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But Did You Know…Appalachian Music & Virginia’s Mountain Towns

While there are countless music genres in existence today, nearly all of these musical genres owe at least some credit to the musical heritage of the Appalachian Mountains of Southwest Virginia, referred to as “Appalachian Music”. 

Many people may only think of Bluegrass when they think of Appalachian Music, but did you know the genre is the culmination of nearly 300 years of musical influences from around the world and has contributed to nearly every modern musical genre?

International Migrations & Their Influence on Musical Traditions

The Appalachian Music genre first arose after people from various European and African countries intersected in the mountains of Virginia, bringing their own traditions and cultures together to form a new and enormously influential musical style. 

Photo Credit: Shannon Terry

During the 18th century, several international migrations were responsible for the birth of Appalachian Music. In Ireland, a population explosion changed a citizen’s prospects in their home country, which went from having four million citizens in 1780 to a total of more than seven million just forty years later. Many would leave Ireland in hopes of finding jobs in the expansive new country across the ocean, and most would take on positions as indentured servants to pay their way. 

Another wave of immigrants would come to America from England after the French and English signed the Treaty of Paris of 1763, in which France relinquished their control over lands in America to England. England found itself in control of large swaths of land, which was then sold off to British citizens looking to live in a place that would give them more property for less money. 

Immigrants also arrived in American from Germany following the implementation of laws that restricted religious freedoms and economic factors like land becoming more expensive in Central Europe. In America, land was abundant, therefore much more affordable for lower and middle class immigrants. 

A final major migration was the forced migration of Africans across the Atlantic Ocean into slavery. These people would bring nothing with them on their cruel journey to the New World except for their traditions and beliefs, so of course these would be cherished and passed down to their children and grandchildren in generations to come, allowing them to keep their ancestry alive.

While America would see an increase in immigrants from many other parts of the world that would feed into the musical evolution of Appalachia music, these four cultural groups were the biggest contributors to the genre, blending their musical traditions with the indigenous peoples that had lived in the mountains for generations prior to create a sound that would endure for hundreds of years. 

The Rise of Traditional Appalachian Music

When musical historians talk about “Appalachian Music”, they break down the genre into two defined periods. The first era would lead to the overwhelming popularity of the second period. The traditional Appalachian period occurred between the 1700s and the early 1900s, while the second, the Old-Time Appalachian Music era, took place from about 1900-1930. 

The traditional Appalachian Music style fused the heritage of America’s immigrant populations with the indigenous groups living in Southwest Virginia, bringing together unique musical elements that had been passed down from generation to generation. For the Europeans coming to America, these elements included ballad-style songs that detailed the struggles of daily life as well as instrumental dance tunes. The nasal quality that was typical of traditional Appalachian Music was a Celtic contribution, and while these new citizens were adjusting to a starkly different life in America, they kept their folklore alive by singing ballads of lords and ladies, castles, and ghosts, with the central themes of the stories being love and loss. 

When it came to instrumental contributions, the Anglo-Celtic peoples are credited for bringing the fiddle to American music. Pianos were too costly for most immigrants, so fiddles would be one of the few instruments that they could afford, and the tonal styles of the fiddle perfectly mirrored the qualities of their ballad-style songs. A Scottish fiddle player by the name of Neil Gow is credited with introducing the rhythmic and powerful short bow sawstroke technique that became synonymous with Appalachian Mountain fiddle playing. German immigrants added to the development of Traditional Appalachian Music with instruments like the harmonica, Appalachian dulcimer, and autoharp. 

While the European style of singing was typically solo or duet, Africans that were enslaved in the colonies brought a distinct tradition of singing songs about work and worship as a group. These songs were usually in a call-and-response format, with one person singing a line and the rest singing the response. The lyrics in African songs were constantly changed and updated to inspire hope and raise the spirits of the enslaved as the widespread practice of slavery began to take a strong hold in America. The banjo was another major contribution that Africans made to Appalachian Music. The instrument originally hailed from Arabia and was brought to western Africa as the Islamic faith spread. When Africans came to America, they began to make their own banjos from hollowed-out gourds or pots that were covered in animal hides. Banjos were considered slaves instruments and were not frequently used or heard outside of their homes, but beginning in the 1840s, the banjo’s singular rhythm and beat began popping up in Traditional Appalachian Music, producing an entirely new sound when combined with the fiddle. 

The Hardships of Frontier Life

Photo Credit: Beth-Anne Norman Driskill

As European immigrants arrived in America, they found that much of the settled parts of the colonies were too expensive, especially as recently released indentured servants. Rather than living in abject poverty in the urban centers, many chose instead to purchase land in the untamed Appalachian Mountains, where they could make their living in a hard but proud manner. These early mountain men and women were perceived by the settled regions in the East as being poor and lower class, and they attained the nickname of “hillbillies” due to this association. However, the truth is that to survive in the wild mountains of Southwest Virginia, you had to be healthy, strong, and knowledgeable about all manner of things, from farming to building and even general practices of medicine. Living on the American frontier was a struggle, and these “hillbillies” learned soon after taking up residence that relying on other mountain residents was necessary for their survival. Close-knit communities began to pop up in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, where religion and social gatherings were extremely important. Musical traditions ran deep in both of these aspects of the communities, and as decades passed, these neighbors began to meld their cultures into the sound that is now considered Traditional Appalachian Music. 

With emancipation, many Black Americans wished to leave their former slave residences and find their own homes, but they were met with the same problem as the European immigrant populations had faced: settled farmland was too expensive. Some of these newly freed peoples would also find an identical solution, moving to the Appalachian Mountains in search of a new life and taking the traditions of their music with them. 

