The Hapsburg Historical Society printed this sketch by Ella Eulalia Finch as a pamphlet, available free of charge at its headquarters in the Lyceum. Miss Finch is a noted property owner, local historian, past president of the Garden Club, and sharpshooter.
From the early eighteenth century, white European settlers flowed into the Valley of Virginia in two distinct streams. One, pouring south along the Shenandoah River, was a hardy race of Scotch-Irish and Germans. The other, trickling westward through gaps in the Blue Ridge Mountains, was English, from the genteel lands of Tidewater and Piedmont. The confluence of these two streams has at times been turbulent.
The earliest known settler near the junction of Quicquid Creek and Willow Branch was Joseph Happ. A member of a German pietist sect called Die Bewegung (The Movement) similar to the Mennonites and Moravians, Happ established a grist mill here before 1750. He and his extended family had farms in the area. Other names that appear in sparse documents and on weathered gravestones include Michael, Heinrich and Johan Happ, as well as their spouses Anna, Emma and Sophia-Magdalena.
Happ’s mill stood where an existing road running north and south crossed the creek at a ford. Perhaps derived from an Indian trail or a deer track, this road was ungraded and unpaved, a natural route to the future. Stirred by talk of great cities sprouting in the wilderness, Joseph Happ aimed to capitalize on his location. In the spring of 1750, on a relatively flat portion of his land, an unknown surveyor staked a small grid of streets. This was the usual layout for a frontier settlement, with the existing road as Main Street. About thirty years later, as the area population grew, Quidnunc County was formed and named for the local Indian tribe.
The Quidnunc were a branch of the Algonquins who occupied the eastern Atlantic coastal region. Here they came into conflict with the Iroquois, who expanded aggressively from the north. In the incessant tribal warfare of the time, the Quidnunc fared poorly. When the whites arrived, they were ready to deal. Unlike the stock image of the taciturn warrior, the Quidnunc were talkative—incorrigible gossips, according to one account. Visited by rival missionaries, including a French Jesuit who wandered in from the Great Lakes, they readily learned English and converted to Christianity. Like other Native Americans, however, they lacked immunity to diseases brought from Europe. By 1800, through intermarriage and natural decline, they had vanished as an identifiable group. All that remains are a few place names and dialect words, and a local dish that resembles Brunswick stew.
The struggling village, which was identified on early maps as Hapbrucke, Happ’s Bridge or Hapsborough, acquired a new importance as the county seat. It incorporated as the Town of Hapsburg in 1783, the same year the Peace of Paris concluded the Revolutionary War. A courthouse was begun at once and completed the following year. Nothing is known about this structure, which may have been of rough-hewn logs, beyond complaints that it was drafty. It was replaced in 1799 by another wooden structure of which a sketch survives, showing a simple quadrilateral. In 1832, citizens raised money through a lottery to erect a neoclassical temple in red brick. This is substantially the building we see today. The block in which it stands was reserved as a public square or park, which attracted law offices, churches and public buildings to its perimeter. Now the center of town, Court Square is a classic set piece of urban design and a sterling example of Southern taste.
Hapsburg developed as a market center for agricultural products, as well as for legal business. The coming of the railroad in 1856 accelerated the trend. Roads were improved, more land was cleared, and the population grew. A crude wooden bridge over the creek was replaced by a stone and iron span in 1858. Businesses gravitated to an ill-defined area known as the Corner, where Main Street turned to meet the bridge. What promised to be a period of increase and prosperity was then rudely interrupted.
The Civil War of 1861-1865 spared Hapsburg from the wholesale destruction visited on cities like Fredericksburg and Richmond. Yet the Shenandoah Valley was the scene of three major campaigns and innumerable skirmishes. One of these, which took place in a field north of town in 1864, came to be known as the Hapsburg Engagement. Two foraging parties, one from each side, met by chance. Hoping to seize whatever supplies the other had scrounged, the parties exchanged verbal threats. A shot was fired—from which side could never be determined. More shots attracted nearby troops, and the scuffle escalated. The result was inconclusive, with few casualties. Nevertheless, local volunteers stage a reenactment each year, and the colorful event attracts onlookers and photographers.
For lack of material and manpower, the mills on Quicquid Creek closed during the war. In 1866, an enterprising man named Raphael Poindexter arrived from Massachusetts. With access to bankers in Boston, Poindexter acquired control of the mills, reorganized the operation, and launched the Hapsburg Iron Works. At first, it produced rails, spikes, struts and stanchions for the rapidly expanding railroads. Then it moved into rolling stock and machine parts. The foundry, as it was informally known, grew to become the town’s major employer in the late nineteenth century.
As his fortune rose, Poindexter bought the Belle Meade estate from its impoverished heirs. The mansion on Water Street faced the town, while the garden extended down to the creek, with a view of his industrial empire on the far bank. Anxious parents introduced the forty-year old bachelor to all the eligible maidens in the county, but he remained unswayed. Perceiving a need for “a more literate and rational helpmeet,” he started a school “for the edification of young ladies, especially those in reduced circumstances.”
Poindexter wrote to relatives in New England to inquire if an adventurous professor might be available. They sent a recent graduate of Harvard, one who had dodged conscription in the Union Army by reason of “impaired bowels due to excessive study.” Henry Aires became the first headmaster as well as the entire faculty. He made a remarkable recovery in the fresh air of the valley, where the food was also an improvement over Boston baked beans and cod.
The Poindexter Female Academy occupied a former overseer’s house and threshing barn on the estate. In the course of years, the mansion became Founders Hall, new buildings were added, and the Belle Meade property was transformed into a campus.
