The Heritage of Madison County, Virginia
By Marilyn Poris


“A knowledge of history should arouse within us pride for the noble deeds of our ancestors. That pride and interest extends to all Americans the love and heritage of common traditions which should bind us closer together and form for us a common heritage” 1.  Madison County, Virginia, can be viewed as a microcosm of our nation at large and yet, like all local areas, it has its uniqueness; one that is central to the start of America.

The original land grant of Virginia extended from the Atlantic shores to the Mississippi river and consisted of varied topography: the Tidewater section along the shore which is low and relatively level, the Piedmont to its west which is hilly and begins at the fall line of the inland rivers, the Blue ridge Mountains which begin as the hills of the Piedmont get higher, the Shenandoah valley nestled west of the Blue Ridge and east of the Alleghany Plateau which forms the eastern spine of our nation. Madison County lies on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Piedmont section of the Commonwealth of Virginia and occupies 336 square miles.

The ManahoacPrior to the arrival of the Europeans, Indians of different tribes inhabited the land. In the Tidewater we find the Powhatans, a peaceful sub-group of the Algonquins. Further inland in the hilly Piedmont and mountainous Blue Ridge lived the Mannahoac, a more warlike tribe which belonged to the Sioux nation. The latter group, whose artifacts date back to 6,000 BC, were area nomads who, like so many Native Americans, were hunters and gatherers. They survived by hunting plentiful game and gathering edible food. What is now Madison County was part of their roaming land which they fought to protect.

Enter the Europeans who brought with them their lifestyles and values which, over time, developed and modified through necessity and became the foundation of America. The story of Madison County begins with the settlement of Jamestown in 1607. As more immigrants arrived, they started to move west for more room. Those who had arrived at Jamestown traveled inland by boat along the James River to the fall line whereupon a new mode of transport was required, that of wagon, horses, and supplies. Trails were established by the travelers who followed by word of mouth and by markers. One of the earliest markers was in what is now the Richmond area and consisted of a large tree with three axed gouges in its trunk. Settlers were advised to turn onto the trail at the “3 chopped” tree. To this day Three Chopt Road exists in Richmond whose general east/west direction has ultimately been augmented by route 64. Along the westward trail, entrepreneurial settlers established trading posts which satisfied the needs of the travelers. Meanwhile more immigrants were arriving in the Philadelphia area to the north and some, like Jamestown, started westward. They traveled to what is now Harrisburg then turned south toward Virginia. They then diverged and some become northern Virginia’s First Families, some started farms in the Shenandoah Valley, and some headed eastward and settled Piedmont areas. These settlers were English but simultaneously, Germans were on the move to the new world. John Lederer, a German physician, was the first white man on what became Madison county soil. He came to explore with three Indian guides in 1672, crossed the Blue Ridge and saw the Alleghany Plateau, and concluded there was no end to the mountains in this new land. Following that, in 1716 the Spotswood expedition of 50 traveled through Madison County area to west of the Blue Ridge and in their report described the land’s large timber and plentiful game. Queen Anne then established a land grant for German settlers, which became known as Germana and their colony grew. As Lutherans, their motivation to migrate was to avoid persecution by the French and Spanish and this new land provided the freedom they sought. With deep English and German roots, as they settled, what were their lives like?

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Full throttle white settlement of the area began in the early 18th century. They settled in groups for defense against the Indians, for company, and to help satisfy each other’s needs. The valleys supplied the farm land, for which they had brought seeds from Europe, and the hills and mountains supplied valuable lumber, plentiful game, and water in four rivers that empty into the Rappahannock. In 1792, Madison was carved out of two existing counties: Orange, established in 1734 and Culpeper, established in 1748. The people valued the rule of law and attendance at church as well as farm production and iron work. They built the Hebron Lutheran Church which still stands today and they met in homes to discuss laws and punishments until the courthouse was completed in 1793. They made many of their needed tools and set all of this in the agrarian society they established which continues to this day. Their European roots were indeed spreading and so was the word … Irish and Scottish settlers soon joined them. The settlers planted vegetables, grain, and fruit trees while they also gathered nuts and berries and fished the rivers. They started needed trades such as blacksmithing, basket making, and crocks and barrel making. They grew flax, spun it, dyed it, wove it, and then made clothing. They used herbs and mid-wives for health and medical needs and in 1793 they built their first mill on the Rapidan River. Their skills and vision were amazing and yet they believed that what they didn’t have, they would do without. As all this developed, they dealt with the Indians. Their confrontations were not war and slaughter but defense when attacked and gradually the Indians felt their lifestyle to be cramped and moved west to “greener pastures”. Additionally, they tended to follow herds which were moving westward and thereby thinning out their hunting grounds. Difficult accomplishments by the early settlers are at the root of Madison’s proud heritage and why it has chosen to remain a rural agrarian community.

