People say to experience the real Virginia, one must travel beyond its cities and suburbs. If this is true, it's doubly important to pull off interstate highways. But veering still farther off the beaten path, Terri Fisher and Kirsten Sparenborg explore and illuminate locales that time has all but forgotten in their handsomely photographed, well-researched and elegantly designed book, "Lost Communities of Virginia" (University Press of Virginia).
The authors, associated with Virginia Tech's Community Design Assistance Center, visited and photographed 30 evocative burgs from Capeville (in Northampton County on the Eastern Shore), to the Wise County towns of Derby and Stonega (near the Kentucky border). At each stop the authors' surgical examination of settlement patterns, transportation routes, mining, industrial or manufacturing developments — and the resulting buildings and architecture — give the reader fascinating insights and pertinent connections that easily could elude a casual, contemporary visitor.
And while these 30 lost communities" aren't literally ghost towns, they're all mere shadows of their former selves. In Mecklenburg County, near the North Carolina border, the village of Boydton remains the county seat. But centuries ago it was an overnight destination when court was in session. In 1832 Randolph-Macon College was established there, bringing additional cachet. But the advent of automobiles made coming to court a day trip and the college moved to Ashland in 1868. In the 1970s, construction of a highway bypass further isolated the village.
Woodford, in Caroline County, had humbler origins. In 1900 it boasted a post office and population of 30. But at the turn of the last century, one George Lyon, Woodford's general store owner, changed the community's fortunes when he built an excelsior plant where strands of softwood fibers were extracted from waste wood and used for mattress stuffing and filler for automobile upholstery. Lyon's operation became the largest manufacturer in the county; trains stopped four times a day; and the town's growth continued with the opening of Camp A. P. Hill during World War II. But everything collapsed soon after the war. The excelsior mill burned and wasn't rebuilt (less flammable upholstery material was replacing excelsior). Today, none of the 25 Amtrak passenger trains and CSX freight trains that pass through Woodford daily stops there.
The brilliance of "Lost Communities of Virginia," in addition to its rich trove of recent photographs (that evoke the work of Walker Evans' portraits of faded Americana during the Depression years), is that text and tone are presented with neither nostalgia nor academic high-handedness. And while the pictures, maps and impressively researched history tell much of the story, quotations culled from interviews with residents in these places offer a glimpse of life and hope.
The authors tell us that in reporting on Boydton — where a number of annual popular festivals have been established to stimulate local pride, preservation and development — U.S. News & World Report entitled its article, "A Small Town That Refuses to Die." S