Here to return to
JUNE IN THE SHENANDOAH VALLEY
MOST of my time in the valley was spent at Luray, not because that particular vicinity is superlatively attractive, but because I wanted to see the world-famed Luray Caverns. The town is in a region of big, sweeping hills, and its chief street climbs an especially steep slope. At a little remove, to east and west, are long ranges of lofty mountains, some bulwark-like and level-topped, but the majority running up into rounded or sharp-pointed peaks. They are tree-clad clear to the summits, and as I saw them in the warm, hazy days of early summer they were always dreamily blue and serene. Indeed, the region had an almost Swiss-like charm in its combination of pastoral lowlands and ethereal heights.
The caverns are a mile east of the town beneath the summit of the highest hill in the neighborhood. They are remarkable for their size, but still more so for the wealth of the calcite formations they contain. In the latter respect they are unexcelled. The circuitous course over which visitors are taken is a mile and a half long. As soon as you go down the entrance stairway into the depths, no matter whether there is summer heat outside or the frosty keenness of winter, you are in a cool, pure atmosphere that remains always at about fifty-four degrees. Stalactite and stalagmite ornamentations abound everywhere in the labyrinthine passages and chambers, and a system of electric lighting makes it possible to see this to admirable advantage. It is a weird place — so silent and so fantastically decorative — full of impenetrable shadows, chasms here, gloomy rifts there, and now and then a pool of water that seems like liquid air it is so clear. You go on with resonant footsteps, your guide’s voice and your own echoing in the stillness. You gaze on the pendants from the roof and their reverses rising from the floor, the fluted columns and draperies, and the stony cascades with their marvellous variations in color, and you feel that you are in the royal chambers of the monarchs of the underworld. The formations often strikingly resemble animals, vegetables, and other objects of the realm above ground, and the guide calls them all faithfully to your attention until you get the impression that you are in a petrified museum.
Somewhere in the journey the guide allows you to learn what absolute darkness is like by turning off the lights. The gloom was not simply black — it was blank, and I stood in an illimitable void so far as the sense of sight was concerned.
“There was one time,” the guide said, “that I took a visitor through here, who was a great large Dutchman — about the type of man you see driving around on a brewery wagon, and when we had made the rounds he asked, ‘Was it made, or did it come so?’
“Another visitor would n’t go in the cave at night because he said he’d rather see it by daylight.”
Just then the guide halted and threw the light of the oil torch that he carried down into a depression beside the path. “Look,” he said, “and you’ll see the bones of an Indian boy almost imbedded from sight in the lime. They must have been there for at least one hundred and fifty years. Thirty-five feet above us another passage opens into the one we are following. No doubt the boy was groping along that passage, and when he stepped off the edge of this wall up there he fell to his death.”
One of the chambers to which a sentimental interest attaches is the ballroom. “This is where we have weddings,” the guide explained. “There’ve been seventeen of ‘em. It’s just a freak idea, and started with the wedding of a girl who wanted the ceremony in the cave because she’d promised her mother she would n’t marry any man on the face of the earth.”
The discovery of the caverns dates back only to 1878, and the story of it as commonly related in the town runs about like this:
“On the far side of the hill east of the village was a cave the existence of which was known from pioneer times. The Ruffner family were the first settlers of the valley, and one day a member of this family went out hunting and failed to return. Searchers scoured the region for nearly a week and then found the missing man’s gun and powderhorn at the mouth of this cave, and rescued from the cave itself the almost famished hunter.
“The years passed, and there at length drifted to Luray a wandering school-teacher and photographer named Stebbins. His photograph outfit was in a wagon to which a pair of horses could be hitched and draw it from town to town. He would maybe stay two or three months in a place as long as he could do well — established on some vacant lot. Stebbins knew something of geology, and he thought there was likely to be caverns of considerable extent in the vicinity of the old Ruffner Cave. This impression he confided to Andrew Campbell, a native of the town who had been all over the country hunting and fishing, and was a keen and capable woodsman, but who got along from day to day with very little provision for the future. He accumulated an interestering fund of information, but while he was out roaming around perhaps his wife was at home wondering what the family would have for dinner.
