If you were to ask me what was my favorite part of the region in terms of road trips, I would tell you I like them all. There’s nothing like crossing over the Chesapeake Bay and landing on the Eastern Shore, and the similar feeling with the Potomac and the Northern Neck. Heading north and south can involve traffic woes, but the ultimate satisfactions more than make up for the hassle.
We do, however, most enjoy heading west across the rolling Piedmont and into the foothills and mountains of Virginia. There’s something satisfying about zipping along I-66 early on a Saturday morning, escaping the rat race, and getting that first view of the mountains in about an hour from Alexandria.
I call it “getting on the other side,” which occurs when you get beyond the sprawling homogenous suburbs that have swallowed Dulles Airport and are currently creeping past Highway 15 east of The Plains. The entire sweep of the land west of Middleburg should be turned into one big protected viewscape and rural historic district.
Having already been to the northwest corner of Virginia (Purcelville, Millwood and Winchester), we’ve had an eye on Berryville for quite a while. After learning the National Park Service selected the town as a Reconstruction site, we decided to go.
Berryville, the seat of Clarke County and situated in the Shenandoah Valley east of Winchester, lies about 70 miles from Washington. If you pay the tolls and avoid rush hour, it’s possible to get there in about 90 minutes.
The final leg of the trip along Route 7 includes passing through a mountain ridge at Snickers Gap, taking in the dramatic view of Shenandoah Valley and crossing over the Shenandoah River.
As you approach Snicker’s Gap, you pass by the picturesque village of Bluemont. Situated at the junction of two historic roads - the Snickersville Turnpike and the Snickers Gap-Leesburg Turnpike - Bluemont was first known as the Gap, then Snickers Gap and Snickersville. George Washington wrote in his diary — “dined at Snickers,” an ordinary.
In 1900, the village became the western terminus of the Washington & Old Dominion RR. Previously the line had stopped at Round Hill, about four miles to the east on Highway 7.
The rail cars carried agricultural products to Alexandria. The NRHP form tells us the railroad magnates changed the name to Bluemont, “in order to promote the town as a small mountain resort.” The hey day lasted for three decades and ended when the W&OD closed down.
On the other side of the gap is a fun three-mile long downhill drive to the bridge over the Shenandoah River. Washington did not have it so easy. He crossed using Snicker’s Ferry. Edward Snickers was a personal acquaintance of Washington.
Berryville is also a classic crossroads town, lying at the junction of the Winchester-Alexandria Road (Route 7) and the Charlestown-Old Chapel Road (340). Unlike some other crossroads towns, Berryville is by-passed with a four lane divided highway. This allows for a more peaceful setting for the town of about 4,000 residents.
The area near Berryville was settled by Issac Pennington in 1734. Some say it became known as “Battletown.” Settlers came from parts of Virginia as well as Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Some were Scots-Irish.
During one his survey expeditions, Washington scoped out the land. Washington spent two nights with Pennington, and no doubt remembered it vividly. In his diary, he wrote that the bedding was “nothing but a little straw matted together without sheets or anything else but only one threadbare blanket with double its weight of vermin such as lice and fleas.”
Berryville’s historic crown jewel is Soldiers Rest, a Federal-style plantation house. The NRHP tells us its core was built between 1774 and 1785. Revolutionary War hero General Daniel Morgan (1736-1802), who distinguished himself during the Battle of Cowpens, owned the property briefly in 1800.
In 1798, Battletown was renamed Berryville after Benjamin Berry (1724-1810) and his wife set in motion the town’s establishment. It became the county seat in 1836 and witnessed action during the Civil War.
When the Shenandoah Valley Railroad arrived in 1880, prosperity rose. The boom, punctuated with arrivals from the North and helped along with apple farms, continued until the 1930s.
The population of Berryville began modestly with three digit figures before reaching 1,000 in 1920. The numbers almost doubled in 2010 (2,900 to 4200).
Perhaps that increase was in response to the town’s inclusion into the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “Main Street” program in 1992. The effort was created to promote the revitalization of small towns across the USA.
Scores of older buildings in Berryville have been rehabilitated. Nary McDonald's or Sheetz blights the authentic landscape.
Berryville packs quite a punch for its two square miles. Here are the highlights.
Cordial Coffee Shop
Our trip to Kinsale was wonderful, with the sole exception being disappointed when we learned the community had no coffee or small eating places.
Berryville came shining through with Cordial Coffee. Owners Brandon and Kaitlyn Belland have gussied up a historic hotel steps from the crossroads intersection, and serve hand-poured coffees and a full espresso bar. The waffles, with pumpkin batter as an option, are a must eat.
Berryville Old Book Shop
Like an old jalopy, musty bookstores like this one are hanging in there. Martha Stewart would have a fit here with the messiness, but the shelves and stacks are a delight to browse. The house cat loves the long time owner, who doubles as the store’s inventory system.
Sitting on top of a knoll and looking out to the mountains, Rosemont is a historic Georgian-style manor. Harry Byrd (Governor and Senator) lived here from the 1930s to the 1960s. Presidents such as FDR, JFK and Nixon escaped Washington to relax here. Evidently, Rosemont is still a paragon of Virginia hospitality, and hosts weddings.
Josephine City Historic District and Museum
It’s fascinating that the only place in Northern Virginia selected to be a National Park Service site for Reconstruction is Berryville.
They certainly have the story. The NPS report points out, “This community exemplifies collective land-buying and community building by freed people.”
The historic district is made up of homes, a church, a parish hall, a community center, and three former school buildings.
A State Highway Marker is located at the end of Josephine Street, one that summarizes the life of Lucy Diggs Slowe (1883-1937).
Born in Berryville, she lived a remarkable life. At Howard University, she became a founding member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and was elected its first President. She also served as president of the National Association of College Women and Howard’s first Dean of Women. Seventeen times she won the women’s title at the American Tennis Association and she served as the principal of the first junior high school for African Americans in Washington.
All in all, a terrific road trip. And for some reason, I feel like drinking a Busch beer…