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Gordonsville in its glory during bicentennial bash

The town of Gordonsville, whose history was driven by intersections, food and conflict, celebrated its 200th anniversary Saturday with 250 or more well-wishers braving an evening snow to join the party.

‘A GOOD HOUSE’

It started in April 1787, one month before George Washington presided over the opening of America’s constitutional convention in Philadelphia. Nathaniel Gordon bought a 1,350-acre plantation in Orange County and operated a tavern at a crossroads there.

Stage traffic on the “Fredericksburg Great Road” and the “Richmond Road” kept the enterprise busy, and Gordon’s Tavern became a gathering place for notables, including Washington, Thomas Jefferson (who described it as “a good house”), James Monroe, Henry Clay and the Marquis de Lafayette, among others.

On Feb. 2, 1813, the tavern and its dependencies came to be known as Gordonsville, when Gordon was appointed its first postmaster.

‘A SPECIAL PLACE’

Welcoming the assembled crowd Saturday, Gordonsville Mayor Bob Coiner cited his town as holding “a special place in history, and a special place in our hearts,” and asked guests to honor the memory of the town’s founders and “those who spent their life working tirelessly for Gordonsville.”

Speakers, including 30th District Del. Ed Scott, Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairman Teel Goodwin and Orange County Historical Society President John Tranver Graham, added their congratulations to letters from President Barack Obama, Gov. Bob McDonnell, Sen. Mark Warner, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

The birthday party featured music from the Kenwood Players, the Gordonsville Community Choir and Duke Merrick and his band. Food offerings included BBQ Exchange, Fabio’s, Pomme and Gordonsville’s Famous Fried Chicken.

Young students of the Brushwood School of Dance provided an exuberant demonstration of their art. A documentary on the town’s history—“Gordonsville A Strong Fabric,” produced by Phil Audibert and Ross Hunter—was shown. Audibert noted that the entire range of background music for the production was performed by Gordonsville musicians.

RIDING RAIL COATTAILS

Railroads added to the town’s prominence in the early 1800s, when the Louisa Rail Co.’s extension of its line from Louisa Courthouse to Gordonsville brought growth and prosperity to the area. In 1854, the Orange and Alexandria Railroad completed another rail line to Gordonsville.

When Gordon’s Tavern was demolished at the site of the town’s major road intersection, a traffic roundabout —one of only two in Virginia at the time—was constructed there.

The railroad intersection became the site of a second tavern, owned by Richard Omohundro. Although that building was destroyed by fire in 1859, it was replaced by the Exchange Hotel, which still stands.

That hotel enjoyed a reputation as an elegant stopover for rail passengers, who also came to expect and appreciate the excellent fried chicken dishes sold through the passenger train windows by local entrepreneurs.

THE WAR YEARS

The intersection of two major railroads made Gordonsville a site of vital importance to the Confederacy during the Civil War. Troops from Richmond traveled by train to the First Battle of Bull Run in July of 1861.

The Exchange Hotel was used as a military hospital and triage site for wounded soldiers for a time, and its current identity as the Civil War Exchange Museum still features exhibits and demonstrations from that period, and provides a setting for re-enactments.

Though Union forces made numerous attempts to capture the strategic rail intersection, it remained in Confederate hands throughout the conflict.

One notable assault by Union cavalry was reportedly thwarted when residents commandeered a locomotive and, running it out of and back into town repeatedly with the whistle blowing loudly, convinced the attackers that large numbers of infantry troops were being brought in as reinforcements from Richmond.

That action was celebrated in the second verse of Barbara Drinkwater’s “Gordonsville 200th Anniversary Song” performed Saturday by the Gordonsville Community Choir.

“We backed up a train on Christmas Eve

Fooled the Feds dug in. ‘Attack us, they’d grieve.’

No blood was shed within our sphere

’Cuz the powers that be could handle fear.”

“Yes, we survived, and we did thrive

Knowing the truth keeps us alive.

And through the years, and all those tears,

We created, with will, our Gordonsville."

The evening’s festivities ended with Mayor Coiner cutting the bicentennial birthday cake, followed by a fireworks display provided by Pyrotecnico, launched from the snow-covered field behind the Gordonsville Fire House.

“We survived the Civil War, and the bleakest days of the depression,” Coiner said. “We flourished during good times, and survived the trying times. But during both, the fabric of this community has been strong, with unwavering commitment and unflinching resolve to create a quality of life for our families and neighbors unsurpassed anywhere in the country.”

Dan McFarland:

dmcfarland@freelancestar.com

 

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