The Shenandoah River
“The upshot of the consultation with Stebbins was that Campbell and his brother Williams and the schoolmaster started out cave-hunting. Sink holes draining into underground cavities were common in the region, and the three men ranged about examining them for possible openings. At last, one August day, they turned their attention to a sink hole in a wheat field on the north slope of Cave Hill. It was some fifteen or twenty feet across and twelve deep, and was overgrown with briars and bushes. When a man had a sink hole like that in cultivated land he would use it to get shut of a lot of stumps and stones. It served as a kind of dump, and a good deal of refuse had been thrown into this one in the wheatfield. Formerly it had been much deeper. The men were poking around in it when one of them exclaimed, ‘Why, here’s cold air!’
“The air was coming out of a hole about four inches in diameter, and the men worked with a will to clear out the rubbish. As they went deeper they used a bucket attached to a rope to pull up the dirt and stones. In five hours’ time they had made an aperture large enough for a man to crawl through. This gave access to a black abyss below, and Andrew Campbell, clinging to the rope, descended till he found a firm foothold. Then he let go of the rope, lit a candle, and looked about him on the unexpected splendors of the chamber to which he had gained entrance. He left his companions so long to their conjectures that they became uneasy at his absence, and his brother presently descended in search of him. Together the two went on for several rods to where they were stopped by water — water so cle’r you’d hardly realize it was there. This has since been called Chaplin’s Lake, because a fellow of that name stepped into it up to his knees. The Campbell brothers agreed to keep quiet about their discovery and when they came up to the surface they told Stebbins and some loafers who’d gathered around to see what was doing, ‘Oh, there’s nothing in it!’
“But when the three partners in the exploring enterprise were by themselves the facts were revealed to Stebbins, and later they returned to make a more extended exploration of the caverns. The land under which the caverns lay was a bankrupt property soon to be disposed of at a sheriff’s sale, but the three ne’er-do-wells who knew the secret of the cave had no money. Probably not a man among ‘em could raise twenty-five dollars. So they divulged their discovery to another man who had means, and persuaded him to back them. Such land was then worth eight or ten dollars an acre, and they bid it in for about twice that to the great surprise of the townsfolk. Their friends naturally guyed them a good deal over their bargain, and they could not stand the ridicule and prematurely revealed their reason for buying. That roused the heirs of the bankrupt property to start a lawsuit, and two years later the property was restored to them. It was then disposed of a second time, but instead of bringing about three hundred dollars, as it did before, the seventeen acres this time sold for forty thousand.
“Meanwhile the three discoverers had opened up the caverns and exploited them with some success, and enjoyed the only period of prosperity in their lives. A spirit of adventure had led to the finding of the caverns, and the management of them afterward by Stebbins and his comrades was simply childish. If a man came to see the caverns, as like as not Bill Campbell, who was supposed to act as guide, would be lying on a bench feeling too lazy to make the trip, and he’d put the man off. It seems a pity that the discoverers should not have had larger returns, but doubtless the public fared better for the shift to another management.”
The geologist of the trio “drifted around from pillar to post,” and died in a neighboring town a public charge. Andrew Campbell is still a resident of Luray, and I met him. He was evidently confident that he knew the caverns much more thoroughly than those now in charge. “They’ll tell you there’s practically no life in the cavern,” he said, “but I’ve seen tracks of coons, ‘possums and bears in there — thousands of ‘em; and I’ve seen places where animals have stayed, most likely to get away from the cold above ground in winter. Rats and mice live in there. I’ve set traps for ‘em, but they were too slick for me. A very little fly, and a spider, both almost microscopic, are found in the caverns, and I’ve come across bats hangin’ upside down. Where the animals come in, or where the air comes in, no one can tell, but it’s plain that the entrance we found ain’t the only one.”
Another subject which loomed large in Mr. Campbell’s experience was the Civil War. “I was a Union man who fought on the Southern side,” he said. “Just before Lincoln was elected I raised a flag in this town to show my sentiments. On the cloth was painted an American. eagle as big as a turkey, and he had a scroll in his mouth that bore the motto, ‘The Union must be preserved.’ I hoisted the flag on a spliced hickory pole that was one hundred and fifteen feet high; but after the state seceded the pole had to be cut down.
