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was founded in 1772 and was named after George Lord Fincastle.
As they have for two centuries, the
bells of Fincastle tolled at midnight on December 31 in one of the
nation’s oldest New Year’s celebrations.
Botetourt County Courthouse has been rebuilt four times. The
structure last burned in 1970. Valuable historic documents were
saved because of an 1800s fireproof vault. Geneologists from all
over the country visit the records room to search their history.
The simple ceremony of ringing the bells
at the Botetourt County Courthouse and the town’s four churches has been
an honor for some families for generations.
Willie Simmons, like his father and
grandfather, rings the courthouse bell. He hasn’t missed New Year’s
Eve in the belfry in 40 years. Similarly, others at the Fincastle
Presbyterian Church, the Fincastle Baptist Church, the Fincastle Methodist
Church, and St. Marks Episcopal Church, have long traditions as bell
Simmons, a wood turner and member of the Botetourt County judicial
system, with his constant companion Jasper.
The ceremony starts at 11:35 p.m. The
courthouse bell tolls and is followed in sequence 12 seconds later by the
Presbyterian Church bell. The other church-bell ringers chime in at
12-second intervals. Just before midnight, a bugler plays Taps at the
Then the bells strike out a number —
two strikes, 10 strikes, 10 strikes, four strikes — in honor of the New
that I shoot the gun. Then we toll for as long as our ears can stand it,
about 10 minutes,” Simmons says. Townsfolk shout and cheer. “It’s a
Old-fashioned strings of red, yellow,
green, blue and orange bulbs brighten the Courthouse Square. The lights
are placed by the Society to Keep Fincastle Lit. Simmons and his “sweet
wife,” Brenda, have hung the lights for the last 18 years. Thousands
drive through town in December.
“The darkest day in the town of
Fincastle is the night the lights have been cut off,” Simmons says.
Such traditions are important to the
historic community’s 350 residents. The town, a virtual museum of
American architecture from the late 1770s through the 20th century, was
named in 1772 for George Lord Fincastle, son of Lord Dunmore, lieutenant
governor of Virginia.
Cory (rear) and Randall Hays attend Fincastle Presbyterian Church.
On a warm weekend they painted wrought-iron fences in the cemetary.
Fincastle always has been the Botetourt
county seat. At its inception, the town served an area that stretched to
the Mississippi River and included part of Wisconsin. Folks who lived more
than 500 miles away were excused from jury duty.
German, Scots-Irish and English
immigrants settled here. Land records signed by George Washington, Patrick
Henry, Thomas Jefferson and other famous founding fathers are in the
Fincastle was a major new-frontier
settlement. It served as a supply station for settlers heading west. The
Lewis and Clark expedition set off from Fincastle. Clark returned to marry
a Fincastle girl.
Becky Holmes House on Back Street is said to be the oldest
surviving structure in the town. It was built by the town's
founder, Israel Christian.
From 1885 until the 1910s, Fincastle was
a popular resort. Folks flocked to Fincastle Springs to heal consumption.
“The waters” attracted visitors from as far as New Orleans. During
this boom, the town sustained the Western Hotel and Hayth’s Hotel. The
latter is now an apartment complex.
“To me, it’s a bunch of old
buildings,” Willie Simmons says of the historic atmosphere of the town.
He smiles. His aunt, Dottie Kessler, is a genealogist and charter member
of Historic Fincastle, Inc. (HFI). The non-profit organization has
restored a dozen prominent buildings in the town.
McCoy, editor of The Fincastle Herald, has worked in the
town since 1984. The Herald was established in 1866. (The
sign in the window is wrong, McCoy says.)
HFI’s special logo shows off the six
steeples of the town skyline. Edwin L. McCoy,
The Fincastle Herald editor, says the
emphasis on the steeples is warranted. “I think that those churches are
a dominant force in the community and have been historically and continue
to be,” McCoy says. Three antebellum and two late 19th-century churches
still serve their congregations.
“Fincastle is representative of a lot
of rural county seats that you find,” McCoy says. “Even though it’s
the county seat, it’s not the central commercial center for the county.
It is the hub of a local government.”
The prominent steeple belongs to the
Botetourt County Courthouse, the site of great activity.
The courthouse, the county’s fourth,
was restored to the original Thomas Jefferson design after a 1970 fire.
