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population in Ashland is 6,850. It was established in 1855m and
incorporated in 1858..
Ashland native Sarah Wright, 85, who
“lives in the house I was born in,” sums up her hometown simply:
“It’s a real nice town. It has a train running through the middle of
town. It’s a town of beautiful old houses. It’s a friendly town.”
is a regular Amtrak stop and a popular gathering spot for
Located in historic Hanover County,
Ashland is a 15-minute drive north from Richmond. Ashland’s tree-lined
streets and rumbling trains provide a small-town oasis in the midst of
Hanover’s fast-growing rural-to-suburban landscape. One of the larger
towns in land area in Virginia, Ashland has grown to its present
7.02-square-mile dimensions via several annexations. The town’s 6,850
residents proudly call their town “The Center of the Universe,” a
motto coined by former mayor Richard S. Gillis.
Ashland/Hanover Visitor Center is located on Center Street, in a
1923 RF&P Railroad train station.
Captain John Smith’s 1607 map of
Virginia gives evidence that he explored the area, then populated by the
Chickahominy Indians. In 1836, the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac
Railroad (RF&P) laid a single track from Richmond north through land
that would later become Ashland. By the early 1850s, mineral springs were
discovered near the present-day campus of Randolph-Macon College, and the
area developed into a popular resort. In 1855 the village’s name, Slash
Cottage, was changed to Ashland, selected to honor Hanover native son
Henry Clay, who died at his Kentucky home, “Ashland,” in 1852. The
town was incorporated in 1858.
Along with the railroad, the relocation
of Randolph-Macon College from Boydton, near the Virginia-North Carolina
border, to Ashland in 1868 helped fuel the town’s post-Civil War
economy. Today the private, co-ed liberal arts college is home to 1,118
students, who occupy a 116-acre campus complete with playing fields,
courtyards, and three buildings listed on the National Register of
The Ashland/Hanover Visitor Center is
located in a 1923 RF&P train station. Railroad tracks literally run
through the center of town, cutting through the town’s main street.
Visitor Center manager Donna Baxter says the town attracts a variety of
“We get all types of people here …
people connected to the college, travelers from I-95, train and history
buffs, business people, and day trippers,” she explains. “Ashland is
also a [centralized] meeting place for people traveling the north-south
Baxter notes that Amtrak passenger
trains still stop in Ashland, prompting a cadre of people from the town
and the surrounding area called “train watchers.” These unofficial
volunteers, many of them retired, help people get off and on trains and
gather in groups to talk.
in 1992, Ashland's Henry Clay Inn is an exact replica of the
original 1906 Georgian Revival-style building that was destroyed
by fire in 1946.
Adjacent to the Visitor Center is the
magnificent Henry Clay Inn, the town’s only bed and breakfast. Built in
1992, the exterior of the inn is an exact replica of the original 1906
Georgian Revival-style building, destroyed by fire in 1946. Inside, the
inn houses a restaurant and gift/art shop. Ashland residences date from
the 1850s and feature Queen Anne, Greek Revival, Italianate, and classic
From May to November, visitors can stop
by the Ashland Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings for fresh
vegetables, fruits, herbs, honey and flowers. There are town parades on
the 4th of July and at Christmas. Eclectic shops, restaurants, and
Brothers Grocery was established in 1912 and displays old
photographs and antique grocery memorabilia.
shopkeepers abound. Cross Brothers
Grocery Store, established in 1912 and long known for personal service,
displays old photographs and antique grocery memorabilia. Ashland’s Red
Caboose is a literal caboose — the caboose was built in 1926 for the C
& O Railroad. Housing Virginia-made gifts and train memorabilia, the
restored caboose was moved to its present location. Homemades by Suzanne
features homemade sandwiches, salads, and desserts, its collection of
wooden booths and farm-style tables providing an ideal spot to watch the
trains rumbling through town. Train Town Toy & Hobby offers all scales
of trains for model train enthusiasts, train memorabilia, and toy trains.
Owners Jim and Nancy Donlon moved from New England in 2002, and opened
their store in August 2003.
“Ashland is very receptive to
supporting local businesses. The town atmosphere is good, and my location
next door to the town library helps me a lot,” Jim Donlon explains.
A Neighborly Community
Landry is co-owner of Ashland Coffee & Tea, a popular local
Ashland Coffee & Tea, a town
gathering spot owned by Mary and Jim Leffler and Kay Landry, features
comfortable mismatched sofas and chairs, Arabica
coffee, rare teas, sandwiches, and
desserts. At night the shop provides a stage for a diverse mix of live
music by some of the area’s best artists and occasional national acts.
Landry, who moved to Ashland from Richmond in 1986 for its small-town
atmosphere, loves the trains and the town’s big trees.