In addition to instrumental and lyrical elements, the cultural elements that emerged from the Appalachias were also distinct attributes of the music. Religion was a core component of life in the remote mountain towns, but so was community. The Appalachian folk worked extremely hard to eke out a living during the days through farming, coal mining, and other backbreaking careers, so on weekend nights, they would gather together and let loose with barn raising events and musical performances by other locals. 

Dialects were another element that went into the creation of Appalachian Music; these remote communities often did not have much contact with the outside world, or even other communities outside of a small radius, as the natural, unrefined landscape made crossing over mountains a near-impossible task. When record labels began travelling to these untouched communities in Southwest Virginia, they would frequently find that they couldn’t understand the performers, leading to occasionally incorrect song titles for the earliest recordings done in the region. 

These unique musical and cultural elements all came together in the Appalachian Mountains, with the communities having strong religious centers, lyrical themes of survival, love, and heartbreak, and the rhythms of the banjo, fiddle, and other European instruments complementing each other, resulting in a musical genre that would come to captivate America.

Traditions Evolve: The Birth of Old-Time Appalachian Music 

Photo Credit: Cameron Davidson

After almost 250 years of musical traditions meshing together in the Appalachian region, a distinct sound began to emerge that was referred to as Old-Time music. Researchers and historians worked in the late 19th century to collect traditional musical forms, recognizing the importance of cataloguing this music to preserve the cultures that were fading as a national American culture emerged. Technological innovations were exploding, allowing for the music scene to grow like never before; automobiles gave people the ability to travel long distances and to more remote places than they have previously been, mail-order and mass-produced instruments provided the means for less affluent musicians to expand their talents, and the invention of recorded sound meant that songs performed in the most remote areas could be preserved and replayed hundreds of miles away. Music that had been played only on front porches and in the barns of Appalachian America could now be recorded and broadcasted on radio stations, giving the rest of the country a taste of the unmistakable genre that was to be called Old-Time Appalachian. 

Image Courtesy of the Library of Virginia

These recordings were happening throughout America, but some of the most important and lasting performances were recorded in the mountains of Southwest Virginia. In the summer of 1927, a series of recordings were undertaken by Victor Records that came to be known as the Bristol Sessions. Recorded in the small city that straddles the Virginia/Tennessee state line, this music brought performers from all over the surrounding mountain landscapes together in one place to immortalize their songs using the brand-new technologies. Huge music stars like Jimmie Rodgers and local Virginia legends the Carter Family were recorded for the first time ever during these sessions, launching their careers as international country music stars and leading the city to be nicknamed “The Birthplace of Country Music”. 

It’s important to note that while these iconic recordings were meant to capture the sounds of Appalachian Music, there was only one Black artist, El Watson, to be recorded during the Bristol Sessions. During this era, America was experiencing the ugly transition into lawful and formalized segregation, and most of the noteworthy contributions of Black musicians in America were being wiped out or credited to the White artists in the area.

Image Courtesy of the Library of Virginia

The first-ever recordings of Appalachian Music may have been a pivotal component to the genre’s growth, but another aspect of the music industry that was important was the emergence of large-scale music festivals. One such festival in Virginia was the White Top Folk Festival, which ran from 1931-1939. Held in the mountains of Grayson County near Abingdon, this annual festival showcased the music and traditions of the surrounding regions, but like the Bristol Sessions, the festival did not include Black performers or allow Black attendees, severely limiting the authenticity and true heritage of Appalachian Music experienced at the festival. The first White Top Folk Festival in 1931 drew thousands of people, and it would continue to grow over the years into a major music event. In 1933, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt even attended the festival. Her father, Elliot Roosevelt, had moved to Abingdon by himself to seek treatment for a drinking problem when Eleanor was a child, and he would often write her letters that described the area. As an adult and after her father had passed away, Eleanor Roosevelt wished to see the place where her father had lived, and the White Top Folk Festival gave her the chance to experience the epitome of Appalachian culture. By 1935, the festival had peaked to draw over 10,000 visitors, but subsequent years would draw smaller crowds, and after several years of cancelling the festival due to weather or local problems, the White Top Folk Festival was finally shuttered in 1939. 

Appalachian Music Today

Photo Credit: Brian Camp, IG account: @brian_k_camp

The popularity of Appalachian Music waned during and after the Great Depression, but rather than completely dying off, the genre began to transform and influence the latest musical stylings created in the latter half of the 20th century. Country, Bluegrass, Rock n’ Roll, Folk, and Americana all contain notable aspects of Appalachian Music, pulling from the religious, thematic, and instrumental qualities associated with the genre. 

But in addition to continuously inspiring other musical genres, Appalachian Music is currently making a comeback, especially in the mountains of Southwest Virginia. Here, you can follow The Crooked Road, a route that ties together the most important musical heritage destinations of the area, including the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, where you’ll learn all about the important 1927 recording sessions, the Carter Family Fold, the home of the famed Carter Family that has been converted into a performance theater and museum, The Floyd Country Store, an authentic country store that is over 100 years old and one of the few places you can experience Appalachian Music firsthand during the weekly Friday Night Jamborees, the Southwest Virginia Cultural Center & Marketplace, where you can peruse goods made from local artisans and often catch live music performances, and the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum, which is the largest folklife museum in Virginia and highlights the historic traditions of music, customs, and crafts that impacted everyday life in the Appalachian Mountains. This route provides an in-depth look at the Appalachian Music genre, and every real music lover should make the trek along the Crooked Road at least once.

Photo Credit: Brian Camp, IG account: @brian_k_camp

Appalachian Music originated in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, and today, the region still creates some of the most skilled performers, historians, and craftsmen at the Wayne C. Henderson School of Appalachian Arts. This program focuses on teaching students about the rich musical heritage of the region, as well as the meticulous skills needed to become a Luthier (someone who builds string instruments like guitars). The school was named for native Virginia, Master Luthier, and Appalachian Music expert Wayne C. Henderson, who has made guitars for internationally-renowned artists like Mumford & Sons and Eric Clapton. While a guitar from Wayne C. Henderson requires you to join a years-long waitlist and will set you back thousands of dollars, there are several other talented Luthiers in Southwest Virginia that craft gorgeous handmade guitars as well as a variety of other string instruments. 

