When the term tourism is tossed out, thoughts of boardwalks, colorful souvenirs, and amusement parks form the image.
Even though Shenandoah County doesn't offer any of the services usually associated with tourism, tourism has been important for county residents for over 170 years. Since people started moving through the Shenandoah Valley, county residents have provided services and reaped the benefits from the holiday makers or travelers who journeyed along Valley Pike, a connective corridor on the country’s eastern range and now part of U.S. 11.
“Tourism started in Shenandoah County long before the 20th century,” said county archivist Zach Hottle.
In fact, said Hottle, that familiar tower on the mountain between Woodstock and Edinburg was never a fire tower. It was built as a means to market the seven bends of the Shenandoah River, paid for by the Woodstock Chamber of Commerce and built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during The Great Depression. That tower is a perfect example of how the Valley’s natural beauty is not a new tourism goal but a familiar one, because the tower was designed as a means to encourage people to come to Shenandoah County, enjoy the natural and scenic beauty, and support local business when businesses needed it most.
Tourism was not only a way to market the area but a means of economic prosperity dating back to the mid-1800s, something that may have started as hospitality for travelers but morphed into a financial livelihood, Hottle said.
Even though 21st century visitors want parking spaces and leisurely comforts, they are not so different from visitors more than 100 years ago when comfort meant just a warm bed and a stable for their horse, such as the wooden structure behind the Woodstock Hotel, which later became the Walton and Smoot Pharmacy.
No need for a garage when the horse just needed hay and a rub down.
“All the little towns had places for people to stay and places for people to keep their wagons and horses,” said Hottle. “People had to stop. Horses can only go so far in one day.”
The Crabill Tavern, located between Maurertown and Woodstock on U.S. 11, was another place to stay overnight as distance between cities such as Winchester and Harrisonburg could take hours on horseback or in a carriage.
Hottle said local people saw the benefit on both sides — financially for the resident and accommodating for the traveler. “That’s when it all started,” said Hottle, explaining that as people began to move from one place to another the need for accommodations grew. There were numerous hotels — Edinburg, Strasburg, New Market (where running water and baths were advertised), and Orkney Springs; many located near the newest form of transportation — the train — but some miles were from any station.
In the later 1880s, the train started to move people from one place to another with greater ease and a faster pace; this created a new type of tourism — chauffeured drives and guided tours. Hottle said since the train stations were not always located near the destination sites, hotels hired drivers to retrieve guests from the station.
It might not be an Uber, but the service was a very early form of ride sharing or free hotel shuttles.
But these tourist destinations were not just for visitors since many families from the region spent summer weeks at the “springs” in Orkney Springs or Fort Valley. “The springs were very popular,” he said.
With the train came the guided tour — visitors to the Valley to witness Civil War battlefields. It might not be a double-decker London bus, but the guided tours brought people to the Valley.
“The war views” were very popular, said Hottle, explaining that many trains ran on special schedules to accommodate the spectators who came to visit the different historical sites. Because some of these sites were not adjacent to the rails, carriage rides and other means of transportation employed Valley residents to ferry the observers to and from the sites, often giving guided tours along the way.
Another example of this early form of ride sharing, were the “flag stops” for the Shenandoah County Fair.
Regionally, people were able to make the journey to Woodstock on the train. The station, formerly located on West Court Street, was two miles from the fairgrounds, so the fair association and various other aspiring entrepreneurs provided transportation.
“The train made a big difference” in Valley tourism as more people had access and got off the “great wagon road," which would have been pitted, dirty, and in most places unpaved.
As the 20th century dawned, the train lost its appeal as automobiles became more commonplace. And because the automobile replaced the train, a new type of tourism developed — tea rooms, local restaurants, and motels.
“Travel was still a journey,” said Hottle, so the Shenandoah County Automobile Association was formed as early as 1917, a means to encourage the county to maintain roads because good roads encouraged the movement of people, which in turn supported the livelihood of its residents.
Valley Pike became again the connecting vein between states and regions. Places such as Shenvalee Resort opened in 1927, a place of lodging and recreation, a 20th century evolution to tourism.
No longer did people just need accommodations, visitors and residents wanted to enjoy themselves, a demand that grew over the next few years as family vacations — by car — became popular and encouraged the development of places like Bryce Resort.
“This meant more cars, more roads, and more places popping up,” said Hottle, pointing to the growth in service stations, restaurants, and places like Uncle Toms Park, Crystal Caverns, and Cave Spring Resort.
“There was a radio show, a live broadcast” at Cave Springs Resort, located west of Edinburg, that attracted a large country-western music crowd, Hottle said.
As travel became more commonplace, marketing the Valley and the Valley’s treasures created a new form of marketing — the postcard. “Postcards became the advertisements for the Shenandoah Valley,” Hottle said. Churches, restaurants, historical points, and schools were immortalized on the fronts of postcards. These cards were sent far and wide, a means to attract people to the Valley as well as a keepsake for recipients."
By the early 1970s, the interstate highway redirected traffic off of U.S. 11, and local tourism refocused its aim. Hottle said the purpose of such places such as the Hall of Valor in New Market was to lure drivers from the interstate back into the small towns dotting the Valley Pike.
Now, because interstate or highway travel is part of many people’s everyday existence, towns along the Valley Pike are seeing a resurgence of visitors because “today, people want off the interstate,” said Hottle, explaining that events such as the Edinburg Ole’ Time Festival and monthly events in towns along the Valley Pike are attractive to people who want to enjoy what Jenna French, director of Shenandoah County Tourism and Economic Development, calls “more authentic experiences that are unique to a destination.” In addition to food events, musical entertainment, and natural recreation sites, this includes the growing number of wineries and vineyards.
“We see an increase in people taking to the trails by foot, bike and even horseback throughout the George Washington National Forest which is evident by the volume of cars parked along trail heads in Fort Valley, the Wolf Gap Creation Area and Crisman Hollow Drive or the number of trucks towing ATVs and OHVs through the county to take advantage of the Peter’s Mill and Tasker’s Gap trails just outside Edinburg,” she points out.
“The Valley’s spectacular scenery will continue to be a driving force of our tourism economy as people find new ways to not only enjoy it outdoors but also conserve the resources we hold dear," French said. "Conservation is a subject that is increasingly important to younger generations and ecotourism is a buzzword we are starting to hear more and more."
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