It began as a crossroads. Sitting on a small plateau at the bottom of the Shenandoah Valley, with a sweeping view of the Blue Ridge Mountains on one side and the Alleghenies on the other, Lexington was from the start a place where East met West, where the patrician South of the Tidewater planters reached out to the frontier culture of the Appalachians.
In the 1730s, Scotch-Irish immigrants came down the valley, following the Great Road from the North. Here at its intersection with the Midland Trail west into the wilderness, they settled, hacking farms out of the frontier and building their farmsteads and churches of wood and fieldstone, in a style they had learned from the Germans in Pennsylvania.
In 1778, state legislators sitting in Williamsburg, then still the state capital, made an effort to bolster the administration of justice in the western territory. They ordained a new jurisdiction, the county of Rockbridge, and for its seat they chose the crossroads.
In time it would be the site of Washington and Lee University, where the South sent its sons for a gentlemen's education, and of Virginia Military Institute (VMI), which aspired to be the West Point of the South. It would be the scene of occupation by Northern troops during the Civil War and the burial place of two of the Confederacy's legendary generals.
But in 1778, the state legislators had another war on their minds, and they left no doubt where their sympathies lay. They called the new town Lexington, after the first battle of the Revolution.
The roads still meet, outside of town now since they are both interstates. Whether you come down the valley on Rte. 81 or over the Blue Ridge on Rte. 64, you get off just north of Lexington and follow old Rte. 11 -- the Great Road -- into town. Your first view of the town is of the parapets of VMI, high on the cliffs above the Maury River.
As the site of VMI and the home and burying place of both Robert E. Lee and Thomas (Stonewall) Jackson, Lexington is a treasure trove for Civil War buffs. The South that these two fought for is evoked in the white columns and brick facade of Washington and Lee University, the elegant antebellum homes on Lee Avenue and the recently restored Jackson residence, the only home he ever owned. But the legacy of the Appalachians lives on, too, in the farmsteads of the surrounding county -- including the home of Cyrus McCormick, where the workshop of the inventor of the modern reaper can be visited -- or in the secondhand and antique stores of Lexington and surrounding towns. And on certain nights, a visitor will find an old-time music session featuring fiddle and banjo at an inn in an old house on Main Street.
The simplest way to get your bearings is to ask directions to the visitors center in the heart of the restored downtown area. At the center are maps for walking tours of town: the Lee-Jackson tour, the residential area tour, and a tour of the colleges and several museums. The staff will also point you in the direction of food, lodgings and entertainment if you ask, or suggest other things to do in the area. These include the recreation areas at Lake Robertson or the George Washington National Forest; an excursion to Natural Bridge, a limestone foundation 215 feet high that has been called one of the seven natural wonders of the world; or a day trip to Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, in Charlottesville, about 70 miles by interstate across the Blue Ridge, where the view on a clear day is spectacular.
The town that unfolds around the visitors center reflects a love of tradition, and the first walking tour starts with the center itself, still called the Sloan House after its first owner. It's an example of Federal architecture, a style of the early 1800s that gives the town much of its beauty, and it serves to acquaint the visitor with the design favored in both farmhouse and townhouse of the period.
These houses were laid out one room deep and two wide, with a middle hall. By now they were built of brick from the red Virginia clay, with simple but elegant interior woodwork. The design, say Royster Lyle Jr. and Pamela Hemenway Simpson in their "The Architecture of Historic Lexington," was brought from England. "On the western frontier, the construction of such a house often signaled the rise of a family from modest means to economic stability," they note. Being one room deep with high ceilings had the added advantage in the Virginia climate of maximizing ventilation during un-airconditioned summers.
In 1858, a new neighbor moved in up the street from the Sloan house. Thomas J. Jackson, a young science and artillery professor at VMI, had purchased a townhouse at 8 E. Washington St. from a Dr. Archibald Graham. The house, which is the next stop on the tour, was Jackson's home for just three years. At dawn on a Sunday in April 1861, he was awakened by a courier. He dressed, read a passage from the Bible with his wife and went to lead his cadets to war. Two years later he was carried home from Chancellorsville to be buried in the town cemetery.
The home he shared briefly with Mary Anna Jackson is the only tourist attraction that charges admission ($1.50 for adults, 75 cents for children), which goes to defray recent reconstruction costs. The before-and-after picture attest to the fact that it was well worth the trouble. The interior is furnished in the period, from an inventory made of Jackson's estate two weeks after his death.
From the townhouse, it was an easy walk for Jackson to VMI in one direction and to church in the other. Both are on walking tours; this one takes the workday route. Leaving the Jackson home, you turn at the corner down Main Street. The buildings still are Federal, many of them built to do double duty as shop and home, like the two that belonged to the hatters John Ruff and his son, Jacob, at 21 and 23 N. Main St.
Walking on toward VMI, the Lee-Jackson trail brings you to the Washington and Lee campus, where Lee lived as president in a house he built after the war. In an older house next door, Jackson was married. Both men were devout churchgoers; Jackson was a deacon of the Lexington Presbyterian Church, and Lee's campus home was a short walk from the Episcopal church he served as a senior warden. Lee is buried on the campus in the Lee Chapel. He and his family lie in a vault under a life-size marble statue known familiarly as "the recumbent Lee."
The campus of Washington and Lee abuts VMI's, where Jackson's statue dominates the parade ground; at its feet are the artillery pieces he had made to teach his students there. Behind it the arch into the barracks bears his motto: "You can be whatever you resolve to be."
The town's debt to history didn't begin or end with the Civil War, though it can be easy to think so. George Washington unwittingly contributed in 1796 when he rescued a boys' preparatory school called Liberty Hall from financial ruin with a large donation. The school became a mainstay of the town's culture and economy as Washington College and later Washington and Lee. Today Washington Hall, the centerpiece of the campus, is a National Historic Landmark. From its roof, a small weatherbeaten wooden statue of its benefactor surveys the results of his generosity.
At the other end of the town's history, George C. Marshall was a cadet at VMI, graduating in 1901, and was married in a house nearby. On campus at VMI is an extensive library of his life and work, which includes a museum with an electronic map and narrative of World War II.
Ideally you come to town with a few days to spend. If money is no object, you take a guest suite at the Alexandrer Withrow House, a nicely restored lodging at the heart of the old downtown area (a double goes for $40). For this, you probably wrote in advance. Otherwise, there are half a dozen good motels nearby with rates from about $15 to $20 for doubles, depending on the season. The visitor center also has a list of accredited guest homes, some of them within the historic residential area, and the center reports the modest prices of these have made them increasingly popular.
For nightlife, visitors can dip into memories of a more innocent era at the Palm Parlor Cafe, an art-deco ice cream parlor, or take in a bit of theater at the historic (what else?) Henry Street Theater. The White Columns, the town's only full bar, is where you'll find live old-time music once or twice a week; late on a night when there's music it can get quite rowdy. For a quick day trip, drop in on B. P. Knight's General Store (established 1903) in nearby Buena Vista, then get on the Skyline Drive for a real view of the area.
If you go, the visitors center suggests you write in advance (to Historic Lexington Visitor Center, 107 E. Washington St., Lexington, Va. 24450), since the volume of visitors is large at some times of the year. Lexington really is a town for all seasons though in the winter you have to forgo outdoor recreation and in summer you miss a chance to see VMI's cadets in full dress parade. Fall visitors will want to bring back some of the Shenandoah Valley's crop of applies from farms to the north of town.