“People here are very neighborly. When
Hurricane Isabel hit last year, the entire town turned out to help each
other,” Landry says. “I’ve seen so much change since I’ve been
here, with areas once cornfields now having housing developments on them.
But people here just embrace them as new neighbors.”
Town Manager Charles Hartgrove notes that "tourism is very
Ashland Coffee & Tea served as a
focal point for community residents who banded together to protest,
unsuccessfully, the construction of a Wal-Mart within town limits,
prompting a PBS TV special about resident efforts. The Wal-Mart
controversy, stemming from concerns that the retail giant would hurt town
businesses, also divided the town. Town Manager Charles Hartgrove says
it’s too early to tell what effect Wal-Mart has had since the store
opened in June 2003.
“It’s still a fresh wound for a lot
of people,” Hartgrove admits. He says Ashland’s biggest challenge is
maintaining the town’s sense of place while also looking at the benefits
of future growth.
“Most of our revenues come from meals
and lodging taxes. Tourism is very big here. The fact that we are just off
I-95 and one exit away from Paramount Kings Dominion also helps,”
Hartgrove says Ashland needs to promote,
as well as diversify, town businesses. A tax base is needed, but
maintaining the town’s sense of place is crucial, too. There are no big
town employers, although several industrial parks are within town limits.
People work within town limits, but also commute to jobs in Richmond or
Fredericksburg. Long-time resident John Newell, who coordinates treatment
programs for paroled juveniles for the state’s juvenile justice
department, notes that Ashland is one of the fastest-growing Amtrak stops
in Virginia: “People can come from New York, from Maryland, and get off
right in Ashland.”
Newell believes maintaining a vibrant
downtown and “keeping everyone connected” is Ashland’s biggest
challenge. Despite encroaching development, Ashland can keep its town
character through sticking to its comprehensive plan and zoning, he adds.
“We have people from all walks of life
here — carpenters, college professors, many writers and artists. It’s
a very diverse population. You can walk everywhere, you don’t have to
get in your car and drive to the grocery store,” Newell says.
“Diversity is the most positive attribute of the town.”
Cathy Bach, manager of the Ashland
branch of Pamunkey Regional Library, originally came to Ashland from
Charlottesville to attend Randolph-Macon College and found a home in
& Franklin Hall, on the Randolph-Macon College campus, is on
the National Register of Historic Places.
“When my children were little, it was
very easy to become involved in the community and know different aspects
of town life. The phrase ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ really
does operate here,” she says. “The schools are wonderful, and the
Hanover Arts and Activities Center is a great asset to the community.”
Housed in an 1859 church building, a
group of citizens led by the Ashland Junior Woman’s Club bought the
building in 1967 for the Center. Today the Ashland Stage Company performs
professional theatre, and it’s also home to the Hanover Concert Band,
Ashland Girl Scouts, and other community groups.
“I’ll tell you a story,” Sarah
Wright concludes. “I was late getting to Cross Brothers Grocery one day,
and they were so glad to see me! This is a typical small town, and I want
to keep it the way it is. I haven’t found a place any better to live
Hail, and Farewell, to the Chief
It’s impossible to write about Ashland
without honoring J. Malcolm “Jay” Pace III, long-time editor and
publisher of the weekly Hanover Herald-Progress newspaper, who died
suddenly April 12, 2004, at age 58.
A Randolph-Macon College graduate, Jay
had been with the Herald-Progress since 1973 and became its publisher in
1981 when he purchased the newspaper and printing company. The
123-year-old newspaper employs 25 people, including Jay’s wife,
Patricia, business manager; brother Steve, vice-president and general
manager; and Steve’s wife Naomi, administrative assistant.
Steve Pace, while still mourning his
brother, recalls, “Jay gave every ounce of energy he had to what he did.
He just got wrapped up in life. As a child, he started his own newspaper
that he published on a manual typewriter with carbon-paper copies. He
loved this community, and community journalism. He worked tirelessly and
died doing what he loved.”
Steve Pace says, “Jay died on a Monday
morning and I haven’t stopped since. I came back from the hospital and
told the staff Jay would want us to get the paper out. I told them,
‘Make the chief proud.’ He had a passion for this county, for this
business. Even if you disagreed with him, he would listen, and was
Steve, who lives in Ashland and calls it
“a wonderful, pleasant place,” says growth is the biggest issue facing
the town. He says the town must work with Hanover County so that whatever
is developed, town character can continue.
As for the Herald-Progress, “We have
an editorial board now, instead of an editor. We’ll hire another
reporter, a few more Indians before a chief … we will continue to
publish the paper.”
Note: The late Jay Pace was preparing to write this issue’s “Down Home
in Ashland” feature at the time of his death.