Land grants issued by King James stimulated the flow of settlers. Among them are names you still hear today which can be traced back to those land grants. Remembering that the originals were English and German, some of the family names are Aylor, Carpenter, Shotwell, Finks, Weaver, Ballenger, Blankenbaker, Clore, Cook, Crigler, Zacharias, Kerker, Lang, Moyer, Smith, Snyder, Utz, Yager, Waugh, Slaughter, Thornton, Wheatley, Strother, and certainly Madison. In 1723 Ambrose Madison, grandfather of President James Madison, was granted 5,000 acres in what was then Orange County. Later, when Madison County emerged, it was named for this acreage which was part of the new county, though originally the family resided in Orange County. John Fry, an Englishman living in Williamsburg, decided to patent land in Madison County and so he invested in it without residing there. He and Peter Jefferson, Thomas’ father, mapped land and later his son, Henry Fry, moved to the patented land and named it Meander. Most of these settlers lived simply. They visited each other with large food spreads. Weddings were a two day celebration with one day at the bride’s home and the second at the groom’s. Dances and parties were held in private homes with a fiddler. They played ball and horseshoes, men had corn huskings, and women held quilting bees and rug-making contests.

Madison County (Images of America Series)No path remains unimpeded and so too Madison County’s development over time has born external issues. In 1754 a group of “Separates” left the Anglican church in New England, came to Virginia, and became Baptists. Their first congregation in Madison in 1773 at Wolftown, yields more “old names” in the county: Jarrell, Early, Berry, Powell, Lam, Harrison, Rucker, Leathers, Eddins, Davis, Graves, Dulaney, and Brown. In 1790 the Baptist church of Criglersville was established with 76 charter members. Due to poor communication and travel, communities became responsible to their citizens as separate entities with the churches reflecting that mentality. Another external group to settle in Madison County was the Mennonites who, in 1896, passed through and like what they saw. Today they number over 600 and enjoy running “Yoder’s” store with food products that are widely known.

In 1868, after the Civil War, Antioch Church was organized by the existing Beth Car Church to service the county’s black population. Early in the county’s history, the German settlers in Hebron Valley had bought some slaves to develop glebe lands and to build a schoolhouse. Though not as prolific as the southern plantations, slave numbers increased. Some were freed by their masters before 1800 and some made money and purchased their freedom. If mistreated, the slaves were able to sue their masters and many attained freedom in the masters’ wills. After emancipation many slaves stayed on the farms and worked for wages. Sometimes their former masters helped them achieve financial independence; James Strothers was the first to open his own business, a harness shop. Some former slaves secured an education and became ministers and teachers. After the Civil War, black children went to school in Culpeper at the EW Carver school. Integration began in 1966-67 at the effort of Wm. Wetsel and the Carver school became a vocational school. During the 1800s, white education took place in the churches and at home while wealthy families hired tutors for their children.

Madison men served in every war in which the nation took part and under Lee for the southern cause in the Civil War. Few of that war’s battles were fought in Madison County itself and none of the major ones took place here. The largest battle in Madison County’s Civil War history, in which the southern Stuart’s cavalry fought the northern divisions under Buford and Kilpatrick within the county , was the battle of Jack’s Shop. Skirmishes that occurred here were Barnetts Ford at Wolftown, one near the Madison Courthouse, White’s ford, and the capture of Union pickets on the Robinson River. The county, known during the war as The Wilderness, was primarily used for passage across the Blue Ridge as armies moved toward campaign grounds.

