Along a one-mile stretch of Valley Pike in Stephens City, Va., are 40 log houses built more than 200 years ago. The hilltops around the small Shenandoah Valley town are crowned with equally old stone and brick mansions. An industrial town until recently, Stephens City now sees a future in promoting the town's frontier history and vintage architecture.
Among those who value the area's history is Mike Caplanis, who drives four hours each day in rush-hour traffic from his house in Stephens City to his job as an advertising creative director in Fairfax.
Caplanis said the long commute is worth his time because each night he returns to a colonial manor house, and other historic buildings, on about 100 acres.
He and his wife, Karen, and another couple own and operate a bed-and-breakfast called the Inn at Vaucluse Spring that includes accommodations in the 1785 manor house and three other buildings.
"It's magical here," he said. "I happen to love the country."
The Caplanises and their teenage daughter, Jean, had been living in Clifton, Va., when they decided to make the move in 1995. Their partners, Barry and Neil Myers, made a similar move. Only Mike Caplanis makes a daily commute to work; the other partners run the 12-room inn, although Caplanis helps with repairs and is the waiter on weekends.
Karen Caplanis marvels at the slow pace of country life. She traded her job with the family framing business in Fairfax for seven-day-a-week work as an innkeeper.
"We get to call all the shots," she said. "We just keep thinking of better ways to do things as we go along."
The manor house, vacant for 50 years, now is a gracious place with old wood floors that glow, floor-to-ceiling windows that fill the high-ceilinged rooms with light, and comfortable antique sofas and chairs.
Neil Myers is in charge of the gardens and the kitchen; her husband, a former home builder in Northern Virginia, transformed the vacant mansion and other buildings into comfortable suites.
That is just the type of restoration that Stephens City officials have in mind for their historic district along the main street. They are counting on people from outside the area to restore the old houses and create new businesses in the community.
Stephens City was one of the earliest Shenandoah Valley towns, according to town historian Butch Fravel, who said it was chartered in 1758. Lewis Stephens was a big landholder, and initially the town was named Stephensburg for him. Around the time of the Civil War, it went by the name of Newtown in recognition of a commercial boom, and by this century it had taken the Stephens City name.
Fravel, a Stephens City native who runs a floral shop in town and lives in one of the vintage log houses, said the community had known boom periods as a wheat-growing area in the early years and then as a wagonmaking center from 1800 to the Civil War. Like most of the valley towns, Stephens City was repeatedly occupied by opposing armies and had some buildings torched by Union commanders who felt the residents were too sympathetic to the Confederate cause.
The town was slow to recover from the war, Fravel said, but eventually attracted a cigarmaking company and, later, a lime company that ran a nearby quarry until about 1960. Since then there has been little employment.
The main street, Valley Pike, is a two-lane road with parking along each side, leaving hardly enough room for the three Stephens City police officers to pull over violators of the 25-mph speed limit. The one traffic light gives motorists time to look at the window display in We'll Keep You in Stitches, a local store.
"We've got quiet here," Mayor Ray Ewing said. "Most of us like it that way."
However, right across Interstate 81--a turn that is made at the traffic light--are a suburban-style shopping strip and several housing subdivisions that have added about 10,000 residents in the past decade to the 1,200 who live in the old section of town, Ewing said.
Although it is the mailing address rather than history that makes the newer homeowners residents of Stephens City, Ewing said the influx has led to several new schools and some customers for the small businesses along the main road.
Ewing said the old-town residents began to take control of their community--and their future--when Stephens City purchased the lime quarry to assure its water supply. Then residents bought a big old house on the main street to preserve the open land around it.
"The town overwhelmingly voted for it," he said. "We all wanted to keep that green space."
Then they had to decide what to do with the common property. The old house was rented as an antiques shop, Ewing said, and the extensive lawn became a town park.
About the same time, Stephens City voters decided to protect the vintage buildings along Valley Pike. Now most of the older part of Stephens City is a historic district.
Ewing recalls that when he was growing up in Stephens City, there were 100 log cabins along the main street, although they were covered with vinyl siding or clapboard. He lived in one of them.
"No one thought much about them," he said. "About 1950, people just started tearing them down."
Ewing is confident the town has made the right decision to take advantage of the history and architecture it has to offer. There are some problems, he said, when it comes to turning down neighbors and friends who suddenly decide they want a modern facade on their historic home. And there are some commercial buildings that have remained vacant because the preservation committee has rejected plans for new picture windows.
"What we are really hoping for is some people from outside the area to come here and buy these places and fix them up," he said. "We'd like to attract business and professional people who will like the structures for what they are."
BOUNDARIES: Stephens City is a five-square-mile town in Frederick County, Va., that ranges east and west of Route 11, just west of Interstate 81 and mostly north of Fairfax Pike. Greater Stephens City includes subdivisions east of I-81, north of Fairfax Pike.
PROPERTY SALES IN 1999: 192 homes, ranging in price from $45,000 to $189,000, said Wayne Sullivan of ERA Jim Barb Realty. Forty-seven properties now are on the market, with prices ranging from $55,000 to $200,000.
SCHOOLS: Bass-Howard Elementary, Robert E. Ayler Middle and Sherando High schools.
15 MINUTES AWAY: Winchester to the north, with a shopping mall, historic district, stores and restaurants; Strasburg to the south, with an antiques mall.