Founded in the middle of the 18th Century, I’m a city in Virginia. George Washington laid out my first blocks. The Orange and Alexandria railroad helped boost our economy. A famous Confederate General spent his childhood here. We have great restaurants and one-of-a-kind shops.
I’m Alexandria, right?
Yes, but Culpeper is a correct answer too.
Desiring a day trip, the better half and I drove down yesterday. We took I-95/Highway 3 to get there, and came back via Highway 29, 28, and 234. The former is faster if traffic is ok, the latter much less prone to traffic backups but you’ll hit more stoplights. Culpeper is 75 miles from Alexandria, but the city and county are connected to the Washington region. Their mayor from years past told me some commute to Northern Virginia and D.C.
The town of 16,000 lies in the northern part of central Virginia, its Piedmont hills rolling softly between Fredericksburg and the Shenandoah Mountains. Initially known as Fairfax, the town’s cachet came from its stature as the county seat. The big money arrived in the 1850s when the Orange & Alexandria railroad reached further south. After the Civil War, cattle and agriculture products from the Shenandoah Valley were shipped to Alexandria and Washington.
The town’s location, halfway between Washington and Richmond, meant residents whistled both Dixie and The Battle Hymn of the Republic during the Civil War. Three major battles, Cedar Mountain, Brandy Station and Kelly’s Ford, were fought nearby. The Union made the final occupation in the spring of 1864. Grant, given a third star and command of the Union Army, headquartered in and around Culpeper. In May, he began his move to drive Lee’s Army southward to Richmond.
Culpeper’s population swelled in the 1980s, with residents finding jobs in Northern Virginia and Washington. Residents had cash in their pockets but they avoided the blighted area around the train station. A local merchant told me drug houses set up along the 300 block of W. Davis.
Those days are long gone. Culpeper is very proud of their preservation and revitalization accomplishments, the latest being awarded the 2012 Great American Main Street. Founded in 1988, Culpeper Renaissance, Inc., has helped foster the town’s revitalization.
Culpeper is much smaller than Alexandria. But that is what we like about escaping to these towns. You can see a lot with one park of the car. I think more than any other place we have visited, Culpeper shines in this way. We parked in front of Raven’s Nest Coffee House. Our sites were all a short walk away.
Here are the highlights.
Country music stations seem to prevail in Culpeper, but just don’t stereotype the people who live there. In 2008, 55% of residents voted for Obama. That night, 40 volunteers celebrated at the Raven’s Nest Coffee House. In the weeks leading up to the election, the BBC’s Matt Frei chose this spot to report live updates.
I’m sure all are welcomed here. Good coffee and a relaxing space.
The Train Depot
Ten years ago, Culpeper’s train station became a vocal point for the rebirth of the town. In 1985, after Norfolk and Southern sought to demolish the depot, residents organized and successfully blocked the action. Built in 1904 and refurbished in 2003, the wooden structure houses the Visitor’s Center and community meeting spaces. Amtrak’s Cardinal and Crescent lines provide daily service. The station is technically unmanned, but a rep from the Visitor’s Center provides any needed information and arrival updates.
Just a few steps away from the café and the train station, the town holds Farmer’s Market every Saturday morning (May through November)
Small, but very impressive. One merchant brought her banjo, echoing the lively spirit of Culpeperians.
It’s time for some real walking. You can’t do any better than Culpeper’s S. East Street Historic District, which also begins by the cafe. The 18 core blocks of the town are also protected by historic district status, but S. East Street charms the best. It’s Culpeper’s counterpart to Prince Street in Alexandria, a shady eleven-block stretch. Here you will find examples of Italianate, Colonial Revival and American Foursquare as well as others. Many pre-date the Civil War. An attractive guide (“In and Around Culpeper”) at the Visitors Centers provides information on the houses.
One of the Confederate’s greatest leaders, Ambrose Powell Hill, grew up in Culpeper. Unlike other famous residents, the historic home is on a corner of the busiest intersections in town.
Hill distinguished himself in several Civil War battles before a bullet ended his life on April, 1865. A commemorative marker on the building pays tribute to his life.
Baseball Hall of Famer Eppa Rixey lived in Culpeper until age 11. He pitched for the Reds and Phillies and was immortalized at Cooperstown in 1963. The home is a private residence. A commemorative marker tells his story.
I know I should stay away from politics, but this story is too good to not share. With the better half shopping, I had some time to explore. After I read Hill’s marker, I noticed some signs for the Culpeper County Democratic Committee. Would they be open on Saturday at 11 am?
I walked up the stairs and into their second floor room. A great number of campaign materials and signs signaled a strong sense of activism. Then I met Michael & Rose Herrity. They were a goldmine of information on the local political scene, a force who worked hard in 2008 for the Obama campaign and other races.
If you're interested in helping or need information, stop by and see these two examples of great civic activism.
Ok, we will save the best for last, and something hopefully everyone can enjoy. Two days before we left, we were pleasantly surprised to learn Culpeper was hosting their first Bluegrass Festival. Not that we listen to that type of music much, but there’s something authentic and comforting about bluegrass.
We arrived around noon and took in the leadoff band, Shenandoah Drive. Pert near fair picking that had me and the better half grinning. Grabbed some good cue, beans and cole slaw to go, and headed back home.
We fell in love with Culpeper. The better half said their shops are the best she has seen. The people were very friendly and answered all my questions with enthusiasm. All in all, a great trip. Thank you Culpeper. Like Alexandria, you’re a wonderful place!