History and beauty in the Shenandoah Valley

By Shawn M. Largent
Baltimore Watchdog Contributor

Standing inside Gasoline Alley Auto Sales, looking around at the memorabilia that hangs on the wall, Scott Riley, a salesman at the business, begins working on papers for his next used car sale.

At times, Riley stares around the room to see the one time house transformed into a used car sales office and admires the classic, memorable paraphernalia on the wall. It allows him a chance to reflect back to his childhood.

“Man, I was just a kid when that movie came out,” Riley said, looking at an American Graffiti movie poster. “So many young people got their start in that movie and became famous, kind of like how Patsy Cline got her start here.”

Gasoline Alley is located in Winchester, Virginia, where a quarter of the town is owned by the used car sales company. Winchester is also the home of famous country musician Patsy Cline. She lived in the town from 1948 to 1957 and her house is now a landmark, tourist attraction and source of pride for the town.

Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

The city has a rich history and is “very old fashioned,” said Riley. On North Loudon Street, where Gasoline Alley is located, each side of the street is lined up with car shops, used car lots, and even motorcycle shops, giving it a feeling from the 1950s.

Winchester is located in a 200 mile area that lays between the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains called the Shenandoah Valley.

It is an area that does not get much media exposure, limelight or have any large urban cities. The Shenandoah Valley covers hundreds of miles stretching through Virginia and West Virginia. According to Donielle Rininger, the Shenandoah Valley operations manager, this area is one of the top five recognized tourist regions in the United States.

“(The Shenandoah Valley) itself is internationally recognized,” Rininger said. “It’s a collective area. Surprisingly, we have a lot of visitors from Canada, France, and the U.K.”

The states of West Virginia and Virginia, and the counties located within the Shenandoah Valley, have worked together to promote tourism, and for over 90 years, their cooperation has worked. The travel association the area has created brings in international visitors and is considered one of the oldest tourist attractions, according to Rininger.

Back in Winchester, the citizens see their fair share of visitors each year, and those visitors vary from celebrities to families traveling in from out of state.

Each April, the city of Winchester celebrates its annual Apple Blossom Festival. The festival, that lasts for ten days in late April and into early May, features live music from local musicians and even some professionals, as well as parades.

This past year, the festival’s Grand Marshal was Kevin Jonas, one part of the former boy band the Jonas Brothers. According to Riley, the city works hard to make the festival the best it can be, especially for the celebrities.

“In the lead up to the festival, we hold a city clean up to prepare,” Riley said. “We have to make this place look nice for all the celebrities. It just goes to show how much this festival means to the community.”

The celebrities rolling into the heart of the city do not stop at former members of boy bands. Hall of Fame athletes, like former National Football League running backs Marcus Allen and Barry Sanders, musicians, like former American Idol winner Scotty McCreery, and actors such as Dan Akroyd have made appearances as Marshals for the festival.

While waiting for paperwork to be finished, Riley debated on what he should do for lunch. The debate does not take long as he looks down the street at the Apple Valley Café.

“Hands down, the best subs in town,” Riley said, realizing his craving for a Philly Cheesesteak. “It’s a pretty old fashioned place. It’s small and the food isn’t too expensive, but you’re definitely getting what you pay for and some.”

The Apple Valley Café has one small sign in its window to let people know they arrived, with stacks of newspapers waiting to be read for those looking to relax and sip on some coffee. The taste of the country that may not be found in cities like Baltimore and Washington, D.C. is just steps away for Riley.

“They are definitely known for a good breakfast too, which lasts all day,” Riley said as he made his way towards his afternoon meal. “I’m lucky to say that I can eat there whenever. A lot of people aren’t as lucky as me.”

On this day, Riley made a last minute decision to brunch, as he decided to enjoy a couple of handmade pancakes smothered in sausage gravy before returning to work.

Meanwhile, about 30 minutes northeast in Charles Town, West Virginia, Gene Capriotti, an accountant is accompanied by his close friends and other accountants at the Mountain View Diner.

“Each week, a couple of buddies and I spend the day at the diner,” Capriotti said, an accountant who is sitting with other accountants. “It’s a spot for us to talk a little about business and a lot about life.”

Capriotti has good friends from all over the area, like Washington, D.C., to come and keep him company inside the shiny looking diner.

For Capriotti, the travel to the diner is a pretty simple commute, roughly ten or fifteen minutes depending on traffic. For 76 years, Capriotti has resided in the Charles Town and Harpers Ferry area of West Virginia, also located in the Shenandoah Valley.

About 5 minutes down the road from the Mountain View Diner sits the Charles Town Races and Slots, home of the Hollywood Casino. Here, people can get a slight taste of the Kentucky Derby with horse racing and a little bit of Las Vegas with gambling and slot machines.

Each year, the race track hosts the Charles Town Classic, its biggest horse race of the year. The Charles Town Classic is very similar to a race like the Kentucky Derby or Preakness Stakes, as some of the finest horses travel in with their Jockeys for a chance to win $1.5 million.

“Definitely a fun thing to experience,” Capriotti said. “It’s great for people who want to have a good time.”

Fun is exactly what Kimberly Hoffman, a history teacher at Roland Park Country School, was aiming for when she took her family to the Charles Town and Harpers Ferry area for what she calls “F.F.F.,” or forced family fun.

“It’s just so different from city life,” Hoffman said.

During one of her family’s “F.F.F.” trips, Hoffman, who appreciates the town’s history, and her family strolled around the historic district of Charles Town and found themselves in front of the Charles Town Courthouse.

“(The Courthouse) is overlooked because a very historic event in America’s history took place here,” Hoffman said. “Not many people realize that.”

Although the inside of the courthouse is filled with offices now, the exterior still serves as a symbol of the community’s history. Abolitionist John Brown raided Harpers Ferry’s local armory in hopes of stealing weapons and ammunition to supply to slaves, but his plan quickly backfired and was captured and put on trial in the Charles Town Courthouse.

When Capriotti is not sitting around a table in a diner in Charles Town and when Hoffman’s family wants to get away from the history that she knows so well, they each travel a couple minutes away to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

Dubbed “Mr. Harpers Ferry” by Capriotti, Dennis Frye, the chief historian at the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, had trouble finding words to describe the area.

“It’s just magnificent,” Frye said. “It’s history combined with mother nature.”

For instance, Bolivar Heights is the only mountain you can drive up to in Harpers Ferry and any visitor can catch “incredible” views of three states (Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia), the Potomac water gap and the Blue Ridge Mountains, Frye Said.

Adjacent to Old Town of Harpers Ferry sits Virginius Island. The island sits right next to the Shenandoah River and contains the ruins of factory buildings built in the Civil War era. To Frye, the island is more about the wonderful views of the river as the rapids are within reach, with rafting and tubing at anyone’s disposal.

“You can feel and sense the climate of the river,” Frye said. “Feel the power.”

Within the stretch that is the Shenandoah Valley, there lies history that can circle back to the 1950s and all the way back to the Civil War. From Winchester, VA to Charles Town, WV and Harpers Ferry, WV, within 30 minutes of each other, history interlocks with Mother Nature.

For over 90 years the Shenandoah Valley has served as an attraction for history seekers while serving as an excursion for the thrill seekers looking get a little wet or for anyone on the exploration for unbelievable views of the country side.

“It’s not that easy to be able to do all these things in one day,” Hoffman said. “But it is very possible here.”

According to Frye, all it takes is a little drive westward, away from the city lights.

“You would never know that in the 21st Century you’re 50 miles away from Washington D.C.”


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