Photo Credit: Joshua Moore, IG account: @jtm71

Music festivals have also begun to instill more Appalachian Music into their annual lineups. Large Virginia festivals like Bristol Rhythm & Roots, FloydFest, the Richmond Folk Festival, Red Wing Roots, and Rooster Walk have incorporated Appalachian traditions into their events in everything from the vendors and foods to the artists performing, while festivals like the Blue Ridge Folklife Festival, Old Fiddlers’ Convention, Mountains of Music Homecoming series, and the Virginia Highlands Festival are all centered around the heritage of Appalachian Music. If you’d like to hear Appalachian Music firsthand and learn more about the history of the genre, plan on attending a few of these annual Virginia festivals in future years (with COVID-19, virtually all of the Virginia festivals and large events in 2020 have been cancelled). 

Want to know more about Virginia’s lesser-known history? Dig into these articles and stay tuned for more But Did You Know… history pieces to learn about some of Virginia’s most incredible true but untold stories!

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Central Virginia History Travel Ideas

A Three-Day Tour Through Virginia’s Student Civil Rights History

DAY ONE: FARMVILLE

Farmville is known as the “Birthplace of the Student Civil Rights Movement.” Arrive and head to the Robert Russa Moton Museum. While the fight for desegregation was heating up in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, the country saw plenty of protests and counter protests, as well as walkouts, sit-ins and boycotts. One such walkout was especially powerful because it occurred in 1951 and was led by a young student: 16-year-old Barbara Johns. They rallied a group of students and organized a walkout of all-black Robert Russa Moton High School in protest of the school’s poor conditions. The NAACP then teamed up with the students and worked to integrate the schools of Prince Edward County. The lawsuit filed against the School Board of Prince Edward County was later incorporated into Brown v. Board of Education, making Farmville a key destination to learn about school integration and the overturning of Plessy v. Ferguson. In 1993, the building that formerly housed Moton High School was closed, but the school was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1998.

Photo Credit: Michael Mergen

For lunch, eat at the Fishin’ Pig. Stop here for southern fusion-style food, combining great seafood and BBQ.

Depart the museum and make your way to the Adventure Park at Sandy River Retreat. The park lets you zip through the treetops on 20 zip lines and navigate 60 obstacles! It’s the state’s largest aerial adventure park.

After your outdoor adventure, check-in to the Hotel Weyanoke. A Farmville staple since 1925, Hotel Weyanoke was built to welcome movers and shakers —to bring people from all walks of life together.

Hungry for dinner? Walk to Charley’s Waterfront Café. Enjoy the beautiful views as the restaurant overlooks the Appomattox River.

DAY TWO: FARMVILLE TO RICHMOND

Photo Credit: Bill Crabtree, Jr.

After breakfast at Effingham’s inside the hotel, travel east towards to the coast to Richmond. When you arrive at the Virginia State Capitol, you will have the opportunity to visit the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial, paying homage to Barbara Johns and the 1951 Moton student strikers. The Black History Museum & Cultural Center celebrates the rich culture and moving histories of African American people in Virginia and their contributions to Virginia and America.

After the museum, head to Mama J’s for some lunch. Mama J’s Kitchen is family-owned and operated and celebrates the family tradition of going to grandma’s house for Sunday dinner.

Next, visit the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The museum is open 365 days a year and now is the permanent home to a 27-foot statue that is on display permanently outside, entitled “Rumors of War,” by Kehinde Wiley.

Photo Credit: Chad Williams, IG account: @echadwilliams

Ready for some shopping? Carytown, the “Mile of Style, is walking, shopping, restaurant, and services community. Stroll along our nine blocks of unique small businesses at the southern end of the Museum District in Richmond.

Dinner is served! Drive to Croaker’s Spot, a long-time local favorite for great seafood and Nouveau Soul Cuisine.

Ready to relax? There are so many lodging options in Richmond. From the Quirk to the Jefferson to the Graduate, there’s a lodging type for you. Check out all of the options listed here.

DAY THREE: RICHMOND

Order curbside coffee and breakfast (served all day) at Urban Hang Suite, Richmond’s only social cafe nested in the eclectic mix of the Arts District, Downtown and Jackson Ward Communities.

Your next stop – visit the home of Maggie L. Walker. Maggie Lena Mitchell was born in Richmond in July of 1864 to Elizabeth Draper, a formerly enslaved woman. Maggie grew to become the first woman to serve as President of a bank in the United States as well as a dedicated civil rights activist and member of the NAACP board. The Maggie L. Walker National Historical Site contains many of the original furnishings and offers visitors a glimpse into the life of this extraordinary woman.

After breakfast, take a drive around the city to explore the various historical markers honoring those who fought tirelessly to bring justice and equality to all. The first stop is Broad Street between 6th and 7th Streets. The site is that of former Thalhimers department store. On February 20th, 1960, Virginia Union University students entered the Whites Only lunch counter and after being refused service, stayed until the business closed. They were ultimately arrested but their convictions were overturned in 1963. A momentous victory for the civil rights movement!

The next markers, located at the Lewis F. Powell Jr. United States Courthouse, honors Oliver Hill and Spotswood Robison. Both were civil rights attorneys in the Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward case. This case was one of five cases consolidated into Brown v. Board of Education which deemed the segregation of public schools unconstitutional.

The final marker, located at 1400 Hull Street, recognizes Richmond born activist and trailblazer, Dorothy Height. Height was a paramount advocate for both civil and women’s rights and was awarded both the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.

