Down Home

Again in the year 2008, 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 second stop, we’ll be  ...


Down Home in McDowell

Story and photos by Deborah Huso, Contributing Writer

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Little-changed since the days of the Civil War battle that made this isolated mountain village famous, McDowell today is home to an interesting mix of newcomers and locals with roots spanning more than a century.

It is easy to miss McDowell. Passersby traveling scenic U.S. Route 250 through Highland County, Virginia’s smallest with a population of only 2,500, might note it as a sleepy village with a post office, a couple of stores, and a smattering of well-kept historic homes.

Glenn Heatwole, who serves as chairman of the school, owns the Sugar Tree Country Store, a landmark in McDowell. 

But there is more than meets the eye here. Glenn and Fern Heatwole, owners of the Sugar Tree Country Store, understand the draw of this quiet community. The couple came to Highland County three years ago looking for a change. Originally dairy farmers in Rockingham County, the Heatwoles now operate one of the village’s landmark stores. “We were looking for a place that was not as congested,” notes Glenn.

And they certainly found it in McDowell, along with a new occupation. “We went from milking cows to milking trees,” says Heatwole with a laugh. Today the couple, with the help of some of their five grown children, collect sugar water from some 6,000 taps each winter to make as much as 1,200 gallons of Highland County’s signature maple syrup. Highland County is one of the few places south of the Mason-Dixon line with a climate cold enough for producing syrup from its wealth of sugar maple trees. The annual gathering of sugar water by local farmers can draw as many as 60,000 visitors to the county each year for the annual Highland Maple Festival, which celebrates its 50th year this season.

Heatwole says syrup is his biggest-selling item and draws visitors to the county from as far away as Holland and Japan. The Heatwoles also sell syrup wholesale to some 35 stores across Virginia . Nevertheless, the Sugar Tree Country Store is unassuming with its original potbelly stove still providing warmth to customers who can gather around it in rocking chairs and its original shelves and counters lined with local crafts and wares. The store was open continuously as a general store and post office from the mid-1850s until the 1950s. It stood vacant for some 30 years afterward until reopened as a gift shop and sugarhouse by Jim and Lorraine White, who still live in Highland and trained the Heatwoles in syrup making.

The Stonewall Ruritan Club building houses McDowell's Highland Christian School, a Mennonite day school that currently serves seven students.

Glenn Heatwole has a lot more to do with his days than run the country store, however. He also serves as chairman of McDowell’s Highland Christian School, a Mennonite day school that currently serves seven students. The school is housed in the Stonewall Ruritan Club building, appropriately enough, since the structure once served as a county school. The Heatwoles are one among several Mennonite families who have moved to Highland in recent years, attracted by the community’s rural atmosphere and slower pace. The Mennonite Church of McDowell has 24 members and is preparing to break ground on its own church building this year.

The Obaugh Funeral Home has served McDowell since Wilma Obaugh's father-in-law opened it in 1927.

Newcomers like the Heatwoles rarely have trouble finding their place in this little village, and that’s due in large part to the friendliness of the locals. Wilma Obaugh is the matriarch of one of McDowell’s older family lines. “My husband William lived here all his life, and his family lived here since at least the early 1900s,” she says. It was Mrs. Obaugh’s father-in-law who started the first funeral services in the county in 1927. Today, Mrs. Obaugh’s son and grandson run the Obaugh Funeral Home, a family business that has been in existence through four generations across 80 years.

Small, delicate, and polite, Mrs. Obaugh lives next door to the family business in a 180-year-old house built by Peter Hull, who actually built three “mansions” in town for his three sons. Obaugh came to McDowell from Salem as a young bride and has lived happily in the community ever since, with three of her four children living close by, and with grandchildren and great-grandchildren coming and going regularly. “I like the county as a whole,” says Obaugh. “There are such good, honest people here.”

Obaugh acknowledges, however, that McDowell is changing, even if it looks much the same as it did 150 years ago. Many of the old stores are gone, and more and more people are moving into the community all the time. “I used to know everybody in the phone book,” she explains, “but so many new people have moved in.”

Among them is Elizabeth Pyles, the new pastor of McDowell Presbyterian Church. Pyles moved to the community just over a year ago as a new minister. She had previously practiced law in West Virginia for 22 years. Pyles says she never expected to end up ministering to a small country church, but she needed a place that would accept her desire to serve part of every year in Iraq as part of the Christian Peacemaker Teams. “This church was able to envision a minister working in a non-traditional way,” Pyles explains. Pyles actually provides services to the Headwaters Chapel as well, serving a parish of 69 members total.

