Virginia is for History Lovers

Map of Virginia during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Two years after Virginia seceded from the Union to join the Confederacy, the western counties of the state seceded and formed the Union state of West Virginia.

I moved to Virginia in March of 1973 in the middle of the sixth grade. We were living in Memphis, Tennessee and my father was offered a job at Madison College (renamed James Madison University right before I moved to California in 1977) in Harrisonburg, a small town in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley. Four years earlier, the state tourism board had adopted the new slogan “Virginia is For Lovers.” The round black buttons with the white letters and red heart were everywhere when we arrived.

I would learn over the next four and a half years that Virginia was (and is) especially a place for history lovers. Eight U.S. Presidents were born there, including four of the first five. The first permanent settlement in English-speaking America was established there at Jamestown in 1607. Virginia grew from trade in tobacco, iron, and slaves to the most populous and powerful of the thirteen British colonies, and played a major role in achieving American independence from Great Britain. The preserved buildings and historical recreations at Colonial Williamsburg seek to capture the feel and significance of this bygone era.

Jamestown and Williamsburg are located near the Atlantic Coast, and I visited them both when my parents took me to Virginia Beach for summer vacation. Harrisonburg, however, is located in the northwestern portion of the “Old Dominion,” and it was there where most of my childhood historical adventures took place. The town had a population of around 14,000 inhabitants at the time (today there are close to 50,000) and was surrounded by rich farmland and the parallel forested spines of the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains. Harrisonburg itself sat in the shadow of Massanutten Mountain, a popular hiking spot in summer and ski resort in winter.

I settled into my new school and formed friendships. I still had a few months of the sixth grade to finish before moving on to Thomas Harrison Junior High School, named after the 18th century settler who founded the town. Once in junior high, I began visiting local historic and cultural sites while delivering newspapers for the Richmond Times-Dispatch (see painted rock below). American history was my favorite class in school. I joined a local Boy Scout troop and attended a Presbyterian church that met in an old farmhouse used as a hospital in the Civil War.

My first job was as a paperboy for the Richmond Times-Dispatch when I was attending school in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Artwork Copyright (c) 2017 Torin Finney.

My mother was an avid history buff, and took me with her to several noteworthy places in the area, beginning with Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s stately home in the hills above Charlottesville. She was a big admirer of Jefferson and his eclectic interests. I saw evidence of these in his extensive gardens, the titles in his library, and the collection of artifacts and inventions that were displayed in every room. I marveled at the map brought back by Lewis and Clark and the scientific instruments of Jefferson’s private study. The grounds were lovely and serene and filled with flowers at the time. We had lunch at the nearby Michie Tavern, built in 1784 and a local gathering place during the first decades of the Commonwealth.

I also visited historic homes in the northern part of Virginia, including George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Stratford Hall, the childhood home of General Robert E. Lee. Like Monticello, these houses were well-kept and filled with period furniture and fascinating exhibits. I made several trips to the museums of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC during my time in Harrisonburg, particularly the National Museum of American History, where I saw the gigantic Fort McHenry garrison flag, known throughout the world as the “Star-Spangled Banner.” The museum remains a major attraction today, along with its sister museums scattered throughout the nation’s capital.

Living in the Shenandoah Valley brought the sights, sounds, and tastes of the past alive. There were so many historic churches, storefronts, farms, schools, and battlefields that I was unable to take them all in as quickly as I wanted. The Highland Maple Festival in nearby Highland County showcased colonial arts and crafts and local bluegrass music. Grocery stores had iron horse hitching posts in the parking lot to accommodate the buggies of the local Mennonite community. Farmer’s markets offered delicious and wholesome produce from fertile fields that had been feeding the Valley for two centuries. My mother was enraptured by the recently published Foxfire book series that highlighted traditional Appalachian recipes, crafts, and medicinal remedies.

There were many recreational activities of which I took advantage. Hiking and camping in the mountains of Shenandoah National Park, canoeing down the Shenandoah and New Rivers, bicycling up and down the hilly country roads, and spelunking in local caves were all fun pastimes I enjoyed, especially in spring and summer. I attended high school football and minor league baseball games. I worked in a summer day camp for disabled adults at my church. There were art activities, live music, and holiday festivals all year. Fourth of July fireworks in the nearby village of Elkton in the Bicentennial summer of 1976 were particularly memorable.