“Then they conscripted me, and I volunteered to go as a musician. They kept me three years. At first I played the fife, and later a tenor drum. I was with Stonewall Jackson. Yes, old Jackson heard me beat the drum many a time. We made some great marches. He did n’t let much grass grow under his feet while he was on the move; but I did n’t like him. He was a regular tyrant, and he did n’t care how many of his men were killed if he only carried his point. That’s the kind of a hairpin he was. Generally the discipline in the Southern army was not very strict, and if a man thought he ought to go home for a while he went. But he wa’n’t a deserter, because by and by he’d come back. That way of doing things did n’t suit Jackson, though, and if a man from his command was caught goin’ off home he’d order him shot. I’ve beat more’n one man’s dead march on the way to the spot where they was goin’ to seat him on his coffin and shoot him.
“People don’t realize what war is. Some of ‘em ask me about my drummin’ along in front of the troops and leadin’ ‘em into battle. But that would be a ridiculous thing would n’t it? Each side wants to get in the first lick, and they try to steal up and take the other by surprise. When there’s likely to be fighting, the troops make a little noise as possible, and if it’s a dusty time they march in the hollow at the side of the road, as they approach the enemy, lest the dust should be seen and betray them. No I did n’t furnish music durin’ the fightin’. I helped in the field hospital.”
The region that environs Luray is decidedly attractive to a rambler, and I made several interesting excursions into the outlying districts. One day I came to a grist mill, which I was informed was “tolerable old,” but it had been built since the war to replace one that had been burned by Yankee raiders. It was primitive in itself and in its surroundings. A big outside overshot wheel furnished power, and near by was a ford where the creek in the hollow encountered the highway. Vehicles and equestrians went right through the stream at the ford, but foot-travellers crossed on a slender bridge high up above the water with steps giving access to it from either side. In the shade of some trees at the door of the mill several teams were hitched, and there I came across a burly farmer lounging on his wagon seat, waiting for his grist. We were soon discussing the characteristics of the countryside, and he said: “I reckon harvesting will be in full blast in about two weeks. Thar’s a heap of wheat raised in this country hyar. Some of these fellers will raise thirty-five acres or more, but others raise as low down as half an acre. A man with just a little patch will cut it with a cradle, but most use a binder.
“Round hyar now the crops are just as fine as a man would want to look at, but last summer we had an awful drought. Usually we raise a little bit of corn to sell, but not any was shipped away last year. It was the poorest corn year I ever remember — indeed, it was. Some of our best farmers had to buy corn.
“The people through this section are right smartly mixed up, but they used to be all German and Dutch. You’ll find those who can talk Dutch even yet. There’s a good many poor people with only an acre or two of land. They have to work out for a living. But thar ain’t any great difference between the comforts enjoyed by the man who hires and the man who is hired. They eat ‘bout the same food and wear ‘bout the same sort of clothes. In some cases the hired man don’t work so hard as the feller he’s workin’ for does gettin’ him to do things. Some hands takes interest in their work and do as much alone as when the farmer is with ‘em. Others try to beat all they can. They fool around and want the sun to go down as soon as possible. On the farms near town they work on the ten hour system, but out in the country it’s from sunup to sundown, and in busy times they work as long as they can see. The farmer boards his hands, and pays ‘em fifty cents a day as a general thing, but during haymaking, harvest, and thrashing you have to pay a dollar a day.
“I’ve got two men a-workin’ for me. They live half a mile away and come for breakfast about sunup. I get up at daylight. That’s half after four now. If I want to make an early start I get up at four; and even in winter I’m hardly ever up later than five. But every farmer works accordin’ to his own notion, to suit himself, and some are mo’ rushing than others. They can keep body and soul together if they work hard. Yes, thar’s opportunity to make dollars now whar thar was to make cents when I was a boy. It’s a man’s own fault if he suffers. Mostly the farmers are a pretty industrious people, always a-goin’. But thar’s exceptions. Some are almost too lazy to move.