Pyles doesn’t look the part of the typical minister. Stylish, tall, and outspoken, she admits as much. “I don’t know how many people in the congregation have the same world views I do,” she says, “but the congregation is spiritually mature. We don’t have to agree on everything.” Pyles has hit on the essence of what makes life in a little place like McDowell so special. “To find a place inhabited by people who can disagree on a variety of things and can continue to live in a community with each other is an astonishing gift,” she says.

Crysta Stanton is executive director of the Highlands Museum and Heritage Center, which houses exhibits on local history.

To locals, however, it’s no surprise that people care about one another. Crysta Stanton, executive director of the Highland Museum and Heritage Center, which houses interpretive exhibits on local history as well as the Battle of McDowell, has seen the community pull together for causes it cares about. One of those was the restoration of the Mansion House in which the Highland Museum is housed. “Had the members of the Highland County Historical Society not persevered, we would not have gotten to this point,” she says.

The Historical Society purchased the Mansion House (one of those built by Peter Hull) in 2001, and spent the better part of four years raising funds, restoring it, and turning it into a museum and research library. Stanton says member volunteers provided a lot of the labor. Currently, the Society has 300 dues-paying members, about 60 percent of whom are local. Stanton says that the little historical society logged more than 1,500 volunteer hours last year.

The Highland Museum and Heritage Center is often the starting point for Civil War buffs who come to McDowell to explore the battlefield that is considered the opening of Stonewall Jackson’s famous Valley Campaign. Here on May 8, 1862, Con­fed­erate forces positioned on Sitlington Hill above McDowell fended off a Union attack under Generals Robert Milroy and Robert Schenck. It was a hard-won victory, the Confederates suffering 498 casualties compared to the Federals’ 256.

Every other year, McDowell has hosted a re-enactment of the battle on the original battlefield, drawing re-enactors from all over the country. However, the next Battle of McDowell will occur in 2012 in honor of the battle’s sesquicentennial.

History is deep here, and one reason for that is the way those who have been born and raised here make every effort to stay if they can. Mike McCray, owner of Spruce Hill Excavating in McDowell, has lived in the community all of his 37 years. “I was living at home and driving back and forth to Staunton every day, working inside and wanting to be outside,” he says. Wanting to keep his work closer to the home he loved, he started his excavating company eight years ago, piggybacking off his father’s previous excavating business.

“It was the best decision I ever made,” McCray says of running his own business in Highland. “Money is not everything. Enjoying what you do is important because you spend more time working than doing anything else.”

McCray admits it’s not easy to stay in Highland, however. Often, young people find it tough to make a living in this small rural community. But McCray says the influx of newcomers is providing a lot of opportunities for locals to build businesses here. “We’re a service-based business, and we succeed because of newcomers who have money to spend,” McCray explains. “I like to see traffic on the roads and people in the stores spending money. If you can entice someone to come here one time, chances are they’ll come again.”

If You Go…


The Highland Museum and Heritage Center just off Route 250 is the best place to start a tour of McDowell. Open Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday, 1-4 p.m., beginning in March, and open by appointment during the winter, the Highland Museum offers an introduction to the Battlefield at McDowell, exhibits on Highland County history, and brochures and maps on the surrounding area. The museum also has a small gift shop selling local crafts and books on the Civil War, as well as a genealogical research library upstairs. 


Civil War buffs can get a good overview of the McDowell Battlefield by taking a 1.5-mile hike up Sitlington Hill. The trailhead is located about a mile east of the village on the south side of Route 250. Also of historical interest is the McDowell Presbyterian Church, which served as a hospital during the battle and has several soldiers’ names etched in the brick alongside the front door.


For a quick lunch, one can stop by the Stonewall Grocery, which has a deli and convenience store and is a favorite gathering spot for locals. The store also has an extensive display of antique toy cars and trucks. And visitors should be sure to stop by the Sugar Tree Country Store to pick up some Highland County maple syrup.


For a lovely scenic drive, visitors can head south of McDowell on Rt. 629 to the Highland Wildlife Management Area. The road winds alongside the Bullpasture River through the scenic cliffs of Bullpasture Gorge. The Bullpasture is also a favorite trout-fishing destination.


The second and third weekends in March, McDowell will be part of the 50th annual Highland Maple Festival. The event draws tens of thousands of visitors each winter, who come to savor and purchase the county’s sweet, light, locally produced maple syrup. The Sugar Tree Country Store is one of many venues in the county where visitors can watch syrup being produced, and syrup lovers can sample the local liquid gold at the Stonewall Ruritan Club, which will be serving up pancakes and syrups both weekends.


For More Information

Highland County Chamber of Commerce

P.O. Box 223

Monterey, VA 24465



The Highland Museum and Heritage Center

P.O. Box 63

McDowell, VA 24458



Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation

P.O. Box 897

New Market, VA 22844

540-740-4545 or 888-689-4545


Sugar Tree Country Store

P.O. Box 19

McDowell, VA 24458



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