October 10, 2013
Special to The Alexandria Times
Historians have recorded Culpeper’s impact on the Civil War from its battlefields to its illustrious residents and their military legacy. Better known for battle re-enactments, a biplane “Flying Circus” airshow and “living history” encampments the area is currently celebrating the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War. And that’s just fine by me though my only experience with Culpeper’s residents were the rough-hewn guys in pickup trucks who arrive in fall with racks of firewood to sell to us “city slickers”. Locals call them “woodchucks”.
But there’s another Culpeper – - a small Southern town that has blossomed into a hip destination for foodies, shoppers, equestrians and even classic film buffs. That’s the Culpeper I’d been hearing about and the one I wanted to experience – - though I knew there’d be plenty of history along the way. What I found to my delight was a charming town eager to embrace change with open arms.
Housed in a working 1904 train depot is the visitor’s center where guided walking tours begin and folks disembark from the Amtrak line. At The Depot I fall into step with Mary Jo Browning, a sprightly octogenarian whose knowledge of the town’s historic homes and churches is legendary. Everyone knows Mary including Pastor Smith of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church who has come to the station to await his daughter’s arrival on the train from New York. She cordially greets him before we trot off to his church, key in hand. At the 19th century church, adorned with Tiffany stained glass windows, Mary regales me with a story of its old bell and how it survived the “War Between the States”. As we stroll she points out things I had seen but not processed – - the window bars on the Civil War period jail, still firmly in place, the town’s giant “LOVE” sculpture whose letters are formed from old movie reels, the farm store where you can buy feed and baby chicks, and a gargoyle roosting atop a roofline.
We pass the grandiose columns of Clarke’s Hardware, a 100-year old store still vital to the town sailing past dozens of meticulously restored buildings to get to the Museum of Culpeper History, a low brick structure surrounded by a modest white picket fence. Inside a set of 215 million-year old dinosaur tracks found in a local quarry share space with Manahoac Indian artifacts from Culpeper’s first residents, an interactive topographical map, and relics from the Civil War. Burgandine House, an early 19th century log structure, once used as a tavern and furnished as though still occupied, is a few steps away along a garden path.
To take your own walking tour pick up a free pair of ear buds at the Depot’s Visitor’s Center. www.VisitCulpeperVA.com
Style has come to Culpeper with a host of independently owned specialty shops. Try David Eddy’s for chic gifts and home décor, Quail at the Wood for unique antiques, Reigning Cats & Dogs for pampered pets, Taste for unusual oils, balsamic vinegars and organic spices, Jeffery Mitchell’s Culpeper Cheese Company with over 100 local and international cheeses, craft beers and a wine lounge that houses a Wine Station, where you can sample eight different wines. Calhoun’s Ham House for bacon, ham, sausage, and Wade’s Mill stone-ground flours and grits is around the corner. Pick up a country ham. They’re legendary.
Candy-aholics will be in their element at the Frenchman’s Corner for posh European chocolates and Allison Haught’s, My Secret Stash, an old-time candy store chock-a-block with classic treats like Cow Tails, Mary Janes and Red Hots. Best sellers are the faux pimento olives (Okay, they’re really chocolate almonds.), sugar-sanded grapefruit gummies and chocolate sea salt caramels. Scoop up some pumpkin malt balls too. The glass apothecary jars filled with candies share space with a well-culled selection of unusual antiques and funky collectibles, like vintage fans and 50’s barware.
At the Herbal Connection, Mary R. Benson, a Reiki master and specialist in nutrition and homeopathy welcomes questions. Her herb-lined shelves, vitamins and Ezekiel bread highlight her twenty-two years dispensing kindness and healing.
Kim Kelly’s Vinosity reveals an astonishingly comprehensive, hand-selected collection of wines. Step up to chest-height tables for informal tastings with fellow wine enthusiasts.
