Nelson County hamlet of about 300 people traces its roots to the 1840s.
A 40-minute drive southwest from Charlottesville on modern highways and country roads leads to Schuyler, a Nelson County hamlet of about 300 people tracing its roots to the 1840s.
Originally known as Walker’s Mill, the village was named for Schuyler’s first postmaster, Schuyler George Walker. Located on one of the world’s largest soapstone veins, the Historic District encompasses over 100 buildings around the crossroads of Schuyler Road, Rockfish River Road and Salem Road in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
From its evolution as a soapstone center in 1883 with mostly company-owned (and built) homes fanning out in a loop, Schuyler (pronounced Sky-ler) is a shadow of itself from the 1920s, when Alberene Soapstone operated on 6,000 acres with 1,500 employees toiling at the labor-intensive plant. Long gone now, the short-line Nelson & Albemarle Railroad served quarries, and provided passenger service via a C&O Railroad connection.
Amid scattered homes and churches, Schuyler still has what may have attracted early settlers: peace, quiet and soapstone. It also has The Waltons TV show mystique, since writer/show creator Earl Hamner Jr., who died in 2016 at age 92, grew up here.
Based on Hamner’s real-life family and his Depression-era growing-up years, his TV movie The Homecoming (1971) spawned the Emmy-winning The Waltons TV series (1972-’81) and six television movies that followed (1982-’97). Thanks to reruns, DVDs and internet sites keeping the show alive decades after its first airing, people from all over the world come to Schuyler to experience the place that inspired The Waltons.
“We had 17,000 visitors last year,” says Leona Roberts, 86, director of Walton’s Mountain Museum, which opened in 1992 in Schuyler’s former elementary and high school building. “People come and say ‘I wish I had a family like that’ — or that they were brought up like that.”
Talmadge “Junior” Tyler, 82, says with a laugh, “We lived the same way they [Hamners] did, we just didn’t have anybody smart enough to write about it.”
Of his lifelong Schuyler residency, Tyler, who worked at Alberene Soapstone from 1955-1973, adds, “There’s an old saying that says once you get soapstone dust on your toenails, you can’t leave.”
Roberts moved to Schuyler in 1952 and says Schuyler has changed: “It’s a nice community, a place where you didn’t bother to lock your door. But people keep their door locked now. Many people are moving in and building homes back up off the road. Some of the newcomers have different ways than we do, but most people get along well.”
Tyler says, “It’s a completely different community from how I was growing up, with new people moving in; you just don’t know people like you used to. When they closed the school in 1991, that took away from the community too, because there was no central gathering place. Back in the 1940s and ’50s people lived and worked here. Now they commute for work.”
Tyler, treasurer of New Faith United Methodist Church, adds that churches don’t seem to be as important a part of the community as they once were.
“When I was growing up, we had joint homecoming [events], now each church pretty much does their own thing,” he explains. “Our church used to have 40 to 50 people [attend]; now we only have about 15 people.”
Admission ($10 per person), donations, museum membership fees and gift-shop sales keep the museum operating. Three employees oversee the museum, where visitors watch a Waltons documentary film and tour replicas of rooms on The Waltons set. Exhibits include an impressive Military Room filled with war-related memorabilia; The Recipe Room (named after the moonshine “recipe” created by the show’s Baldwin sisters) featuring a locally confiscated still; and “The Pony Cart” Room, which debuted in 2017.
“The Pony Cart” first aired in 1976, earning its 87-year-old guest star Beulah Bondi an Emmy Award for her moving performance as Aunt Martha Corrine Walton. A video tells the story of the hand-painted cart’s journey to Schuyler after David Harper (Jim-Bob on the TV show) tracked it down at a California studio rental company where it sat untouched for over 40 years.
Inspired by similar carts used in Sicily, the cart’s unique paint job kept it from being used in other films, so it has retained its original paint. Prop people did the painting, but Bondi painted some herself, captured on film in the season-five episode. Richard Thomas (John-Boy) filmed a 31-second YouTube promotional clip for the new exhibit when he attended the museum’s 25th-anniversary event last year.
The museum touches on 1969’s Hurricane Camille, a Category 5 hurricane that brought sudden, unexpected rain and caused flooding that killed over 150 people, including 125 in Nelson County.
“The Rockfish River reached the top of door ceilings at Alberene Soapstone,” Roberts recalls. “Bridges washed out and you couldn’t get in or out of Schuyler. We had flooding, but no homes or people here were lost.”
Across the street is the Hamner House, where Earl Hamner Jr. grew up. The family attended Schuyler Baptist Church, within walking distance. Brother James Hamner lived at home, caring for mother Doris until her passing in 1990; he moved to Charlottesville in 2003.
