I never know what my wife is doing in her art studio. Occasionally I hear some clunks and rattles, but basically she paints in silent seclusion.
Frequently, she emerges to share her progress on a painting. Studies it for a while and then scampers back upstairs to her studio.
Today, she brought me an early Valentine’s gift with special meaning. The painting is from a scene at Orkney Springs, Virginia.
In past articles, I have shared my love for this historic spot. In the 19th century, it was a resort for the wealthy in search of the healing powers of the mineral springs. They stayed at the Grand Hotel, a strikingly amazing structure still in existence today. It’s one of those places off the beaten path that causes you to wonder, “How the heck did that get here.”
In the mid 1960s, Orkney Springs hosted symphony workshops. That’s when I discovered it. Offered my first opportunity to study trombone under a professional classically trained musician.
I later learned that my grandparents grew up nearby. You can read about there experiences in and around Orkney in my book, In the Valley of Hope: Faith Conquers Fear.
But what made Orkney memorable was what happened there in October 1970.
It had rained that day, and it was miserably cold. When you’re young and in love, who cares.
In my mind’s eye, I can still see the trail and the multi-colored leaves along our path. The weather added to the ambiance by adding a gray tint to the landscape.
We walked hand in hand, both of us trying to summon the nerve to express our feelings. Much to my surprise (and relief), Janet said it first.
“I love you,” she said.
Three incredibly powerful words that changed my life.
That was 46 years ago. So her painting is the best Valentine’s gift ever. It depicts a time, place, and event that remains indelibly etched upon my heart. Arguably, the best day of my life.
What can I do to reciprocate? I’ve got 10 days to figure it out.
My last novel, Hope of Cherry Blossom Lane, was dedicated to her. But that was January.
One thing for certain, I won’t attempt a painting. The good Lord didn’t bless me with that talent. Even my stickmen are unrecognizable.
May you be blessed with such wonderful memories.
My birth name is Richard Allen Weirich but I’m known by many other monikers.
Everybody in my family, back in the day, called me Dickie or Dick. Every now and then, I hear from somebody who knew me in my younger days and they still call me by that name. But now it sounds so strange.
Somewhere around my junior or senior year in high school, I had been scheduled as the featured soloist in a band concert. On the program, my name was misspelled. Richard Weinch. After that, many of my band buddies called me Wench.
Then came my radio career and a new name. In those days, many entertainment personalities adopted adjectives to give more color to their names. For example: Machine Gun Kelly, Fats Domino, Chubby Checker, The Big Bopper. I became, Little Dickie. Yeah. Stupid. I still regret that one.
In 1973, I was hired to work at WIST in Charlotte, NC. My first day on the job, Program Director Scott Christianson, took me out to lunch and in the presence of my new fellow DJ staff I asked, “What do you think about the name, Dick Weirich?” His response: “Well, Bob, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that.”
Prior to my coming to the station, they had purchased a pricey new jingle package. One of the personalized jingles featured the name of Bob Burton, who for whatever reason, only lasted a week. His replacement assumed the same name. He didn’t last either. But WIST had invested $300, or so they claimed, on that one jock jingle. To make good on their investment, I was given the name Bob Burton.
After that, I was known as Bob. Even my wife started calling me that because nobody knew who the heck Dick or Richard was.
By 1974, I had moved onto WJDX in Jackson, MS, and the name Bob Burton continued with me. The jingle stayed in Charlotte.
Then came a morning show partner, Kurt Kilpatrick. I decided to call our show the Burton-Kurt Show. However, it sounded to our listeners as Burt and Kurt. So staff called me Bob and listeners called me Burt.
After stops in Tampa, Houston, and ultimately Birmingham, the name Burt was firmly established.
But I wasn’t finished with the name changes. In 1989, I entered the ministry, which resulted in the name, Reverend Richard Weirich. Church members called me, Brother Richard.
By the time I started writing novels in 2012, I was in a quandary as to what I should call myself. That’s when I decided that the name my parents gave me would do just fine.
Recently, the Strasburg High School graduating class of ’66 celebrated its 50th anniversary. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend. But I have heard from some of my old classmate friends who still call me Dick. I suppose that means I’ve now gone full-circle.
I am blessed with many friends from the many chapters in my life who call me by different names. But it’s not the names that matter but the great experiences and colorful personalities I encountered along the way. That’s one of the reasons I write. There’s always someone from my past to inspire me.