“The first thing in the morning the men go to the field and bring the horses in, give ‘em a little grain, curry ‘em, and gear ‘em up, and we give the hogs some corn and slop, and perhaps we grease a wagon. We do that while the women folks get breakfast. When we’ve eaten, we put the bridles on the horses and go to work, but we don’t work hard and steady all the day. The horses get tired, and we stop every couple of hours or so to blow ‘em — that is, we let ‘em stand and rest; or perhaps we’ll stop on our own account and go and get some water to drink. But under the ten hour system the workers keep movin’ along and ain’t supposed to sit down to rest at all.
“I unhook at half after eleven, and if thar’s a right smart distance to go it may be half after one when I get back. ‘Bout the time the sun is goin’ behind the mountain I quit, take the horses home, and turn ‘em into the field, but in winter they stay in the barn and I give ‘em hay and bed ‘em.
“After supper a man will go to the sto’ if thar’s a sto’ anywhere near. I loaf at the one near my place a good bit. We talk about the weather and about our wheat and grass and corn, and if thar’s any gossip in the country we talk about that. Sometimes we talk a little politics. I advocate the men I think the most of, and others advocate the men they think the most of, but politics ain’t run right high for ten or twelve years.
“Sometimes we take a day off and go on an excursion, or a circus may come through hyar, and we go to that. A good many of the boys shoots marbles or plays ball, and on Sunday, these late years, the majority of the youngsters goes courtin’. They start in courtin’ at an earlier age than they used to. Nearly every young feller has a buggy that he’ll be sportin’ around in every pleasant Sunday. He’ll drive to church if thar’s preaching somewhar not too far away, and after the service he’ll take a little ride with his girl. In the evening the youngsters will gather in one of the homes to talk and laugh and carry on. When the gathering breaks up a feller that has a girl is likely to sit up with her till midnight, and if the case is very serious he’ll be mighty apt to stay longer.
The great chimney
“We have plenty of different churches. Thar’s New School Baptist, and Old School, and Methodists, and Dunkards, and the Campbellites who call themselves Christians or Disciples, and the Seventh Day Adventists, and the Faith Healers who are right strong in places. A man ought to be able to choose something to suit him among them all. Thar’s very few infidels but now and then you’ll strike a man who talks that-a‑way. He’s as likely to go to church as the rest of us, though I s’pose it’s out of curiosity and to get something to argue about. In our country churches we generally have preaching once a month. Each preacher has several churches in his charge and takes ‘em in turn. Most of us goes quite regular, and on Monday when a couple of fellers get together you’ll hear one of ‘em say, ‘Well, what’d you think of the sermon yesterday?’ and perhaps the other’ll say he don’t believe that way, and they’ll have considerable of a discussion.”
Just then the miller came to the door and announced that the grist of my farm friend was ready. So the farmer loaded his wagon and drove away, and I returned to the town. As I was loitering through one of its outlying streets I stopped to speak with a young man who was sitting on the shady side of his house in the narrow front yard. I commented on the pleasant farming country I had been seeing. “Yes,” he responded, “the farmers are prosperous and they live good. They raise their own fowls, and if they feel like havin’ one they know where to get it. They grow their own fruit, and they’re sure to have a good bunch of cows, so they always can have nice milk and butter and cottage cheese, and the like of that. I was raised on a farm, and it kind o’ goes tough to live in town. But we’re not so badly off as we might be. D’you see those big earthenware jars hangin’ in the sun on the fence pickets? Those are preserve jars, and we’re gettin’ ready to fill ‘em, and they’re hangin’ out there so if there’s any germ about ‘em the hot sun’ll kill it. You take the people in this country, they don’t buy preserves. No, they get the stuff out and put it up themselves. They don’t think they live if they don’t put up their own fruit. In our family there’s just me and my wife and two children, but we put down twenty-five jars like those. We generally make eight or ten gallons of apple butter; and we mus’ have at least a couple of each of all kinds of berries. The season is just on now, and we’ll soon be putting down our strawberries and cherries and currants.
“When we make apple butter all the neighbors come in to help us peel the apples. They make a frolic of it, and are here through the afternoon and on into the night till ten o’clock. We do the peeling and coring with a machine, and finish by hand. It takes quite a number of bushels; and we plan to make enough of the apple butter so we can send messes around to the folks who came in and helped. That’s like when people butcher in the country — they do it at different times, and send meat to each other. In that way they have fresh meat all the fall.”
