During the year 2001, were making our way around Virginia, each
issue visiting a small town and meeting some of the folks who make up the heart of
electric co-op country. On this years eighth stop, well be...
If you happen to be driving west of Staunton, heading
toward the Allegheny Mountains of western Augusta County and Highland, you
can’t miss Churchville. It’s the neat, orderly little village that
straddles U.S. Rt. 250 just after you cross Whiskey Creek. Frame houses,
brick cottages, a few businesses and four churches cluster along this
tree-lined crossroad community. Here the houses are painted, the yards are
manicured, and seasonal touches like flags, flowers and wreaths are
Beautiful old structures like
the home of Dr. Fred Dalton add charm and character to
Churchville’s main street.
It’s a place you’d want to come home to or a
place where you’d want to stay if you were born here. Perhaps Tracy Pyles, a member of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors and
a Churchville resident, says it best: “To understand what makes it
special, I think looking at our name helps ... ‘Churchville’ gets us
started with the right foundation. It lies in the ‘Pastures’ District
of Augusta County. Could a place have a more peaceful-sounding name than
Churchville in the Pastures District?” he asks.
“Within Churchville we have a full range of homes
old and new, small and large, apartments over storefronts. We have stores,
medical services, a pharmacy, auto parts, a bank and a funeral home. We
have streetlights and one-and-a-half miles of sidewalk, a three-mile
round-trip. But more importantly we have a full breadth of good people,”
The view from a church
cemetery of M.J.’s Café, agathering
spot where locals meet to discuss politics and swap stories.
The clusters of homes and businesses that evolved
into the hamlet began sprouting up in the early 19th century. One history
says that “Churchville assumed the character of a village about 1830”
and acquired a post office in 1847. The name comes from the fact that
there were as many as five churches in the village at one time and even
today there are four churches — two Methodist, a Presbyterian and a
The village could just as easily have been called
Millville because at least four mills are known to have existed in the
community. Among the area’s first settlers was Christian Bear, who
brought his family from Pennsylvania into the Shenandoah Valley. The Bears
have operated a mill just behind the village’s main street since at
least 1812. That first mill harnessed water power for cabinetmaking, wool
carding, grain grinding and cider making. The woodworking end of the
business evolved into the funeral business when customers began requesting
W. T. “Bill” Bear, his
daughter Judy Delp and her daughter Mary Porter Delp (2 yrs. old)
stand behind the Bear mill. Note the waterwheel behind them.
“People came in with two sticks, one for the length
of the person and the other for the width. That would tell how big to make
the casket,” explains Bill Bear.
He is the fifth generation to operate the business, and now that his son, Will,
is the funeral director and his daughter, Judy
Delp, is office manager, the company’s future has been assured for
another generation. Bear Funeral Home is now the oldest family operated
funeral business in the state of Virginia and among the oldest in the
Although the furniture and woodworking businesses
long ago took a back seat to the funeral business, Bill has recently
gotten the waterwheel turning again after a flood three years ago took his
source off-line. At one time earlier in the century, the mill was used to
generate electricity for the village.
“When ice got on the waterwheel it would go fast on
the downturn and come up very slowly because of the weight of the ice. The
lights would get bright and then go dim,” recalls Bear with a laugh.
Lifelong resident Harold
Armstrong and his wife Kitty outside Loch Willow Presbyterian
Bear has never known anything but life in
Churchville, having spent his entire life in one or the other of two
houses that sit side by side. Harold
Armstrong, who graduated with Bear from the Churchville school in
1943, actually grew up a couple of miles outside the village limits.
“It was a big deal to come all the way to
Churchville on a Saturday night. All the country people came to the
‘village’ and would sit in the stores and listen to people talk, and a
few had guitars so they would pick and sing and buy their weekly
groceries,” Armstrong recalls.
For about a decade, Armstrong operated a hardware and
feedstore in the village, and he likes to brag that his store is where
country music legends, the Statler Brothers, got their start. “We would
bring out musicians and they would climb up on the sacks of feed and play.
Those boys came out and played for half an hour or so in the late
1950s,” he says.
Harold’s wife, Kitty,
is not native to Churchville, but after nearly 50 years she has plenty of
perspective on life there. “It’s the only place I ever heard of called
‘The Village’ and it reminds me of an English village. The people here
really take pride in their houses and their land,” she says.
