A brief history of Greene County
By Jackie Pamenter
Greene County Historical Society
Greene County, covering 157 square miles and with a population of less than 17,000 people (and home to over 13,000 cattle at some times of the year), is one of the smallest and most rural of Virginia’s counties. It lies against the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are the oldest mountains in the United States. This area has been inhabited for many thousands of years. When the glaciers of the Ice Age receded, and forests sprang up, nuts, berries and game became available, and rock shelters and caves provided dwellings places for prehistoric man. Many stone axe heads that have been found in the County date from this period.
Much later, Native American Indians of the Monacan nation moved into the area, living in villages and farming as well as hunting. When white settlers came to Tidewater Virginia, hunters and trappers made the first contacts, but it was not until 1716 that Governor Alexander Spotswood’s exploratory trip over the mountains opened the area to settlement. Leading 63 horseman, he traversed the Piedmont (literally, ‘the foot of the mountains’) and crossed into the Shenandoah Valley at what is now Swift Run Gap, where a pyramidal monument commemorates the journey. Within a decade or so, most of the best land in what is now Greene County had been taken up in grants from King George I of England. The first remaining evidence of these white settlers is known as the Octonia Stone; it is a huge boulder scored with a figure eight (for eight grantees) below a cross, and it marks the corner of the original 1722 grant.
William Stanard, the grandson of one of the original grantees and the great-nephew of another, established the town of Stanardsville in 1794, along what was then known as ‘the Richmond Road.’ The two oldest buildings in the town, houses on the east side of Stanardsville Run, date from that period. Stanardsville soon became the largest town in western Orange County, but it was not until 1838 that Greene County, named after Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene, split off from Orange County. Another early immigrant to the County was William Monroe. Mr. Monroe, who died in 1767, left his estate for education after his wife’s death, and the County High School is named in his honor.
By the second half of the 1700s, the population of the area was still sparse, but local men and boys joined up to fight in the Revolutionary War, and several veterans of that war moved into Greene once the fighting was over. The County has its own stories of the Civil War. In 1862, when Stonewall Jackson was involved in his Shenandoah Valley Campaign, he called on General Richard Ewell to bring his division down into Greene County in preparation for joining the fray in the Valley. Over 8,000 men camped here, more than the total population of the County. A number fell sick, probably with typhoid fever, and were nursed in the Methodist Church and the Lafayette Hotel, as well as in private homes. Over 30 men died and were buried somewhere near the Shiloh Baptist Church, although the exact burial site is unknown.
In March 1864 Greene County suffered the inroads of General Custer and about 1,500 Union soldiers, who were on their way to Charlottesville. They burned bridges and mills, and in Stanardsville took the local men hostage until the troops’ return from Charlottesville. As the Union Troops retired through Greene County there was more sporadic firing. These scrimmages, which were written up and vividly illustrated in the March 26, 1864 issue of Harper’s Weekly, under the title ‘General Custer’s Raid,’ are now remembered as the Battle of Stanardsville.
Greene County suffered along with the entire state of Virginia and it took some years to recover. That the county did recover pretty well by about 1890 is evident by a number of Victorian houses in Stanardsville and dotted around the County, which were built at about the turn of the century.
By the late 1800s, many stores developed in the foothills to serve the mountain population. Providing postal services, a place to trade dried fruit and nuts for food, a place to get some medical services, and a place to socialize, there were stores at Fletcher, Kinderhook, McMullan, Geer, Haneytown, Huckstep, March and Dyke, among others. Their heyday lasted until the mid-1930s, but by now the Dyke store alone continues to prosper.
Also in the late 1800s, English Rev. Frederick W. Neve found his missionary field among the mountain people of the Blue Ridge. Ten of the 20 missions he established were in Greene County, beginning in 1904. The missions continued until the mid-1930s, when preparation for the Shenandoah National Park and the removal of the mountain people left them without anyone to help. Of the original 10, one became the present Blue Ridge School (a private boys’ school), and another became the Mission Home of the Mennonites.
In 1926 the privately organized Shenandoah National Park Association began a fund drive to acquire land for a park. The effort became a Virginia State project, with Virginia subsequently donating the land to the Federal Government. Creation of the Park required the removal of a number of families, 57 from Greene, and since many did not want to leave land their families had owned, or at least lived on, for generations, they had to be moved legally, and often forcibly. To house some families, 16 houses were built in the Haneytown area. People were to live close together, and work together; after 10 years, the government demolished these houses, and only their foundations remain today. The Park includes 14,619 acres of Greene.
The Civilian Conservation Corps, created in 1933, provided much of the labor in cutting shrubs and trees and in improving slopes and cuts along the Skyline Drive, which has some of its most beautiful overlooks and roadway in Greene. The creation of work for local young men was helpful in those depression days; however, the closing of other roads through the Park and charge for admission to land which had belonged to many in the county, contributed to bitterness in the area.
As early as 1835 Stanardsville had nearly 150 residents, five stores, two taverns, one tanyard, a saddler, one boot and shoe shop, a tailor, two blacksmiths, a wheelwright, one hatter, a gunsmith and a physician. Stanardsville became the county seat when Greene County was created in 1838, and a building boom started. Within a year or two the County had a Court House, Jail and Clerk’s Office; the Lafayette Hotel went up in 1840. Throughout its history Stanardsville has always been a convenient stopover for those crossing the mountains, so until 1930 there were several taverns or hotels. However, in 1930 and ’31 three fires destroyed the prominent Stanardsville hotels as well as a number of other buildings. While the hotels were not rebuilt, they were replaced by meeting halls, movie theaters, restaurants and other businesses, but the town has quietened down since then.
Ruckersville developed in the 1840s, and over the years became a significant little village, including a store, mill, blacksmith and post office. At one time there was even a race track. Other hamlets included Quinque, Amicus, Borneo, Celt, Dawsonville, Erald, Roudabush and Wetsel. These developed in the late 1800s and continued to thrive into the early 1900s.
The twentieth century saw many changes. But although the little stores and hamlets are no longer bustling centers, as easy transportation has made the little stores unnecessary, Greene County still has its own history, its own scenery, and it looks to the future.
2006 Media General