For more information, please visit virginia.org/civilrightshistory.

Categories
History

Stand for LOVE: 18 Museums & Historic Sites to Learn About Virginia’s Black History

With the earliest Africans coming to shore in Virginia in 1619, the Commonwealth’s history is filled with important, complicated, and often painful stories, led by notable Black individuals that shaped Virginia as well as the entire United States. Visit a few of these powerful museums and historic sites to learn about Virginia’s nearly 400 years of Black history. 

Hampton University, Hampton

Founded in 1868 as an educational institution for newly emancipated Black citizens, Hampton University is the site of six National Historic Landmarks, including the Emancipation Oak, the site where former slaves gathered to hear President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation read for the first time in the area. 

Montpelier, Montpelier Station

Learn about slavery in America during James Madison’s lifetime and hear the stories of the slaves that lived on the grounds of Montpelier told by their living descendants, when you tour the site’s special exhibit, The Mere Distinction of Colour.  

Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia, Richmond

This museum tells the stories of Africans that were brought to America against their will, highlighting the complex experiences that these Black Americans would endure over nearly 400 years. Additionally, the museum exhibits look at famous Black Virginians. 

Robert Russa Moton Museum, Farmville

Photo Credit: Michael Mergen

A National Historic Landmark, the Robert Russa Moton Museum is the site of the first non-violent Civil Rights in Education student demonstration, which led to the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case in the Supreme Court. The museum’s exhibits give visitors a glimpse at the unjust nature of “separate but equal” under segregation.   

Alexandria Black History Museum, Alexandria

This Northern Virginia Black history museum documents the important contributions of Black Americans living in the region from 1749 to the present day. 

Fort Monroe, Fort Monroe

Nicknamed Freedom’s Fortress, Fort Monroe is a Union-built fort that provided a safe haven for thousands of enslaved people during the Civil War. 

Freedom House Museum, Alexandria

Located in the former headquarters of the largest domestic slave trading company in the United States, the Freedom House Museum shares the painful stories of thousands of men, women, and children who passed through the site on their way to lives of hard labor and bondage on the large plantations of the Deep South.

Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Exhibit, Mount Vernon

Covering the lives of nineteen enslaved individuals that lived at Mount Vernon, the Lives Bound Together exhibit sheds light on Washington’s changing views towards slavery that led to him adding a provision to free his slaves after his death in his will. 

Booker T. Washington National Monument, Hardy

Honoring the birthplace of Booker T. Washington, America’s most prominent Black educator, orator, and statesman of the late 1800s-1900s, the Booker T. Washington National Monument includes a Visitor’s Center with exhibits on Washington’s life and legacy, as well as a living history farm where visitors can learn about farm life in Civil War Virginia, the era during which Washington grew up.

The Life of Sally Hemings Exhibit at Monticello, Charlottesville

Learn about Sally Hemings’ life and identity as an enslaved woman on Jefferson’s Monticello estate, including her strength and courage to strive for the freedom of her children from the shackles of slavery. 

FAHI African American History Museum, Martinsville

Exhibits showcase over 100 years of Black history in Martinsville and surrounding Henry County, as well as exhibits on a national level. 

The Legacy Museum of African American History, Lynchburg

The Legacy Museum of African American History features exhibits about Central Virginia’s Black history, from the first slaves that arrived in 1619 to present-day figures and events that have shaped the Commonwealth and the entire country. 

The Richmond Slave Trail, Richmond

A self-guided walking trail spread throughout the city, the Richmond Slave Trail chronicles the history of Africans who were taken from Africa and brought to Virginia to sell until 1775, then sold from Richmond to locations throughout America until 1865. This historic trail includes notable locations like Lumpkins Slave Jail and First African Baptist Church. 

Appalachian African American Cultural Center, Pennington Gap

The Appalachian African American Cultural Center gives a rare glimpse at Appalachian Black history, featuring exhibits on the limits of rural education and cultural aspects of life for Black Americans raised in Southwest Virginia over the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. 

Maggie Walker National Historic Site, Richmond

Photo Credit: Big Orange Frame

Tour the former home of famous Richmonder Maggie Walker, who founded the first women-owned (and Black-owned) bank, where she also served as the first female president. 

Black Soldiers Memorial, Norfolk

The Black Soldiers Memorial in Norfolk honors the African American Union soldiers that fought in the Civil War.

Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg

With nearly 60% of Black Americans living in Chesapeake during the Revolutionary era, Colonial Williamsburg is an important location when it comes to Black history. Learn about the slaves that worked the plantations and farms in the region when you visit the Slave Quarter at Carter’s Grove in Colonial Williamsburg. 

Harrison Museum of African American Culture, Roanoke

Housed in Roanoke’s Center of the Square, the Harrison Museum is a cultural and educational institution that preserves and interprets Black American history, specifically the history of the Roanoke Valley and the surrounding areas. 

Learn more about these notable Black history destinations and more in Part 1 and Part 2 of the African American Historic Sites articles, written by University of Richmond Professor and Historian Lauranett Lee. Looking for other places to learn about Black history in Virginia? Continue your educational journey by visiting more Black History Sites, located throughout the Commonwealth. 

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History

But Did You Know…16 Fun Facts About Virginia

As the home of the first English settlement in the New World, Virginia has an extensive history with countless contributions to America’s political, cultural, and culinary foundations. Virginia originally encompassed all of the lands in the New World, eight U.S. Presidents called Virginia “home”, and the first official Thanksgiving was held in Virginia. But while you may learn these iconic history facts about Virginia in school, there is so much more to the Commonwealth; read on to discover more notable facts about Virginia! 

