Click HERE for “Moments in History” series.
Click HERE for “Historic Buildings” series.
by Jean Martin
Shenandoah County, Virginia, in the center of one of the most scenic valleys in America, was settled by Germans during the middle of the eighteenth century. These religious settlers came looking for limestone-rich land and religious freedom.
The valley mountain vistas observed by those pioneers is intact for visitors today. With the Massanutten Mountains on the east and the Alleghenies on the west, Shenandoah County is beautiful to behold. Through the center of the valley runs the Shenandoah River from South to North with Interstate 81 not many miles from the river. Fish thrive in the clear cold waters of the creeks and river while eagles soar overhead. Rafts, kayaks, tubes and canoes are to be seen on several stretches of the waterways.
Route 11, once the Indian trail through the valley, is a scenic highway. Dotted with quaint villages every five or six miles, the Old Valley Pike still meets the needs of the now nearly 40,000 occupants. Today Shenandoah County is home to two world class golf resorts and covers 512 square miles.
Historical Overview: Native Americans traveled through this valley but few and only very early village sites have been uncovered. All of the land west of the Chesapeake was part of the Northern Neck proprietary, a feudal grant from King Charles II to Thomas, second Lord Culpeper. It was inherited in 1719 by Thomas, sixth Lord Fairfax. The Fairfax Line starts at the head spring of the Rappahannock River and ends at the Potomac. This Line is the southern border between Shenandoah and Rockingham Counties. Ephrata Colony, on the river at Sandy Hook in the northern part of the county, was the first settlement by the Dunkard Church in the valley. Beginning in the 1730s, patents were offered on this land and German families began to establish small villages. Staufferstadt and Muellerstadt are the early names for Strasburg and Woodstock.
The County, formed from Frederick and Augusta, was originally settled by Pennsylvania Germans. In 1761, when George Washington’s act in the House of Burgesses chartered the new village at the center of the county, it was renamed Woodstock. The original court house was located here and was replaced in 1795 with the limestone building still in use today. This part of the Northern Neck was named for Lord Dunmore, Colonial Governor of Virginia in 1772. Also in 1772, John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg came to serve as pastor of the area Lutheran congregations, though he had been ordained as an Anglican minister. He lived in Woodstock and served the Lutherans and Episcopalians until his famous and fiery sermon in January, 1776, when he proclaimed, (according to Henry A. Muhlenberg, seventy years later), “in the language of Holy Writ there is a time for all things, a time to preach and a time to pray, but those times have passed away. There is a time to fight, and that time has now come.” He served as an officer in the Eighth Battalion in the 8th Virginia, the German Regiment, under General Washington. Promoted to Brigadier General in 1777, Muhlenberg was in command of all Continental forces in Virginia.
In 1806 the Henkel Press was founded in New Market. Liberty furnace, the first of many to serve the iron needs of the valley, was built in 1822. Many Civil War battles were fought up and down the valley since it had the only macadam road running north and south. General Stonewall Jackson traveled the valley often and made headquarters in many locations, including the small brick law office near the courthouse in Woodstock. Union General Phil Sheridan is remembered for a message he sent by telegraph to Washington on October 7, 1864 from Woodstock stating, “I have destroyed over 2,000 barns filled with wheat, burned over 70 mills filled with grain and flour. I have made the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia so bare that a crow flying over it would have to carry its knapsack.” Generals from both sides including Ashby, Banks, Custer, Early, Ewell, Freemont, Gordon, Hampton, Hunter, Imboden, Jones, Rosser, and Shield fought up and down the valley. Samuel Myers protected the Whistler family and other furnace workers during the Civil War as captain of 7th Virginia Cavalry.
There is a fire spotting tower, built by the boys of the Civilian Conservation Corps, on the mountain above Woodstock which provides a vantage point of the town and the seven bends of the Shenandoah River. The first CCC camp, Camp Roosevelt, was built as part of the New Deal in 1933 in the Fort Valley east of Edinburg. This area is now the George Washington National Forest and abounds in hiking trails and areas for camp sites.
Other famous people from Shenandoah County include: Colonel John Sevier, Patsy Cline, country singer; Samuel Kercheval, John W. Wayland, Klaus Wust and Richard Kleese, historians; Isaac Zane, iron master; H.H. Riddleberger, Ambassador during the Cold War; Pasco Bowman, Federal Judge; Bert McCausey, Aileen Campbell and Daniel Burner, artists.
