Down Home

Again in the year 2007, 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 ninth stop, we’ll be  ...

 

Down Home in Amherst

Story by (and Photos Courtesy of) Jennifer McManamay, Contributing Writer

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Home to highly esteemed sweet briar college and Virginia’s oldest main street roundabout.

Among the town of Amherst’s myriad blessings are its people, its extraordinary natural surroundings and its proximity to other attractive places.

It is the Amherst County seat, but that wasn’t the case when the county was established in 1781. Then, the courthouse was about 20 miles north, in what became Nelson County when the two split in 1807. A stage stop between Charlottesville and Lynchburg called The Oaks or Seven Oaks was chosen to be the new government center and was renamed Amherst Courthouse.

Amherst's historic traffic circle was originally built in 1936 and was redesigned as a roundabout around 1940. 

In the 18th and 19th centuries, courthouses were commercial hubs, so the town also has enjoyed a steady economy. In time, a mix of manufacturing companies and nearby Sweet Briar College added to its fortunes.

Maybe — in light of the stories I. Paul Wailes III heard as a child — providence smiled on the village of Amherst Court­house when it cleaned up its act in 1910. His mother told him how the town incorporated that year in part so it could establish a police force.

The trouble arose from a glut of drinking establishments, says Wailes, 78. It was especially rough on court days when crowds came in from the country to shop and take care of legal affairs.

“It was so horrible at the turn of the century that the wives of all the attorneys accompanied their husbands to court for fear of what might happen,” notes Wailes, whose grandfather was a lawyer. “And they went armed.”

The Florence Elston Inn & Conference Center at Sweetbriar College offers lodging and catering, plus access to the 3,250-acre campus. 

It’s even possible the state’s prohibition movement gained steam in Amherst in 1902, after a local judge, C.F. Campbell, horsewhipped the Rev. C.H. Crawford.

According to authors C. C. Pearson and J. Edwin Hendricks in their book, Liquor and Anti-Liquor in Virginia, 1619-1919, Crawford was the superintendent of the Virginia Anti-Saloon League. He wrote an article in the League’s newspaper castigating the judge’s handling of a trial in which a druggist was accused of selling illegal quantities of liquor. Campbell had given jury instructions that would ensure a finding of innocence.

After the original courthouse was torn down in 1872, this section of the present courthouse was built from "homemade brick of Amherst County clay." 

In response to the public criticism, the judge tried to convict Crawford of contempt. Failing, he settled for beating the reverend and was impeached for his trouble. Crawford used the affair to show the corruption of the “wets” in his own pursuit of a dry state.

Today a drink may be had at a few places, including the Briar Patch restaurant, serving the community since 1948, and Travelers Fine Food & Drink on the corner of Second and Main. By all accounts, though, little disturbs the peace in Amherst.

Downtown doesn’t bustle as it did when half a dozen family grocers, Wailes clothing store and the five-and-dime operated a short distance from each other. But you can still enjoy a pleasant lunch and shopping without getting back in your car.

“Within walking distance there are four antique stores,” says Sharon Turner, manager of Hill House Interiors. “Downtown is very inviting. It has a down-home feel.”

Flowers help make it inviting. The Village Garden Club members put them everywhere, tucking perennials on a busy corner and maintaining mixed gardens and planters around town.

Led by club president Carol Dziak and her sister Pat DeLeon, they also installed a fountain in the historic traffic circle where U.S. 60 and U.S. 29 Business intersect. They landscaped around the fountain with seasonally rotated annual plants.

The Amherst County High School Lancers won the group AA, Division 4 championship in 2006. 

Technically, “the ‘circle’ today operates like a true modern roundabout,” says Walter Pribble of the Virginia Department of Transportation. Around 1940, the safer roundabout design replaced the original 1936 circle, he says. It is the oldest roundabout in the state.

The people of Amherst have always been proud of the circle and they’re even more so now. Dziak’s display of red, white and blue summer annuals drew raves, especially for the tall, showy red Amaranthus. When she’s watering and weeding, drivers honk and yell, “It’s looking beautiful, ladies,” she says.

Old family businesses on Main Street — thriving near newer antique and gift shops, restaurants, realtors and insurance agents — account for much of the down-home quality.

The Turner family has operated Hill Hardware, established around 1914, since the 1930s. They opened Hill House, a gift and furniture store, in 1987. W.A. Ogden runs Burch and Ogden, the appliance and furniture store his father and business partner Yale Burch started after World War II.

Ogden likes the quiet. He chuckled when thinking of the days before the U.S. 29 bypass was completed in the early 1970s. “I wonder how we made it in town with all that traffic coming through here,” he says, joking that it could be hazardous to step off the curb.

Strip development did not spring up on the bypass near Amherst, which is about 15 miles north of Lynchburg , but it was rampant in Madison Heights to the south. A new bypass from the entrance of Sweet Briar College to U.S. 460 near the Lynchburg airport opened in 2005.

Town leaders believe what the old bypass took away, the new one can give back.

Jack Hobbs has served Amherst as town manager since 1992. 

“The current theory is that with the bypass bringing traffic and because it is the [government] center, we ought to roll with that,” says town manager Jack Hobbs.

The town has implemented several initiatives, including funding some of the garden club’s beautification efforts. It invested in municipal wireless Internet access and commissioned a study to recommend revitalization options.

For the past two summers, merchants, residents, civic groups and local government sponsored several Amherst LIVE! events featuring live music, children’s activities, arts and crafts, and beer and wine sales. Turnout has been good for the evening street festivals.

Wailes, who embraced the first bypass, also believes the new one represents progress. “I don’t think progress has a negative impact on anything,” he says.

