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Marking time: For nearly a century, Virginia roadway signs have told history - even if imperfectly

Marking time: For nearly a century, Virginia roadway signs have told history - even if imperfectly

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History isn't written in stone, but along Virginia roads you'll find it emblazoned on familiar silver and black plaques.

These one-paragraph lessons come to you via Virginia's historical marker program – the first in the nation when it began in the 1920s, and since copied by numerous states.

In those early days, the markers told stories of elite white men – plus the occasional Indian "savage" or African American deemed dangerous. Some markers were misleading or flat-out inaccurate.

But those days are history.

"Our research methods are much more thorough today, and the fact-checking process is rigorous," said Jennifer R. Loux, a historian and manager of the marker program, which is part of the state Department of Historic Resources.

The official purpose of the markers today is not to celebrate the past but to educate the public. And it's actually you, the public, who saved the program in the 1980s, by suggesting and paying for markers.

In keeping with the brief messages on the signs, here are some nuggets about how we mark our history along Virginia roadways.

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In the beginning: In the 1920s, Virginia's two-lane roads were just being paved. Gov. Harry F. Byrd Sr., who began his term in 1926, thought outdoor historical markers would spur tourism.

So Virginia hired historian Hamilton James Eckenrode of Fredericksburg to develop and manage the marker program. He was clearly the man for the job: "Virginia," he proclaimed, "is the most historical region of the continents of North and South America."

Sense of scale: Some people wanted to tell Virginia's history through big monuments, but Eckenrode convinced the state to go with the now-familiar plaques that could be read – then, at least – from a passing car.

The first were installed in 1927, and Virginia's marker design was patented in 1928. Today there are more than 2,400 markers – originally of cast iron, now aluminum. About 45 to 55 new markers go up each year, and about 10 to 15 damaged ones come down.

Recent revival: The marker program almost died when it lost political support after World War II. But then the public, instead of state officials, began proposing markers – and paying for them – in the 1980s. That brought new ideas and new money.

Today, "there is a lot of interest from the public, particularly in markers pertaining to African Americans in Virginia history," Loux said. "Lately we have been receiving more than the 15 applications we can accommodate per quarter."

What's your sign? Individuals, groups and local governments can propose a marker. You must submit an application to the Department of Historic Resources and be willing to pay about $1,770 for a foundry to make the marker.

You can propose text, but Loux and others check facts, do additional research and typically revise the wording. Among other rules, the noted event must have occurred at least 50 years ago, and no markers can be about living people.

New markers must be approved by the Virginia Board of Historic Resources, a seven-member panel appointed by the governor.

Broader history: Beyond African Americans, Loux noted that recent markers have touched on the significance of women and Virginia Indians, as well as social and cultural history related to music, literature, food, sports and recreation.

Subjects of modern markers include an 1892 lynching in Charles City County, the poisoning of Indians by English soldiers during a 1623 peace meeting, civil rights leader Dorothy Height of Richmond and Lucille Chaffin Kent of Lynchburg, who instructed future military pilots in the mid-20th century.

And recently in Richmond: a marker for the James River Steam Brewery, built in 1866 during a national boom in beer production. An 1891 fire destroyed the building, but the brewery's cellars survive.

Speed reading: In the marker program's infancy, lighter traffic and abundant space along roads made it easier to read the signs. Today, you are lucky to see "First Battle of ..." before you fly by.

Loux's office and the Virginia Department of Transportation work together to find the best marker spots, and many markers have been moved to better locations. But sometimes there is no choice but to put a marker beside a busy road. That's because VDOT, which installs and maintains most markers, needs access and room to work. And along state roads lies a right of way – public land from which VDOT can operate.

If, by the way, you think life was slow and easy in the 1920s, the first marker guidebook (in 1930) noted that "it is difficult to read anything when going at speed" during what it called this "busy age." So it said the combination of the guidebook and the markers themselves "is deemed to be a much desired convenience."

Guide points: There are no plans to produce a new statewide marker guidebook – that would be one big volume – but "we may consider topical guidebooks or regional guidebooks," Loux said.

In fact, the state in 2019 released "A Guidebook to Virginia’s African American Historical Markers" – the first guidebook focusing on the more than 300 markers about black Virginians.

White of way: Such diversity is a far cry from the early days of the marker program, when subjects were determined by the perceived interests of mostly white travelers. For that reason, markers generally noted pioneers as well as Civil War and Revolutionary War men and events – in other words, as one critic said in 1992, "triumphant white people."

Sign of its time: Which marker was installed first? This requires some deduction.

