Nothing draws visitors into the vortex of the historical past quite like a ride in a horse-drawn carriage.
Lexington’s past seems to resonate in the steady clip-clop of the horse hooves as they negotiate the brick paved streets. The unrushed pace is measured and relaxing. The modern world -somehow – slowly seems to slip away.
Brothers Arron and Abe – two Haflingers – with the Lexington Carriage Company offer visitors to Lexington, Virginia, an entertaining and informative tour through Lexington’s historic streets.
The two brothers are part of a team that often includes Shana Layman, the owner of the carriage company who seems – almost casually – to direct her superbly-trained equine team through traffic and down constricted residential byways.
“It’s fully narrated the whole way around. We cover all of the business and historic districts as well as the residential section that dates back to the 1800’s,” said Shana Layman. “We give you a good overview of all the other attractions. When you get off the carriage, you know where to go next and what’s of interest to you.”
The Lexington Carriage Company tour begins at the carriage stand across Washington Street from the Lexington Visitors Center. Most of what folks see from the carriage is what they would have seen in the 1800’s.
Lexington was once known as the Crossroads to the West. German immigrants from Pennsylvania came down the Great Valley Road which is Route 11 and Interstate 81 today. Many settlers made a right on the Midland Trail which is Route 60 – and headed west.
A lot of people came through the area where Lexington is today. This was a safer way to come – away from the more warlike Indian tribes. Some decided to settle in the area, particularly because of the rich farmland. Agriculture today still remains the main industry and the backbone of the economy.
“They also liked the area for these steep hills. They thought it would be easier to defend the town from attack if it was at the top of a hill,” said Layman. “Initially, everything was kind of crowded together at the top of this hill. The buildings were so close and a little more prone to fire problems.”
In 1796, the stable fire raged out of control and destroyed the entire town as it went from one building to the next. That morning Lexington had 300 structures. At the end of the day, only two buildings – one stone and one brick – survived the fire. For the next 100 years, everything built in Lexington was built of brick or stone.
The hill that had so much appeal in the 1700’s as a reason for settlers to put down roots in Lexington became a safety hazard in the 1800’s when commerce increased and the horses pulling the wagons were struggling up the hill with heavy loads. It was decided – in the interest of commercial safety – to level the streets and each citizen had to participate in that labor.
“It started out at the intersection we’re coming to next. It bottlenecked as they came into town,” said Layman. “Of course, the streets were dirt so when it rained there was mud. It was the job that just kept giving. The more they did, the more had to be done.”
The 19th century hill leveling effort is apparent in front of the Stonewall Jackson House which was built in 1800. The front doors where the brick and stone meet were originally at street level.
“After twenty years of working on the street, they decided that what we enjoy today was indeed level,” said Layman. “It’s as good as it would get anyway. They were done digging.”
Arron and Abe pause – without apparent command – before the Stonewall Jackson House as their “team leader” Shana Layman briefs her passengers on the history of the house – and on Major and Mary Anna Jackson.
“This is the only house that Stonewall Jackson ever owned. He and his second wife Mary Anna bought it in the later part of 1858,” observed Layman. “They ended up living here for only a little over two years. He was called off to battle in 1861. That was the last time he ever saw Lexington.”
When it was clear that her husband was not going to return home anytime soon, Mary Anna left to live with her family near Charlotte, North Carolina. She owned the property and rented it until 1906 when she sold it to the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The UDC turned the former Jackson residence into an 18-bed hospital, the Stonewall Jackson Hospital. It served as Lexington’s only hospital from 1906 until 1954. Today, it is the Stonewall Jackson House, a part of the VMI Museum System.
Arron and Abe pause – as if on cue – again at a yield sign on Main Street near Virginia Military Institute.
VMI is the country’s oldest state supported military school, and it’s the only school to send its entire student body of to battle – the Battle of New Market in 1864.
“Stonewall Jackson taught here. Of course, he wasn’t called Stonewall. He would have been called professor. He taught Natural and Experimental Philosophy and Artillery Tactics,” said Layman. “He wasn’t the most well-loved professor that ever graced the halls of VMI,” she noted. “It’s ironic that they didn’t like him so much as a professor, but they begged to serve under him as a general.”
Layman and her team of Haflingers merge deftly into light traffic on Main Street and turn right onto Washington Street. The carriage cruised slowly past R.E. Lee Memorial Church, Lee Chapel, and the Lee House.
If you look over the trees, you’ll see the Lee Chapel. That was designed by Robert E. Lee as the assembly hall. He designed the chapel for the purpose,” explained Layman. “Lee and his family are buried in the basement of Lee Chapel. His beloved horse, Traveller, is buried right outside.”
Layman points out the Lee House, a residence with a large gray porch and low white railing. It was designed by Lee to accommodate Mrs. Lee’s physical limitations. The Lees lived in this residence when he served as president of Washington College.
“Mrs. Lee had rheumatoid arthritis. Lee designed the Lee House to give her some freedom,” said Layman. “Her bedroom was on the first floor which was unheard of then. It had a step-out full wraparound porch, low railing. And the windows are lower than would’ve been typical,” she noted. “It was a very nice change for her, I would imagine.”
Mrs. Lee was known for sitting out on her front porch and chatting with students. Apparently, noted Layman, once she pulled a student into a conversation, he was stuck there for a while. It became an automatic excused tardy if scholars were late to class because of Mrs. Lee.