1. HAMPTON’S STORIED HISTORY

Originally settled by colonists in 1610, Hampton is the oldest continuously-inhabited English settlement in North America. When visiting Hampton, you can learn all about the city’s more than four centuries of notable history at the Hampton Museum

Photo Credit: Big Orange Frame

2. THE COMMONWEALTH’S JUDICIAL SYSTEM BECOMES A NATIONWIDE BENCHMARK

Virginia’s early judicial system influenced the Supreme Court. The Commonwealth created a system of superior courts in 1779, including the Supreme Court of Appeals, which became a model for the emerging U.S. Supreme Court, whose structure and influence were not described in detail in the Constitution (the creation of which was also spearheaded by Virginians!)

3. VIRGINIA IS A LEADER IN THE ECO-FRIENDLY MOVEMENT

Virginia has been on the forefront of eco-friendly travel for decades, influencing the movement hugely with the establishment of Earth Day, which happened at Northern Virginia’s Airlie Resort. But Virginia is “green” in more ways than one; the Virginia Department of Forestry reports that 62 percent of the Commonwealth is forested. Explore these pristine woods with a hike on a scenic trail or a cycling adventure in Virginia’s Blue Ridge, America’s East Coast Mountain Biking Capital.

 Photo Credit: Sam Dean, IG account: @sdeanphotos

4. POCAHONTAS ISLAND’S IMPORTANCE TO BLACK HISTORY

Petersburg’s Pocahontas Island is the oldest free black community in the nation, and is listed on the National Historic Register of Historic Places. 

5. MAGGIE LENA WALKER BREAKS BARRIERS

America’s first woman-run bank was established in Richmond, Virginia’s capital city. Not only was it the first bank set up by a woman, but even more impressively, by a black woman in the era of the South’s Jim Crow Laws; Maggie Lena Walker chartered St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in 1903, breaking incredible barriers and inspiring Richmond’s black community as a successful businesswoman. In addition to founding the bank, Walker became the bank’s first president and later chairman of the board of directors, creating a safe space for black bank patrons to do business. 

Visit the Maggie Lena Walker National Historic Site in Richmond’s Jackson-Ward neighborhood to learn more about this incredible leader from Virginia. 

 Photo Credit: Bill Crabtree Jr.

6. A DISTINCT ENGLISH ACCENT FOUND ON A SINGLE VIRGINIA ISLAND 

If you’ve visited Virginia, you’ll know that the range of accents can vary widely from the Virginia Beach coastal region to the remote mountain towns of Southwest Virginia. However, Tangier Island, located in Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay, has a distinct English dialect not found anywhere else in the world. Tangier Island was originally settled by early British Colonists in the 1680s, and most of the current residents are their descendants, speaking in a very peculiar and unique dialect due to the tiny island’s isolation. Their accent sounds closer to the British accent than the American accent, with phrases and speech patterns that can be traced back to early colonial English.

Take a ferry out to the remote island to hear this unique dialect in person, and sample some Tangier Island Oysters to get a taste of the region’s merroir (the flavor infused into the oysters due to the water in the region). While on the island, tour the Tangier History Museum for a thorough dive into the community’s one-of-a-kind history. 

7. THE CHESAPEAKE BAY’S ABUNDANT AQUATIC WILDLIFE

Because of the Chesapeake Bay’s diverse ecosystem, Virginia is the largest seafood producer on the East Coast and the third largest in the country. A large part of that industry is Virginia oysters, with eight distinct oyster regions in the Chesapeake Bay. 

Photo Credit: Tony Hall

8. A SILK EMPIRE THAT NEVER WAS

For centuries, Virginia was known for its lucrative tobacco industry, but the original settlers actually planned for the land to be a silk colony. After a fungus killed the trees that the silkworms fed on, they decided to plant tobacco instead. 

9. BOURBON’S VIRGINIA ROOTS

Bourbon, also known as American Whiskey, is often considered a Kentucky drink, but bourbon’s roots are actually Virginian; Fayette County was in Southwest Virginia, but in 1792, county lines were redrawn and the area became part of the new state of Kentucky. 

Photo Credit: Brian Camp, IG account: @brian_k_camp

10. HALLOWED GROUNDS IN EVERY CORNER OF THE COMMONWEALTH

Almost half of all Civil War battles were fought on Virginia soil. Today, visitors can learn about these pivotal moments in American history with a visit to one of Virginia’s Civil War National Battlefields or historic sites.

11. WARS END ON VIRGINIA SOIL

Both wars fought on American soil, the American Revolution and the Civil War, ended in Virginia; the Civil War at Appomattox Courthouse National Historic Park, where Generals Grant and Lee would meet to sign the surrender, and the American Revolution in Yorktown, where the combined forces of the French and American armies would defeat General Cornwallis for a final victory in the war. 

12. VIRGINIA: HOME TO THE LARGEST NAVAL BASE 

Naval Station Norfolk is the world’s largest naval base, with more than 78 ships from the Atlantic fleet using the station as a home port. 

13. EXPLORING THE MOST MILES OF APPALACHIAN TRAIL 

Virginia contains 544 miles of the Appalachian Trail, more than any other state. Virginia also boasts the most photographed spot on the AT, the picturesque view from McAfee Knob

14. ONE POPULAR SODA WAS  CREATED IN THE VIRGINIA MOUNTAINS

One of the most popular sodas in the United States, Mountain Dew, was formulated in the mountains of Southwest Virginia.

15. A TENNIS LEGEND CALLED RICHMOND “HOME” 

Tennis great Arthur Ashe was born in Richmond, Virginia. He became the first black man to win both the U.S. Open and Wimbledon tennis championships, and was also the first Black man to be ranked as the number one tennis player in the world.