After his 2004 death, the 1915 home — built for an Alberene Soapstone manager and purchased by Earl Hamner Sr. in 1934 for $500 — was sold, renovated and opened to the public.
In 2017 The Waltons fan Carole Johnson of Ukiah, California, fearing the house would fall into private hands (preventing fans from seeing it) when it was for sale again, bought the house, a Virginia Historic Landmark. She flies to Virginia on a bi-weekly basis, leads tours and oversees the property.
An associate producer for Storyteller, a 2015 documentary film paying tribute to Hamner, Johnson explains, “People do phenomenal things for The Waltons. I drove cross-country to bring the green model A Ford in the front yard.”
Tours of the three-bedroom, one-bath farmhouse-style home cost $8. Furnished in 1930s style, only the Hamner piano is original to the home. A light in the second-floor window stays on 24 hours a day as a memorial to Earl Hamner.
Tour guide Laurie Lane of Forest, Virginia, commutes 120 miles roundtrip to Schuyler and is passionate about her job.
“We have the blessing of the family,” Lane says of the three surviving Hamner children (Nancy and Audrey live in Virginia; Paul lives in New Jersey). “All of them have been here in the last year. Many people who visit say this is on their bucket list.”
First-time visitors Sandy and Scott Chamberlin of Amissville, Virginia, toured the Hamner House and Walton’s Mountain Museum. Sandy notes, “If you are a fan of the show, you will love it. You’ll get more insight into Earl Hamner’s life.” Scott says The Waltons lifestyle depicted on the show “is similar to the one her parents and grandparents lived.”
Kim Nettles of Amissville recalls, “The show resonated with me … families were starting to move away from home and be separated.”
She especially liked the museum’s military collection. The size of the Hamner House surprised her, Nettles says, noting, “It’s much smaller than the TV-show home. But it’s well worth the admission price.”
Saying he “grew up with” The Waltons, Bobby G. Moss of Raleigh, North Carolina, found the house tour interesting.
Directly in front of the Hamner House is Walton’s Mountain Country Store, a shop housed in a circa-1800s store offering Waltons books, DVDs and T-shirts. There’s a restored shed out back where Earl Hamner had a printing press.
Down the road is Ike’s Market & Deli, built on the site where Snead’s Store, Hamner’s inspiration for Ike Godsey’s store, once stood. Fathima Nilamdeen and her husband bought the store in 2015 and commute from Charlottesville. She says locals “are very nice people” adding, “People come here from all over the world … they ask, where is Ike Godsey?”
Alberene Soapstone remains, despite numerous ownership changes. A group of investors bought Alberene (the name was derived from Albemarle and serene) in 2010, reopening the dormant quarry. In 2014, Polycor, one of the world’s largest natural stone companies, acquired Alberene, operating it as a quarry with seven employees.
Sales manager Candice Clark explains, “We are the only architectural-grade soapstone in America for full-size slabs. We’re a distributor for fabricators. Blocks are cut here, shipped to Canada where slabs are produced; when they bring us slabs, they pick up more blocks, so trucks aren’t traveling empty.”
Originally from Richmond, Clark moved to Schuyler when she married a native in 1998. She says, “We’re building a new house, which will have Alberene Soapstone countertops, of course!”
She adds, “It’s very laid-back here. I don’t think I could ever live in a city again.”
Schuyler’s newest attraction is Quarry Gardens, owned by Armand and Bernice Thieblot.
While living in Maryland, Armand, a college professor, and Bernice, a marketing-communications company owner, bought 440 acres in 1991 for a weekend retreat, renovating and adding onto an existing home.
Armand explains, “Almost any place on the 440 acres, you could not see another house. And people here have been very nice to us.”
After retiring in 2014, they moved to Schuyler. Inspired by a trip to Vancouver Island’s Butchart Gardens, originally founded as a
limestone quarry and transformed into magnificent gardens, Bernice recalls, “We thought, we have soapstone quarries on our land … we could probably do something with them.”
Today their 600 acres includes 400 acres in a conservation easement and 40 acres devoted to Quarry Gardens, which opened in 2017. A visitor center shows how soapstone is processed, there’s a short video and guests get a guided tour. Open by appointment only, visitors must sign up online. Admission is free, with a suggested donation of $10.
“We have two missions: native plants and preservation of soapstone history in Schuyler,” Armand says. “Last year we had 1,200 visitors and we’ll probably reach 2,000 this year. The quarry sets us apart … we think history gets lost if not deliberately preserved.”
With soapstone and The Waltons as anchors, Schuyler endures. As Tyler sums up, “It’s a quiet community where people help each other … we are sincere people, even if we don’t know everyone like we did at one time.”