More History Through Letterboxing

Friday, May 11, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

On the History Highway, Day 58:  Fishersville, VA to Danville, VA

After discovering last night that we were only seven miles from a Presidential birthplace, we had no choice but to drive to Staunton (pronounced STAN-ton) this morning.  On December 28, 1856, the local Presbyterian minister and his wife welcomed their third child and first son.  Born at the manse, the home provided to the family by the church, Thomas Woodrow Wilson was named for his paternal grandfather.  Called Tommy as a young boy, Wilson dropped his first name after college, preferring the more distinctive sound of Woodrow Wilson.


Wilson's family headed to Georgia when little Tommy was one year old, and the new minister and his family moved into the residence.  This continued with each new personnel change until Wilson was elected president in 1912.  After people learned that he had been born in this house, curiosity seekers would knock on the door night and day asking for a tour of the house.  Finally, the church built a new ministerial home and a local group in Staunton purchased the Wilson birthplace to be used as a museum.  An animated local resident provided an entertaining guided tour of the house, which is furnished as it would have been in 1857 when it was young Tommy's home.

One of the more interesting items on display in the museum next door was the 1919 Pierce-Arrow, which was Wilson's favorite car.  An early automotive enthusiast, Wilson liked to take daily rides in the car when he was President.  Since this was the day before convertibles, the car came with two bodies, the enclosed sedan pictured here, and an open touring car, which Wilson preferred.

President Wilson's 1919 Pierce Arrow
Hidden by a flag in this photo is a chrome AAA logo, which was mounted to the grill, a symbol of Wilson's membership in the fledgling American Automobile Association.  His membership card was also on exhibit.  

Given his characteristic solemn expression, a photo of the 28th President smiling was the most surprising item on exhibit in the museum.  Wilson was attending a baseball game with his second wife Edith during his second term of office and was photographed smiling (sort of) at the game.  Of course, that sparked our curiosity about why Wilson always seemed to look so grim.

President Wilson (photos from Library of Congress)
A bit of research revealed that Woodrow Wilson suffered significant dental problems.  The candid photo on the left was taken on his inauguration day in 1913.  The photo must have convinced him that a closed-mouth expression when being photographed was preferable.

After visiting the very interesting Wilson site, we started making our way south toward Danville.  With no letterbox finds yesterday, we decided to make up for lost time.  Our first find was at a local restaurant in Staunton, where we picked up a piece of letterboxing pie.

Afton Mountain Airborne
Just to the east near Afton, we cautiously visited a scenic overlook off I-64, where a couple and their dog survived a 2005 accident that sent their SUV plummeting end over end more than 200 feet down the side of a mountain after the vehicle struck a guardrail.  Since no one was seriously injured, the incident was perfect fodder for a letterbox, hidden at the overlook.

Our search for the next box on our list took us to Woods Mill in Nelson County.  After hunkering down in a Mobile, AL, college dorm in 1969, as Hurricane Camille approached and then dodged the city, I was very surprised to come across a letterbox related to that legendary storm in Virginia.


Having seen the destruction Camille wreaked when she made landfall on the Mississippi coast, I was startled to learn that two days later, the same storm was responsible for one of the worst natural disasters in Virginia history.  Nine hundred miles from the Gulf coast, Camille pulled in moisture from the Atlantic and dumped 27 inches of rain on Nelson County, an amount described by the National Weather Service as "the probable maximum rainfall which meteorologists compute to be theoretically possible."  The letterbox had gone missing, but taught us some interesting history.

In the hamlet of Lovingston, we located three clever letterboxes before moving on to Lynchburg, home to a wealth of boxing opportunities.  After finding a brilliant letterbox at 801 Main Street, we moved on to other areas of the city.  On the Randolph College campus, we were looking for a letterbox when we came across...(shhh)...Project Y.

Project Y, now known as Maier Museum of Art
In 1951, during the Cold War, the campus was chosen as the location of a confidential storage facility, code named Project Y, to be used by the National Gallery of Art in the event that a national crisis threatened the safety of its collection.  In exchange for ownership and eventual use of the specially designed reinforced concrete building, the college agreed to make it available for emergency use by the gallery for 50 years.  Never used for its intended purpose, the building today serves as the college's art museum.

The last stop in our letterbox-driven tour of Lynchburg—and certainly the most surprising was the Old City Cemetery.  As many fascinating cemeteries as we have visited while letterboxing, we found this one completely unique.  Established in 1806, it is one of the oldest public cemeteries in continuous use in the U.S.  But the 22,000 people buried there are only part of the story.

Station House Museum
The cemetery is also home to five small museums, an antique rose garden, a lotus pond and butterfly garden, a medicinal herb garden, and a dovecote.  For those who choose cremation, the cemetery has set aside a special place to scatter the ashes of the dead.  And when a beloved animal dies and is cremated, the ashes can be scattered within a special pet scatter garden on a bluff overlooking the pond, chapel, and dovecote.  The entire complex was quite remarkable and we were glad someone planted letterboxes to lure us there.

Finally and reluctantly we departed Lynchburg for Danville, getting into our hotel after 7 p.m.  With 13 finds, we considered it a productive letterboxing day.  Tomorrow we head to Charlotte for a Mother's Day visit with Ken's mom.

More Photos from Today

Memorial Dovecote at the Old City Cemetery
For those who wish to be cremated