Down Home
Again in the year 2003, we’re making our way around the region, each issue visiting a small town and meeting some of the folks who make up the heart of electric co-op country. On this year’s fifth stop, we’ll be  ...

Down Home in The Plains
by Peter J. Fakoury, Contributing Writer

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“Down Home In The Plains"

Don't blink when you're passing through, or you just might miss this gem of a community in Northern Virginia. 

Scenic vistas, hospitable townsfolk and traditional values define this northern Shenandoah Valley community. 

Eighteen times a day a train rumbles through The Plains. The old railroad station is now known as Railroad Arts, a small cluster of artist studios.

The Plains is the proverbial town you might miss if you blinked while passing through. It is barely a town at all, by size standards, just a square-mile plot midway between Warrenton and Middleburg in rural Fauquier County.

But you’d miss a lot if you didn’t stop in The Plains for a closer look. Like a child turning over stones in a bubbling creek to see what treasures lie beneath, you can find much below the surface of this little gem of a town.

Within an hour of Washington, DC, many people pass through The Plains each year on their way to the fall foliage or to one of the many steeplechase races in the Piedmont. Except for the regular roar of a passing train, it’s a quiet town that harkens to a slower-paced time. Because of this, it’s become an enclave for creative people. Within several blocks of each are an instrument maker, a furniture craftsman, a potter, a stone carver and a Pulitzer-Prize-winning author.

The Glue That Holds

Joyce Heflin Pearson pores over a pile of scrapbooks her mother put together on the town of The Plains. Her mother was the town clerk and was active in local politics. Pearson, a lifelong native of The Plains, has followed in her footsteps. She is a new member of the town council.

A strong sense of community holds The Plains together. Fourth-generation resident Joyce Heflin Pearson says the town has never lost its close-knit feel, despite the development pressure it and many surrounding communities have felt.

“The Plains is little clans of families that have been here for a long time,” she says. “As the kids grew up, they built a house next door and stayed.”

Pearson’s great-grandfather was a carpenter who built many of the buildings in town, including the home in which she now lives. Like most of the residents of The Plains, she knows just about everyone in town.

“We have a neighborhood watch, but it’s not like others,” she jokes. “The neighbors watch everything. If you have a party, the neighbors are watching.”

Pearson says it’s always been that way. Neighbors still know and care for each other. It’s that kind of environment that has made The Plains attractive to some of the town’s relative newcomers — the artists and other people who now love the town as much as the old-timers.

Kenny Sherman and his wife, Peyton, own "Peyton Place," a shop in which to find unusual gift and home-decorating ideas.

Kenny Sherman remembers how the town reached out to him and his wife when the farmhouse they were renting in The Plains burned to the ground just two years after they had moved there from Los Angeles.

“We lost everything, including our two dogs,” he recalls. “But when the volunteer firemen came to our house, they were people that we knew, and it was wonderful.”

Other townspeople collected clothing for the couple and brought them food. Sherman said that kind of thing rarely happens in a big city like L.A.

“We’ve discovered that living in a small community like this, everyone takes care of you. It’s wonderful,” Sherman says. “The Plains has been good to us.”

Sherman and his wife, Peyton, run one of the most interesting stores in The Plains. “Peyton’s Place,” as it is called, is a treat for the senses. It is a collection of unusual home and gift items that you won’t find anyplace else. The couple’s taste is rather cosmopolitan for a small town in Virginia. Brazilian music plays as you enter the store, and there is a distinct international flavor. Celebrating the different colors and textures of the world, the merchandise reflects Peyton’s skill at searching out the unusual and unexpected.

 

The town of The Plains has classic homes of many different styles.

Rita Fenwick is another transplant who has found heaven in The Plains.

“The thing that attracted us here was having the best of both worlds,” she says. “The country, with its slower pace, and the proximity to the DC area.”

When Fenwick and her husband, George, moved to The Plains nine years ago, they brought with them the organization they founded, the American Bird Conservancy, and its 20 employees.

