Small Virginia community has an interesting history
by Gregg MacDonald, Staff Writer
If you’ve ever driven through Powell Valley Electric Cooperative’s Virginia service area between Jonesville and Pennington Gap along U.S. 58 Alternate, you have traveled through one of only four localities in the United States named after what many consider to be the most influential Christian novel of the 19th century.
Ben Hur is a small, unincorporated community in Lee County that was named — as were its namesakes in Arkansas, California and Texas — for the 1880 novel, “Ben-Hur: a Tale of the Christ,” written by former Union General Lew Wallace.
Wallace ultimately attained the rank of major general during the Civil War, after participating in the Battle of Fort Donelson, the Battle of Shiloh and the Battle of Monocacy.
He also served on the military commission for the trials of the Abraham Lincoln assassination conspirators and presided over the trial of Henry Wirz, the Confederate commandant of the Andersonville prison camp in South Carolina.
His famous novel recounts the adventures of Judah Ben-Hur of Jerusalem, who is enslaved by Romans and becomes a talented charioteer and a Christian. Running parallel to Judah’s narrative in the book is the unfolding story of Jesus, who is from the same period and region, and is roughly the same age.
The book is probably best known as the impetus for the 1959 motion picture starring actor Charlton Heston, which won 11 Academy Awards including Best Actor for Heston, and Best Picture.
Ironically, a Confederate colonel decided to name Lee County’s small unincorporated community after Gen. Wallace’s book. That man was Auburn Lorenzo Pridemore, born in Scott County, Va., in 1837.
During the Civil War, Pridemore raised a volunteer infantry company for the Pound Gap battalion of the Confederate Army. He became its captain and was later promoted to full colonel in 1864, commanding the 64th Virginia Cavalry until the end of the war a year later.
Following the war, he was elected to the Virginia Senate in 1871, where he served until 1875. He then served in the U.S.House of Representatives from 1877 until 1879 from Virginia’s 9th District. After losing reelection, Pridemore continued his legal practice in Jonesville until his death there in 1900 at the age of 62. He is buried in Jonesville’s Hill Cemetery.
THE MODERN BEN HUR
Ben Hur, Va., today is home to the Lee County Career and Technical Center, the Ben Hur Café and Lee High School, whose Generals were 1990 AA State Golf Champions.
This accomplishment is still proudly proclaimed on a big roadside sign displayed on U.S. 58 Alternate, in front of the high school. The Ben Hur Café is located just down the road.
“The Ben Hur Café has been here since 1918,” says co-owner Ana Paul. “My mother-in-law bought it in the 1980s and then, when she passed away in 2013, my husband and I took it over. They say about 18,000 cars pass by here every day, and we invite everyone to stop in and try our lasagna, our secret ingredient fire burger or our macaroni salad, which is the best anywhere.”