Current: Agriculture is a major use of the land; corn, hay, cattle, sheep, llamas, horses, apples, peaches and grapes contribute to the economy. Twenty-six Century Farms are producing in Shenandoah County on high-quality farmland. Natural resources such as iron deposits are still in abundance with limestone quarries and gravel pits. The major physical feature in addition to the mountains is of course the north fork of the river from which the county derives its name. The Shenandoah River is famous for its “seven bends”. In truth there are many more than that, too many to count and ever changing. The winding river cuts its way through rocks and fertile farm land from its springs and headwaters in the mountains to the Potomac at Harpers Ferry. With the river running south to north the locals say they are going up when they travel south and down when they travel north. Because this region’s geology is karst, a special type of landscape that is formed by the dissolution of soluble rocks – limestone in particular, the county contains large aquifers that provide much of the drinking water and many springs and caves, including two commercial caverns, Shenandoah Caverns in the south and the smaller, less-developed Crystal Caverns at Hupp’s Hill in the north. These caverns are underground wonderlands with mysterious passageways and amazing rock formations.
Education is an important part of the lives of the residents of Shenandoah County. In 2005 over 21% of its population was under age 18. Three public campuses serve more than 6,000 children of the county: the north campus is at Strasburg, the central campus is in Woodstock, and the southern is between Mount Jackson and New Market. Massanutten Military Academy was established in Woodstock in 1899 by the Virginia Classis, the governing board of the Reformed Church. A college preparation school, it serves students from Shenandoah and all over the world who desire a structured academic environment in this peaceful valley. Shenandoah Valley Academy, established in 1908 by the Seventh-Day Adventists, a coeducational school for secondary students, is located on the western boundary of the town of New Market. Triplett Business and Technical Institute and the Massanutten Governor’s School are both in Shenandoah County.
Diverse religious, political and historical interests involve residents and visitors in a broad range of events and sites. Life in the county includes such destinations as the County Fair, golf courses, caverns, museums, parks, and even the last covered bridge over the Shenandoah River near Mount Jackson. Next to the Meems Bottom Bridge is a corn field which lays testament to agriculture and ingenuity as these farmers created one of the earliest Corn Mazes, a happy fall destination. Local farmers’ markets and weekly auctions are significant gathering places for locals and visitors alike. Orkney Springs and Bryce Resort provide for cultural, social, and musical needs with a golf course, small airport, skiing, tubing and the Shenandoah Valley Music Festival. The Shenandoah Caverns with its accompanying Museum of American Celebration on Parade and the Yellow Barn; New Market Battlefield State Historical Park Civil War Museum; Museum of American Presidents; Stonewall Jackson Museum at Hupp’s Hill and Half Moon Beach provide diverse family activities. Vineyards, restaurants, bed and breakfasts, motels and hotels serve visitors; local parades, art and craft shows, carnivals, and suppers to raise funds for myriad causes provide entertainment throughout the year. Shenandoah County is especially busy and beautiful during the fall with apples, peaches and vibrant colored leaves on the trees.
1. Wayland, John W. A History of Shenandoah County, Virginia
2. Wust, Klaus. The Virginia Germans
1. sound/song ”Oh Shenandoah”
2. image/painting by Daniel Burner of “Seven Bends”
3. County Seal
Cartmell, T. K. Shenandoah Valley Pioneers and Their Descendants. Berryville, Va., 1963.
Dolmetsch, Christopher L. The German Press of the Shenandoah Valley, Columbia, South Carolina, 1984.
Kercheval, Samuel. A History of the Valley of Virginia, Harrisonburg, Va., 1986.
McAllister, J. T., Virginia Militia in the Revolutionary War, Hot Springs, Va., 1913, republished 1989 by Heritage Books, Inc.
Mahon, Michael G. The Shenandoah Valley 1861-1865: The Destruction of the Granary of the Confederacy. Mechanicsburg, Pa., 1999.
Wayland, John W. A History of Shenandoah County, Virginia. Strasburg, Va., 1927.
____The German Element of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Reprint, Bridgewater, Va., 1964.
Wust, Klaus. The Virginia Germans. Charlottesville, Va., 1969.
Biography: Jean M. Martin is the author of three books for the Images of America Series for Arcadia Publishing; they are Farmington, Connecticut, Burlington, Connecticut, and the recently published, Shenandoah Valley, in conjunction with the Shenandoah County Historical Society. She also wrote A Dwelling House and Homestead for the Stanley-Whitman House in Farmington. Retired from the museum world after twenty years, she continues to support preservation, conservation and the teaching of history to children of all ages. Jean served as Archivist/Genealogist for the Shenandoah County Library in Edinburg, Virginia for almost ten years. Jean lives in Woodstock, Va., and has five grown children and three young grandchildren.
As prepared for the Virginia Foundation of the Humanities Encyclopedia Virginia. Seven Bends photo courtesy Shenandoah County Tourism.