The Poindexter Girls, as they were dubbed, combined academic subjects with useful arts such as sewing, cooking and household management. In what struck contemporaries as a startling innovation, they participated in sports and gymnastics. Their reputation spread, and they were sought after as brides. Poindexter himself married an early graduate, Lucy Fox from Staunton, who then bore seven children in seven years. Aires followed suit, marrying a raven-haired beauty named Sarah Pike, said to be part Indian, who also proved to be prolific. Their girls attended the school, and descendants continue the tradition.
The academy became a college, and the college hired qualified women to teach. Following Aires’s retirement in 1896, Poindexter College chose as its president Minerva Watkins, a capable mathematician and formidable horsewoman. Her full-length portrait, dressed in riding habit and boots, hangs in Founders Hall. It has been an inspiration to generations of students, including the present writer. In the 1920s the curriculum expanded, with the addition of liberal arts, modern languages and music. To this day, however, each student must acquire a “marketable skill” in order to graduate. While not on a social par with other Virginia women’s colleges, Poindexter attracts girls who are determined to succeed.
To meet the needs of commercial travelers and summer visitors seeking escape from the big city, the Hotel Shenandoah was erected in 1898, near the railroad depot and bordering Quicquid Creek. A huge, wooden structure with three-story porches and rambling additions, the hotel boasted an elegant dining room, a bowling alley, and a theater for the presentation of lectures and vaudeville shows. In its heyday, it was the center of social life. It attracted luminaries such as Theodore Roosevelt, on a hunting trip, and the Canadian singer-actress-comedy star May Irwin. The hotel lost business through the 1930s, revived fitfully, and closed in 1966. It burned to the ground in a spectacular fire in 1997, one year short of its centennial. The vacant lot is now the site of a weekly Farmers’ Market and the staging ground for the annual Mayday Parade.
The Hapsburg Iron Works adapted to a changing economy through the twentieth century. During World War 2, it experienced a boom. The company produced metal parts for the Norfolk shipyards, and filled orders for tanks and other military equipment. Decline set in during the 1950s. By the 1990s the physical plant was outmoded and mostly idle. It fell victim to a series of corporate mergers, and early in this century it was shuttered for good. The great brick mills, stripped of machinery, with abandoned yards, raceways and sheds, await a new vision to bring them back to life.
To house mill workers, the town added rowhouses, double-deckers, and rental apartments. Largely intact, this housing stock avoided the monotony and wretchedness associated with its type, hinting at an enlightened paternalism by the Poindexters and their successors. Gingerbread adorns even the humblest dwellings, and front porches are ubiquitous. Throughout America, people once sat on their porches on a summer evening and chatted with neighbors. In Hapsburg, they still do.
Apart from an unsightly sprawl of automobile dealers, motels, liquor stores and nightclubs to the southwest, an area known as the Strip, Hapsburg has not seen significant growth since 1950. Built primarily of red brick, with gray slate roofs, white neoclassical columns, and black wrought iron railings in a bewildering variety of designs, the town seems to slumber, arrested in time. Church steeples dominate the skyline, with the baroque dome of Town Hall playing against the severe lines of the Courthouse, all softened by plantings of box and crape myrtle. Cobblestone streets surround Court Square, while Main Street offers shops, dining and art studios in actual nineteenth-century interiors.
Mature oaks and beeches shade the sidewalks. Residents tend their gardens, which yield a profusion of vegetables, herbs, and flowers, especially antique roses. Competition among gardeners is keen, and neighbors are quick to point out a broken fence or a weedy border. The Garden Club sponsors an annual spring gala, when private gardens are thrown open to the public, or at least to those who had the forethought to buy a ticket. Informal walking groups led by volunteers are a frequent sight in the summer months.
Hapsburg has achieved recognition as an Authentic Southern Town, is listed as a Designated Picturesque Landmark, and is regularly included among the 100 Best Places to Reside. The Chamber of Commerce and the Quidnunc County Visitors’ Bureau are both active. A website has been discussed. Visitors exclaim on the beauty of the physical setting, with mountain ranges to east and west covered in mature forest. The flowering trees in spring and the red and gold leaves in fall are especially attractive.
The Historical Society promotes public education on issues of preservation and adaptive reuse from its offices in the Lyceum, an eclectic structure that has at various times sheltered a library, a debate club, the Knights of Pythias, and literary lectures. The Society also remembers worthy figures of the past, whose descendants still live among us.
Churches are the key to ethnic groups. St. Giles Episcopal, the oldest structure in continuous use for worship, stands for the English, while Lane Presbyterian and First Baptist compete for a crowd of Scotch-Irish. Brickfront United Methodist harbors those of Welsh and Border heritage, and Paraclete Catholic has a motley group from all over. Black slaves were few in the area, but their descendants persist, as indicated by the Ebenezer Mission Chapel. Church attendance is high, choral singing is a cherished local tradition, and the ability to read music is second only to respect for the printed word.
If the pace of life is slow, and prospects for the younger generation limited, Hapsburgers are content. They take the world on their own terms, and the world returns the favor. Tourists are welcome to visit, and they are invariably charmed by the experience. Accommodations are few, however, beyond the Tea Cozy Bed & Breakfast and the Budget Motel. Those contemplating an extended stay are advised to seek out relatives or make private arrangements. As for real estate, it is next to impossible to buy property. When a rare listing does appear, someone who has long coveted it is apt to pounce.
About the Author: Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia, website boucheronarch.com. His stories, essays and book reviews are in Atticus Review, Bangalore Review, Digital Americana, Harvard Review, New Orleans Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Poydras Review, Work, and other magazines.