Photo Credit: John Henley

16. RUNNING INTO TROUBLE

Founded in 1693, The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia is the second oldest college in the nation. Virginia’s collegiate history has a less prestigious “first”: George William Crump, a student at what is now Washington & Lee College in Lexington, became the first college student to be arrested for streaking across a college campus in 1804. Crump would later win seats in the Virginia House of Delegates and the 19th United States Congress. 

Want to learn more about Virginia’s unique history? Check out these other But Did You Know… stories! 

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Food History Southern Virginia Virginia Mountains

But Did You Know…Prohibition & Franklin County, The Moonshine Capital of the World

Many people know a little bit about the era of Prohibition in America or have at least watched films about moonshiners, such as the 2012 Hollywood drama “Lawless” starring Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy, which followed the Bondurant brothers and their bootlegging enterprise in Virginia’s mountains. But did you know that Franklin County, located in the mountains of Virginia, came to be known as the “Moonshine Capital of the World” due to the region’s heavy involvement in the illegal moonshine industry that occurred during Prohibition? 

Jamestown: America’s Moonshine Roots

In 1620, just 13 years after the Jamestown settlement was established, Virginia colonists were using corn to distill spirits along the James River. This was the first time moonshine was made by colonists in America, although the indigenous peoples had been producing their own alcoholic beverages from corn and other native plants prior to the arrival of colonists. 

Fast forward to the 1700s, when the English, Germans, and Scots-Irish began immigrating to America and settling into western Virginia’s backcountry, where they would bring their own traditions for making homemade spirits, using fruits to make brandy and grains to produce whiskey. 

Image Courtesy of The Library of Virginia

From the earliest colonial settlement into the industrial era of the 1800s, producing spirits became a part of life for the small rural communities of Southwestern Virginia. The agricultural aspects of the communities and a lack of roads to transport produce grown on the lands to other parts of the state resulted in an abundance of fruits and grains to use in the distilling process. Instead of wasting the fruits and grains that they were unable to sell, the farmers used a homemade copper still and wooden barrels to mix the mash and store resulting spirits for years to come. A farmer could make enough liquor to cover his own family’s needs and then sell or trade the rest with other members of the community, allowing them to utilize produce that would have otherwise spoiled and been thrown away. Plus, the spent grains left over from the distilling process could be fed to cows, pigs, and other livestock. In a way, early Virginia moonshiners were some of the first eco-friendly farmers in America!

Illegal vs. Legal Liquors

Many of the Scots-Irish, German, and English citizens that immigrated to American were in part fleeing from what they viewed as unfair taxes imposed upon them by their former countries, and one such tax was on distilling whiskey. When they came to America, they believed that they would be free of these fees and could resume producing their own distilled beverages without infringement from the still-forming U.S. government. 

But the Revolutionary War was at hand and the country needed money to pay for the care and supplies for American troops, so the government imposed a tax on alcohol. In response, lots of citizens chose not to license their distilleries or pay taxes on the resulting liquors. These were the first “moonshiners” in America, with many residing in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western Virginia where a smaller, less dense population and large tracts of land allowed them to hide their operations with relative ease. But crafting spirits was not only a pastime for poor rural farmers; middle and upper class Americans on the eastern seaboard were known to build large dedicated stillhouses; George Washington even made his own liquor commercially at Mount Vernon, and you can still visit this distillery today!

Spirits would be taxed by the American government on and off for about 40 years after the Revolutionary War, followed by a 45-year untaxed period; however, with the start of the Civil War, Congress would again pass a whiskey tax. Each gallon of whiskey would be taxed two dollars, an astounding average of twelve times the cost of making these spirits. Not surprisingly, some distillers preferred to run their operations illegally rather than pay these high taxes. These rogue distillers would operate as illegal moonshiners, competing with the 77 legal distilleries that would open in Franklin County by 1894. 

Prohibition & The Rise of Moonshine Running

With the close of the 1800s, America’s stance against alcohol was gaining support. Laws were passed during this time to make rural distilleries illegal, and in the following years, Virginia counties one by one banned both the production and sale of spirits. By 1914, Virginia voted to ban alcohol completely and the Commonwealth was completely dry of legal liquor. Moonshiners would ignore these laws and continue delivering their products in motor vehicles to industrial towns like Danville, Lynchburg, and Roanoke. The United States introduced Prohibition nationwide in 1920, and as a result, the moonshine industry that had been steadily growing in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains would explode overnight. 

Moonshiners & Police: A (Lucrative) Game of Cat & Mouse

The image of a moonshiner in the Blue Ridge Mountains tends to bring to mind an impoverished backwoods farmer, but in reality, some moonshiners would turn an incredible profit, especially during Prohibition. In Virginia’s mountains, a few bootleggers were quite wealthy, earning tens of thousands of dollars in cash while the Great Depression was in full swing. One such moonshiner in Franklin County bought an airplane so that his son could fly over their land and make sure their stills weren’t visible from above. 

As Prohibition ended in 1933, moonshining had become a huge economic force in the mountains of Virginia, and although alcohol was once again legal, the profits from illegal moonshining in the region remained high, encouraging the bootleggers to continue their shady enterprises.

Image Courtesy of The Library of Virginia

Police officers and tax enforcement officials hunted down moonshiners throughout the United States with the help of local informants (which could sometimes be the bootlegger’s own competition). After receiving this inside information, the agents would monitor the moonshiners and their property with the hopes of raiding the still sites when the moonshiners returned to distill. The stills found during a raid would then be destroyed using axes or sticks of dynamite. If a moonshiner ran, the agents would chase them down, but most of the time, the men caught red-handed would give up without a fight; violence was a rare result for moonshine raids at the time. 

Instead, moonshiners would adapt their distilling techniques to avoid capture, running thin pieces of thread across pathways to detect if their sites had been visited without them knowing or building underground stills that weren’t easily discovered. A famous example of this occurred in the late 1970s in Franklin County, where a moonshiner bulldozed a massive hole into a field, built an underground room with a sod-covered roof, placed cinder block “headstones” on top, and created a fake cemetery that they regularly mowed and placed flowers throughout. The still was discovered in 1979, by which time revenue agents estimated that it had run for several years before being discovered.

