colonel Henry Parsons, it became known as a resort. In 1998 it received its National Historic Landmark status and in 2014 ownership transferred to the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund.

a plaque on a white stone pillar noting that Natural Bridge is a Virginia Historic Landmark
At the entrance to the park

This natural stone formation is on both the National and Virginia Historic Landmark lists as well as the National Register of Historic Places and is where the county, Rockbridge, got its name. The main feature of the park is the 215-foot natural limestone arch. Until recently, the bridge was in private hands. On September  24, 2016, the property was turned over to the Commonwealth of Virginia for use as a state park.

A tourist attraction as early as the 18th century, Natural Bridge has attracted guests from all over the world to see the wonder and to explore the area. It has been memorialized in literature; Herman Melville likened the arch formed by Moby Dick to Virginia’s Natural Bridge and William Cullen Bryant said that the bridge and Niagara Falls were the “two most remarkable features of North America.”

a red brick building with white pillars and "Natural Bridge State Park" across the top
The Visitor Center at Natural Bridge State Park

The Visitor Center is a large building with a variety of merchandise emblazoned with the Natural Bridge State Park logo. Also in the center is a small food concession and information booth. There is a small waterfall, Cascade Falls, next to approximately 137 steps (one of the park rangers confessed to having tried to count them and coming up with different answers each time) that go down to the path that leads to the bridge. If you are unable, or do not want to take the stairs, a complimentary bus shuttle goes back and forth at regular intervals.

Monacan longhouse made of sticks and bark
An example of a Monacan longhouse
mud wall
Protective walls were built using sticks and mud

Today a visit to the park includes not only the view of the bridge, but also admission to 6 miles of trails on the property as well as the Monacan Indian Living History exhibit which shows visitors what life was like here over 300 years ago.

 

wood bridge leading to a roped off cave
A bridge off the trail leads to the saltpeter mine

Following the Cedar Creek Trail from the Visitor Center, you can walk across a bridge to look into the saltpeter mine. Continuing along an easy path, you pass the Lost River, which broke through the ground and currently spills into Cedar Creek . The trail ends at the beautiful 30+ foot Lace Falls. There are two other trails on the property, the Monacan Trail is a loop on the other side of Route 11, the Buck Hill Trail, another loop, is near Natural Bridge Caverns.

The bridge is easy to find near the intersection of Route 130 and Route 11, Route 11 goes over the bridge, but you won’t realize the natural wonder beneath you unless you know what to look for.

a series of waterfalls on a creek
The approach to Lace Falls

Nearby are related sites, including Caverns at Natural Bridge and the Natural Bridge Hotel. (Neither of these is run by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation which manages all of Virginia’s state parks. The town of Lexington is about 20 minutes away heading north on Route 11 and the Blue Ridge Parkway is about a half hour’s drive to the east.

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Lexington, a Charming Virginia Town With a Wealth of History

a street view with brick buildings and a white building with a steeple
Lexington, Virginia

Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the charming and historic Lexington, Virginia is a friendly town that is proud of its heritage.  Named one of the “Best Small Towns to Visit” in 2013 by Smithsonian Magazine, the town offers shopping, eating, history, education and the outdoors, all within a short distance. With several hotels and charming bed and breakfasts, the small town can serve as a home base to explore the wider area, or as a relaxing setting for a weekend trip on its own.

The town is home to both Virginia Military Institute (est 1839) and Washington and Lee University (est 1749), each of which hosts museums open to the public. The VMI Museum, the first public museum in Virginia, has 15,000 artifacts, including a Revolutionary War musket, that help trace its heritage; W&L’s Lee Chapel & Museum is dedicated to the university’s history and how it is intertwined with both George Washington and its 11th president, Robert E. Lee.

A shot from the front of Lee Chapel with red bricks in the foreground and a girl sitting on a step
Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University

Lee Chapel is a focal point on the campus and is where you will find what is possibly the first Peale portrait of George Washington. The lower level museum includes Lee’s office, and a changing exhibit as well as the main exhibit, Building and Rebuilding a Nation, which shows the contributions both George Washington and Lee made to education and reveals an interesting family connection between the men.

A monument to Jackson. A white pedestal with a statue of Jackson on top.
Jackson’s grave

The museum offers a glimpse of this Confederate general, and makes it apparent that he was faced with a very difficult choice: either fight for the North, against his family and neighbors, or fight for the South, against the nation he loved. It is also apparent that he was a true gentleman, taking defeat with grace and continuing to serve. The university owes their honor code and more to him.

Colonnade building at Washington and Lee University with green grass in foreground
The Colonnade at Washington and Lee University sits across the green from Lee Chapel

In addition to the history found at these schools, the town is also home to the Lee House (now the residence of W&L president and their families), sign "Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery Jackson's Tomb"the Stonewall Jackson House and the George C. Marshal Museum. Many of the town’s buildings date back to the 18th and 19th centuries. A few blocks away, the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery is the final resting place of the general, as well as many other Confederate veterans.

Named after Lexington, MA, the site of the first shot of the Revolutionary War, the town also has found an interesting way to share the history of her famous people, from George Washington (who endowed the university that now bears his name) to Meriwether Lewis to Patsy Cline. Pavers throughout town commemorate deceased people deemed to be “The Righteous and Rascals of Rockbridge County.” The related website offers biographical information and locations of related sites throughout the county.  Several movies have been filmed in and around Lexington, including Sommersby, Gods and Generals, War of the Worlds and Field of Lost Shoes.

The stone Natural Bridge carved by nature
Natural Bridge

Not far outside of town is Natural Bridge State Park, which was once owned by Thomas Jefferson (and is rumored to have been surveyed by George Washington) and is on both the National and Virginia Historic Landmark lists as well as the National Register of Historic Places. This natural formation is where the county, Rockbridge, got its name. The main feature is a 215-foot natural limestone arch. Today a visit to the park includes not only the view of the bridge, but also admission to a number of trails and the Monacan Indian Living History exhibit which shows visitors what life was like here over 300 years ago.

Besides this national treasure, outdoor activities in the Lexington area are plentiful. The Maury River, a tributary of the James River, is a popular destination for small watercraft and tubing. There also are many trails for hiking, from the relatively flat 7-mile Chessie Nature Trail, to the rocky Devil’s Marbleyard Trail near Natural Bridge or even the Appalachian Trail in nearby Shenandoah National Park. The area boasts beautiful skies at all times of year.

panoramic view in Lexington Virginia
Lexington, Virginia seems to always have beautiful skies

The surrounding area is home to several wineries and breweries and many antique shops and malls. In addition to the accommodations in town, camping is also available nearby, at one of several state or national forest areas, as well as privately owned campgrounds.

Lexington has a number of chain hotels, though the Hampton, an easy walk from Main Street, blends in to the city charm. Formerly the historic Col Alto Mansion (which is on the National Register of Historic Places), the reception building adjoins the 76 hotel room and also houses the breakfast room as well as 10 restored manor rooms.

When you get hungry, there are a number of options to choose from, such as The Palms Restaurant, featuring “Classic American Fare,” and a regular schedule of live music and Macado’s, a casual, eclectic place popular with the college crowd. Niko’s Grille offers “Authentic Greek Cuisine” for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For dessert, you can’t miss with a stop at Sweet Things for homemade ice cream or Pronto for gelato or a pastry and coffee. If you are just looking for a quick pick me up, stop in Lexington Coffee Shop for gourmet coffee and homemade baked goods.

Note: No compensation was provided from any of the businesses mentioned in this article. The opinions are those of the writer.

This was first published as Charming and Historic Lexington Va.

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