By Jordan Wright (Photo/Jordan Wright)
Culpeper is renowned for its history and aeronautic acrobats, but don’t let that fool you: The town has more to offer than meets the eye.
Historians have expounded on Culpeper’s role in the Civil War, recording everything from its battlefields to the town’s illustrious residents and their military legacy. Better known for battle re-enactments, the Flying Circus Air Show and living history encampments, the area is celebrating the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War.
And that’s just fine by me, though my only previous experience with Culpeper residents was the rough-hewn guys in pickup trucks who arrive each fall with racks of firewood to sell to us city slickers. Locals call them “woodchucks.”
But there’s another Culpeper. This small, southern town has blossomed into a hip destination for foodies, shoppers and even equestrians. That’s the Culpeper that I had heard about and the one I wanted to experience — though I knew there’d be plenty of history along the way.
What I found — to my delight — was a charming town eagerly embracing change.
As is appropriate, I began with a stop at the Culpeper visitors center, which is housed in a train depot dating back to 1904. Dodging the walking tours and travelers disembarking from an Amtrak train, I fell into step with Mary Jo Browning, a sprightly octogenarian whose knowledge of the town’s historic homes and churches is legendary.
Everyone knows Mary, including Pastor Stuart Smith, of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, who has come to the station to await his daughter’s arrival from New York. Mary cordially greets him before we trot off to his church, key in hand.
At the 19th-century church — adorned with Tiffany stained glass windows — Mary regaled me with a story of its old bell and how it survived the “War Between the States.” As we strolled through town, she pointed out things I had seen but not processed: the still firmly-in-place window bars on the Civil War-era jail; the town’s giant “LOVE” sculpture, whose letters are formed from old movie reels; the farm store where you can buy feed and baby chicks; and a gargoyle sitting atop a roofline.
We passed the grandiose columns of Clarke’s Hardware, a 100-year-old store still vital to the town, and dozens of meticulously restored buildings en route to the Museum of Culpeper History, a low brick structure surrounded by a modest white picket fence.
Inside, historically bent travelers will find a set of 215-million-year-old dinosaur tracks discovered in a local quarry. The prints share space with Manahoac Indian artifacts from Culpeper’s first residents, an interactive topographical map and relics from the Civil War. The Burgandine House, an early 19th-century log structure once used as a tavern and furnished as though still occupied, is just a few steps away along a garden path.
With our history lesson finished, it was time to break out the wallet and hit the town. Culpeper is home to a host of independently owned specialty shops.
For chic gifts and home decor items, stop by David Eddy’s. Rather peruse antiques? Try Quail at the Wood. And if you have a four-legged traveling companion, Reigning Cats and Dogs is the place to visit.
For those with a taste for unusual oils, balsamic vinegars and organic spices head over to Taste Oil Vinegar Spice, owned by an Davis and George Farrar.* Jeffery Mitchell’s Culpeper Cheese Co. has it all, including more than 100 local and international cheeses. If that wasn’t enough, Mitchell’s shop boasts a variety of craft beers and a wine lounge where you can sample eight different kinds.
Calhoun’s Ham House is the spot for bacon, ham and sausage. Pick up a country ham — they’re legendary.
Candy-aholics will be in their element at the Frenchman’s Corner, for posh European chocolates, and My Secret Stash, an old-time candy store chock-a-block with classic treats. The best sellers are the faux pimento olives (they’re really chocolate almonds), sugar-sanded grapefruit gummies and chocolate sea salt caramels.
Scoop up some pumpkin malt balls while you’re at My Secret Stash. The glass apothecary jars filled with candies share space with a well-culled selection of unusual antiques and funky collectibles, like vintage fans and 1950s barware.
Mary R. Benson, a Reiki master and specialist in nutrition and homeopathy, welcomes questions from curious visitors at Herbal Connection. Her herb-lined shelves, vitamins and Ezekiel bread say all there is to say about her 22 years dispensing kindness and healing.
If you did not get your fill at Culpeper Cheese Co., Kim Kelly’s Vinosity reveals an astonishingly comprehensive, hand-selected collection of wines. Step up to chest-height tables for informal tastings with fellow wine enthusiasts.
World travelers, or those who aspire to be, will find plenty of ethnic souvenirs to bring home with a visit to The Camaleer. Housed in its two restored historic buildings are international giftware, aboriginal arts and crafts, and clothing from more than 80 countries.
On Saturday mornings, the farmers market fills a parking lot across from the Depot. There you will find locally grown goods, from vegetables and herbs to meats, honey and pretty flowers. Specialty items — like salmon from East Street Fish (smoked by Pranas Rimeikis, Culpeper’s former mayor), home-baked goodies, scented soaps made with goat’s milk and pretty crafts — also entice buyers at the market.
Stop in at Harriet’s General, where made-in-America products shine and you can pick up a pair of Red Wing work boots. Or check out the Green Roost for a life-size paper sculpture of a moose and earth-friendly gear for men, women, babies and your home.
All that window-shopping tends to work up an appetite. Luckily, there are plenty of dining options to choose from. For the gourmand, there’s exceptional dining at Foti’s Restaurant. The chef and owner, Frank Maragos, is an Inn at Little Washington alumnus. Patrons will appreciate the Pimm’s Cup cocktail, properly served with a ribbon of cucumber.
Mediterranean-influenced cuisine tempts from It’s About Thyme, while fresh-caught seafood lures people to The Copper Fish Seafood & Raw Bar, where — from 4 to 7 p.m. — you can slurp oysters at half-price.
For down-home cooking, there’s the Frost Cafe, a 50s throwback diner boasting booth jukeboxes and mega portions of Southern-style comfort food.
At the Raven’s Nest Coffee House, you’ll find fabulous pies, quiches, scones, cakes and muffins, all baked by owner Jessica Hall. Paintings by local artists grace homey brick walls, and the world music vibe is downright groovy.
Breakfast is a pastime in Culpeper, and many purposely ease into their day with coffee and delicious muffins from the Thyme Market, whose umbrella-lined alleyway serves as a desirable respite for a glass of wine and a piece of cheese or a slice of Orange Dreamsicle cheesecake. When the pace quickens later in the day, locals pick up wood-fired pizzas and herb-crusted roast chickens for supper.
If there’s still time left over after visiting Culpeper’s highlights, you can spend it visiting nearby farms and wineries.
The Stillhouse Distillery at Belmont Farm is a half-dozen miles out of town but well worth the visit. It is the oldest craft distillery in the United States. The corn, wheat and barley used to make the whiskey are grown on the 195-acre farm.
Chuck Miller presides over the distillery and the family’s secret recipe that was developed by his grandfather during Prohibition. Try the Virginia Lightning whiskey, a classic moonshine, or the Kopper Kettle whiskey, which is aged in charred oak barrels and similar to bourbon. Tours are offered throughout the day.
Among the many places to hop on a horse is the equestrian center at the beautiful Inn at Kelly’s Ford, a 500-acre property just off Route 29 where you can trail ride along the Rappahannock River. Afterward, be sure to stop in at Pelham’s Pub for a hand-pulled pint to wet your whistle.
*This sentence has been corrected.