Among the vast number of places where George Washington is reported to have slept, Rappahannock County is one that has proof. In the mid-18th century, 17-year-old George came to what was then a western outreach of Virginia, to survey a parcel of land in the foothills.
Rappahannock, then part of Culpeper County, was among many small parcels formed by land grants that created burgeoning farming communities. When Washington surveyed the town (which is now the county seat of Washington, the first community of 28 in the U.S. to be named for the President), its population numbered 200. During the Civil War, the community grew to 500 people; today, 150 years later, the town’s population is once again at about 250. It never expanded beyond the five by two- block grid that Washington the surveyor plotted in 1749.
Indeed, what makes the county unique is how little it has changed. The view from hilltops, across pastures and farms, is startlingly like it was two centuries ago. This is nothing short of amazing given its proximity to the nation’s capital, just 75 miles to the east. The four-direction panorama takes in orchards, heirloom vegetable farms, grass-fed livestock, and a growing number of vineyards and wineries that sustain the local eateries: the farm-to-table offerings have made Rappahannock a foodie destination.
This rustic, unchanged agricultural county attracts travelers, and tourism is a major source of revenue. Today the county hosts a thriving arts community and a very large (per capita) number of bed-and-breakfast inns, as well as four-star and five-star hotels. Galleries and antiques shops abound, along with music and theatre.
An art tour takes place the first weekend in November; a new summer music festival has been established at Chateauville (headed by Lorin Maazel, former director of the New York Philharmonic and now a Rappahannock resident). Historical markers describe Civil War events, commemorating figures such as General Pope, Stonewall Jackson, and Mosby’s Raiders.
Unforgiving zoning is what has restricted growth, both in the outlying countryside and within town borders. The Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection (one of five environmental non-profits here) is one of the oldest conservation organizations in Virginia. Such organizations, a pro-active historical society, and several individuals have worked to shield the area from the maelstrom of development prevalent just outside its borders.
Electricity didn’t arrive here until the eve of World War II, and Rappahannock remains delightfully, purposefully behind the times. The “McMansion craze” missed the county, as even well-heeled weekend and retired residents prefer homes, restored and new, that fall within local architectural traditions. Many structures predate the 20th century, and go back to the 1700s. Typical colonnaded brick colonial buildings are surpassed in number only by Virginia’s vernacular, two-over-two farmhouses. Victorian residences add to the mix.
Of the five villages here, only three have sidewalks. In the county seat—locally called “Little Washington”—two or three blocks have walkways paved in brick. Nearby Sperryville and Flint Hill have two sidewalked blocks each.
You will find no big-box stores, franchises, retail chains, or traffic lights. Instead the county offers mile after mile of unpaved roads to explore, rivers for fishing or canoeing, and many hiking trails.Published in: Old-House Interiors September/October 2010