The next day I made an excursion that took me through the negro quarter of the town, and among its various phases of picturesqueness I recall a sign extending across the sidewalk which read
GEN. ULYSSES SIMPSON GRANT FRY
Another local sign which I found quite fascinating was this:
I went on over the hills and down to where the limpid Shenandoah flows through the depths of the vale. The region had become increasingly wild, and the houses few and far between. The final dwelling on the road to the river was a big, neglected old mansion that was little more than a gaunt timber skeleton. Most of the roof was gone, and the building was plainly a rotten wreck not worth repairing. Yet a colored family that included numerous children lived in it. A man I met on the highway said in explanation: “Last spring we had a right hard wind hyar that taken off part of the house, and dog-goned if I don’t believe that the darky who’s rentin’ the place would rather get wet than work a little mendin’ the roof.”
The meandering road at last brought me to a ferry, and on the opposite side of the river was a rude, flat-bottomed scow, but there was no sign of a ferryman. While I was considering the possibility of getting across a buggy arrived from the direction I had come, and a man got out and remarked: “When the boat is on that side a skift is generally left on this side so a man who wants to cross with a team can go over and get it. The ferry is free, but you have to manage gettin’ back and forth yourself. Sometimes the water floods the bottoms and we can’t cross at all. One feller, who wa’n’t as keerful as he ought to ‘a’ been, tried it when the water was a little too high, and the rope broke — the rope that goes from the boat to the cable that you see up thar in the air swung across the stream. He drifted down mighty near half a mile befo’ he got to shore. It skeered him some. I live right over thar not far from the landing. I’ll see if I can make any of the folks hear me.”
He called again and again with a clear, high-voiced whoop, and by and by there was an answering call, and a boy came down to the boat and poled it over to us. On the other side were a few farms scattered along the base of a mountain range that rose in a steep and lofty wooded height close behind, and there were log houses, and the conflict with the wilderness seemed still not ended. There is something peculiarly delightful about a region where the over-refinements of civilization have not penetrated. Closeness to nature and simplicity and the necessity of rough living appeal to one’s own primitive humanity. I found the people very generously sociable, and on the most slender acquaintance they would show me freely about their premises and urge me to partake of such fruits as were ripe.
On my way back a friendly farm family who were just sitting down to supper invited me to share the meal with them. The man ushered me into the dusky rag-carpeted sitting-room where we waited while the women got ready a few extras for their guest. Fried eggs and pork were the mainstay of the meal, but they set forth a most impressive array of jellies and preserves, and cut an extraordinary cake, six stories high, in alternate layers of pink and white. The heartiness and warmth of their hospitality won my affection, and my visit with them will always remain one of my pleasantest memories of the charming Shenandoah Valley.
NOTES. — The Shenandoah Valley is a part of the so called Valley of Virginia which stretches between the Blue Ridge and the Allegheny Mountains southward from the Potomac for about 300 miles. It has much natural beauty, and the added interest of the campaigns of Jackson, Sheridan, and other leaders here in the Civil War.
The Caverns of Luray furnish the greatest attraction in the valley to tourists, and are justly ranked among the most wonderful natural phenomena of America. They are unequalled for their profuse decorations of stalactites and stalagmites. Five miles to the east is Strong Man, one of the highest summits of the Blue Ridge. A trip to its top makes a pleasant one-day horseback excursion, and the fine view from its top is an ample reward.
The scenery of the valley as one travels south is increasingly picturesque, and 100 miles from Luray in this direction is the famous Natural Bridge.
From Hagarstown, Maryland, to Staunton, Virginia, at the head of the Shenandoah Valley, 134 miles, there is a stone road all the way. But 19 tollgates occur in this distance, and a toll of 15 cents is collected at each. Winchester, 42 miles from Hagarstown, changed hands 70 times during the Civil War. Four of the changes took place in a single day. Sheridan’s ride was from Winchester south along the Valley Pike to Cedar Creek. Luray is 14 miles east of the main route. Go to it from Newmarket. The road passes over Massanutton Mountain, and is difficult in wet weather.