Volunteerism in Churchville comes naturally on an
organized and individual level. Setting an example for others has been the
Churchville Women’s Club, which has been a part of the village’s life
off and on since the Civil War when the ladies made uniforms, knapsacks
and even a flag for local soldiers. In World War I they gathered again to
make bandages and knit sweaters and socks. They also descended upon Green
Hill Cemetery, the town’s community burial ground, with picks, shovels,
scythes and sickles to clean up and maintain the area.
In 1929 the women formally organized under the motto
“In Unity There Is Strength.” Through all their years of hard work and
charitable projects, there was only one time the group faced
disappointment — that was when they tried to change the name of Whiskey
Creek to Castle Creek. The temperance-loving women felt that a village
called Churchville shouldn’t have a creek named Whiskey flowing through
it. They were thwarted in their efforts by the state mapmakers, who
refused to reprint with a new name.
Isabel Strickler stands among
the flowers she has cultivated on the east edge of Churchville.
The women’s group disbanded in 2000 when faced with
a dwindling membership, but many remain active in the Churchville
Volunteer Fire and Rescue Squad, the Lions and the Ruritans. Others, like Charlotte Young, walk through the community each day and pick up
litter. On the western end of the village the Ruritans now maintain flower
beds at the crossroads, a project begun by the women’s club. On the
eastern gateway, the beautiful floral display is the work of Isabel Strickler, who has been tending her bank of flowers along Rt.
250 for about 10 years.
“My family farmed right here and I have lived here
all my life. It’s a nice, quiet town. I like doing the flowers and the
people tell me it’s like a nice welcome into Churchville,” she says.
A Successful Combination
Francis Chester, local
attorney/ sheep farmer, tends his flock at the edge of the village.
Across the road is Mrs. Strickler’s old family
farm, now Chester Farms and the law office of Francis
Chester. The combination of a sheep farm and a law office has worked
well for Chester, who grew up as a backyard farmer in Long Island and
peddled agricultural products to raise money for law school. Thirty-three
years ago, he moved to Virginia and five years ago established his
farm/legal business at the edge of the village.
“I’ve always had a farm and the two are a great
combination,” Chester says of his complex. “It is ideal to have a law
office on the farm because it is tranquil and soothing for the clientele.
They look out and see the sheep grazing and it calms them down.” The
dominant feature of the cluster of buildings is the sales barn, where the
Chesters direct-market their products: fleece, locally woven wool
blankets, yarn-dyed in pleasing earthtones, hand-knit clothing, and meat.
Twice a year, for the Wool Fair and the Pumpkin Fest,
the place is bursting at the seams with people venturing out to get a
taste of the country life. “Churchville’s a great little town. It’s
country to the core, but also has a great sense of refinement. There are
good people here and the vistas are breathtaking. The fall here is
absolutely beautiful,” sums up Chester.
Chester is not the first New Yorker to decide that
Churchville was a special place. Back in the 1850s a school teacher named
Jedediah Hotchkiss opened up an academy here. The Civil War disrupted his
future, but earned him lasting fame as Confederate General Stonewall
Jackson’s mapmaker. After the war, Hotchkiss sold his property in
Churchville and moved into the big city of Staunton in order to pursue
more lucrative opportunities.
The war brought fame of a different sort to James E.
Hanger, a teenager who desperately wanted to enlist despite his youth. In
early June of 1861 he latched onto a food ambulance corps taking supplies
to Confederate troops in West Virginia. Hanger bedded down in a local barn
and was awakened at dawn by gunfire from a nearby skirmish. The young man
was jumping down from the hayloft in order to move his horse when a
cannonball struck him in the leg. The severely injured youth was
discovered by Yankees late that afternoon and they amputated his leg above
the knee, giving him the dubious honor of being the first Civil War
When he had sufficiently recovered to return to
Churchville, he sequestered himself in his room for three months while
whittling and tinkering with wood and barrel staves. At the end of his
self-imposed seclusion, he walked down the stairs on the world’s first
artificial leg that was hinged at the knee. That freak accident led him to
his life’s work. His prosthesis company gained international fame and is
still in existence today.
Although Hanger’s company eventually had offices in
all 50 states, he was all but forgotten in Churchville in the late 20th
century until Harold Carwell
swung into action. Carwell has a keen interest in history, especially
about his native Churchville, and it was his drive that resulted in a
state historic highway marker being erected in the middle of the village
to honor Hanger.
The morning coffee club at
M.J. Café in Churchville: (l-r) Cliff Stogdale, Roy Collins, Riley
Shiflet, and Harold Carwell.
