STAUNTON, Va. — History and architecture. Check.
A vibrant food scene, boutique shopping experiences, a distillery, wineries, a cidery, a brew house, recreational opportunities, culture and the arts. Check.
Staunton, Virginia has all the requisite amenities capable of sating anyone’s travel palate, but it’s the unique attractions that make this town of 24,273 — roughly half the population of Charleston — in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley a pleasant getaway destination.
What makes it even more attractive is that it’s just 215 miles, about a 2-1/2 hour drive, from Charleston.
I started my visit to this charming hamlet in one of Staunton’s historic districts, Gospel Hill, just a few blocks from downtown. There, I explored the Manse where Woodrow Wilson, our nation’s 28th President, was born in 1856. Located a building or two from his official Presidential Library and Museum at 20 N. Coalter Street, his former home is accessible only by guided tour.
Recalling a Wilson quote, “A man’s rootage is more important than his leafage,” I began my tour of the Presbyterian parsonage, where Wilson’s father presided at the time of Wilson’s birth. His church, now the First Presbyterian Church, is within walking distance of the manse at 100 E. Frederick Street.
In the manse, visitors can see the family rocking chair in the pastor’s study and the family sideboard located in the family dining room. However, the majority of the other furnishings and items seen in the 40-minute guided tour are of the period and give a glimpse into the life of Pre-Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley.
Just a few steps down Coalter, Virginia’s only Presidential Library showcases Wilson’s early life leading up to his presidency, and exhibits more personal and family material than anywhere else. Among the many mementos of Wilson’s tenure as a professor and president of Princeton University is his desk lamp. More personal items include his christening gown and some of his first wife, Helen’s, paintings.
Items from his runs for the presidency include campaign buttons and posters. Two of the most popular artifacts are his 1919 Pierce-Arrow limousine and a painstakingly recreated WW I trench with light and sound effects that give visitors the feeling of what it might have been like as a combatant.
Museum administrators advise that visitors bring along their smart phones equipped with QR Code Reader to access additional content. For those unable to visit in person, a virtual 360-degree view of the mansion is available on the website Woodrow Wilson.org.
Out back, just in front of the public parking lot, a beautiful Victorian garden makes strolling a pleasure. For hours, ticket prices and other information, phone 540-885-0897 or visit www.woodrowwilson.org.
For a truly unique experience, schedule a tour or catch a performance at the American Shakespeare Center, established in 1988. With an amazing determination and research, the Center built the world’s first replica of the Blackfriars Theatre, the Bard’s indoor venue for his plays.
Completed in 2001 at a cost of $3.7 million, the playhouse is a wood-pegged, post-and-beam edifice that sits inside a brick shell. Intimately designed to hold around 300 theater-goers with two galleries or balconies on three sides of the performance space, the theater, in non-COVID years, produces plays year-round.
This summer season’s plays include “Macbeth,” “Henry V” and “All’s Well That Ends Well,” which will extend into the fall.
As an additional nod to authenticity, the Playhouse uses some of the same practices that date back to Shakespeare’s era. They include performing with the lights on both on stage and in the audience, having some of the actors play multiple roles, minimal sets and cross-gender casting.
Interestingly, the theatre eschews an official director, allowing the cast to self-direct its plays via a quasi-democratic, collaborative methodology.
Icing on the cake is the musical introduction on instruments and with vocals performed for a half hour before curtain by members of the cast. If you plan on catching a performance, be sure to arrive a half hour early to catch their stellar musical talents.
While administration focuses on the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, they also include modern works inspired by the plays of the Bard, which are performed in rotating repertory with the corresponding Shakespeare play.
The Playhouse also offers group tours of up to five people at a cost of $20 per tour and must be booked online beforehand. The experience provides a look at the theater’s glorious interior, info on its historical predecessor and the inner workings of the current professional company. Phone 540-885-5588 or www.americanshakespearecenter.com.
Staunton has another uniquely singular attraction called the Frontier Culture Museum. While there are living history museums all across the US, what makes this one unique is the broad scope with which it traces the growth of American culture from its Old World roots beginning in the 1600s up through rural life in the mid-1800s.
Sprawling over nearly 200 acres, the museum has both reproductions of older buildings as well as others dismantled and brought over from Europe, then carefully reconstructed on site.
Visitors who walk the trails are given a glimpse of what life was like for an Igbo family of West Africa as well as that of Irish, German and English people who eventually immigrated to the New World.
Along the way, signage tells their stories in some detail, while live demonstrations by living history interpreters dressed in period clothing and using implements from the era further, enhance the narrative.
The New World section begins with a look at an Onondaga Iroquois Indian village, then moves forward in time to American farms from the 1740s, 1820s and 1850s. In addition to residential dwellings typical of the various time periods, outdoor garden plots and outbuildings are included such as the vintage Mount Tabor Church and an early log schoolhouse in use from 1820 to 1850.
For more information, phone 540-332-7850 or www.frontiermuseum.org.
For more information on Staunton, phone 540-332-3865.
For a place to stay, the Frederick House is located at 28 N. New St. in Staunton’s historic district. Comprised of 5 historic houses, the Frederick House offers 20 guest rooms unique in both size and style. Whether you are looking for a cozy, simple room for an overnight stay or a luxurious suite for a week long vacation, the inn has you covered. Phone 540-885-4220 or www.Frederickhouse.com.
For places to dine, Emilio’s specializes in Italian food with roots in Sicily. With an outdoor patio on the third level, Emilio’s is known for its delectable sauces and freshly prepared food. Open for lunch and dinner at 23 E. Beverly. Phone 540-885-0102. Or www.emiliositalianrestaurant.com.
Create your own bowl using fresh vegetables, meats and sauces at an eatery simply titled by its address, namely 101 West Beverly. The food is as nutritious as it is delicious and inexpensive, and it’s open for lunch and dinner. Phone 540-712-0295 or www.101westbev.com.