Running From the Law: Moonshiners & NASCAR

Some revenue agents opted to chase down moonshiners during transport rather than stake out their still locations. Most moonshine journeys from still to buyer would go smoothly, but occasionally, if agents were tipped off to the trip, they might set up roadblocks or wait along the planned route for the moonshine runner to pass by. Two-way radios had not yet been invented, so evading capture was still possible for moonshiners with fast vehicles who knew the winding country roads along their route. Skilled bootleg drivers were known to use a “bootleg turn”, where they would spin the car into a 180-degree skid to shake pursuers. 

Popular culture has long associated moonshine running with NASCAR auto racing, but in reality, very few moonshine drivers from the Blue Ridge were involved with organized racing. Instead, the connection lay in the local garages, where mechanics used their skills to modify engines to increase speeds and suspensions to ensure better handling on the roads. These skills translated easily to the world of NASCAR, where speed and balance were two of the most important factors of racing.

NASCAR might not have acquired many drivers from Virginia’s illegal moonshine trade, but one such driver who did come from this background was Wendell Oliver Scott, an African-American racer from Danville’s “Crooktown” section. Scott began his driving career as a taxi driver, but would also use his skills as a fearless driver and a knowledgeable mechanic to haul illegal whiskey, which would help him become the first and only black driver to win a major-league NASCAR race. The Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia, located in Richmond, has a hands-on exhibit for all ages that tells the story of Wendell Oliver Scott and his significant contributions to NASCAR. 

National Headlines: Franklin County’s Conspiracy Trial of 1935

Illegal moonshine was made in secret stills throughout the United States, but the mountain towns of southern Virginia were thrust into the national spotlight with the Great Moonshine Conspiracy Trial of 1935. Although Prohibition was no longer in effect, illegal moonshine was still a thriving industry, as moonshiners went to great lengths to avoid paying taxes on their products. Some government officials in Franklin County accepted bribes to look the other way and protect bootleggers from other lawmen and moonshine distillers; even the Sheriff of Franklin was in on the racket, overseeing a complex bribery system for the biggest moonshine producers in the region. 

Using the tax rate instituted in 1920, moonshiners in Franklin County would have generated $5.5 million in taxes between 1930-1935 if they had legally sold their products. During this same time period, more than 1 million five-gallon cans (used for storing whiskey) were purchased in the county and 37 tons of yeast were ordered (nine times that of the capital city of Richmond). These details and the lack of tax revenue caught the attention of lawmen on a national level, and a federal investigation began.

The trial would pitch Franklin County into complete chaos, with threats, jury tampering, and the murder of a key witness, along with a uninvolved bystander, happening during the proceedings. Two men connected to the illegal liquor trade in West Virginia would be charged and convicted of the murders, but another witness perished under suspicious medical causes during the trial, casting doubt on whether the trial could possibly end with a successful outcome. 

The tense trial was the longest in Virginia’s history, and the dramatics of the case consistently kept it on the front page of newspapers, not only in Virginia but in papers around the country. Local moonshining legends kept the attention of readers, who loved tales of individuals like Mrs. Willie Carter Sharpe, who was known as the “queen of Roanoke rum runners.”

Eventually, 34 people would be indicted in the case, including 19 bootleggers, one corporation, and nine government employees, but when the trial finally drew to a close, the resulting convictions and punishments were surprisingly light for the crimes; jail sentences were two years or less, fines were shockingly low, and thirteen of the 34 would only receive probation. Almost 85 years later, many people in Franklin County still have strong opinions on the case and the men who were charged. And an air of mystery continues to surround the case, as part of the trial records “disappeared” from the Franklin County Courthouse files.

Moonshine in Virginia Today

Virginia’s moonshine history runs deep, so it’s no surprise that the mountain region of Virginia still has plenty to offer when it comes to distilled spirits. Head to the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum in Franklin County to learn more about moonshine heritage and the distilling practices passed down over multiple generations. 

Musicians within the region write songs about homemade “hooch”, stills have been repurposed into art exhibits, and you’ll find merchandise emblazoned with moonshine logos in stores throughout Virginia’s Mountain region. Franklin County hosts an annual Moonshine Heritage Month to commemorate the history and cultural aspects of moonshine with tours, special events, and costumed interpreters. 

If you want to sample authentic Virginia moonshine in its legal form, visit Franklin County Distilleries, the first legal distillery founded in Franklin County. The distillery is in the small town of Boones Mill, famous for being home to the Bondurant brother’s store during Prohibition, where the bootlegging brothers and their associates would transfer moonshine for national distribution. Another moonshine distillery in the area is Twin Creeks Distillery, where you can sample moonshine, fruit brandies, and “White Whiskey”, the distillery’s pure, unaged corn liquors available in 90- and 100-proof. The third moonshine distillery to open in the county, Law’s Choice, does not have a tasting room open to the public, but distills their moonshine in Franklin and sells it at select ABC stores throughout Virginia.Finally, if you’re visiting Southern Virginia, plan a stop at Bondurant Brothers Distillery in Mecklenburg County, run by one of the grandsons of the legendary Bondurant brothers. The cold mash moonshine produced at this distillery is a neutral spirit that makes for a perfectly balanced cocktail

Looking to sample moonshine in other parts of Virginia? There are distilleries in almost every region of the Commonwealth making legal moonshine, allowing you to get an authentic taste of Virginia’s moonshine history during your visit!