Carwell is one of half a dozen or so retired natives
who gather at M.J.’s Café, the local restaurant, every morning to
discuss politics, the weather and the community. Four of the group who
gathered there for coffee one recent morning, Carwell, Roy
Collins, Cliff Stogdale and Riley
Shiflet, are bound together by a common history. All four were born
the same year, went to school together and share many of the same local
Like when Carwell was part of the group that launched
the Churchville Volunteer Fire and Rescue Squad — the first in the
county — in 1958. “We had purchased two old firetrucks from a place up
in Maryland and went up to get them. One of the trucks was an open cab and
it was wintertime and we ’bout froze to death bringing it home. We got
back to Churchville and thought we’d turn on the siren, and the thing
died right there in the middle of the road,” he recollects with a laugh.
Ninety-one-year-old D. M.
Houseman does yardwork on his main street residence, one of the
oldest houses in Churchville.
Despite the rocky beginnings, the fire and rescue
department has thrived and the annual summer carnival is the high point of
Churchville’s year. Ninety-one-year-old
D. M. Houseman has lived in the oldest house in the village, right on
main street, for about 50 years. “The carnival is a big time and
everyone sits right here in my yard for the parade,” he says, as he
trims the flowers and bushes along his front walk.
Rural Setting Is Cherished
The parade and carnival are part of the small
community atmosphere that Churchville’s residents cherish. “It
hasn’t changed much because there’s no place for industry. This is a
rural setting and we like it that way,” says Carwell. “It’s so
ordinary that it’s hard to find words for it,” adds Stogdale.
Matthew Cooper, a
fourth-grader at the new school, is quite proud of Churchville
One of the few recent changes in the village is the
completion of the new Churchville Elementary School, at a cost of $9.5
million. Part of the old school is being used for a new western branch of
the county library. Matthew Cooper,
a fourth-grader at the new school, is quite proud of Churchville
Elementary. “It is peaceful and you don’t get that as much in the
city. Also, it has air conditioning,” he says.
From the youngest like Cooper to the old-timers like
Houseman, and from newcomers like Chester to natives like Mrs. Strickler
and the coffee club bunch, Churchville is the place to live.
“What can you say?” says Shiflet, as he drains
his morning cup of coffee, “It’s the neatest little village in the
Think outdoors and farmland
when you come to visit Churchville and you won’t be disappointed. Chester
Farms is the place to be if you want homegrown products and a look at
farm life. Although open year-round, the farm is also the scene of the Wool
Fair during the last two weekends in April and the Pumpkin
Fest during the last two weekends in October. For more info, check
www.chesterfarms.com or call 540-337-7282.
For something a little
different, simply follow Rt. 250 west over the mountains into Highland
County, the least-populated county east of the Mississippi River. By
far the biggest event in Highland is the Maple
Festival, which has been held for 44 consecutive years during two
weekends in March. The event has been listed among the Southeast Tourism
Society’s top-20 events for over a decade. An important Civil War
battle, McDowell, was fought in the county’s high country in the spring
of 1862. The battlefield remains one of the most pristine Civil War sites
in the country. McDowell Days, held every May, commemorates that historic clash.
Highland County is also known for its local
fair in early September and its holiday celebrations in early
December. For more visitor information on Highland, log on to
The James Edward Hanger
historic highway marker is located in the middle of Churchville.
Hanger, the first civil war amputee, later went on to create a
prosthesis company that still exists today.
Much of the county west of
Churchville is part of the George
Washington National Forest. Here hunting, fishing, hiking and
mountain-biking opportunities abound. Ramsey’s
Draft Wilderness Area within the national forest offers hiking trails
past stands of virgin hemlock trees. At the top of Shenandoah
Mountain on the Augusta-Highland border is an excellent interpretive
trail through a Civil War
fortification (Camp Johnson). The Deerfield Ranger District of the George
Washington National Forest (540-885-8028) has maps and visitor
Venturing to the east from
Churchville brings you into the city of Staunton
where there are plenty of bed-and-breakfast and hotel choices. A downtown walking tour of the city’s Victorian architecture is
relaxing and takes the visitor past a variety of eclectic shops and dining
opportunities. Also located in downtown Staunton is the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace and Museum, where the nation’s 28th
president was born (540-885-0897 or www.woodrowwilson.org). The
Museum of American Frontier Culture is at the edge of the city just
off the junction of I-81 and I-64 (540-332-7850 or
http://frontier.vipnet.org). This living history museum has four working
farms representative of the cultures that settled the Shenandoah Valley