The organization specializes in bringing together other conservation groups in ways that benefit birds. By coordinating numerous groups with diverse interests in preserving the environment, they have had many victories in improving habitats for birds.

The couple moved its headquarters to The Plains from Washington, DC, and loves the town for the same reason most do — the high quality of life.

“We get teased and called ‘those bird people,’ ” Fenwick says with a laugh, “but people are good to us here.”

So Many Interesting People

In a small workshop just a block off Main Street, furniture maker and restorer Martin Robinson planes the cornice for a custom cabinet he is making out of an ancient red oak tree that almost fell on his customer’s house. As he shaves the piece into shape, he talks about furniture-making techniques of centuries past, and of his luck at finding a home for his business in The Plains.

“It’s the diversity of people here that I like,” he says in a soft British accent. “Most of my customers are local. I do have some rather famous clients, but I can’t tell you who they are,” he laughs.

Robinson may be onto more of what makes The Plains special than anything else. The town has an interesting mix of rich and famous residents as well as ordinary folks. The presence of artists and craftsmen seems to make it a comfortable place for other artists and craftsmen. The camaraderie is strong.

Down the street, in an old school house, is Wolf Instruments, world-renowned makers and restorers of vintage keyboard instruments. The small company builds some of the world’s finest harpsichords and historic pianos, played by virtuoso performers all over the world.

Tom Wolf says he relocated his shop from Washington, DC, to The Plains in search of a quieter lifestyle.

“It’s a very small community, and people make a living doing odd and interesting things here — making wine, growing vegetables,” he says. “An artist or craftsman fits right in.”

Right in the center of town is The Plains Pharmacy, where you can find Toby Merchant, one of the town’s most well-known businessmen. Merchant opened his pharmacy in The Plains in 1967. It is one of the few pharmacies in Northern Virginia that still has a compounding lab for making custom medications. He also owns a fleet of vans that deliver medical equipment all over the region.

Merchant is pretty clear about what he thinks makes The Plains popular:

“Once you come west of Bull Run Mountain, it’s a totally different environment from what you see in Northern Virginia,” he says. “You get good air, relaxation, a wonderful social environment, good food and wine, and four-legged animals to enjoy. When you go back you feel like you’ve been on a long trip.”

A Look Back

The Plains got its name because it reminded Colonial settlers of the topography of White Plains, New York. There really are no plains at all in The Plains. The area is more of a bowl between several mountains that occasionally collects a white mist early in the morning, just as does the town’s northern namesake.

For many years there was no town at all. The whole area bore the name “The White Plains” of Virginia. By the time the town sprang up and the first post office was established in 1831, the name had been shortened to The Plains.

In its earliest days, The Plains was a farming community. Wealthy landowners held tracts of land as big as several thousand acres. You will still find many family names in the area that date back to these original holdings. Likewise, because most of these farms had slaves, there are many common family names among the area’s African-American population.

“During the Civil War, The Plains was the southeast corner of Col. Mosby’s territory,” says Marci Markey, a town historian.

Col. John S. Mosby led a band of local Confederate soldiers called Mosby’s Raiders. Because of his ability to hit Union supply lines and then disappear into the countryside, he was given the nickname, “The Gray Ghost.”

 

“Mosby’s last raid, after Lee surrendered, started from The Plains,” Markey says. “They just hadn’t heard that the war was over yet.”

 

One of the prettiest sights in town is the Grace Episcopal Church. Some say that a ghost plays the pipe organ in the dark, stained-glass adorned sanctuary.

Markey and her husband moved to The Plains 31 years ago and bought a house built in 1852. Originally it had been a two-room tack shop where some say Col. Mosby got some of his tack.

For history buffs, one of the treasures of The Plains is the Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier County. This non-profit organization operates a wonderful museum, and maintains an extensive repository of genealogical data for people who want to trace their family history.

“Most black families in the area knew their genealogy by oral history,” says Jane Butler, who is in charge of the association’s family research. “They didn’t have it substantiated by records. I try to back it up with documents from the Fauquier County Courthouse and other sources.”

