In the shadow of Robert E. Lee
Lexington a small Virginia town steeped in history 40%
LEXINGTON, Va. — Every time I go to Lexington, in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, I pick up a historical tidbit or two. After all, the town is rich in history: It’s home to Washington and Lee University, founded in 1749, and Virginia Military Institute, founded 1839. It’s also the final resting spot of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
But I wasn’t prepared, when I pulled into town one Friday in December, for the trivia offered by my friend, Cynthia, a Lexington native. Bundled up for a drizzly, raw day, we met in the small parking lot behind the Georges boutique hotel, hugging as we said hello. Then she said, pointing across the way, “This is where Richard Gere was hung.”
“Oh!” I exclaimed. I had no idea what she was talking about.
She quickly clarified: In the early ’90s, Gere and Jodie Foster starred in Sommersby, a Civil War film, and a few scenes were shot in town. I made a note to rent the movie when I got home.
Situated three hours southwest of Washington and surrounded by the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains, Lexington is a town of 7,000 — a mix of retirees, students and families that keeps the historic downtown bustling. It’s a destination known for its farmto-table restaurants, where hard-core kayakers paddle on the Maury River year-round and the Christmas parade features tractors and goats. Lexington attracts its share of Civil War buffs every year, but even though war tourism is not my cup of tea, the town has enough appeal to draw me back time and again.
During my previous visits, I’ve gone on a llama trek at nearby Applewood Inn; taken a historic walking tour of Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery and antebellum homes; and overnighted at a refurbished caboose just south of town. But I set off for this weekend getaway with an ulterior motive. Cynthia and her husband, Dave, are considering leaving town for an idyllic mountain spot out West. I thought if I reminded them of all of Lexington’s virtues, they could be persuaded to stay on this side of the country.
After Cynthia set me straight on the hanging scene, we walked into the Georges, a newly renovated inn. Since I was staying down the street with Dave and Cynthia, I had asked the innkeeper for a tour. The hotel occupies two historic buildings, on opposite sides of Main Street, which had sat vacant for years. The opening of this property and the historic Robert E. Lee Hotel — both of which occurred in 2014 — represent significant investment in the heart of downtown and have created some buzz, not to mention much-needed lodging options. (The Robert E. Lee originally opened as a hotel in 1926 but had fallen into disrepair; it was used most recently by the city as subsidized housing.)
Cynthia and I saw several of the 18 rooms in the Georges buildings—- one of which is among the oldest surviving structures in Lexington. We saw crisp, clean, simply decorated rooms with original wood flooring, doors and windows, and ever-so-slightly crooked stairs that attested to the building’s age. We admired wide porches I wanted to return to in the spring, towel warmers and Frette robes in the bathrooms and views of House Mountain. Noticing all the attention to detail in the renovation, Cynthia repeatedly said she was delighted the new owners had given such love and care to the old buildings.
Downstairs, the innkeeper explained the price of each night includes full breakfast with chef-made everything, from granola to ketchup. On the way out, she pointed to the hot chocolate sitting out for guests and offered us some, with homemade marshmallows
a that proved so heavenly, I thought for a moment they alone could persuade Cynthia to stay.
That night, we split four small plates at Haywood’s, on the ground level of one of the Georges buildings. The restaurant sources its food from local places such as Polyface Farms and Buffalo Creek Beef, and we savoured our dishes — cheese grits, salad with pickled apples, braised greens and sautéed mushrooms so hearty they tasted like meat. For both of us, the bill came to less than $25.
We ran into Cynthia’s high school classmate, a bartender at the restaurant, who explained how she created the Traveller cocktail, named after Robert E. Lee’s horse. It’s a mixture of Lexington (Kentucky) bourbon, ginger liqueur and orange bitters, poured over ice. I added this to my list of things to try when it’s warmer. Naturally, the beloved horse is buried next to Lee’s crypt on the Washington & Lee campus. The hide of Stonewall Jackson’s horse, Little Sorrel, is displayed at the VMI Museum. One thing you need to know before visiting Lexington is that folk here take their horses seriously.
The rain continued through Saturday, so I spent hours in the town’s two bookstores, the Bookery (where you can find new and used books along with Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Traveller postcards, three for $1) and Books & Co. (new books, toys, puzzles and marbles). Then I walked up to the library, which was holding its monthly
Just north of Lexington, Virginia, Wade’s Mill is a working water-powered flour mill that was built in 1750.
The Maury River is an enticing spot for kayaking, even at near freezing temperatures.