How was it possible that a Walton's Mountain Museum had opened -- five years ago, apparently with significant fanfare -- and I missed it? I, who with hundreds of thousands of other '70s prime-time viewers laughed and cried every Thursday with those loving, caring Depression-era folks who lived in an old farm house on Walton's Mountain in Virginia's Blue Ridge?
The Waltons' lives were filled with such hard work and hardship, but such love and good humor, that they actually made me long for the "good old days" of the Great Depression. Every week without fail, I wallowed in their tribulations, which they always overcame with integrity and homespun decency, and within an hour.
It was, of course, the real-life Hamner family -- Daddy and Mama and eight kids in tiny Schuyler, Va. -- that was the model for those decent but, alas, fictional Waltons. (Two of the eight Hamner kids were combined into one Walton named Ben, for you serious "Waltons" fans who are saying, "But there were only seven Walton children!") One of the Hamner kids, Earl Jr., dreamed of becoming a writer and wrote what he knew best -- the stories of his family. They eventually became "The Waltons," and Earl became John-Boy. (Earl also became a successful Hollywood scriptwriter.)
But that's getting ahead of myself, because as soon as I heard about the museum, I got myself straight down Route 29 to Schuyler on a pilgrimage to the small mountain town about 35 miles south of Charlottesville. My map of Nelson County showed Schuyler at the junction of routes 617 and 800, just little squiggly gray lines. I worried that I was in for a car-pounding, dirt-track ride -- but the Walton mystique drew me on. And the way there turned out to be paved, almost traffic-free, winding and rolling through stunning scenery of wooded and dappled mountainsides, clearings of forget-me-nots in dips and hollows of the land, and sun-sparkled stretches of the Rockfish River.
Take a scattering of small houses perched on wooded hillsides and nestled in shady dells, add a cluttered general store, a homey restaurant and picturesque churches, towering trees, wildflowers and singing birds, and you have Schuyler.
As soon as I turned up the gentle slope at the road junction, I spotted the familiar outline of the Walton homestead -- a simple, white frame house with a wide porch and tin roof. It was set in a yard of tussocky grass and encircled by a crooked wire fence. It had no sign, but my Walton instincts told me that this was the original farmhouse of the Hamner family, still the home of James Hamner, TV's Jim-Bob. Ardent fans who feel they're a part of the Walton clan still come around to visit Jim-Bob.
I stood back, hating to gawk, but the house, the real house of real Depression-era people, was sending me heartwarming vibes. I could almost see the lively family banging in and out of the screen door. Good grief. Here I was all misty-eyed and I hadn't even found the museum yet.
A short distance up the road from the private Hamner house, I found the museum housed in Schuyler's old red-brick schoolhouse. After a brief tour of the replicas of the show's sets, we visitors were left to browse at will. (It was midweek with just a handful of tourists; however, some 40,000 people from 20 countries visit every year -- by huge busloads when the foliage is aflame.)
Our tour concluded with a video, "Walton's Mountain Revisited," showing brief scenes from the show and homey chats with the actors. For me, of course, from the first note of the twangy, heartstring-tugging country-music theme, it was major goosebump time. The actors, as wholesome and endearing as ever, reminisced about the show's values -- hard work, trust, decency, the nobility of common man, all the good stuff that stands for the flag, Mom, apple pie -- and makes sentimentalists like me need a second tissue.
Then, it was time to linger lovingly in front of the re-created sets -- John-Boy's bedroom with 1930s furnishings and an old Underwood typewriter like the one Earl Jr. first began to write with; the kitchen with its old pie safe, wood cook stove, butter churn, wooden icebox and long, well-worn table, where the family ate and the kids did their homework under Mama's eagle eye; the homey parlor furnished with a doily-covered floral couch, stuffed chairs, lace curtains and big, brown Philco radio, where the whole clan huddled in the evening; and, lastly, Ike Godsey's country store with old-fashioned scales, cold drink box, barrels of penny candy, and shelves of blue and white boxes of Argo starch and chunky bars of Octagon soap. Today the store is also the museum's gift shop.
But more about shopping later, because just then my eye was caught by a still in the corner. Remember "The Recipe," produced by the Walton's neighbors, the refined and fluttery Baldwin sisters? Well, here you learn their secret of fermentation -- of mountain moonshine (though the sisters would undoubtedly object to such strong language).
After overdosing on the past, I caught up to the present in the photos and newspaper clippings that cover the walls of the school's central hall. The museum's story is as heartwarming as its subject.
Briefly, Schuyler had its heyday a century ago when the Alberene Stone Co. was hewing tons of soapstone from the nearby quarry. It was a flourishing company town, and then came the Great Depression. Schuyler managed to hang in there, as Earl Hamner's stories attest, but it never regained its former vigor. Then, in 1991, the county suddenly closed the elementary school that was also the community center, the heart of the village. That's when the idea for a museum was born.
A volunteer community project from start to finish, the museum sells only items in the gift shop that are made locally, and the profits from entrance fees and gift sales are plowed back into the community center, so that today it thrives with a library, playground and classes in computers, aerobics and health care. The self-sufficiency that kept the Hamner family and others going through the Depression keeps the mountain community active today.
Over the museum door there's a sign that says: "The strength of our mountains is in the strength of our people."
Schuyler's only tourist attraction (besides the gorgeous mountain scenery, of course) is the museum, which even the most avid Waltonites "do" in two hours or less. Fortunately, Nelson County courts visitors, and I'm awfully good at shopping, eating and rambling through meadows and woodland trails. And I thought to headquarter myself at a bed-and-breakfast in nearby Nellysford so I could use these talents to their fullest.
It was midafternoon when I headed out on a squiggly little road toward Nellysford. I passed the Hamner home. Grinning, I hummed a few bars of the theme music. Then, deep in my memory, I heard the voices, familiar as ever:
"Good night, Daddy, good night, Mama."
"Good night, John-Boy."
Being There: Walton's Mountain Museum (804-831-2000) is open daily March through the last Sunday in November. Admission is $5, $4 seniors, free for ages 12 and younger.
With 468 square miles and only about 13,000 people, Nelson County is wide open and welcomes visitors looking to ride, hike, bike and fish. Nearby Wintergreen Resort offers recreational facilities to nonmembers for a fee (804-325-2200), and there are winery tours at Afton Mountain, Mountain Cove or Wintergreen Winery and Vineyards. Ike Godsey's Country Store in the museum sells high-quality crafts by local artisans, and the county is studded with craft and antique shops. I browsed happily (almost bought a drum set) at the Tuckahoe Antique Mall, a collection of 50 "stalls" of country antiques in Nellysford, open Thursday-Sunday year-round.
Where to Stay: I lucked out at the Meander Inn (804-361-1121) in Nellysford, a half-hour west of Schuyler. I'm a veteran bed-and-breakfaster, and I'd rate it in my top 10: clean, comfortable, handsome, great beds and good reading lamps, super breakfast. (I was there on a warm lemon-poppy-seed muffin morning.) The inn is a 50-acre working farm of horse-grazed pasture and woods on the Rockfish River, with chickens and horses (you can get up early and help feed them if you want; I did, and loved it). There're lots of cats, a hot tub, an old swimming hole and hiking trails. (The inn boards but does not rent horses.) Within five minutes of checking in I was nibbling homemade chocolate chip cookies and swinging slowly in a hammock at riverside. Rates are $85-$95 a night, including breakfast.
Details: For an especially thorough and attractive information packet, contact the Nelson County Division of Tourism, Box 636, Lovingston, Va. 22949, 804-263-5239, http://comet.net/nelsoncty.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
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