If it’s Orange County history you want, Frank Walker’s your man. First a dairy farmer and then a lawyer, Walker joined the Orange County Historical Society in 1984, where he served as president, secretary and tour guide after he “woke up to exactly how much was around.” Or you might talk to Long Island native Ann Miller, a research historian, who came to Virginia as a teenager and became “very, very fascinated with Orange County because there are a huge numbers of stories there.” Also happy to help would be Jayne Blair, a self-described “Civil War nut” from Texas who calls the Society and its extensive archive her “playroom.”
Walker, Miller and Blair are among a handful of dedicated individuals—amateurs in the original sense of the word (“ones who love”)—who have built the Society into the terrific resource it is today for anyone eager to learn about County history and culture. Present day Orange County, Virginia that is—not so much Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, the southern parts of Michigan and Wisconsin, and the western part of Pennsylvania, all territory which was once included. Although it’s just 17 by 37 miles today, the County extended as far as the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, “the utmost limits of Virginia,” when it was established by the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1734.
What is now County land was originally occupied by the Ontponea, part of the Siouan-speaking Manahoac tribe. British Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood, charged with overseeing the Virginia Colony, settled 12 German immigrant families—42 people in all—on the banks of the Rapidan River in what is now the eastern portion of the County in 1714. “The first significant patent of land in what would become Orange County was awarded in 1722 by King George I to Colonel James Taylor II,” Walker says. “It was an 8,500 acre tract, and most of the Town of Orange lies within its boundaries. One of Colonel Taylor’s direct descendants is living on a portion of that land today.”
These are only a few of the surprising facts to be gleaned from the Society’s reference library comprising over 2,000 volumes and more than 1,300 files. Did you know, for example, that it’s named for a prince of the House of Orange-Nassau who was married to a daughter of George II? That gold was mined here off and on from 1826 to 1937?
Essentially a research and educational organization dedicated to preserving and disseminating information on the history of the County and its related land, buildings, people, and events, the Society was incorporated in 1965 and currently numbers more than 200 dues-paying members. For the past three years, it’s been scanning and digitizing surname and historical property files. Ten months of the year, it holds monthly meetings. Its monthly newsletter “The Record,” publicizes members’ research, and its published books include Walker’s 2004 volume, Remembering: A History of Orange County, Virginia. “I am in awe,” Walker says, “of all the work that people do in and around the Society.”
Former executive director Ann Miller joined in the late 1970s. A transportation historian in her professional life, Miller extols the County’s “excellent records, fascinating buildings, cultural landscapes, and social and transportation history,” calling it “a very multi-faceted place as far as history goes.”
Her 1988 book Antebellum Orange was intended to expand upon a Society pamphlet on old County houses and buildings. She thought it would take her six months to write. In fact she spent nine-and-a-half years, researching deed and tax records, photographing pre-Civil War homes, public buildings and historic sites, and looking at the County “from an architectural and social history standpoint.”
Another Society publication, Pat Sullivan’s No Matter What Befalls Me: Virginia Families At War And Peace, benefitted from what Miller calls “box under the bed syndrome,” in which old family photos and papers, all but forgotten, are fortuitously retained upon the keeper’s death. The book’s essays span generations, telling tales, often in the first person, of early settlers, Civil War soldiers and their families on the home front, free blacks, and migrants from the North. “He has all these people very well documented,” Miller says.
Miller calls Texas native Jayne Blair, a Commonwealth resident since 1999, “a wonderful example of what someone with an interest can do.” That includes documenting the Civil War battle at Orange Courthouse (now the town of Orange) and the encampment of McGowan’s Brigade at Montpelier, and identifying the origins and death sites of the 139 men on the town’s Confederate Monument—“everything I can get my hands on,” says Blair, who is now working on Revolutionary War history as well.
There is much to see, and for the incurably curious, much to do. “I was really tied to the land for the first 40-some years of my life,” Walker says, “and I began the wake up to exactly how much was around me. I literally saw the earthworks of the Civil War battlefield and recognized them for the first time for what they were. You think of all the people and the tremendous struggle, and then you begin to read and you read about James Madison, Alexander Spotswood—phenomenal persons. You realize how many people lived all around you and what they have been doing on this land, and you begin to get a sense of these people. The first evidence we have is a Clovis spear point that was picked up on a farm near Somerset dating to 10,000 B.C. The Paleos were here!”
Nowadays Walker loves to engender that same awakening in fellow County residents. “People do not get interested in history until they get into their 40s,” he says. “Until then, they’re sure that they’re making history and that no one has ever done anything like what they have done. By the time they hit 40, they begin to realize that who they are and what they’re doing has been determined to a great extent by the people who went before them. At that point they want to know who in the heck they are and why they’ve been doing it.”
When they do, the Society stands ready to help. “Please come to our programs,” Walker says. “Come by and pick up a copy of our newsletter. We are open from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. on non-holiday weekdays. If you come in the morning, we’re locked up. That doesn’t mean we don’t like you—just that we’re open from 1 to 5 p.m.”