What’s in your family’s past that you have never been able to explain? I would be willing to bet that there is, at least, one mystery that you would like to solve.
So, hop in your Marty McFly (Back to the Future) DeLorean Time Machine, albeit an easy chair and laptop, and get to work. Why you may become so excited about your revelations that you’ll be motivated to write a book. Worked for me. In fact, my detective work led to two novels.
Discovery is so cool, especially when you have a vested interest. One seemingly meaningless document took me to a place I knew nothing about and revealed a segment of Charlie Polk’s life of which I only had minuscule information. The place – West Point, Virginia. For the life of me, I don’t know how or why that piece of paper survived for 63 years. Found it in an old box of photos that belonged to my grandmother. Clues. Just like a mystery novel.
Last night, a friend asked me to help her learn more about her family. But she had no idea where or how to start her search. The simple answer, start with what you know.
Case in point. I knew, based on conversations with my grandmother, that Charles Polk, Jr. worked at hard labor, building Virginia roads after he graduated from high school. I also knew or had been told, that he left his class ring in a restroom at a service station during that time. That’s it. Nothing more.
Then I found a 1953 Reimbursement Voucher, which clarified my grandmother’s claims and added more vital layers of information.
Oh, my gosh. Check out those meal prices. About three bucks per day. Hotel rates? $2.50 per day.
What about lodging at the West Point Hotel? Googled the heck out of it and came up with nada. But there is a West Point, Virginia and that’s when I came across a web page featuring town history and a photograph of the hotel that was torn down years ago.
In a previous article, I talked about another valuable piece of info uncovered on the document. His job for the Virginia Highway Department was not nearly so exciting as advertised by his mother. Instead of road builder, he was a car counter. That was before computers when counting was handled manually. Hashmarks on a clipboard.
Also, in the box of family memorabilia was a stack of letters from Charlie’s friends, most of them girls, and one who made her home in, you guessed it, West Point, Virginia. In one of her letters, she talks about working as a waitress at the West Point Hotel Diner, which is where their summer romance began.
Another group of letters from a gal named Roxanne from New Bern, NC during the USMC years. Google Maps to the rescue. New Bern is just 18.6 miles away from the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, SC. Roxanne’s address was in her letter so; I looked it up on Zillow. House is still there. Beautiful pic. What the heck? Let’s try ancestry.com. Found a census record for Roxanne and discovered that she was only 14 years old and dating a Marine. What? Didn’t include the rest of what I found, but I traced Roxanne all the way to Arkansas, where she became a prominent socialite. Died a few years ago.
The preceding is just a sampling of the clues that helped me unravel some mysteries about my family’s past and helped me to become a time traveler. All of it from my living room chair in Alabama, Starting in the small town of Strasburg in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and then 17,000 miles away to Iwakuni, Japan. All the while, experiencing the way it was in 1953 to 1955.
I am happy to report that at no time in my time traveling did I encounter a bully named Biff.
Hop in your DeLorean and get to work. You’ll be amazed at what you discover.
You can read about my family mystery, Farewell PFC POLK: The End of a Nightmare. And if you would be so kind and like the book, then leave a review.
Mable at age 19, two years before the romance began. Her mother was already concerned that she would end up on old maid.
" width="195" height="300" /> Mable Shown
Charlie and Mable are shown here on their wedding day. The horse, Blackie, is also mentioned in the story.
Charlie and Mable Polk, 1919
What inspired a series on the Valley of Hope? What is it? Where is it? Why is it important?
To be clear, the Valley of Hope is a real place but the concept is a state of mind. The place is the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. It was where early settlers came, many of them immigrants, with hopes and dreams for a better life in a new land.
I grew up in that beautiful Valley with its rich farmland and breathtaking landscape. The opening words to America the Beautiful capture the pristine beauty of the countryside.:
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
As a child I took it for granted, didn’t seem all that special. In fact, it was a boring place to live, or so I thought.
Except for a brief stop in Middletown, most of my growing up was in Strasburg. Mom and dad lived in several different houses there but the place I have always claimed as home was on Capon Street. That’s where my grandparents lived and the central location for my fondest memories.
Can’t tell you why, maybe it was all the personal tragedies, but as high school graduation drew near I couldn’t wait to get out of there. My father died when I was eleven, mom remarried and soon after suffered a debilitating stroke, and I was a fat kid who was often picked on. Can’t believe I just told you that. Just needed a new start.
