Monday, September 19, 2011

Our trip to Walton's Mountain aka Schuyler, VA

I wrote this travel piece after our trip this past summer to Schuyler, Virginia, to celebrate my wife's birthday. It ran Sunday in The Dallas Morning News. It's behind a pay wall, so here it is in full. The DMN web site also has about 15 of my photos; see them here. Enjoy.

By JOE O’CONNELL Special Contributor
Published: 16 September 2011 06:32 PM

SCHUYLER, Va. — Fiction collides with fact for fans of television’s The Waltons amid a gentle feud in this tiny community deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains foothills.

An escaped sheep bleats from the middle of rural Rockfish River Road as we pull up to the Walton’s Mountain Country Store in search of the holy grail: series creator Earl Hamner’s childhood home, a two-story restored testament to the enduring power of John-Boy, Mary Ellen, Mama and Daddy, Grandpa and Grandma and all the kids.

The show is a nostalgic touchstone of an iconic and dirt-poor Depression-era Southern family of fantasy that was very much based on the true-life Hamner clan.

For $10 cash a person or $8 each for two or more, store owner Dave Pounds hands over a key so we can tour the boyhood home next door, which a local owner refurbished and opened to the public in 2010. Six steps lead up to the white wooden home, which is smaller than in the show but of the same austere style. The long kitchen table topped with a fake Bundt cake awaits a family supper, while upstairs in Hamner’s/John-Boy’s room a pair of spectacles rests next to a quill pen on a desk by the window.

Hamner’s novel Spencer’s Mountain was published in 1961 and spawned a film of the same name. The Homecoming, his 1970 novel also loosely based on Hamner’s family, was made into a television movie and spawned The Waltons, which ran on television from 1972-81.

“The average Waltons fan walking through the door has a very personal relationship to either the program or a cast member,” Pounds says.

Entering the door are Junior and Suzi Wiant of West Virginia. She’s a homemaker, and he’s a coal miner. A coal mine depicted in the television show was inspired by the Alberene soapstone quarry that was once the heart of Schuyler. The Wiants count the cantankerous grandmother as their favorite Walton.

“I just love that old woman,” Suzi Wiant says with a wide grin. “She’s so outspoken.”
The Wiants have already been down the road to the Walton’s Mountain Museum, which was once the town’s school. Hamner graduated from high school there in 1940. It was later an elementary and opened as a museum and community center in 1992 with the full support of Hamner.

Inside is a more elaborate re-creation of John-Boy’s room, the family kitchen, Ike Godsey’s store and the still used to make the Baldwin sisters’ “recipe” (moonshine). The Baldwins were inspired by real-life mother-and-daughter moonshiners in a nearby town.

“You’re a little bit late for the free samples,” museum director Leona Roberts jokes in a deep Virginia drawl. “You believed that story, didn’t you?”

The $7 admission fee buys access to a brief video about the making of the show, a look at town photos and Waltons collectibles, including miniature reproductions of the Waltons home and fan-painted pictures of the cast.

But Hamner’s early support for the museum has waned. In his 2006 memoir Generous Women, Hamner writes, “Unfortunately, because of an injury done to a member of my family, I no longer support the museum and am in no way associated with it.”

When actress Mary McDonough — Erin Walton on the show — tub-thumped her memoir Lessons From the Mountain in May, she did it at the store, which also sells signed copies of Hamner’s books.

Pounds five years ago took over operation of the store in what was once a shed where a teenage Hamner wrote. But he says of the museum, “They hate me. They absolutely hate me.”

Roberts puts the museum’s attitude toward the store bluntly: “We were here first. They were supposed to be a bed-and-breakfast, and they’re not from here.”

Indeed, the Walton’s Mountain Country Store lists itself as a bed-and-breakfast perfect for the ultimate Waltons fan, but my repeated calls and emails seeking a reservation for my wife’s birthday were unanswered.

Instead, we stayed two miles away at the White Pig, a B&B and animal sanctuary that takes its name from the first of the owner’s assortment of rescued potbellied pigs, which join a former racehorse and a gentle pony on a beautiful 170-acre spread. The breakfast is vegan, and guests are asked not to eat meat on the premises during their stays.

Confession: We drove into Schuyler from Richmond without having eaten dinner, and our only option was Ike’s, a combo convenience store and fast-food joint on the spot that once housed the inspiration for the television show’s Ike Godsey’s General Store. The grill was closed, but they gifted me with a few delicious last pieces of fried chicken. I guiltily stowed the bones in our rental car’s trunk rather than sully the White Pig with my carnivorous ways.

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