On Tuesday, August 17, 1858, Jedediah Hotchkiss,[i] a skilled draftsman and geologist on assignment for the Rockingham Register, set out on a tour the northwestern section of Rockingham County. The Hotchkiss letter to the newspaper (and another [ii]) that follows was also appended to The Waterman Lands brochure, published in 1859 by W. H. Ruffner. This brochure advertised the sale of “75,000 acres of Mountain Land in Virginia with an Essay on the Best Uses of Virginia Mountain Land.” Many of the parties cited in this pamphlet and the letters are worthy of a dissertation.
Nonetheless, a brief summary will be sufficient to get one started. In 1795, Dr. Asher Waterman had surveyed 93,000 acres of land, the boundaries of which included the western portion of Rockingham County north of the present day Route 33 and extended into Pendleton and Hardy Counties. From time-to-time between 1795 and 1859 some of the land was sold. When Asher Waterman died in 1827 his remaining mountain property passed to his son Augustus, a bachelor. Upon his death in 1857, William H. Ruffner, a trustee of Augustus’ estate, offered the sale of the land for the heirs. His marriage to Harriet Gray, the daughter of Isabella Waterman (daughter of Asher) and Robert Gray, brought Ruffner into the family.
In the middle of August, instead of burying ourself in County deed books and surveys to understand this vast property, we will ride along with Hotchkiss on his three day trot to see western Rockingham County as he reported it to the Rockingham Register. So as to not exhaust the reader, we divided the letter into two parts and added brief explanatory notes about sites and people met along the way. Also on a map from the 1885 Lake Atlas, we have plotted Hotchkiss route as he described it in the letter.
Three Days in the Mountains
Letter No. 1
Messr. Editors:--When we left your thriving town, on the morning of the 17th of August, it was all astir, from center to suburbs, in expectation of the arrival of Robinson’s Circus;[iii] and the prominent feature that enlivened our road across the country to Rawley Springs, was the crowd of men, boys, and darkies, on foot, single and double on horseback, with horse teams, and ox teams, all bound for “the show.” The result of our moralizing, on the various groups, made us decidedly in favor of a holyday excitement of this kind now and then, affording a day of real pleasure to a class whose circle of enjoyments is bounded by a narrow limit.—One little fellow, industriously cutting briers by the roadside, stoutly insisted that he did not wish to go to the circus, but the longing glances he cast towards those going townwards proved that he had a boy’s heart, that was beating hard thoughts against the brier scythe, and longing to see the “spotted horses” and the “showman.”
The road to Rawley was rather rough, though we can see some symptoms indicative of improvement; the doctors of the road[iv] seemed to be on the point of giving a desperate remedy to their chronic patient, yet we fear it is nothing more than the annual dose, after which the patient will relapse into the usual state of gullies, rocks, “sledstones,” (as the Dry River fellows call boulders,) mudholes, &c [etc.].
We found quite a company at the Springs,[v] apparently enjoying the “primitive fixins” of the proprietors. The water there must be very fine, for everybody says so; we only thought it a little too strong. We had a very good dinner, in the airy dining room of the establishment, visited the “indications” of coal back of the springs, collect a few fossils there, chatted awhile with the visitors, then mounted our horses and followed up the romantic banks of Dry River to the mouth of Skidmore’s Fork, thence up that to Ruffner’s “Mountain Foot Hotel,”[vi] (as the surveyors say;) making our ride pleasant by noting the change of vegetation as we progressed towards the higher lands; the usual oak, pine, walnut, &c., of the Valley giving place to the hemlock or spruce, pine, the sugar maple, the birch, and the linden or basswood, with now and then a pepheridge. The spikenard, richweed, cardinal flower, &c., plants, remind us that the soil and temperature are different from those we are accustomed to. Our host gave us a hearty mountaineer’s welcome, a good supper and comfortable lodgings, and one of us brought him his mail from the nearest post office, Harrisonburg, only twenty one miles distant! My dear Editors, you ought to stir up “Uncle Sam” to have a post office established there, if it is only for the name of the thing. It’s decidedly wrong for one of the Democratic sovereigns of the Tenth Legion to be that far from a post office, in these days of progress. I suppose Mr. R. is one of the Democrats, though we had not talk on politics, for I saw the Register filed in the warm corner of the chimney. Pardon me for being so rambling, (as we are out on a ramble,) but don’t it make you proud, sometimes, Mr. Register, when you think what a warm corner you find in so many substantial homes, and what unswerving confidence so many have in your statements in regard to orthodoxy in the creed of your party? It’s not often that editor’s works produce so much faith.
End of Day 1
|Mr. Hotchkiss' Ramble|
|1. Rawley Springs||8. Old Franklin/Winchester Rd.|
|2. Skidmore Fork||9. Hall's Spring/Head of Dry River|
|3. Ruffner's Mtn. Foot Hotel||10. Fulk Residence|
|4. Lawyer's Spring/Joseph Camp||11. Chestnut Ridge|
|5. Feed Stone Mtn.||12. Bald Knob|
|6. Grassy Ridge (Brush Ridge)||13. Dictum's Ridge|
|7. Tomahawk Mtn.||14. Liberty Springs|
[i] J. Hotchkiss born 1820 in Windsor, NY and died 1899 in Staunton, VA.
[ii] This letter was dated January 1858 and described the view of the landscape without the foliage. The letter also addressed the possible economic wealth in the mountains.
[iii] The John Robinson, a multi-generation circus-family, was the largest and most popular touring circus just before and after the Civil War, and was headquartered outside Cincinnati, Ohio.
[iv] The residents along the road were responsible for maintaining the road. Given the rocky nature of the area sledge hammers were necessary to repair the roads and fill-in the ruts. This chore was often neglected by the press of agricultural chores.
[v] John A. Sites was the proprietor of the Rawley Springs resort, which could accommodate about 120 guests.
[vi] J[oshua]. A. Ruffner purchased this property from Augustus Waterman in June 1847.