Living in such a rich historical environment inspired me to create. I wrote a novel set on the 18th century frontier. I joined a Dungeons and Dragons role playing group in 1975, the year after the paperback rule books were first published by Tactical Studies Rules, Inc. (TSR). I acted and sang in school plays and musicals. I helped my mother dig, plant, and harvest in our extensive backyard vegetable garden. Afterwards we canned fruit together. I wrote letters and poetry. I collected records, costumes, and miniatures. It was a prolific time for a young artist.

In my sophomore year at Harrisonburg High School, I signed up for an independent study course that allowed me to explore a local historical topic in detail and create a special project. I decided to design a board game on the French and Indian War (1754-1763) which I entitled The Fall of New France. I met with history professors at Madison College and began drawing a playing board and pieces, as well as uniforms of the participants (see below). Virginia played an important part in the colonial struggle between England and France. Young George Washington experienced his first taste of battle at Jumonville Glen and Fort Necessity, just over the border in southwestern Pennsylvania, and spent the remainder of the war defending the Virginia frontier.

One of the drawings I completed for a special studies project in American history at Harrisonburg High School, a detailed board game on the French and Indian War called The Fall of New France. Copyright (c) 1976 Torin Finney.

The historical period that commanded my greatest interest, though, was the American Civil War (1861-1865), in which the Shenandoah Valley formed a major theater of operations. After Virginia seceded from the Union, the Valley provided vital food, horses, and other supplies to the Confederate armies. As such, it became a target for repeated Union invasion. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s brilliant Valley Campaign of 1862 hurled back several Northern attempts to seize the Valley. I remember visiting the monument to slain Confederate cavalry commander Turner Ashby in the woods near Harrisonburg. Ashby was somewhat of a local legend and was the namesake of our rival high school.

I visited local Civil War battlefields at Port Republic and Cross Keys and attended my first reenactment in the Bicentennial summer of 1976. Winchester to the north of Harrisonburg changed hands more than 70 times during the war. The Cedar Creek Battlefield was an interesting destination in the middle of a rich pastoral landscape, as was the New Market Battlefield, where the May 15, 1864 charge of the Virginia Military Institute cadets is reenacted annually. I enjoyed watching the 1965 film Shenandoah with Jimmy Stewart, which was staged as a Broadway musical while I was living in the Valley.

Elsewhere in the state are the battlefields of Manassas, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, and the cluster of sites at Richmond National Battlefield Park, where the outcome of the war was decided in the climactic standoff in 1864-1865 between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. I also enjoyed visiting the Revolutionary War battlefield at Yorktown, which figured prominently in McClellan’s 1862 Peninsula Campaign. Numerous restored 18th and 19th century homes are scattered across the state and show how prominent civilians lived and struggled during these pivotal periods in history. I walked the halls and grounds of many of them during my years there.

I had plans to finish high school in Harrisonburg and stay local for college, perhaps at the iconic University of Virginia campus designed by Thomas Jefferson in Charlottesville. But then my father was offered a job at California State University, Long Beach in the summer of 1977, and my time in the Old Dominion came to an end. I have returned only once in the years since then, in August of 1983 when I was visiting Washington, DC before my first semester of graduate school in Boston. Harrisonburg still looked much the same, including the brick house where I lived as a teenager with its sloping acre of grass and willow trees.

It has changed considerably since then, according to stories from friends and colleagues and information I have seen on the internet. I can still recall the dogwood blossoms in spring, the fireflies of the humid summer, raking leaves in the cool autumn air, and sledding down the nearby hills in winter. But most importantly, my time and experiences in the Shenandoah Valley and other parts of Virginia nourished my love of American history. From these roots grew a fruitful career in teaching and reenacting. Whether or not I see the Old Dominion with my own eyes again, I will always treasure my memories of its natural beauty and rich past.

Another drawing from the playing board of my high school simulation game design on the French and Indian War, The Fall of New France. Copyright (c) 1976 Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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