Arron and Abe – and their carriage of visitors – roll past the Lexington’s Post Office built in 1911 and on to the beginning of Lexington’s oldest residential section. On the right side, houses date from 1810 to the early 1820’s. On the left, the homes are from 1880 and later.
“When the ones on the right were built, their estates went another block over so we are cruising through what was originally the front lawn,” said Layman.
Layman points to the Beaumont, an elegant home built in 1824 by Samuel Darst, a well-known builder of the era. He was a partner in Jordan-Darst Construction, the company that built most of the homes in the early 1800’s. Jordan-Darst also did the brickwork for Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
The carriage rolls past the Preston House, the home of John Thomas Lewis Preston, the primary founder of VMI. During the Civil War, Lt. Colonel J.T.L. Preston served in the 9th Virginia Infantry under the command of Stonewall Jackson.
VMI was burned by forces commanded by General David Hunter following the Battle of New Market after cadets from VMI were victorious over Union forces in 1864. Hunter’s came to Lexington to retaliate against the school and those associated with it. He had a “hit list” with the names and residences of those connected with the military institute.
Preston’s wife – Margaret Junkin Preston – stood on the balcony of her home and watched VMI burn. She wrote a poem about it.
When Hunter and his minions came to burn her home, Margaret Junkin Preston met the Federal marauders at the door. She informed the soldiers that it was not a convenient time to burn her residence.
“She was a spunky little woman. She was a Pennsylvania woman. Everybody but her went back to Pennsylvania at the beginning of the war,” said Layman. “She was about 4 foot 10 with bright red hair and a temper that you didn’t want to cross.”
Margaret Preston had no intention of backing down. Her husband was home. She was caring for a wounded cadet, and she had a six-month old baby to tend. After three days of negotiation, the Federals agreed not to burn her home if she would confirm that there was no contraband on the property.
Stonewall Jackson’s sword was hidden in her piano. Her father was a Presbyterian minister so outright lying was out of the question. She asked the soldiers to wait while she went in to get the baby. While she was in the house she picked up the sword and slipped it up under her skirt.
“She came out and stood on the city owned sidewalk so she could truthfully say that she had nothing on the property that could be considered contraband, Layman said. “They did not burn her house. Tough little woman.”
Arron and Abe continue to deftly wind their way through the narrow residential streets lined with 19th century dwellings, past stately and not so stately homes.
On White Street, they cruise by the home of Michael Miley, a notable Lexington photographer. Miley opened a studio in Lexington following the Civil War in 1866. Miley frequently photographed General Lee and the notables who came to Lexington to visit him.
Miley’s photographs are highly regarded for their aesthetic quality. His most famous photograph depicts Robert E. Lee on Traveller at Rockbridge Baths.
“He developed the first color processing system and sold it to the Eastman Kodak Company so he is known as the father of color photography,” said Layman. “Michael Miley took the only picture of Lee in uniform after the war was over.”
Arron and Abe turn left onto Main Street and pause again outside the entrance to Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery. One hundred yards away, the Stonewall Jackson Monument stands resolutely over the remains of General Stonewall Jackson and members of his family.
“Jackson and his second wife Mary Anna, their infant daughter Mary Graham, their other daughter Julia, her husband, and a grandson. They are all buried there,” said Layman. “There’s a plaque for his great great grandson who was killed in WWII, but his body wasn’t recovered.”
The cemetery dates back to 1797. It originally was the cemetery for the Presbyterian Church which stood in the back corner. The cemetery held the remains of 800 people. After the Presbyterian Church burned down, it became known as the Main Street Cemetery. The cemetery is one of the few in the country that embraces the remains of veterans from every war Americans have fought in – even the French and Indian War. Forty-seven revolutionary War veterans are buried here along with more than 250 Confederate veterans. Three Virginia governor are buried here.
Halfway down the paved walk – about fifty years from the monument – within the confines of a plot guarded by a wrought iron fence, the remains of Elinor Junkin Jackson, Jackson’s first wife, and their stillborn son rest in peace.
“Jackson was buried next to them originally, but in 1891, they dedicated the cemetery to him and he was moved to the center where the statue is,” explained Layman. “Miss Elinor was left right where she started because Mrs. Jackson Number Two was in charge of those proceedings,” she noted. “Some things don’t change. It doesn’t matter what century it is.”
The tour is near completion. Arron and Abe know that they are in the home stretch. Their pace picks up – just a little – as they think of the water and snacks that await them at the carriage stand on Varner Lane across from the Visitors Center.
“We just came to tour the town. Eleven of us came,” said Brenda Spencer, a carriage guest who hails from Lewisburg, West Virginia. “It was very informative. This is the fourth time I’ve been on the tour, and I’ve enjoyed every one of them,” said Spencer. “Even though we’re familiar with the Civil War history, it’s still interesting to hear it again.”
The Lexington Carriage Company tour is a relaxing way to see Lexington without leaving the comfort of the carriage. It’s a great introduction to the history of the town, but it’s just a beginning. The carriage tour creates a desire to get out and explore on foot what this unique Virginia town has to offer.
Carriage tours last 40 to 50 minutes. Carriages -although they may pause briefly – do not make stops along the way. Carriages may be reserved for special events, group tours, and weddings by appointment.
Normally 2 to 3 eight passenger carriages operate daily from April 1 through October 31st – including holidays (except in inclement weather). Fares for adults and children 14 and over range from $14 to $16. For additional information about Carriage Tours of Historic Lexington call 540-463-5647 or visit www.LEXINGTONCARRIAGE.COM.
-By Bob Ruegsegger
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