Music was my ticket out and off I went, leaving the Valley of dreams to chase my dream.
Trombonist in the Navy Band, radio personality, Southern Baptist pastor, published author, and a wonderful wife and family is what followed. So, I’m confident that physically leaving the Valley was the right decision. However, there’s a part of me that remained, like an anchor, firmly holding me in place, keeping me from drifting aimlessly away from my roots.
My heart still lives there, in the Valley of Hope. Never left. The seeds for my future were planted there. They just bore fruit elsewhere.
So, the Valley of Hope is a real place where life happens, good and bad. Seeds of hope are planted there that blossom into something beautiful and better which is what I want to happen with my books.
No matter how difficult the trials in your life, it is my fervent desire that you will discover hope and inspiration IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE.
My granddaughter often jokes about my advanced age. “Did they have electricity when you were a little boy?” “Were you frightened by the dinosaurs?”
Once in a while I try to tell her about what it was like when I was her age, which by the way, is not so antiquated as she might think. We even had TV, albeit 3 channels with rabbit ears.
I was her age once and surrounded by adults who attempted to fill me in on their past, but just like her, I wasn’t the least bit interested in those ramblings about Aunt So and So and Uncle What’s His Name.
None of that genealogy stuff really meant anything to me until about a year ago. Come to think of it, I don’t have a clue as to what triggered my interest. Suddenly, I wanted to know more about those people from my past and began to try to piece together what little I remembered about them and the stories they shared.
There were clues in the attic. Old family photos and even some old love letters written by my grandparents.
So, I Googled their names. Nothing on Mable or Charlie Polk, my grandparents. And then, one of those bothersome ads popped up telling me that I could trace my roots and discover my past. Of course, it was going to cost me. So I took the plunge and went to work at ancestry.com.
Soon I found documents revealing boatloads of info about my past. Death certificates, birth records, census records, travel manifests, military records, newspaper articles….and a nifty tool for helping me to construct my family tree. As a side note, I have now found 6,204 family members. I’ve traced them back to the Vikings and the Huns. That explains Uncle Willard.
Seriously, let me show you what can be learned from one boring document.
My grandmother, Mable Polk, had a bunch of sisters and a brother. I recalled very little about her siblings. Her sister, Pearl, did snuff. Her brother, Walter, introduced me to my first foot-long hotdog in Winchester. Her sister, Ella, lived in Baltimore where we occasionally visited which is where I discovered tamales sold by a street vendor.
You see, it’s little memories like that upon which you can build your research. So, my grandmother, the youngest, was born in 1897. Luckily, there was a census conducted in 1900.
Oh, and by the way, I don’t expect that my family info will be interesting to you. My intent here is to show you what can be dug up (pardon the expression) about YOUR family.
First thing I notice is that Ella is missing. Further research indicates that by 1900 she was already married and living elsewhere. Second, Moses Shown was 9 years older than his wife, Mary. There’s 3-year-old Mable at the bottom of the list. Oh, yeah. Forgot about Aunt Less and Aunt Carrie. Vaguely recall them from my childhood, but there they are and now there is more substance to my faint recall.
Some other gems uncovered in that census: Moses was the only one in that family who couldn’t read or write and they all spoke English. What’s that? Why would the census be concerned with Americans speaking English? Thought that was just an issue for now. We really are a nation of immigrants.
All the aforementioned folks can be found IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE.
I’ll bet there are some really interesting people in your past. Why don’t you enrich your life’s experience by paying them a visit as a time traveler? Who knows, you might become so inspired by your discoveries that you’ll write a book.
Someone asked me recently, “How much is fiction and how much is truth?” Great question which I’ll attempt to answer by revealing some of my research.
It is also important to define the genre, Historical Fiction: Historical fiction is a literary genre in which the plot takes place in a setting located in the past
That definition is a very broad stroke and leaves considerable room for sub-genres like romance, mystery, etc. Personally, I am drawn to Historical Fiction because I’m old. Just kidding. I like the genre because it creates mood, feeling, and color.
When writing IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE, I had a very specific geographic region and time period in mind that related to historical characters. The places referenced are very real and for the most part still exist. Most of the dates are accurate although there are some that are speculative and based on my best guestimate. For example: Charlie’s 1918 WWI draft registration is spot on because I found the original registration document. He registered at the Shenandoah County Courthouse in Woodstock, VA.
