BILLY THOMPSON didn't put White Post, Virginia on the map. George Washington did that, when he planted his surveyor's white post back in 1750. And while Thompson's not exactly bringing his hometown up to date, his company is the most compelling reason to come for a visit. White Post Restorations, one of the world's best restorers of antique and classic cars, offers an old-fashioned welcome and an unusual "drive" down Memory Lane.
Downshift through the sleepy town of White Post (pop. 200) and you might wonder if you've entered a time warp when you glance in your rearview mirror and catch sight of not a Honda, not a Toyota, but a gleaming, good-as-new Dowager Queen of the Road. Maybe a curvaceous 1937 Cord 812 Supercharged, or a zippy 1926 Model T Racer complete with speed equipment. Or p'raps a stately 1929 Rolls Royce. These and hundreds of other faded beauties have had their frames and faces lifted at White Post.
His turn-of-the-century handlebar mustache and leather touring cap make it clear that Thompson himself is in the right place, if not the right time. With unflagging enthusiasm, he explains frame-up restoration during a comprehensive tour of the facilities. After he restored -- sort of -- a 1940 Ford when he was 14, Thompson learned the value of skilled craftsmanship. The job took him a year, and "everything I touched fell apart in my hands," he says ruefully. It still takes about a year to do complete automobile restoration, but now Thompson supervises 30 experts working in six shops: mechanical, machine, sheet metal, woodworking, upholstery and body paint.
The cars and their owners come from all over the world. Owners are usually wealthy and often celebrities, but the cars tend to arrive in varying states of disarray. Some are literal basket cases, a daunting thought considering that the average antique car has over 50,000 parts. Every one will be catalogued, documented, and repaired or replaced.
Research for authenticity is the hardest part of the job, according to Thompson. For answers to such knotty questions as what color were the knobs on the dashboard of a 1928 Franklin, White Post researchers consult the original manufacturer (if possible), the Library of Congress, owner's and service manuals (although complete ones weren't issued until the 1920s), individuals and clubs. Safety upgrades like seat belts and safety glass are permitted, but in all other details authenticity is the end and no one skimps on the means. If an owner wants purple polka dots painted on his Duesenberg, he won't get them at White Post.
Thompson is closemouthed about the cost of any particular job (the rate's $35 per hour plus parts, and labor can take thousands of hours). He's equally unforthcoming about his most famous customers.
But the cars speak for themselves, and they've been known to draw tears. One woman brought in a cherished 1930 Packard that had been demolished on its way to a car show. White Post worked its magic, and as she gazed enthralled at the finished job, an employee started the engine. Teary-eyed, she exclaimed, "I never thought I'd hear our baby run again!"
Tours of White Post Restorations include a film and lots of antique cars: cars awaiting their turn, with the patience of the very old; cars in the midst of work in progress; cars in their final state of glorious renaissance. On a recent tour, we followed behind an elderly gentleman who halted our progress in front of a broken-down, ancient Buick. His face full of animation, he dug his elbow into the man next to him. "I learned to drive in that car," he crowed. "Look, the brake and gearshift are on the outside."
Gaze at a "Woodie" station wagon, almost finished, and how can you not hear the Beach Boys singing "Wouldn't It Be Nice?" It would, it would. At White Post Restorations, romance never takes a back seat. Unless, of course, it's the rumble seat.
Up the road a piece, about 12 miles to be precise, is one of the most unusual museums in these or any other parts. But this is not to say that it is only of interest to a special few. No, in fact, it's actually strange there aren't more such museums, since the collection here is of interest to every body.
Enders Funeral Home Museum in Berryville is perhaps the only one in the world devoted to the display of the mortician's historical tools.
John H. Enders opened his funeral parlor in 1892 as a combination furniture-making and undertaking business. He also ran the fire department and kept bees. "With a small population in the area, you had to be diversified back then," explains tour guide and mortician John Young. "They couldn't survive on just funerals." But they can now. Enders is the only funeral home in Clarke Country; the museum is just a hobby of present owner Reggie Shirley, stepgrandson of Mr. Enders.
Tours of the museum can last from 30 minutes to an hour or more, depending on one's interest. The collection is housed in a renovated garage attached to the funeral home, and at first appears very small. But once you begin looking and asking questions, you may realize how little you know about something as natural as not breathing, and suddenly the room seems full of strange objects. Take, for instance, the antique cooling boards. What were they for, you might well wonder. The ornate wooden boards were used to embalm bodies at home, and the holes were for ventilation, literally to cool the body down (body temperature rises slightly at death). Morbid questions are not out of place at Enders.
The main attraction here is, coincidentally, a White Post Restorations masterpiece -- an 1889 horse-drawn hearse. The shiny black phaeton features silver-plated gas lamps and black velvet curtains with tassels. Researchers dug through archives in the Smithsonian Institution to ensure an authentic restoration. Some of the other highlights in the museum are straw baskets, the old-time body bags; a child's tapered wooden coffin with a slide-open viewing port; Mr. Enders' diploma from the Massachusetts College of Embalming; and innocuous-looking jugs with gruesome functions.
But the object that people ask the most questions about is, not surprisingly, the one that is still in use. The crematory, which heats to 2,000 degrees, inspires a lot of ambivalent curiosity. Though the museum teaches a unique history lesson, perhaps its most important service is in encouraging visitors to think and ask questions about death.
And, like so many of the folks in Clarke County, the people at Enders are easy to talk to. "This is a country place and we have a country attitude," says Young. "You don't see anybody wearing suits around here, do you?"
WHITE POST RESTORATIONS
is a 50-mile drive west of the Beltway, through the hunt country of Middleburg and the upper Shenandoah Valley. Take U.S. 50 to U.S. 340. Turn left (south) and drive two miles to the turnoff for the village of White Post (on left). Go 1/4 mile to White Post Restorations. Open for free tours 7 to 4 Monday-Friday; group tours (30 or more) may be arranged in advance for evenings or weekends. 703/837-1140.
ENDERS FUNERAL HOME MUSEUM --
To get to Enders, drive 12 miles up U.S. 340 north. Turn right on Main Street (first light), go two blocks. Enders is on the right at 101 E. Main St. Open 9 to 5 Monday through Friday, 9 to 12 on Saturday, or by appointment; closed during funeral services; no admission charge. 703/955-1062.