A Vernacular Investigation in the Shenandoah Valley

18 Apr 2016 4:30 PM | Christine R Henry

by Samuel Biggers

The Shenandoah Valley of Virginia is an area rich in history marked by a unique settlement pattern during the mid-18th century by two groups: the Scots-Irish and the Germans. The valley in Virginia is bordered generally by Winchester on the north, Roanoke on the south, the Blue Ridge Mountains on the east, and the Alleghenies on the west. As opposed to the Piedmont region to the east, which was settled by the westward-traveling English from the Tidewater, the Shenandoah Valley was settled primarily by Germans and Scots-Irish from points northward. Much has been written

Shenandoah Valley location. Photo: Virginia is For Lovers.

on this settlement and the subsequent diffusion of the settlers’ cultural habits. This includes multiple studies on the architecture of the region, with particular interest given to how different styles and details defined certain cultures and how those styles changed over time. Over ensuing generations, the strong cultural traits that manifested themselves in the architecture of the area began to fade in favor of more generalized local architectural traditions. 

"Augusta Expo House." One of many houses lost from the landscape in the Barterbrook area. The central log portion was believed to have dated to the 18th century. Photo: Virginia Department of Historic Resources

At the heart of the Shenandoah Valley is Augusta County. When traveling on Route 608 in the county between Stuarts Draft and Fishersville, there is a small cluster of houses known as Barterbrook, and just as soon as you discover you’re in its center, you’ve already left. As is the case with many small communities, there are few vestiges of the once-thriving Barterbrook: old roads, locations of long-gone houses, old bridges. These traces on the landscape tell the story of what was. In Barterbrook, the old Route 608 is visible, which leads an idle mind to imagine how the community appeared before the road was straightened. A mile up the road from Barterbrook toward Fishersville is a ca. 1820 brick farmhouse, where I grew up. My interest first in local history, then later in historic preservation, led me to delve into the history of my house.  Through my research, I discovered that the house was once part of a 1,000 acre farm that stretched clear to Barterbrook. As I researched my house further, I expanded my focus to include the surrounding area, to provide the context necessary to tell the story of my house. I began to combine the observable landscape with historic documents and photos, which began to paint a picture of the history not just of one house, but of the community.

"Stony Point." Built in 1852, the house represents the Gothic Revival influence in the Barterbrook area. Photo: Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

In 2012, I began studying historic preservation at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. During my sophomore year, I decided to formally study the Barterbrook community. Under the guidance of Gary Stanton, I authored “The Evolution of Architecture in the Barterbrook Area,” which was my attempt at organizing existing archival, survey, and observational data into a coherent work. One of the more insightful resources was the house surveys completed by Ann McCleary during the 1980s for the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission. These surveys provided valuable information into the lost buildings in the area. Through my study, I quickly discovered that very few examples of “frontier architecture” survive on the landscape in Augusta County. This very fact tells us much about the nature of the first buildings constructed during the initial settlement period. The extant buildings in the Barterbrook area represent a trend that occurred in Augusta County during the antebellum period, which saw a marked increase in residential construction. In Barterbrook, this trend manifested itself through brick construction. The use of brick was a clear sign of permanence, and one in contrast to the more ephemeral log construction that characterized the frontier.

"J.H. Stump House." Detail of a molded brick cornice, a common feature of houses in the Barterbrook area. Photo: author.

I discovered that the architecture in the Barterbrook area, broadly defined as a roughly three square mile area, is varied in style, form, and material. I suppose this is to be expected from a farming community that developed organically, but there were some common features of the houses. Molded brick cornices seemed to have only been in style for a period of about six years in the 1820s, before the style shifted to the corbelled cornice. The single-pile “I-house” predominates in Barterbrook, though there are multiple double-pile houses included in the survey. Though examples of log construction exist, the vast majority of antebellum houses are constructed of brick, which is in line with the trends occurring in the county during that period. My conclusions have not been surprising or monumental by any means. Many of my discoveries do not distinguish Barterbrook from nearby communities, but rather tie the community into the surrounding area’s history.

"Barterbrook." The 1826 house, named after the community, is one of two surviving 'three-part Palladian' houses in Augusta County. Photo: Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

This detailed investigation has been complemented by interaction with local landowners and historians, who have graciously welcomed me into their homes, giving me valuable first-person insight into the area. Additionally, I was fortunate to have my paper included in the 2016 edition of the Augusta Historical Bulletin, a yearly publication of the Augusta County Historical Society. I have no idea what an end product to this study will look like, or if there will be one. Threats to historic communities are numerous and growing, with road projects, development, and neglect contributing to the rapid change occurring daily. Because of these and other threats, communities such as Barterbrook are in dire need of comprehensive studies. These communities will certainly change in the coming years, some drastically, but without a record of the past, we risk losing them altogether. Communities such as Barterbrook are superb laboratories for the study of vernacular architecture, which is a mutually beneficial endeavor: a community’s history is recorded and the researcher gains a new perspective on an area. In my study of Barterbrook, I’ve found this to be true. My study of Barterbrook has connected me to the past and has helped to uncover a largely forgotten community.

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