WWI Draft Registration p.1
WWI Draft Registration p.2
Many of the Wissler family events are linked to accurate dates based on stories uncovered in Woodstock, Virginia’s Shenandoah Herald. From November 11, 1891, I found the following article concerning the purchase of Strathmore.
Frank Wissler Purchases Strathmore
Check out all the valuable info revealed in an account of John Wissler, Jr’s wedding from June 24, 1910.
John Wissler, Jr. Wedding
In one scene in the story, when Charlie’s father, Bill, is belittling him, he references his deceased child, John. That idea was based on a Herald article from June 23, 1905.
Death of Bill Polk’s son
Although I had done considerable ancestry research on my family, I was unaware of my Great, Great, Grandmother Teeny Shown. Well, actually I had uncovered her name, but did not know that she was called Teeny or that she was somewhat famous. Until discovering the following article, from February 13, 1909, I only knew that her name was Christina.
Golden historical nuggets are found by asking lots of questions. That “who, what, where, when, why, and how” that was drummed into me by a high school English teacher, keeps me busy. Example: What about travel in the Shenandoah Valley of 1910? How would it differ from travel just 10 years later? Surely automobiles began to enter the picture but when and how many and what kind? Horses, horse drawn wagons, horse drawn buggies, mule and buggy, oh yeah, and miles and miles of walking. Back then, walking was not for exercise, it was a necessary form of transportation. But wait. The IN mode of transportation was by train. Check out the following train schedule from 1910 and notice how it linked the towns of the Valley.
Valley Train Schedule
For me, Historical Fiction is a work in progress. There’s the initial research and then continual research until I hit those coveted words, “The End.”
So, in answer to the original interrogative, “How much is truth and how much is fiction?” Truth is the anchor and used as accurately as possible and fiction is where creative imagination breathes life, emotion, and interest into the story. 50/50? Uh, maybe. Whatever a good story requires.
If you travel to Mt. Jackson, VA, which provides much of the setting for IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE, then hang a left (if traveling north) onto Highway 263, you will ultimately arrive in the community of Orkney Springs. Just keep driving until the road runs out. Takes just 20 minutes and, I promise, you’re in for quite a surprise.
As you drive along 263, you’ll see a lot of farmland, and cows, and hay. You get the picture. But then, right there in the middle of what you have decided is nowhere…there stands this impressive grand hotel. Then you wonder, “How the heck did that get there?”
Orkney Springs Hotel
The Grand Hotel at Orkney is said to be Virginia’s largest wooden structure. Couldn’t prove it by me but there is definitely a lot of wood. Been around since 1873 and was, once upon a time, a very popular resort, where society’s elite gathered to take advantage of the alleged healing powers of the springs.
I first discovered it in 1964, thanks to my high school band director, who thought it an excellent place for me to advance my musical education. It was the second year for the Shenandoah Music Festival.
Back then, some of the world’s finest classically trained musicians came to Orkney for a workshop and whatever else happens when musicians get together.
Again in 1965, I returned for lessons from a trombonist with the National Symphony out of DC. An exciting time, for sure.
I recall sitting in the lobby of the Grand Hotel while watching one of the musicians compose a symphonic piece. Later, at the annual concert, his stunning work debuted.
Across the road from the Grand Hotel stands a gazebo by a pond, where a French Horn quartet gathered to play in the afternoon. No audience…they were just there for themselves, but that magnificent sound filled the countryside.
The symphony rehearsed in the upstairs ballroom. I stood on the wraparound porch, peered through the open windows, and observed professionals at work. It was an eye opening experience for a kid from a small town, enough to inspire me to pursue a musical career.
In the winter of 1966 I was accepted into the Navy Band. 4 years later, I left the band to pursue a career in radio.
Orkney at night
Upon coming home I met a beautiful girl named Janet and we started dating. On a chilly and gray day in the Fall of 1970, I took her to Orkney, and once again there was music, but of a different kind. No musicians. Just the sound of a gentle breeze rustling through colorful autumn leaves and the hearts of two people beating as one. In that awesomely romantic setting, Janet and I realized that we were falling in love. That was 45 years ago, we’re still together, and the music is still playing.
In 1979, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia purchased the old resort to be used as a retreat. I’m happy to see that the music festival is still alive and well, an annual event, that has featured some pretty impressive talent over the years.
Folks used to believe that there were healing powers in the springs of Orkney. Can’t tell you for sure if that is true or not. But it will always have a special place in my heart.