World travelers, or those who aspire to be, will have plenty of ethnic souvenirs to bring home from a visit to The Camaleer. Housed in two restored historic buildings are international giftware, aboriginal arts and crafts, and clothing from over 80 countries.
On Saturday morning the Farmers Market fills a parking lot across from the Depot. There you’ll find locally grown goods from vegetables and herbs to meats, honey and pretty flowers. Specialty items like salmon from East Street Fish (smoked by Pranas Rimeikis, Culpeper’s former mayor), home baked goodies, scented soaps made with goat’s milk, and pretty crafts entice buyers.
Stop in at Harriet’s General where made in America products shine and where you can pick up a pair of Red Wing work boots or the Green Roost for a life-size paper sculpture of a moose and earth-friendly gear for men, women, baby and home. Check out the license plate end of an aqua-and-white Airstream on display in the stylish shop.
Within a few blocks there are a myriad of dining options. For the gourmand there’s exceptional dining at Foti’s, whose Chef/Owner Frank Maragos is an Inn at Little Washington alumnus. The horsey set will appreciate the Pimm’s Cup cocktail properly served with a ribbon of cucumber.
Mediterranean-influenced cuisine tempts from It’s About Thyme, while fresh caught seafood lures like a sea goddess at the Copper Fish Seafood & Raw Bar where from 4 till 7PM you can slurp raw oysters at half price.
For downhome cooking there’s Frost Café, a 50’s throwback diner boasting booth jukeboxes and mega portions of Southern-style comfort food with all the fixin’s.
At the Raven’s Nest Coffee House you’ll find fabulous pies, quiches, scones, cakes and muffins baked by owner Jessica Hall. Local artists’ paintings grace homey brick walls, and the world music vibe is downright groovy.
Breakfast is a pastime in Culpeper and many purposely ease into their day with coffee and delicious muffins from Thyme Market whose umbrella-lined alleyway serves as a desirable respite for a glass of wine and cheese or a slice of “Orange Dreamsicle” cheesecake. Later in the day the pace quickens as locals pick up wood-fired pizzas and herb-crusted roast chickens for supper.
What to Do
In addition to the spots listed here, you’ll find wineries and farms to visit nearby. The Stillhouse Distillery at Belmont Farm is a half dozen miles out of town, but well worth the visit. It is the oldest craft distillery in the United States and where the corn, wheat and barley used to make the whiskey is grown on the 195-acre farm. Chuck Miller presides over the distillery and the family’s secret recipe that was developed by his grandfather during Prohibition. Try the “Virginia Lightning Whiskey”, a classic moonshine, or the “Kopper Kettle Whiskey” aged in charred oak barrels and similar to bourbon. Tours are offered throughout the day.
Among the many places to hop on a horse is the Equestrian Center at the beautiful Inn at Kelly’s Ford, a 500-acre property just off Route 29 where you can trail ride along the Rappahannock River. Afterwards stop in at Pelham’s Pub in the Main House for a hand-pulled pint to wet your whistle. On October 27th the inn will host a special Canoe/Kayak Wine Run and Gourmet Lunch. Call 540 399.1800 for reservations.
City leaders are betting that the $10M restoration of the town’s Art Deco State Theatre will lure audiences from far and wide with live music, comedy and dance and screenings of classic films. Working in partnership with the Smithsonian’s Library of Congress, whose Packard Campus houses the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center with its voluminous archives of classic films, the theater shows some of the greatest classic films ever known and has a highly active year-round schedule of performances including live comedy, dance and music. For tickets and information visit www.CulpeperTheatre.org.
Where to Stay
The country chic Thyme Inn is smack dab in the center of downtown Culpeper and offers Jacuzzi tubs, gorgeous high-ceilinged rooms with gas fireplaces, and downy duvets in a distinctly Old World European style. www.Thymeinfo.com
Or go modern at the Suites at 249, an equally posh boutique hotel adjacent to the railroad station. www.Suitesat249.com
All photo credit Jordan Wright.