With the skies clearing from the mid-week gray, and the temps warming up to the mid 60s yesterday, I jumped into car and headed out for a day trip to Winchester. Sure did miss the better half, who was out of town.
We went to this mountain town in the late 90s, and I remember thinking something like, not bad, but there’s certainly room for improvement. Now that I’ve made a return trip, I can say, wow, what great gains, Winchester has prettied herself up mighty fine.
Winchester, population 26,000 and serving as the county seat of Frederick (not be confused with Maryland's Frederick), is about an hour and a half from Alexandria, a smooth drive on I-66 and Highway 17 going out, and I-81 to I-66 coming back. Tucked into the northwest corner of Virginia and lying in the northernmost part of the Shenandoah Valley, Winchester became the first English town west of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Like other Virginia towns, Winchester can brag on its connections to George Washington. In this case, those bragging rights are extensive. The tall young man from Mount Vernon spent a decade here as surveyor for Lord Fairfax, an elected representative to the House of Burgesses, and Commander of all Virginia forces. In his book, “George Washington and Winchester, Virginia, 1748-1758,” Garland R. Quarles notes Washington, “came to Winchester as a boy in 1748; he left Winchester in 1758 as a seasoned leader of men…”
Winchester did not see Civil War carnage on the scale of Manassas, Fredericksburg and Antietam, but six battles were fought nearby and the town changed hands dozens of times. General Stonewall Jackson’s Headquarters sits two blocks from the center of town.
A lovely location and history alone will not do the trick for communities wanting their spot on the globe to shine. You need a vibrant support system if you will, and Winchester has forged one. Their downtown revitalization effort got started in 1985 when the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development designated them as a “Virginia Main Street Community.” Winchester was one of the first five in the Commonwealth to obtain this designation and funding.
Here are the highlights of my brief stay. I would have enjoyed it more had I come before the leaves fell and the museums shifted to their off seaso schedules. Nevertheless, I had an excellent time.
Crossing over Interstate 81, I entered town on 17/50. They say first impressions are important and Winchester made a good one on me. Attractive way-finding signs help steer the visitor towards the Old Town section. Turning right onto Pleasant Valley Road I easily found my first stop, a lovely spot by a small lake where one parking lot gets you easily to Abram’s Delight, the Historical Society and the shiny new Visitor’s Center, which is one of the nicest I have seen.
Didn’t have time to tour Abram’s Delight, but an interpretive sign provides info. Abraham Hollingsworth, a Quaker and early settler, constructed one of the first homes in 1754. Made of stone, Abram’s Delight is the oldest home in Winchester. Hollingsworth also put up the first Grist mill and a log cabin. His home served as the area’s first Quaker Meeting House.
My second stop, a few minutes more towards Old Town, put me in the cozy suburbs of Winchester where country music legend Patsy Cline grew up (“Sweet Dreams,” with Jessica Lange’s stunning voice portrayal, was on TV just the other day). I’m not always a fan of State Highway markers placed within neighborhoods, but this one does provide the vetted info.
Born in ’56, I just missed Cline’s arc, cut short by a tragic plane crash in 1963. But I imagine my Dad and Mom loved listening to her songs. DigitalDreamDoors ranks Cline as the “Greatest Female Country Vocalist” and third “Greatest Country Music Artist.” She was also the first female solo artist inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Tragically, he life was cut short in a plane crash in Tennessee. Cline is buried in Shenandoah Memorial Park in Winchester.
Appreciating how peaceful and quiet the neighborhood was, I got back in the car and drove the short distance to the center of town. Parking is free on weekends, and I found a spot easily two blocks from the walking mall. The rest of the places are all in this two to four block area or just off it.
Perhaps a bit out of scale, this jewel stands like a temple, Winchester’s version of the Library of Congress. Built in the Beaux-Arts style and funded by Judge John Handley of Scranton, the Library opened in 1913. A complete renovation was finished in 2001. Inside, the juxtaposition of circular architecture and the books will take your breath away.
Washington got his start militarily and politically in Winchester. He used this log building as his military office from September 1755 to December 1756. From here he supervised the building of Fort Loudoun. A cannon outside was left by General Edward Braddock. An exhibit documents Washington’s time in these parts. A statue was erected in 2004.
This indie, said the lady behind the counter, has been in business for 40 years. I purchased the aforementioned book by Garland R. Quarles. Excellent read. He details the research he did on Washington work as a surveyor and concludes the story that Washington used the office when he was a surveyor is false. Washington did use it for his military head quarters.
Tropical Island Cafe
According to a google search, Winchester’s core contains nine Zagat-awarded restaurants. Without my dining companion, I sought out something smaller and quicker. Approaching the Library, I found the Tropical Island Café at the corner of Braddock and Piccadilly. The smell of Caribbean spices and posters of Bob Marley on the wall signaled something good.
A local in front of me ordered the Jamaican beef patty.
They any good?
Yes! Just the right amount of spice and quality beef. A smoothie was the perfect partner. Who needs Zagat?
Missed you babes, we will have to come here, you will love it!