Want to know more about Virginia’s lesser-known history? Check out our articles about Virginia Beach & the Historic Cavalier Hotel or Airlie & the Origins of Earth Day, and stay tuned for more But Did You Know… history articles to learn about some of Virginia’s most amazing untold stories

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History Travel Ideas

Virginia History at Home: Educational Resources from Museums and Historic Sites

While children are staying at home, Virginia museums and historical sites are providing online educational opportunities to keep everyone learning. From interactive classes and online courses to puzzles and games, here are some fun ways to virtually educate and entertain kids while social distancing.

Virginia residents and history lovers can access 400 years of Virginia history through the Virginia History Trails mobile app. Curated by the Library of Virginia and Virginia Humanities, the app contains more than 400 stories and more than 200 historic places. Users can immerse themselves in a themed trail that winds across the Commonwealth or employ the app’s GPS feature to find nearby historical sites and immediately transform their surroundings into a live history experience.

 

Colonial Williamsburg offers learners and other enthusiasts a new way to experience America’s shared story at home with the introduction of the Colonial Williamsburg streaming channel. The debut of the new channel, free on enabled devices through Amazon Fire TV or Roku TV accounts, can be found in the “Educational” category on Amazon Fire TV and Roku TV, offering a growing library of curated video content from the past and present in one easy-to-view location. Colonial Williamsburg’s Explore From Home series includes downloadable activity sheets, DIY Colonial crafts, online Historic Foodways Colonial recipes, a new interactive timeline and more.

Monticello will be presenting a special livestream with Thomas Jefferson on Monday, April 13, at 10:30 a.m., on its Facebook page. Mr. Jefferson, interpreted by Bill Barker, will be discussing his birthday, life in public service, and taking questions from viewers. Viewers can submit questions for Mr. Jefferson in the comments of our announcement on Facebook.

As part of its Black History at Home program, the Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia is encouraging people to experience Black history and engage with family and share their stories the museum’s social channels.

The Virginia Museum of History and Culture is offering Virginia History at Home, including webinars, lectures, student learning resources and podcasts.

The National D-Day Memorial is offering online education, including lesson plans and activities, virtual programs, online lunchbox lectures and virtual tours of the Memorial.

 

James Madison’s Montpelier has publicly accessible blog posts, websites, podcasts, online courses on subjects including “The Mere Distinction of Colour,” exhibit, the enslaved community, the Constitution, archaeology, or James Madison himself.

The George Washington Foundation’s online educational offerings has plenty of educational resources to keep children entertained, including puzzles, games and coloring pages.

The Louisa County Historical Society has converted spring family programs to at home lesson plans with historical education and fun, hands-on crafts and activities with basic supplies families will have at home. Lesson plans and activities include a module on Virginia women’s history and a module of fun crafts to alleviate boredom.

 

History In Our Back Yard is a living and growing series of articles written by Friends of the Wilderness Battlefield and designed to share the history of the Wilderness with the residents who live in and around this hallowed ground. These brief glimpses into the Wilderness’ history are intended to encourage residents of all ages living in and around Spotsylvania and Orange Counties to learn and appreciate the significant impact that this area has had on our local and national history.

The Waynesboro Heritage Foundation preserves and houses a collection of thousands of artifacts including textiles, photographs, books, maps, historical documents, industrial artifacts, railroad artifacts, furniture, and more.

The Salem Museum & Historical Society presents “Visits by Video,” two new series by the Museum’s assistant director, Alex Burke. White Glove Wednesday tells stories behind objects in the Museum’s collections. Around Town goes outside for a look at Salem landmarks as well as unexpected spots “around town” that hold more history than one might expect.

The Loudoun Heritage Farm Museum is offering online, farm-related activities including facts about farm life, games, puzzles and other children’s activities.

The Clarke County Historical Association has a wealth of online content for people of all ages to enjoy including history challenges, behind the scenes video tours, puzzles, oral histories, archivist’s blog, online tutorials and more.

 

The American Civil War Museum’s new HomefrontEd website is full of virtual Civil War education including book readings, daily activities and educator resources for students at home.

The Wytheville Museum is offering video versions of many of its school programs including the Learning Polio Tour, Egg Dyeing, Heath Cooking, Paper Marbling and more. New videos are added every Tuesday and Friday.

The National Museum of the Marine Corps’ online distance learning include a plethora of virtual learning experiences and subject matter for people to learn important and interesting topics related to the Marine Corps.

Every weekday at noon, George Washington’s Mount Vernon is going live on Facebook and YouTube for Mansion Mondays, Teaching Tuesdays, Washington Wednesdays, Tranquil Thursdays and Casual Fridays, in addition to the Washington Library’s digital resources for students and teachers including lesson plans and coloring sheets.

Alexandria’s Carlyle House hosts “Discovery Through Trash” videos on its social media channels. Each video will reveal fragments of a centuries-old artifact found in the house’s trash pit. Viewers can try to guess the whole artifact, then be surprised as a box is lifted to reveal the object in its entirety.

 

The Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown is enhancing revolutionary history with interactive digital learning experiences like the Legacy Wall and the “How Revolutionary Are You?” quiz. The museums offer a variety of online resources at History is Fun at Home to visit the museums virtually through mobile apps, blogs, interactives, videos, colonial recipes, coloring pages as well as curriculum-based lesson plans and live educational webcasts for teachers and students learning from home.

The Office of Historic Alexandria’s #HistoricALX2U series shares daily historic activities for learners of all ages, like ship biscuit-making, recipes and coloring sheets.

The Woodrow Wilson Birthplace is doing weekly online chats with their curator or educator about different history topics. The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library is offering free online tours where users can ask the guide questions via a chat room, which will be answered in real-time, making for an interactive and unique experience.

 

Looking for more virtual activities? We’ve got some ideas for creative learning activities for kids, exploring wildlife from home, live entertainment and education options and virtual tours at some of Virginia’s best attractions.