The fire spared the court records because the third courthouse, built in
1845, had a fireproof vault. The undamaged papers are important to
genealogists tracing their family tree.
Dooley was born and raised in Fincastle. She has worked for The
Fincastle Herald for 39 years.
“The longer that I work as a
researcher in this office, the more intrigued I become with the wealth of
information,” Pat Honts says. She works in the courthouse, helping
people find “priceless documents” in the vault.
“People are so appreciative of the
information that our records can provide,” Honts says. “Sometimes
people are shocked with something that we discover.”
The two staff researchers receive 1,000
requests for assistance each year. “There never seems to be enough time
to do all of the research that we are asked to do,” Honts says.
Visitors aren’t the only ones who
search the records. Simmons is typical of the Fincastle families who know
their origins. His paternal great-grandfather commissioned a gun, the
Painter rifle, from his maternal great-grandfather. “It’s just an old
farm rifle, nothing fancy about it at all, but one generation of my family
made it for the other and I think that’s as cool as can be,” he says.
Paige Ware, a lifelong Fincastle
resident, has been with HFI since 1970. She has been the librarian at the
Fincastle Library for 25 years.
Godwin Cottage, erected prior to 1880, is an example of Federal
architecture. Historic Fincastle, Inc. member Paige Ware says it
reminds her of Monticello.
She gives tours of the town. At The Big
Spring, she points out the Godwin Cottage, “which looks to me like a
smaller version of Monticello.”
On “Peck’s corner,” she shows off
the historic homes of E.C. Westerman, Peggy Davis, and the Simmonses.
“All these houses at one time belonged to the Peck family” she says.
The Pecks were “a family whose parents didn’t believe in the children
marrying,” Ware says. Three siblings lived alone, one to a house. All
died without heirs.
Ware also shows folks the cistern in the
yard of George and Virginia Dillon. The Dillons’ daughter, Patty Dooley,
born and raised in town, has worked for The Fincastle Herald for 39 years.
The area has changed, Dooley says. The
theater and stores that drew folks to town are gone. People drive
“We’d walk to school, walk to
church. They were right there. We didn’t have to drive. And everybody
took care of each other,” Dooley recalls.
Today, Fincastle bustles. It is not
quiet. Outside, the siren atop the community center sounds. Bill and Velda
Lanahan of Baltimore and Darla Rader of Summersville, WV, stand near the
courthouse. “It’s a lovely little place. Just beautiful,” Velda
Lanahan says before leaving on a walking tour.
Gwinn (left) of Leivasy, WV, spent time with country researcher
Pat Honts of Troutville in the records room of the Botetourt
Inside, her relative, Ruth Gwinn of
Leivasy, WV, scours records for her ancestors.
Presbyterian Church is one of several churches in Fincastle that
are a dominant force in the community. Historic FIncastle, Inc.'s
special logo shows off the six steeples of the town skyline.
At the Fincastle Presbyterian Church,
Frank Cory and Randall Hays paint a fence. They worry about encroaching
growth. “We want to keep it green,” Hays said. “Both of us came
here, I guess, to get away from crowds.”
The town enchants them.
“As the county seat, it has a lot of
good history,” Hays says. He enjoys the Botetourt County Historical
Eula Rosenberger, who works for the
Botetourt County Chamber of Commerce, is fascinated with the town
graveyards. Godwin Cemetery, located at the Fincastle Methodist Church, is
a tranquil place. Every visitor to town should see the sunrise from the
Poindexter (left) and Joan Boothe work in the Fincastle Town
Office. They are always happy to show off the town's souvenirs.
At the Fincastle Town Office, employee
Christine Poindexter says Fincastle is wonderful. “I like small towns.
Everybody knows everybody,” Poindexter says. “It’s like family when
you live in a small town.”
Her co-worker, Joan Boothe, agrees.
“People are very nice,” she says. “You feel safe here.”
Indeed, the people, not the historic
buildings, make Fincastle a charming and quaint county seat. The town is
full of good people, Dooley says.
Ware, a lifelong Fincastle resident, has for 30 years helped
preserve the historic nature of the town.
Fincastle is where folks “come out and
sit on the back of Willie’s pickup truck,” Ware says. “The whole
neighborhood comes out to discuss the world’s problems.”
“I can’t imagine living anyplace
else,” Simmons says. “I don’t know everybody in the town, but it’s
a comfortable place to be. This will always be my home.”