Browntown, in the heart of Warren County, has a look about it that’s both interesting and unexpected to the newcomer.
“It’s just so well preserved,” said J. Daniel Pezzoni, of Landmark Preservation Associates in Lexington.
“I wouldn’t quite say a time capsule, but you almost feel like you’ve wandered into a New England village,” he said.
In truth, visitors would be wandering into a Northern Shenandoah Valley village, but that’s not to say Browntown isn’t an accurate reflection of the rest of Virginia.
“There are a number of communities that are similar in terms of architecture and historical interest,” Pezzoni said. “But this was certainly one of them.”
Browntown, he said, has “a high architectural integrity.”
It’s the village’s mix of architectural style that makes it look so much like New England, specifically Queen Anne, Gothic Revival and Italianate styles of the late Victorian era and the bungalow and Craftsman styles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
It’s also “the backdrop of the mountains,” said Pezzoni.
Recently added as a historic listing on the Virginia Landmarks Register, Browntown’s historic district covers nearly 75 acres of the village nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Browntown rose around the Brown–Updike Mill during the early- to mid-1800s, the description on the register explains.
The picturesque settlement took the form of a crossroads after the 1874 opening of Cover Tannery, which propelled its growth in the early 1900s with the establishment of stave and tool-handle factories that sustained the village economy, it says.
“The historic district encompasses 80 contributing buildings, mostly houses, as well as churches, stores, barns, a schoolhouse, railroad depot, and archaeological sites,” the description reads at dhr.virginia.gov/historic-registers/093-5032.
And yet it’s exactly that small-scale quality that kept it off the register for so long, explained Tom Lacombe, chairman of the Browntown Community Center Association’s Historic District Committee, which did much of the research for the designation and hired Pezzoni to write the nomination form.
Several years ago, Lacombe and his wife tried to get a designation for the historic district for all of Gooney Loop, but they received a lot of push back from residents who feared that an official government designation would place restrictions on properties and limit homeowners’ freedoms.
“We got so much resistance that we just gave up,” he recalled.
Then, about a year and a half ago, three local women and longtime Browntown residents — Gail Miller, Alice Grumbly and Linda Glavis, former South River supervisor — approached him to ask about getting that effort going again.
“We started working on it,” he said, and “this past week, it was accepted by the state.”
Now, he said, they wait for the national designation, which he expects to happen in about 45 days.
Though it took a while for Browntown’s historic district to get here, the fears of the past are not that unusual, said Randy Jones, public relations and publications manager for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources in Harrisonburg.
“It’s a common misunderstanding,” he said, but “that’s not the case at all.
“It’s an honorary listing. It’s an honorary designation,” he said.
People who list their home, business or any other area as a historic location are not prohibited from altering the structure, he said. Though if they change it too much, they might be “delisted,” he explained.
Still, he said, a property must qualify for the state and national register.
“Property owners apply for the register listing,” Jones said.
“It’s an involved process,” he said. “It has to be at least 50 years old, and a property has to have good and historic integrity.”
Browntown’s historic district is one of nine locations around Virginia added to the state register this month in the agency’s second-quarter meeting of the year.
“The number of sites per quarterly meeting can vary,” Jones said. “I’ve seen anywhere from six to 15 in a meeting.”
Once a site clears the state board, Jones said a second board forwards it onto the National Parks Service, which usually makes its decision within three months.
Lacombe, who owns O.J. Rudacille Gen. Mdse. country store in Browntown, moved to the area in 1979 and immediately joined the Community Center Association.
“I just fell in love with Browntown and I want it to stay the same,” he said. “I feel like Browntown is a very special place.”
Sharing his passion are about 15 to 20 others who he said regularly attend meetings.
“We’re always looking for more folks,” Lacombe said.
His store has been closed to the public during the COVID-19 pandemic, though he’s been taking orders from his home. Following upcoming renovations to the store’s front porch, he said he plans to reopen in the next few weeks.
After that, the next point of interest for him is to find a way to reopen Union Church, an 1882 church that, when it opened, housed four church communities — the Primitive Baptists, Southern Baptists, Lutherans and Methodists — which he said contributed a total of $1,600 to have it built.
The Primitive Baptists most recently used the church, he said, but they moved out two years ago.
“That particular church needs work on the steeple,” Lacombe said.
“The historic district, I hope it will encourage people to value the history that’s around them.”
Read more about Browntown’s designation and the other eight additions at https://tinyurl.com/f3my4na7.