A Small Town, A Different Day

byFrances Stebbins

The day lilies my mother planted more than 70 years ago are still blooming beside the south wall of the house in which I grew up. The clematis vine which shaded the porch with its hammock where I spent hours as as teenager reading is still there too.

But a garage with a collection of old cars is where our kitchen used to be and the two big locust trees that marked our front yard are gone though two smaller ones are still in place.

Returning to the place where one grew up brings back many memories. I renewed mine recently when I drove up to Orange, Virginia, especially to visit Montpelier, the plantation home of James Madison.  After being in private hands for more than a century –not open to the public– it has over the past 25 years undergone extensive renovation, and now takes its place with Jefferson’s Monticello and Monroe’s Ash Lawn as sites to learn of our first presidents.

But since Montpelier is just three miles west of the town in which I grew up, it was a good chance to see how my little hometown had changed. I had made a sentimental visit to Orange four years ago following the death of my husband. He had had no connection with Orange, but his passing reminded me of my mother whose ghost after more than 60 years lingers for me around my house. She’s been gone since my college years.

This time I wondered if my home might have been demolished, like that of a neighbor’s down the road. It certainly had seen better days and perhaps was not occupied even though a young man was working on a car in what had been our back yard.    But it was still standing, perhaps looking a little better than it did in 2008. The roof had been patched and the shutters were still intact.  A view from the unpaved road that ran up the hill from Virginia Route 20 was all I needed.

I hastened on to Montpelier, a show place I heartily recommend which can be reached from the Roanoke area in about three hours by using Interstates 81 and 64 plus another 25 miles on U.S. 15 which meanders north-south through the middle of Virginia.

I took a longer way to reach Orange for, although I am a  Virginia native, I had never traveled through several of the Central Piedmont counties just north of the James River.  You can get to U.S. 15, Orange’s main road connection with the world, by taking U.S. 460 to Appomattox, following a couple of truly rural roads, crossing I-64 and finally entering the historic courthouse town.

Orange, with its 1856 courthouse, once stretched to the Mississippi River; the county was founded in 1734. In Colonial times it was a center of early Baptist activity. Thomas Jefferson, living not far away near Charlottesville, is reported to have been moved to draft Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom out of sympathy for the dissenting Baptists. During the Civil War several decisive battles –all won by Confederates– took place a few miles to the east at The Wilderness, Spottsylvania and Fredericksburg. All this didn’t mean much to me as a child living on the edge of town with my widowed mother who supported us by raising poultry in the days before agri-business.

Orange today is just far enough away from Northern Virginia to be beyond the Washington suburbs so it has not changed greatly since my youth. Norfolk Southern trains  and AMTRAK  still pass across Main Street, and the banks are still in their familiar places though with differerent names. The four familiar churches–Baptist, United Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopal– have not moved from the two main streets, but soon after World War II the Catholics, who had come to town to work in a World War II plant, established their own parish, and now there’s  a Lutheran congregation in the suburbs as well as some Pentecostal groups.

A major change in the town’s topography came following my departure for college just after World War II. State Route 20 was rerouted as a by-pass of Main Street and now passes fairly close to my old home on its way to the battlefields to the east. This has caused several new businesses where open fields used to be. My little road up the hill contains several small newer homes.

A striking impression, often noted by others reflecting on familiar places from their pasts, is how distances seem to have shrunk over the years as cars have taken over quiet streets that were once safely walked. Main Street is only three blocks long, and all the residential areas are easily reached on foot. A long time ago, especially in hot, cold or wet weather, the mile I walked daily to school was no fun. Now it seems to pass in seconds.