By Ken Wilson
You can hardly find a prettier name, or a friendlier, more community-oriented corner of Virginia than the lovely slice of the Shenandoah Valley called Augusta County.
Driving through Augusta, “You wave and people wave back,” says REALTOR® Kenny Sprouse. “Everybody’s friendly here,” agrees REALTOR® Laura Floyd, who, like Sprouse, is a lifelong happy resident. “It’s a great place to raise a family, with good schools for the kids to go to, and a lot of community involvement. People always look out for their neighbors.”
Named after an 18th century princess of Wales, mother to Britain’s King George III, Augusta County was established in 1738. Its territory at the time extended “to the utmost limits of Virginia,” which effectively meant all the way to the Mississippi, given that Britain claimed ownership that far west. West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and part of Pennsylvania were all eventually created out of the original Augusta County.
“Augusta County is one of the oldest counties in Virginia, and one of the largest,” says Waynesboro-born REALTOR® Debbie Shickel. “It has a lot of history.”
That history includes Grandma Moses (1860-1961), the folk artist who didn’t take up painting till age 78, but upon her death was recognized by President John F. Kennedy as “a beloved figure from American life.” Moses and her husband worked on Staunton-area farms for nearly 20 years.
That history also includes President Woodrow Wilson, whose Staunton birthplace—called the Manse—was built in 1846 and today houses his official presidential library and museum.
Dwight D. Eisenhower toured Wilson’s birthplace in October, 1960 and addressed a crowd of 5,000 on the front portico of Mary Baldwin College. Eisenhower also made time for the Stover property in nearby Fort Defiance, the white frame structure where his mother was born.
Some Augusta folks remember gathering in freezing temperatures at the Staunton train station in March 1969, to pay their respects to the former president as the train carrying Eisenhower’s body to its Kansas burial pulled in.
“You can see the Blue Ridge and the Allegheny Mountains here,” Shickel says. “It’s generally fairly green, and the climate is fairly temperate—cooler than Charlottesville in the summer, but we get more snow. Other than I-81, which is the bane of my existence, driving here is really nice; you can get on a back road and see animals and farm life and little villages where people still live, like Middlebrook and McKinley and Greenville.”
Augusta’s Diverse Economy
Dubbed the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy” during the Civil War, but subject to burning and wrecking under Union Major Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, Augusta County in the 21st century is culturally vibrant and economically diverse.
Manufacturing supplies many Augusta jobs today; Hershey Chocolate and the Target Distribution Center, both in Stuarts Draft, are among its most well-known employers.
“We have a very diverse economy,” notes Marshall Pattie of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors. “We survive economic downturns better than most communities do.”
“About 20 percent of Augusta County’s workforce is employed in manufacturing,” says Amanda Glover, Augusta County Director of Economic Development. “With companies like McKee Foods, Hershey Chocolate, Shamrock, PlyGem, and Daikin, Augusta County has a solid manufacturing base that tends to be concentrated in the Stuarts Draft, Verona, and Weyers Cave areas.
“Fishersville is our growing life sciences corridor, with anchors such as Augusta Health, Murphy Deming College of Health Sciences, and the Wilson Workforce Rehabilitation Center, among others,” Glover added.
“The greater Augusta County region is an optimum location for doing business,” says Annette Medlin, IOM, President/CEO of the Greater Augusta Regional Chamber of Commerce. “We are centrally located to high profile metropolitan areas; offer multiple modes of transportation including two Interstate highways, rail and air; have a blended business climate that includes manufacturing, agriculture, small business and a welcoming environment for start-ups.
“And, all these wonderful assets and this pro-business culture live in a geographical landscape that is remarkably beautiful. One fantastic package, that’s the greater Augusta County region!”
Training and Education
A great deal of training and education take place in the county as well. Mary Baldwin University in Staunton, founded in 1842, is a highly ranked residential women’s college which also offers an online program for both men and women and an adult degree program. Last year, for the first time in its history, it began admitting male residential students.
Blue Ridge Community College in Weyer’s Cave, founded in 1967, offers programs of instruction including associate degrees, diplomas, and certificates in occupational/technical and college/university transfer programs. The College also provides non-credit workforce training and special interest classes for individuals, business, and industry.
Family farms have been a major presence in Augusta County since the Germans, Scots-Irish, and English settled there in the 18th century. With 1,729 farms on 286,195 acres, Augusta currently has more farm acreage than any other Virginia county.
In terms of agricultural output, Augusta is the second most productive county in the Commonwealth, but it ranks first in the state for production of beef cattle and sheep and lambs, and second in milk cow products. Home to more than 30,000 head of beef cattle and 9,000 sheep and lambs, it is also one of the state’s largest poultry producers.