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One of the Corbin Boys, ca. 1935

In the early 1930s, the Commonwealth of Virginia condemned homes and displaced 500 families from Madison and neighboring counties, who lived in the Blue Ridge mountains, to establish Shenandoah National Park. In the search for a site, George Freeman Pollock promoted the Skyland area of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley to be included. President Hoover, who had built a summer home in Madison County, was anxious to support the establishment of the national park after President Coolidge had signed the bill for it. One-sixth of Madison County became part of the park and many of its people who lived in the park area (mountaineers) were resettled nearer to town. Some of them headed west into what is now West Virginia, the mountaineer state. The process was a difficult one since these people had built families and lives there and were suddenly uprooted. The mountaineers had been, for the most part, squatters who lived on timber, game, nuts, and berries. They started in 1 room log cabins, made additions, replaced those with frame houses and developed trades such as basket weaving, making barrels, clothes, shoes, and handmade iron tools for their work. They used kerosene heaters and they cooked on their fireplaces. They developed apple peelers to prepare fruit slices to be sun dried on shed roofs and then to be traded for supplies at the general store. They bought their coffee and also used the coffee mills to grind corn and spices. There is evidence of many stills where they made whiskey and peach brandy. They left vintage cars with wooden wheel spokes and gravity flow gas tanks. For the most part, they lived in unstimulating isolation, spoke 18th century English, home taught the children, and developed self-sufficiency. They had no organized religion and few options for marriage which led to inbreeding and family feuds. Since, as squatters, they had no deeds, their land could be taken and several were literally thrown out of their homes but along the way; many became engaged in the fight. These mountain people had been viewed as illiterate and feeble minded when in fact, they were simply uneducated. They learned to read the statements pertinent to them and began to understand the rhetoric that was used. They then entered the discourse and their letters to the government agencies displayed their abilities and the fact that what they wanted was for the park people to keep things fair. Ultimately they went through the major trauma of being forcibly removed and left to find jobs and leave their extended families … their only source of socialization. A few, however, remained in the general area at the mouths of passes through the mountains (Thornton, Swift Run, Bootens), referred to as Hollows, where they made livings in service of locals which included mill complexes (sawmill, gristmill, blacksmith stave mills). They continued the crafts of barrel making, and working on looms to make fabric and they lodged travelers who sought rest before crossing the mountains. These people remained uneducated, cut off from world activities, and live with their own mores and customs. They are essentially Anglo-Saxon stock and are known as Hollow Folk.

In remembrance of the CCC, the bronze statue "Iron Mike" stands in front of Shenandoah's Byrd Visitor Center.

CCC’s “Iron Mike”

The park became an asset during the great depression. With the nation facing no work and a plethora of hoboes, President Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933. The object was to pay young men to work on conservation projects throughout the nation which included Shenandoah Park and thereby gain employment skills and values … a work ethic through productive experience. Additionally, those involved in the program spent money locally. Local youth involved in the program maintained their values which came from their families and churches and liked a small frugal government despite the program helping them. They worked in large highly structured and disciplined groups and sent money home.

External events that have also impacted the people of Madison include tree blights. Lumber, the county’s rich resource, has suffered setbacks here as well as nationwide. In 1800 there was a Pine blight, in 1918 a Chestnut blight, and in 1920 a Locust blight. Efforts to plant and regenerate these trees have met with limited success, all of which has curtailed local lumbering. Many residents of Madison succumbed to two major epidemics; the smallpox epidemic in 1850 and the flu epidemic during World War I. Though these events had lasting effects, perhaps one other, which occurs periodically, has generated setbacks and major work to overcome, that of floods. Given all the richness that Madison enjoys with its natural beauty, rich soil, and weather protection from the mountains, one could predict the possibility of floods. The county lies in the path of four rivers and melting snows and has felt nature’s anger. In recent recorded history, there have been six floods, the worst of which occurred in 1995. On June 27th, 30 inches of rain fell in 16 hours generating mudslides from water saturated soil. Rodney Lillard, one of the “old families” who lives in the flood zone, was quoted as saying, “We could see water, rocks, and trees 15 feet high coming at the house” 2. VDOT had to use a metal detector to find a 30 ft. bridge at Garth Run which was under flood debris. With over 100 million dollars in damage, it was declared a federal disaster area. Radiocarbon dating of plant remains near Graves Mill shows such activity over the course of 34,000 years. Each time the devastation is overwhelming as is the work needed to restore normalcy. The entire county community pitches in to restore itself in every way needed for survival. After all, in times of trouble, Madison County, like so many American rural areas, is like an extended family.

The county’s economy has always been dependent on farming. In 1851, before the Civil War, there were 551 farms with an average of 305 acres. Few things could be exported then. The closest market was Fredericksburg and since horse/wagon was the sole transportation, the trip took a week.

