By Ken Wilson –
You can spend a day driving Route 151, the “Brew Ridge Trail,” sampling beer, wine, cider and whiskey. You can spend the night at a bed-and-breakfast and make it a weekend. You can ski down Eagles Swoop at Wintergreen, hike up Spy Rock in the George Washington National Forest, or wax nostalgic at the Walton’s Mountain Museum in Schuyler, and at the end of the day you can dream.
Nelson County is the kind of place that entices people just looking around to, oh . . . buy a farm and open a cool business. People like Trish Becker who went to school here in the 70s, and came back in 2005, bought an old historic church, and opened up a restaurant and concert venue. Folks like Francesca San Giorgio who moved here from California in 1999 and bought a farm with a bed and breakfast. Both now sell homes in the county, helping other people find dreams properties like they did.
Named for Thomas Nelson Jr., the third Governor of Virginia and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Nelson County is bounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains to the northwest, and the James River to the southeast. It was first populated by Sioux, Iroquois, Monacan and Saponi tribes. Some Native American descendants still live there.
Today Wintergreen Resort is a mainstay of Nelson’s economy, bolstered by rejuvenated agri-business: farms, orchards, breweries, wineries and cideries. Portions of virgin land, preserved as part of the George Washington National Forest and Shenandoah National Park, attract tourists from across the country.
Perhaps the best way to see Nelson for the first time is to drive or bike the 50-mile scenic loop comprising Route 151, Route 664, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Route 56. You’ll pass through Piedmont foothills, cross the Rockfish and Tye rivers, and wander through the Blue Ridge Mountains. You’ll see Crabtree Falls, a spectacular series of waterfalls beginning at a height of 1,214 feet. In the spring you’ll admire azaleas, rhododendrons, and mountain laurel, and in the fall, glorious foliage.
“Local and Virginia history are drivers for Nelson’s tourism program,” said Maureen Kelley, Director of Nelson’s Economic Development and Tourism office. “These destinations dot the rural landscape of Nelson that visitors find so inviting. History lovers can find lodging in historical settings as well; many were constructed in the 1800 and 1900s.”
The Walton’s Mountain Museum in Schuyler(population 2,000) is the boyhood home of Earl Hamner, Jr., creator of The Waltons TV show, a hit program for nine seasons about a rural family in the 1930s and ‘40s. The home and grounds look as they did in Hamner’s days, with displays that include Hamner’s manuscripts, John-boy’s signature glasses, a moonshine still, and samples of the area’s soapstone, once the town’s chief product.
Oakland Museum, Nelson’s museum of history, is located in a former home and tavern that was built in 1838, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The museum houses exhibits on rural electrification and the effects of Hurricane Camille, a Category 5 hurricane that hit the county hard in 1969.
The Rockfish Valley Foundation Natural History Center, on the Rockfish Valley Highway at the intersection with Route 627 in Nellysford, is dedicated to preserving the natural, historical, ecological and agricultural resources of the Rockfish Valley. The Center is located in the former Wintergreen Country Store, now on the National Register of Historic Places and originally constructed in 1908, with additions from the 1920s.
A restored, early 19th century courthouse anchors the historic district in Lovingston (population 520 in 2010), a town dating to 1807, now the county seat.
Why do people move to Nelson? For the beauty, sure, but also because there is so much to do. “The music scene here is just phenomenal,” Becker says. “We have an incredible number of musicians. A lot of our musicians build their own instruments.”
Kelley has been here over 30 years, and boy does she agree. “There is so much to see and do as a resident. I don’t think I’d want to live anywhere else,” Kelley says. “I love the people, as well as their stewardship of the environment. I love the fact that Wintergreen is on the mountain and yet we have the beautiful Rockfish Valley and the Shenandoah Valley on the other side. I love the roads; I love the opportunities for outdoor recreation; I adore all the wonderful culinary businesses as well as the attractions.”
“It’s really different here,” San Giorgio says. “You have cultured people, but yet in the country. That’s a wonderful thing.” Many of her clients, she notes, like being close to the cultural offerings in Charlottesville and Staunton, while being just two and a half hours from Washington D.C.
“I think people love that. And also it’s affordable coming from somewhere else. I just spent a week in California—you think of the million dollar price range. Wow! Now I see why people come to Virginia or move away from Charlottesville: because they can afford a lot more acreage and a nicer house here in Nelson.”
Nelson is most definitely not suburbia, Becker emphasizes. “Not only that, but you can still buy pretty good tracts of land for a good price. The county is not like the parts of Virginia where everybody has bought everything and everything is high dollar. You can have the kick back experience without all the [tourists] staying—they come and they leave. So if you buy property here, you’re pretty much guaranteed to keep it the way it is.”
“Vacation homes are a real biggie” in Nelson, Becker says, and “a lot of people get good deals for investment property.” Wintergreen has a variety of homes, from cabins to ski lofts to condos. A lot of people from Washington will buy a condo and lease it for vacation rental; that way it pays for itself and they can use it for their families two or three weeks a year and it doesn’t cost them.”
For starter homes, “people have quite a choice. You can get a little…house on a couple of acres for $40,000 to $60,000. And a big thing for real estate here, especially for first-time home buyers, is the USDA Loan programs [that] are available around the whole county. For a young family—say somebody who’s just had their first or second child—they can get into a home no funds down pretty much.”
For young families, for second career dreamers, for active retirees, Nelson County beckons.