“The agricultural component is a big part of who we are as people and as a community,” Glover says. “The farms in Augusta County contribute to our beautiful landscape, and our agricultural heritage has shaped our strong work ethic for centuries. We have both traditional farming operations as well as fascinating agri-tourism destinations, including a farm-brewery with hops grown on-site.”
“A lot of people around here have mini-farms,” Shickel said. “They move here and want just small acreage; they want to be able to have a horse or a cow. A lot are getting goats now, and some people raise llamas. You have people who have organic farms, who participate in the farmers markets.
“A lot of people on farms are trying to give people the farm experience; some of the farms have been turned into little vineyards and wineries. Baron Ridge Vineyards was a farm at one time. Then you have people who raise vegetables and animals in small production. We have a big farm to table thing here, so a lot of the local restaurants get their meat and seasonal produce here locally.”
So do a lot of shoppers. The Staunton Farmers Market, open only to growers within a 75-mile radius of the city, dates to 1993 when it opened with just six vendors at the Wharf parking lot downtown. Nowadays the market is open seasonally on Wednesdays and Saturdays in the same location.
The Waynesboro Farmers Market is open from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. from May through October in the parking lot next to Waynesboro Pavilion at Constitution Park. The North Augusta Farmers Market at Government Center Market Dock in Verona is open Wednesdays from noon to 5:00 p.m. from April to November.
On Joel Salatin’s nationally known and highly influential Polyface Farm in Swope, livestock and poultry are moved frequently from pasture to pasture (or “to new salad bars,” as Salatin puts it), for the sake of soil maintenance and good nutrition. Polyface offers Self-Guided tours from Monday through Saturday, Grass Stains (guided) tours upon scheduled request, and Lunatic Tours (it takes one to take one) twice a month.
Gardeners love Andre Viette Farm & Nursery in Fishersville, where the tree and flower display gardens are open year round and stretch across more than six acres.
Beer lovers can spend a long weekend sampling Augusta’s brews and enjoying its scenery. Staunton alone has four breweries; Waynesboro has three more.
Stable Craft Brewing is located on a former horse farm, Waynesboro Stables, where Tennessee Walkers were once raised and trained. When Craig and Nikki Nargi bought the property and its 288-foot barn in 2006, they renamed it Hermitage Hill Farm and Stables and began running it as a horse boarding facility, but already they dreamed of hosting weddings, receptions, private parties, and corporate events.
Craig took their plans to Richmond and lobbied for legislation, eventually passed, that helped kick start the fledgling agri-tourism business. The renovated barn, with heat and air-conditioning, piped-in music, upgraded plumbing, and wiring, opened for festivities in 2008.
After a day in the country, a night on the town can mean great music, world-class Shakespeare, and the streets that time forgot. “Staunton is an older city with a lot of charm and character,” Floyd says. “I like to go downtown and support the many small businesses.”
REALTOR® Ed Davis concurs: “It’s like small town America still. It’s like a lot of seniors remember small towns used to be, when people knew each other.” And in recent years, “it’s become a little cultural center.”
The American Shakespeare Center celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, and its 17th in the handsome Blackfriars Playhouse, the world’s only re-creation of Shakespeare’s own indoor theatre.
While the Center performs some contemporary work, it is best known for its brisk and lively performances of the Bard’s own plays observing late 16th/early 17th century conventions: house lights up, actors doubling roles (and some Shakespeare-style gender confusion), minimal sets, and a sprinkling of songs. ASC Shakespeare is not stuffy.
Many sophisticated homebuyers flock to Staunton for the quality and diversity of its architecture. The city boasts homes and buildings in many noted styles including Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, Folk Victorian, Queen Anne and Colonial Revival. Perhaps most prized are the homes designed by local architect T.J. Collins, who designed or remodeled over 200 Staunton structures in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Waynesboro has its own great homes, but prices are lower on average, and it’s a good place to look for starter homes.
With the hospital bringing new people to the Valley, and with home prices about a third less than in Charlottesville, the area right around Fishersville, a town of about 8,000 people, is growing. In fact the city was ranked #1 in Top Places for First-Time Home Buyers in Virginia by Nerdwallet.com in 2015. (Stuarts Draft was ranked #6.)
Among the major local employers are Augusta Health, a 224-bed general medical and surgical hospital in Fishersville, Target Distribution Center, Hershey, Hollister and McKee Foods (makers of Little Debbie Snacks) in Stuarts Draft. The area has also become a bedroom community for people working in Charlottesville.
“I like the people, I like the history, I like the pace of life,” Shickel says. “You have a lot of educational opportunities, and the people here are friendly, and in Staunton we have a thriving arts community. There is a lot of charity work that goes on. But the lifestyle is not fast. It’s a slower pace of life. You can take part in any activities you want to and if you don’t feel like taking part you can be at home and do your own thing.”