The Eagle House: Originally a tavern, this house was constructed in the latter part of the 1700's and was known as the Washington Tavern and Carpenter's Tavern. A beautiful walnut bar still graces the English basement.

The Eagle House

Additionally, Madison farmers had little money to purchase imports so Madison, in essence, was its own producer and consumer. After the Civil War, a railroad began to run through Gordonsville which became Madison’s market until another railroad through Charlottesville connected to DC which broadened the county’s farm markets. Prior to railroads and improved roads, another possibility was stage coach which ran between Gordonsville and New Market and which stopped in Madison at Eagle House. Obviously, with transportation a difficult issue, for the most part, Madison’s farmers consumed what they grew and did without alternatives. Throughout these times, small manufacturing began in the county. In 1830 Clore’s fine furniture began and still exists today with a wide market. In 1885, the Carpenter Chicken Coop factory was established, was successful for many years, and can still be found on route 29 today. Albert Aylor successfully made furniture, caskets, and violins. The Yowell and Garr families developed distilleries which were discontinued during prohibition. Today, Lam Brothers, another “old family” furniture business can be found on route 29. With a past rich in lumbering, it is no surprise that some families who respected the lumber enough to develop carefully crafted furniture from it, can still be found generating products they can be proud of.

Today Madison County is made up of slightly over 13,000 people occupying 322 square miles with a density of 39 people per square mile. Yes, it is still rural and essentially agrarian. Racially it has 87% white residents, more than the state with 71% and the nation with 78%. Obviously blacks, at 11.5%, are lower than the state at 20% or the nation at 13%. Less than 1% of the county residents are Hispanic. Though several Madisonians are employed in regional jobs or hold positions in federal, state, and local government, the county remains essentially agrarian. Today there are over 1500 farms in the county occupying just under 103,000 acres. Most of the farms raise livestock while produce is predominantly corn and soy. Fruit trees have been planted to augment productivity and marketability. Many of the farms contain forested land which is tended so as to generate sustainable lumber income. Organizations can be found locally that support farming; 4H, Future Farmers of America, Burnt Tree Grange, Madison Feeder Yearling Association, Madison County Farm Bureau, and the Orange-Madison Cooperative. Though Madison farmers take great pride in their heritage, they guard the past yet look to the future. Despite surrounding counties, Madison remains rural rather than becoming part of the sprawl of DC and Charlottesville bedroom communities. In retaining that characteristic, Madison is ahead of developers who have come to realize the problems generated by sprawl: air and water pollution, needed support for services such as water, schools, garbage treatment, roads, adequate shopping areas and a negative impact on wildlife. The county’s people respect human needs and the integrity of natural systems as well as resources. Madison farmers recognize that the soil is being depleted and that more and more people want “pure produce” than is being generated today by huge business farms and they stand at the ready to respond. Under some new leadership, within “Rural Madison” they are beginning to remineralize the soil based on soil tests and they are starting to work together toward sustainable farming that will return to food that is healthy, aromatic, and pure. They are at the threshold of a bright future which still preserves their heritage.

“To anyone who has known her charms, Madison County Virginia, captures a warm spot in the heart. Through the years her people have kept her heritage alive, handing down from generation to generation, pride in the past and strength for the future” 3. Now that you have visited us on the Web, why not do so in reality? We have active farms, historic trails, rare beauty, events, open healthy air, and even our own mountain, Old Rag, for you to climb, along with accommodations in a country setting. And besides … we’d like to meet you.




1. Yowell, Claude L.: A History of Madison County, Va., Shenandoah Publishing House, 1926.
2. Flood Book, Vol. 1, at Madison County Library: donated by Walmart of Culpeper
3. Dove, Vee: Madison County Homes, published by author, 1975

General Information

• Reeder, Carolyn and Jack: Shenandoah Secrets, Potomac Appalachian Trails Club, 1991
• Nash, Steven: Blue Ridge, University of North Carolina Press, 1999
• The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Historical Society, Autumn 1997, Vol. 105
• Davis, Margaret: Madison County Va.-A Revised History, Bd. Of Supervisors, 1977
• Torpey, Dorothy: Hallowed Heritage, Whittet and Sheparson, Richmond Va., 1961
• Sherman, M. and Thomas, H.: Hollow Folk, Va. Book Co., Berryville, Va. 1933
• Madison County Statistics on the Web