There is a legend that the “Knights of the Golden Horseshoe,” an expeditionary force sent out by Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood in 1716, was composed of the first European Americans to discover the Valley of Virginia. Like many legends it is not true. German immigrant John Lederer recorded an exploration of the Valley in 1669, but Spotswood's venture across Swift Run Gap makes a better story, partly because of the grand revel the group had shooting their guns and toasting their new discovery with an abundant supply of liquor. Historians often cite this event as the beginning of a growing recognition of the Valley's strategic importance. In the mid-eighteenth century, Virginia governors encouraged settlement by offering large land grants to speculators and entrepreneurs who recruited immigrants from Pennsylvania and abroad to come and settle the Valley's rich and abundant land.
The Shenandoah Valley lies in the western part of Virginia between two mountain ranges, the Blue Ridge Mountains on the east and the Allegheny Mountains on the west. Running on a northeast-southwest axis, the Valley extends for three hundred miles from the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry to the Tennessee line. Its average width of twenty-five to thirty miles formed a natural migratory route from western Pennsylvania and Maryland into the upland south. The Valley represented the western frontier of Virginia in the mid-eighteenth century. Scots-Irish, French Huguenots, Germans from the Palatine, English planters from Tidewater, Swiss Mennonites, Pennsylvania Quakers, and African Americans (some free, most enslaved) began moving into the region from the 1730s as available land dwindled in Pennsylvania and areas farther north and east. German and Swiss immigrants tended to settle in the north, or lower Valley, with clusters around the marketing center of Winchester and the Massanutten settlement located near Luray. Many Scots-Irish migrated farther south into present-day Rockbridge and Augusta counties, creating a concentration so strong that it was called the Irish Tract on an eighteenth-century map. Although the English had settled in all areas of the Valley by the end of the century, they were most populous in present-day Clarke County.
Staunton and Winchester emerged as the major commercial centers in the eighteenth century, due in large part to their strategic locations along the major north-south transportation artery—the Great Wagon Road (the Shenandoah Valley portion was later known as the Valley Turnpike), which approximately follows present-day U.S. 11.
Although few buildings survive from its frontier period, the Valley's eighteenth-century architecture reflects its early history, presenting a mix of ethnic traditions, indicating clear ties to Old World forms. The best-documented buildings from this period are a group of German-derived houses (PG10) from the Massanutten settlement in Page County. These log and stone dwellings feature massive interior stone fireplaces, three- or four-room Ernhaus plans, vaulted cellars, and distinctive roof framing similar to early German American survivals in Pennsylvania. Scattered examples of late-eighteenth-century dwellings, often of stone, throughout the Valley represent the first wave of more permanent building construction. Most of the log and frame buildings documented in historical records, however, do not survive.
By the early nineteenth century, ethnic traditions began to merge with new popular forms to create a distinct local architectural expression, one that distinguished the Valley from the settlements of eastern Virginia. In the building boom of the 1820s and 1830s, a variety of house plans were used, but the I-house, a central-passage, two-room, two-story plan, became one of the most dominant forms. Typically built of brick laid in Flemish bond and often adorned with a molded-brick cornice, this house type became the symbol of prosperity for farmers in the antebellum period, and it has become one of the distinctive architectural features of the area to survive today. A smaller plan that emerged for more modest-sized houses during the early nineteenth century was from one to two stories in height and had two rooms with a stone end-chimney and a symmetrical facade. Often built of V-notched logs, this type was a blend of Anglo and Scots-Irish plans with German construction techniques. Many of these buildings still line the old Valley Turnpike.
Other features of Valley farmhouses of this period are the often colorfully painted interiors and the work of local artisans who created individual interpretations of carving and gougework, and such decorative forms as hearts, tulips, and foliage. Decorative marbling, spongework patterns, and graining painted in bright shades of rose, blue, gold, green, and black also adorned many houses, particularly in the 1820s and 1830s. Although these flamboyant decorative practices were likely rooted in German tradition, they also were desired and practiced by Anglo and Scots-Irish patrons and craftsmen and characterized the Valley in the first half of the nineteenth century. By the mid-nineteenth century such local variations in plan and decoration began to fade and nationally popular styles became more widespread. The double-pile version of the Georgian house, for example, became accepted for stylish, brick Greek Revival and Italianate houses. Local decorative woodwork followed common Greek Revival forms, and while marbling and graining remained popular, they generally became more subdued.
Distinctive forms of barns and outbuildings also define Valley architecture in the nineteenth century and reflect the region's rich agricultural heritage. The bank barn became a familiar feature on most farms. Antebellum barns were often double-pen log structures, but many were destroyed during the Civil War and replaced by frame barns. Distinctive outbuildings still dot Valley farms, including stone springhouses with overhanging roofs, masonry or log smokehouses, and occasionally an outdoor bake oven on a German American farm. An important building was the gristmill, evidence of the area's leading role in grain production in the state. By the 1760s, Valley millers were shipping grain to Richmond and Alexandria. Wheat remained central to the Valley's economy through the nineteenth century.
The Valley experienced a significant boom in the late nineteenth century that was sparked by railroad development, the exploitation of mineral resources, and agriculture. With speculative fever came the establishment of numerous “boom” and “paper” towns, usually located along the railroads and characterized by large hotels. New architectural styles began to leave their imprint and the rich architectural legacy of this period is visible in larger towns such as Staunton and Lexington, in smaller turnpike towns such as Woodstock and Mount Jackson, in prospering communities located along the railroad lines such as Luray and Buena Vista, and on rural houses, now adorned with sweeping front porches, central front gables, and elaborate jigsaw trim. By the turn of the twentieth century, the number of trained architects practicing in the Valley had begun to increase. One of the most important was T. J. Collins, who was responsible for many buildings in Staunton. Well-known national and regional architects added schools, colleges, and civic buildings throughout the Valley in this period.
In the 1960s, the construction of I-81 began the shift of commercial activity, such as lodging and other transportation-related business, from U.S. 11. At the same time, the interstate brought more tourists to the Valley. Today, along U.S. 11 or any of the smaller roads, the overwhelming impression is of a legacy of rural, nineteenth-century architectural survival. The brick houses, log dwellings with stone chimneys, bank barns, and springhouses remind us not only of a rich architectural heritage but also of local residents' efforts to preserve it.
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