Shenandoah County is bordered by Massanutten Mountain to the east and the Allegheny Mountains to the west. The North Fork of the Shenandoah River hugs the base of Massanutten Mountain and, winding like a serpent the entire length of the county, its loops and bends provide unspoiled scenery and fertile bottomland. Although primarily characterized by rolling farmlands and forests, the county is noted for its many well-preserved towns and villages, most of which are situated along U.S. 11 only a few miles apart. Names such as Strasburg, Toms Brook, Maurertown, Woodstock, Saumsville, and New Market reflect both the German and British heritage of the county's early settlers.
Settlement in the area began in the 1730s when people of German descent moved from southeastern Pennsylvania and Maryland south through the Shenandoah Valley. By the time of the American Revolution people of German heritage accounted for 60 percent of the county's population, a larger percentage than any other county in Virginia. So strong was the German cultural imprint on life in the Valley that in some remote areas German continued to be spoken and some folkways stubbornly persisted into the twentieth century. The most tangible reminder of German culture is seen in several surviving eighteenth-century houses that are derived from German architectural prototypes.
Formed in 1772 from Frederick County, Shenandoah was initially called Dunmore County in honor of Virginia colonial governor John Murray, Earl of Dunmore. In an effort to shake off reminders of British colonial rule, county officials in 1777 successfully petitioned the Virginia General Assembly to change the name of their county to Shenandoah. The establishment of towns in the Valley, where wagon makers, blacksmiths, and wheelwrights provided services and products to area farmers, was important to sustain the agrarian economy largely based on wheat production. The iron industry also became important to the local economy. Iron furnaces can still be seen in remote forested areas of the county—reminders of Virginia's role as one of the nation's leaders in iron production before the Civil War. After 1834 the Valley Turnpike and, from the 1850s, the Manassas Gap Railroad strengthened links between the county's towns and fostered commercial and industrial development. Because of its strategic military importance during the Civil War, Shenandoah County was traversed by Confederate and Union armies throughout the war and was the scene of several significant battles at New Market, Toms Brook, Fishers Hill, and Cedar Creek.
In the twentieth century, apple and turkey production gained in importance, with tourist attractions such as Shenandoah Caverns (261 Caverns Road), which opened in 1922, also contributing to the economy. The construction of I-81 in the 1960s and the subsequent construction of transportation-related facilities, such as motels, restaurants, and gas stations, have made the most dramatic changes to the otherwise rural landscape. Fortunately, the small towns, villages, and back roads in the county retain their original charm and integrity. Shenandoah County's towns, strung along U.S. 11 like jewels on a necklace, offer a rewarding experience to travelers who venture off I-81.
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