Unsung Virginian leads merry band of volunteers to preserve the Virginia Renaissance Faire
Five weekends each spring, a colorful corner of Spotsylvania County slips four centuries back in time to when Shakespeare penned his plays and Queen Elizabeth ruled over an ever-growing empire.
Visitors are treated to the sights and sounds of 16th-century England, as dozens of volunteers and vendors share their love of history at the Virginia Renaissance Faire.
Held on the grounds of Lake Anna Winery on weekends from May until mid-June, the Faire recreates the age of enlightenment and discovery that led to the settlement of Jamestown in 1607. Each weekend features a different theme, and all showcase interactive performances and vibrant live music.
Visitors wandering the Faire’s beaten paths may be approached by a vendor selling herbal remedies, a joke-telling juggler or a matchmaker asking a series of questions, who pins a heart-shaped piece of felt on single visitors, the color reflecting their answers and serving as a sign to those with compatible traits.
Join in a maypole dance, try your hand at archery, or pet a giant steed used for jousting. End the day at the Court of Love, as couples plead their cases before an imperious judge. Add dozens of vendors offering period-appropriate foods clothing and jewelry, and (rain or shine!) you’re part of a captivating experience that educates and entertains thousands of visitors annually.
If not for Cornelia Miller Rutherford, the Virginia Renaissance Faire might not have survived the 20th century. In 1999, the for-profit Renaissance Entertainment Corporation abruptly ceased operation, leaving its volunteers with no outlet for their talents.
“I grew up outside of Cleveland, Ohio, where I went to museums and saw live theatre as a part of the gifted and talented program I was enrolled in,” she says, explaining how an interest in history and love of performance was kindled within her.
Rutherford, known as “Cornie” by her friends, credits her father for teaching her to take risks. “I’d get these cockamamie ideas,” she says, with a laugh. “My dad would ask me a few questions, and then encourage me to give it a try. If things didn’t work out, he’d say, ‘This wasn’t a failure, but a chance to learn.’”
Her father’s wisdom certainly rang true when Rutherford, who was assistant coordinator for Kids Kingdom at the previous Faire, made a fateful decision. In 2001, the Woodbridge, Virginia, resident and Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative member cashed in her retirement savings to relaunch the Faire as an all-volunteer effort, focusing on history and hands-on education. “It was definitely a risk,” she says.
At first, Rutherford’s Faire was a traveling event, held across Virginia and branching out to Maryland and Pennsylvania. At each location, through talented performers and craftsmen, attendees learned more about life during the English Renaissance and its relationship to the founding of British colonies. In 2002, she led incorporation of the Virginia Renaissance Faire as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
Rutherford continued to recruit new volunteers from across the Mid-Atlantic region, all united by a love of interactive, historical entertainment. In 2004, the Faire found its current home at Lake Anna Winery, on land served by Rappahannock Electric Cooperative. Able to provide a more complete experience, it rapidly gained a nationwide reputation.
“In 2006, I learned I had colon cancer,” Rutherford says. “General Manager Meredith Ericksen stepped up to keep the Faire going, with help from our lawyer, Karl Keller, and my children, daughter Emily Whittacre and son Zachary Eckenrod, both of Spotsylvania.” Rutherford beat cancer and the Faire kept growing, eventually hosting over 20,000 visitors annually. Ericksen continued helping keep the enterprise on track, making sure they had enough supplies and a reserve fund. Rutherford says of her friend, “We’re like the two halves of a single brain — I’m the visionary and she’s the realist. We have opposite approaches, but together find the best path forward.”
In recognition of Rutherford’s tireless efforts to preserve the Virginia Renaissance Faire, the Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives (VMDAEC), publishers of Cooperative Living, named her this year’s Unsung Virginian. The Award honors outstanding citizens for services rendered to the commonwealth without thought of personal gain.
VMDAEC President & CEO Richard Johnstone, who presented Rutherford with the Unsung Virginian award in a surprise ceremony held at the Faire on May 19, said, “Because of Virginians such as Cornelia, young people can gain a greater sense of history and an appreciation of live performance that risks becoming a lost art in this digital age.”
Added Association Board Chairman James Huffman, “Ms. Rutherford embodies the seventh cooperative principle of ‘concern for community.’ Her impressive contributions to residents of the commonwealth, and ambitious future goals, fully convey the purpose of our award.”
The Faire family of volunteers includes university professors, computer technicians, lawyers, factory workers, medical professionals, government workers, engineers, teachers, grandparents and students from elementary school to college. Among them is Connie Teunis, who nominated Rutherford for the Unsung Virginian Award. She recalls, “Some years ago, I was selling my baked goods at a charity show when a group of people in costume ran up to my stand and said, ‘We need you for our Faire!’” Teunis continues, “Cornie has given me the confidence to pursue my passion. With her encouragement, I’m developing a cookbook featuring historical recipes popular with Faire visitors.”
Chris Pantazis is a long-time Faire volunteer and college professor who travels from Danville with his family to lead rehearsals and coordinate all the Faire performers. “For me, the most enjoyable part is talking to people who come with their eyes fixed on their phones,” he says. “We try to draw them out and get them talking to another person, re-establishing that human connection.”
As part of rehearsals each spring, Rutherford challenges each volunteer Faire performer to ask, “Who is our audience?” reminding them, “It’s not the perfect family, but the rheumy-eyed grandmother, or special-needs child in a stroller. Play to those who may be invisible to society, and you will give everyone joy.”
Seeking to expand the Faire’s mission, Rutherford recently led formation of the Phoenix Event Alliance. This group of companies and individuals is working to purchase a site for a multi-use event park that will provide a “forever home” for the Faire and like-minded groups.
As the leader of this new team of artisans, therapists, event managers, sports coaches and equestrian teachers, Rutherford has gained the respect of local community leaders. In her letter of support for the Unsung Virginian nomination, Spotsylvania County Tourism Manager Debbie Aylor wrote, “Cornelia has steadfastly stuck to ethical business practices, honorable interpersonal relationships, and hands on commitment of personal time and resources to do the right things.” Rutherford credits Tom Rumora, Spotsylvania County’s head of economic development, for helping develop her vision into a partnership whose name, the Phoenix Event Alliance, and The Common Ground Event Park project, reflects its purpose. “Having his mentorship has been like taking a post-graduate course in project development!” she says.
Her goal is to raise enough to purchase one of the two properties being considered by May 2019. “As soon as we reach that goal, we have an army of volunteers ready to start transforming the site!”
Considering all the lives that may be touched by The Common Ground Event Park, Rutherford reflects, “My dad would say when God puts you in a position to do something transformational for another human being, you have a divine obligation to do so.”