By James C. Massey & Shirley Maxwell
The Shenandoah River nudges the old town’s southern edge, the foothills of the Alleghenies rise to the west, and the little Massanutten Range with its Civil War lookout peak, Signal Knob, is visible on the east. This is Strasburg, Virginia, conveniently situated 80 miles from Washington, D.C., at the intersection of highways I-81 and I-66. When the town was settled in the 1750s, it could be reached via one road only—an ancient Indian trail adopted by Germanic settlers from the Rhineland and English-speaking Scots-Irish from Pennsylvania.
Settlers were drawn by the promise of land and by the Valley’s fertile limestone soil. They counted on merchants and tavern-keepers along the way to provide food, lodging, and supplies. Strasburg was one of those stopping-off points, and the old Indian trail (which became the Valley Turnpike, the Old Valley Pike, and finally U.S. Rt. 11) was the conduit to points south and west.
With the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, life on Valley farms became more productive. During the Civil War, in fact, the Valley was dubbed the Breadbasket of the Confederacy. The region’s proximity to Washington and its ability to provide food and forage for the Rebel army made it, alas, a target for “The Burning,” a supremely destructive effort by Union forces under General Philip Sheridan to destroy such a rich source of supply. Barns, fences, and mills went up in flames as cattle, sheep, and horses vanished into Yankee camps. Strasburg itself, however, escaped without the damage suffered elsewhere; a 1790s stone mill still stands at the south end of town. Several major battles were fought nearby, include those at Hupp’s Hill and Fisher’s Hill. The town is less than three miles from the site of the 1863 Battle of Cedar Creek.
The Valley recovered after the War. By the late 19th century, Strasburg had turned its attention to small-scale manufacturing and commerce. In addition to traditional hand-thrown potteries, the town boasted a steam pottery, which was converted in 1913 into a busy little passenger railroad station. These days, the former station houses the Strasburg Museum (strasburgmuseum.org), and the plaintive locomotive whistles in the night signal freight cars, not Pullmans.
For travelers bent on rural and small-town pleasures, Strasburg remains a dandy destination. People come to hike on country roads and mountain paths. The rounded peaks of the Blue Ridge beckon just past town limits. The Shenandoah River, slipping along the south end before turning north to join the Potomac, is a favorite of canoeists. History buffs explore Civil War battlefield trails—and may join in the annual re-enactment of the Battle of Cedar Creek. Old church cemeteries help with genealogy quests.
Simple pleasures include winery tours and a 1950s-style movie night at the Family Drive-In Theatre. The 1901 Hotel Strasburg has an old-fashioned dining room and chambers filled with antiques.
Strolling about Strasburg’s two historic districts is rewarding; sidewalk views include 18th–century log and stone houses, I-houses and Greco–Italianate cubes, Victorians, Reconstruction-era and early 20th-century frame houses. Find a self-guided walking tour brochure at the Visitor Center at Hupp’s Hill on the Old Valley Pike: (540) 465-5884, ccbf.us
Just five miles from Strasburg sits the Federal-era limestone manor called Belle Grove. It was built in 1797 for Major Isaac Hite, grandson of Shenandoah Valley pioneer Jost Hite, and Isaac’s wife, Eleanor Conway Madison Hite, who was the sister of James Madison. (Madison asked his friend Thomas Jefferson to suggest improvements to the design.)
A National Historic Landmark and a property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the house is operated by Belle Grove Plantation, Inc., and is part of the Cedar Creek–Belle Grove National Historic Park. The house is open late March into October and again in mid to late December. Public programs include lectures and Ranger-led tours that focus on Civil War sites and other historic places. Belle Grove, Middletown, VA: (540) 869-2028, bellegrove.org