He is part owner of Ambriar Plaza , which is adjacent to U.S. 29 and the first thing drivers see coming from the bypass. He built it in 1973 with partners Thomas Howell and Rex Pixley. He remains partners with his associates’ widows, Robbie Howell and Kathryn Pixley, and together they are remodeling the shopping center.

Paul Wailes III, 78, is acknowledged as Amherst's unofficial historian. 

“We want it to look nice and I want to do it before I go,” Wailes says.

The new road also fuels Hobbs’ vision of Amherst as a base camp for tourism. “You could day trip to the Appomattox surrender grounds, Poplar Grove [Golf Club], Virginia Military Institute, Charlottesville and Monticello, and the D-Day Memorial in Bedford,” he says, naming a few of the attractions in a 360-degree radius. “Nothing’s more than an hour away.”

For those who do visit, Charles Hamble, a volunteer at the Amherst County Historical Society, also recommends seeing the nearby Monacan Indian Museum and, of course, the Blue Ridge Parkway. “It’s always there, no matter what the season. It’s always beautiful and always changing,” he says.

Traveling west, U.S. 60 climbs the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains for 22 miles, intersecting the parkway at the county line. Along the way is access to the Appalachian Trial, including the Mount Pleasant Scenic Area where hiking trails reach elevations up to 4,000 feet, and the Pedlar River.

The Pedlar River 

The Pedlar, “if you don’t want to do anything at all,” says Bill Wydner, “is a good place to put your feet.”

Wydner, 68, is worth visiting, too. He manages the Amherst Milling Co., a grist mill on Rutledge Creek that still uses a water wheel. His father bought the mill and feed store in 1940, when it was already more than 100 years old.

All day long customers crowd into the tiny air-conditioned office, forming a line outside if necessary. Inside, like strata marking the passage of time, ancient photographs, receipts, advertising placards — even a stock certificate from the defunct Amherst Power and Light Co. — plaster every inch of wall.

On the mill floor, machinery reaches up three stories. Wydner doesn’t do tours, but he’s an engaging host as he points out the elevators, gears and belts going every which way.

Gloria Higginbotham, a life-long Amherst resident, used to teach in local public schools. 

“My grandfather used to take his corn down there for him to grind,” says Gloria Higginbotham, who was baptized in the creek near the mill in 1948. “That was kind of the hub for the farmers.”

These days she stops in occasionally for the produce Wydner buys from local growers.

Despite Wydner’s merry-eyed grousing that, “if it wasn’t for pop-in and pop-out microwaves, we’d all starve to death,” people still buy his rye and whole-wheat flour, corn meal and pancake mix. He also grinds assorted animal feeds, fine forms of which dust his navy blue work pants and shirt.

Wydner, and many of his patrons, embody something else Paul Wailes heard about Amherst when he was young: “Anybody who ever got this red mud of Amherst County on their feet will never shake it.”

If You Go…

 

Several major annual events in October make it Amherst’s unofficial festival month. The Clifford Ruritan Club Sorghum Festival, held the second weekend of the month, features sorghum molasses making, arts, crafts, food, and bluegrass and country music. Call (434) 263-5336 for information.

 

The 35-year-old Amherst County Apple Harvest Festival is held the third weekend at Amherst County High School. Call (434) 845-5606 or (434) 847-7435 for information.

 

The Virginia Garlic Festival, held the second Saturday and Sunday at Rebec Vineyards in Amherst, is one of the state’s oldest wine and food festivals. Go to rebecwinery.com or call (434) 946-5168 for details.

 

Other events include the Monacan Indian Nation Powwow in May, the Amherst County Museum and Historical Society’s annual spring Historic House Tour in April and Amherst LIVE! evening street festivals held during spring and summer.For event information, visit amherstvachamber.com, or call (434) 946-0990.

 

Sweet Briar College

During the academic year Sweet Briar welcomes visitors to its dining facilities, art exhibitions, lectures, movies, historic tours, and musical, dance and theater performances. Many events are free. Visit sbc.edu/calendar for event information. Contact the Sweet Briar Museum at (434) 381-6246 for information on historical sites. The 3,250-acre campus offers fishing lakes, nature sanctuaries and miles of hiking and biking trails.

 

Lodging

Amherst Inn

116 Richmond Hwy., Amherst

(434) 946-7641

 

Dulwich Manor Bed and Breakfast

550 Richmond Hwy, Amherst

(434) 946-7207; dulwich-manor.com

Florence Elston Inn and Conference Center

at Sweet Briar College

(434) 381-6207 or (866) 388-6207

www.elstoninn.com

 

Dining

Briar Patch

(434) 946-2249

 

Le Bistro at Sweet Briar College*

(434) 381-6292

 

Prothro Dining Hall at Sweet Briar College*

(434) 381-6145

 

Travelers

(434) 946-9792

 

What a Blessing Bakery

(434) 946-0330

*May be closed when the College is not in session.

 

Museums

Amherst County Museum and Historical Society

(434) 946-9068; achmuseum@aol.com

members.aol.com/achmuseum

 

Monacan Indian Museum

(434) 946-5391

monacannation.com

 

Amherst County outdoors

Opportunities for hikers, anglers and anyone who enjoys the outdoors abound. Golfing, biking, hang-gliding and water sports also are available.

 

For more information

Visitors Center

154 S. Main St.

(434) 946-9068

 

Town of Amherst

186 S. Main St.

(434) 946-7885, amherstva.gov

 

For more information on recreation, as well as where to shop, dine and stay in Amherst County, visit amherstworks.net or call (434)-946-9314.

 

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