The association’s museum nicely parallels local black history with what was happening nationally. It contains interesting artifacts, written documents and photographs that tell the story of Fauquier’s black residents.

The Plains of Tomorrow

Marci Markey says The Plains is comfortable with itself, as it shifts toward being an arts community. She thinks that will help it keep its small-town charm. She points out that in the three decades she’s lived there she can only count a couple of new buildings which have been erected. So close to the DC area, one might wonder how the town has been able to limit development. Markey smiles and says, “Land trusts.”

No matter which direction you go as you leave The Plains, you pass rolling fields and pastures. Markey says this is not by accident. Landowners on the fringes of town have placed their land in trusts that hopefully will prevent future development. Few towns are able to do this, she notes. Town residents hope that for future generations those fields will remain, protecting the town from the westward push of Washington, DC, sprawl.

When not studying history, Markey is an accomplished seamstress for women who want custom wedding gowns or period dresses.

“Once I sewed a beautiful Victorian wedding gown with a seven-foot train and 4,000 beads,” she says proudly. “You just have to know what you want.”

When it comes to a community, the residents of The Plains know exactly what they want. They’d like to keep their town exactly as it is, and share it with visitors who are looking to escape for a while.

 

If You Go…

With a few hours to spare, there is much to discover in The Plains. Most of it is right on Main Street.

The Blue Peach is a “must see” for any visitor to the town. This classy gallery features lovely high-quality artwork by local artists. (540) 253-5536.

Next door is The Bittersweet Garden, a neat little shop featuring birdbaths, sculptures and other decorative items for the garden.

Stop in at Peyton’s Place for an unusual assortment of design items for the home that you won’t find elsewhere. Peyton loves birds, and you’ll find lots of them in ornate cages around her shop. Their pleasant songs mingle with music from around the world to make this an intriguing place to visit. (540) 253-5800.

Whatever your religious persuasion, a look at Grace Episcopal Church is inspiring. This lovely fieldstone church is one of the town’s centerpieces. If you can get in for a peek at the sanctuary, you’re in for a treat. It’s rustic and dark, with stained glass all around.

 

Toby Merchant at The Plains Pharmacy.

The Plains Pharmacy is the quintessential corner drug store, located at the corner of Main Street and Fauquier Avenue. It carries gift items and interesting herbal remedies. (540) 253-5275.

On the opposite corner, The Farmstore is a great place to shop for wines and specialty food items. Where else would you find capers in sea salt?

Also on Main Street is In The Pink, a gift shop that features girl stuff like plush slippers, stylish bags, loop necklaces and comic items that make fun gifts.

The Rail Stop Restaurant is a great choice for lunch or dinner. It has lots of atmosphere and serves up some tasty entrees. It was once owned by actor Robert Duvall, who is still a town regular. (540) 253-5644.

For food to go, The Plains Market at the BP gas station has a nice deli counter as well as snacks and drinks.

Around the corner on Loudoun Avenue is Just Breakfast and Lunch, a cozy place to eat that’s right along the railroad tracks. You can watch the train go by and listen to local gossip. (540) 253-5501.

Jane Butler at the Afro-American Historical Society of Fauquier County's museum.

Across the street is the museum at the Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier County. It’s open weekdays from 10 to 3, and Saturdays from 1 to 5. (540) 253-7488.

If birds are your thing, next door is the American Bird Conservancy. Pop in and learn what’s up in bird conservation. (540) 253-5780; www.abcbirds.org.

If horses are more your bag, just a few miles away is Great Meadow, home of the Virginia Gold Cup and many other horse events. Twilight polo happens every Friday evening throughout the summer, and the Vintage Virginia Wine Festival takes place June 7 - 8. (540) 253-5001; www.greatmeadow.org.

Unless you have a friend in town, there is really only one place to stay, the Grey Horse Inn. It’s a beautifully restored 1880s mansion that is now a bed and breakfast. (540) 253-7000. There also are plenty of accommodations in nearby Warrenton.

Wherever you go in this friendly town, ask about the artists. Locals will tell you where to find them. Some have studios where you can see their work.

 

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