The History Is Real in Winchester, Virginia

Entering the town of Winchester, Virginia, is like traveling back in time. My recent visit echoed that of Shawnee and other Native American tribes who lived for thousands of years in what today is Frederick County. More recently, European explorers came as early as 1606.

As I approached the small city (population about 28,000), I passed through a phalanx of familiar chain stores and fast-food restaurants. Then suddenly I found myself in another world—a history-rich setting that envelops visitors in the past without fuss or fanfare. Winchester is like a time capsule. Not an artificially created commercial attraction, it is a real place where important chapters of American history were written and remain.

What makes this immersion in earlier times so impressive is how it serves as a backdrop for the memories that were born there. There are so many references to—and touches of—the presence of George Washington, for example, that by the time you leave town you have new insight into the country’s first president.

Washington’s life is closely entwined with the story of Winchester. He arrived at age 16 in 1748, four years after the town was founded, to help survey land. During the next 10 years he went on to become commander of the Virginia Militia, planned and oversaw construction of more than 80 forts to provide protection for settlers from attack, and was chosen to serve as a delegate in the House of Burgesses, representing Winchester and Frederick County.

Remnants of Fort Loudoun, which was Washington’s headquarters from 1756 to 1758, are among numerous traces of his time in the area. So is George Washington’s Office Museum, the tiny log and stone building whose displays include his written orders to soldiers concerning “tippling” and “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior,” which he wrote at age 14.

Fort Loudoun, George Washington’s headquarters in Winchester, Virginia
Parts of Fort Loudoun, George Washington’s headquarters in Winchester, Virginia, from 1756 to 1758, remain for visitors to see. (Photo courtesy of Victor Block)

Other notable men and women, historic structures and mesmerizing museums add to the appeal of Winchester and its surroundings. A number of significant sites sit in the Winchester Historic District. It encompasses 1,116 buildings dating from the 18th to mid-20th centuries. They range from log buildings and early stone houses to Federal-style townhomes and elegant Victorian residences.

The heart of the district is marked by the stately Greek Revival Frederick County Courthouse. It was completed in 1840, just in time to serve as a hospital and prison for both the Union and Confederate armies. Graffiti on some walls dates back to the military occupation of the building, which today houses a Civil War museum.

Reminders of that conflict are scattered about the area like shotgun shells. That’s not surprising because the town and county’s location as a transportation hub made it a highly contested prize. Six major battles raged there, and control of Winchester changed hands more than 70 times.

Visitors can relive those skirmishes at three Civil War museums, battlefields, remains of forts and other sites. The home used by Stonewall Jackson as his headquarters during the winter of 1861-62 contains a large collection of his personal objects and memorabilia.

After admiring Jackson’s imposing office desk and a smaller traveling version, I turned my attention to an unfamiliar Confederate flag. I learned that it’s the battle banner from which the more recognizable Confederate pennant evolved.

Even more intriguing to me was Jackson’s sword, which earned the nickname “Rusted Blade.” It turns out that Jackson was not the most fastidious of self-groomers, and his lack of care extended to the ceremonial rapier. It rusted so badly that eventually he could not withdraw it from the scabbard.

After delving deeply into the Revolutionary and Civil War history of the Winchester area, I turned my attention to the variety of other attractions the destination offers. Food and beverages rank high on that list.

For many people Frederick County means apples. The Shenandoah Valley was the largest apple-growing region in the country in the early 1800s. While that claim is no longer valid, the fruit continues to hold an important place in the region’s rich agricultural heritage. Family-owned farms and farmers markets offer a cornucopia of locally grown fruit, vegetables and meats. Pick-your-own orchards and microfarms sell goods ranging from fresh produce and homemade baked goods to local crafts, goat-milk soap and wine.

Outstanding wine, along with other libations, adds to the taste treats available in the area. My sampling at the family-owned, award-winning Briede Family Winery included its locally crafted wine-flavored ice cream. A very different experience awaited at Misty Mountain Meadworks, which concocts the world’s oldest alcoholic beverage using Virginia honey. Where there are apples there is cider, and the English-style hard variety is created from locally grown fruit.

Speaking of locally grown, that applies to Patsy Cline, the Winchester native who became a leading country and pop-music singer and whose professional career (1954-1963) was cut short when she died in a plane crash. Her modest house museum depicts the hardscrabble life she led before she became a local celebrity.

A portrait and outfit of Patsy Cline on display
Patsy Cline’s home in Winchester, Virginia, has been turned into a museum that celebrates the singer. (Photo courtesy of Victor Block)

Heroes of various kinds have been part of the story of Winchester, Virginia. Accounts of their lives are among a number of reasons to visit—and, as I quickly learned, there are many more.

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