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.
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.
As soon as I give you just a few minor details you will be able to “name that tune.” It has been around for years, originated in the 1800s, and somehow became a popular tune for ocean going sailors. A country group from Muscle Shoals took it’s name (If Bubba Can Dance). For you old timers, Jimmy Stewart starred in a movie by the same name. Of greater significance, there is a famous river that runs through the Valley of Hope with that same name. Got it yet? Of course, you do.
When I was growing up, Shenandoah was all around me. I lived in the Shenandoah Valley, in Shenandoah County, and the Shenandoah River ran through my home town. One of the first songs we played in the high school band was Oh, Shenandoah. What have I done? That tune will be rambling in my head all day.
As a kid, I fished in that famous river. My grandmother packed my lunch and off I would go with a friend and we would spend the day catching everything from shoes to strange looking river creatures.
Once, while visiting a friend who lived on a farm by the Shenandoah, we found an old boat and took it for a short run down the river. Not that we intended for it to be a short trip, it’s just that the boat had a hole in it. She went down not far from shore.
When I was researching IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE the Shenandoah River was unavoidable. All the towns in the story are near the river: Edinburg, Woodstock, Mt. Jackson. The river was essential to the survival and livelihood of the farmers who settled there.
Meems Bottom Bridge
Land close to a river is particularly fertile and is called ‘bottom land.’ Thus the name of the famous landmark near Mt. Jackson, Meems Bottom Covered Bridge. ‘Meems’ for the man who owned the land and who first built the bridge. ‘Bottom’ for the type of land by the river.
In an earlier post I mentioned that we have a tendency to take our surroundings for granted. It took moving away for me to appreciate the beauty and history of the Valley. I never knew that the Shenandoah was such a winding river or that it was a tributary of the Potomac River or that it runs for 100 miles into West Virginia.
Here’s a nice version of the song and some appropriate scenery to go with it.
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And now, it’s movie time. Grab your popcorn and enjoy, the 1965 flick, Shenandoah, starring Jimmy Stewart.
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IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE mentions many towns in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia but there are three that are key to the story, Mt. Jackson, Edinburg, and Woodstock. Thankfully, these communities, nestled midst the mountains surrounding the Valley, have preserved much of their rich history. Many of the historic buildings remain as a reminder of a storied past.
Mt. Jackson Historic District
This would have been the town most accessible to the Wisslers and the Showns. Strathmore is only 2 miles from town and St. Mary’s Pine Church (the Showns lived next door) is 3 miles away.
In the early 1900’s, the time in which the novel is set, Mt. Jackson was more wealthy than its neighboring communities. The major road, the Valley Pike (now Route 11) ran through the town and there was also an active rail line which made it attractive to area farmers, like the Wisslers of Strathmore, for getting their produce and livestock to market.
As revealed in the book, John and Ada Wissler left Strathmore (Frank Wissler and his family remained) and purchased a home on Main Street in Mt. Jackson. The church they attended, St. Andrews, traces its beginning to 1876 and the St. Andrews chapel was donated by Ada Wissler.
Important to the farmers in the Valley in the early twentieth century was the Edinburg Mill. The mill started operation in 1813, was rebuilt in 1848, and then nearly destroyed by fire during General Sheridan’s scorched earth campaign during the Civil War. The mill was restored and remained in operation until 1978. The story goes that it was actually some local women who saved the mill from being totally destroyed. Their argument for saving the facility was sufficient to cause the Union soldiers to turn away.
Shenandoah County Courthouse
Woodstock has a rich history dating back to 1761. The town’s charter was sponsored by a fellow you may recall from your history books, George Washington. Its also the County Seat and where Charlie Polk and Frank Wissler III registered for the WWI draft. Oh, and did I mention that the courthouse, built in 1795, was designed by Thomas Jefferson? Of less significance, it’s the same courthouse where my granddaddy, Charlie Polk, took me for my first driver’s test, which I failed. Surely that event is commemorated with a plaque or a memorial of some kind.
An observation – those old places that we see every day are usually just a part of the scenery. But if we’ll just take time to take a closer look there is a wealth of lessons to be learned IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE.
In Chapter VII of IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE, Mable and Charlie go on their first date away from the watchful eye of Mable’s mother, Mary.
Many of us have visited a cavern but what would it have been like to go on that adventure before electric lights? In May of 1919, Endless Caverns, near New Market, Virginia was in it’s infancy and tours were conducted by candlelight.
Legend has it that the cave was discovered in 1879 by two boys who were rabbit hunting on the Zirkle farm. When the rabbit they were chasing disappeared into a hole they removed some limestone rocks which revealed a small entrance to a cave. The boys later returned with ropes and lanterns to get a better look at the cave. One can only imagine their excitement at making such an amazing discovery.
It wasn’t until 1919 that the caverns were opened to the public which means that Mable Shown and Charlie Polk were among the first visitors. Don’t know about you but a candlelight tour sounds pretty romantic to me. Later that year the farm was sold and electric lights were installed in 1920.
I first toured Endless Caverns in the 1960s and it was impressive. Now, I’m not a travel agent but if you’re ever in the area, check it out. You’ll be glad you did.