The first markers, from 1927, went up along U.S. 1 between Richmond and Fredericksburg. Each sign gets an identifying code – usually a letter and number. Those on U.S. 1 began with E, so "E-1" may well have been first.

That sign, on Chamberlayne Avenue in Richmond, marked "Bacon's Plantation," property of colonist Nathaniel Bacon. The marker was eventually taken down, and then a 2005 replacement (retitled "Bacon's Quarter") was damaged in a car accident in 2017 and wasn't replaced.

Maybe the oldest: Loux said it's possible that the oldest marker still standing is along U.S. 1 just south of Fredericksburg. Labeled "E-8," it says in full: "At this point J.E.B. Stuart had his headquarters and cavalry camp in December 1862."

Just what else the Confederate cavalry officer did there is for you to find out on your own.

War in pieces: Indeed, the Civil War was a huge theme initially, making up about a third of the first 700 markers. Typically just a sentence or two long, those early markers noted the actions of lots of Confederate figures, especially Gen. Robert E. Lee.

"A lot of stuff was relatively insignificant, about where some troops had passed" and the like, said Marc C. Wagner, a Department of Historic Resources architectural historian. " 'Lee stopped here to drink a glass of milk,' " he said with only slight exaggeration.

Say what? Those terse early markers often left out important information.

John S. Salmon, who ran the marker program from the early 1990s until his retirement in 2001, recalled a sign in the Shenandoah Valley that told of an Indian attack on a settler family.

"It sounded like a drive-by shooting on the frontier," Salmon said.

The marker failed to note that the attack occurred during the French and Indian War of the 1750s and '60s.

Limited look: Early markers also either ignored or badly characterized women and minorities. Women got faint recognition unless they were the wives or mothers of famous men. Indians often were depicted as murderous "heathens" and "savages." Markers about African Americans were almost nonexistent.

One exception was slave rebellion leader Nat Turner. A Southampton County marker said Turner ("a Negro") was responsible for the "massacre" of about 60 whites. A revised marker went up in 1991, and a related marker from 2017 noted that the revolt "resulted in the deaths of about 60 whites and a similar number of African Americans."

Not exactly: Some older markers contained misleading information or blatant inaccuracies.

Consider the original sign along U.S. 360 northeast of Mechanicsville that marked the grave of Edmund Ruffin, a staunch Confederate during the Civil War. The marker said Ruffin "fired the first gun at Fort Sumter" in South Carolina and eventually was "incapacitated by age," dying in June 1865.

Ruffin fired one of the first shots in that historic battle – but not the first, Virginia Tech historian James I. Robertson told The Richmond News Leader in 1992.

As for Ruffin being "incapacitated by age," Robertson said: "He was incapacitated by [the South's] defeat. He killed himself."

A revised marker about Ruffin, one of the 19th century's leading agriculturalists, went up in 2000.

Signs of incivility: While early markers were heavy on Civil War history, they weren't slanted to glorify the Confederacy, Loux wrote in a short history of the program in 2016.

Signs marked not just the feats of Rebel leaders such as Lee and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson but Union generals including Winfield Scott of Dinwiddie County and George H. Thomas ("The Rock of Chickamauga") of Southampton.

Many white Virginians weren't happy with this equal treatment for Yankees. One woman, Loux wrote, said the signs "toady to Northern tourists and humiliate Southern people."

People who disagreed with some markers wanted the signs down. But Eckenrode, the marker program's initial manager, ruled that "we cannot take down markers at the dictation of private parties, since then we should be at the mercy of every crank and sorehead."

Into dormancy: Reorganizing state government after World War II, Gov. William M. Tuck virtually eliminated the marker program, saying it had accomplished its goals. A committee of historians indicated there wasn't much history left to mark, saying "the saturation point in the historical markers system has about been reached."

In her program history, Loux wrote that "for 30 years, from 1950 until about 1980, the program was technically alive but practically dormant."

The state stopped funding the program altogether in 1976, with markers about women and African Americans remaining rare.

New life: The dearth of marker money led to an innovation that remains the foundation of the program today: Private groups and local governments began proposing markers – and, importantly, paying for them. This approach revived the program in the 1980s, Loux said.

These new applicants came up with more diverse ideas for markers, including 21st-century signs for the first African American Girl Scouts in the South (in Richmond), the Sharon Indian School (in King William County), the 1963 "Bloody Monday" civil rights demonstration (in Danville) and Pulitzer and Nobel prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck (in Lynchburg).

Financial aid: From 1996 to 2009, a series of federal grants worth hundreds of thousands of dollars pumped more life into the program, enabling it to revise some of the most outdated markers.

In 2001, the program used federal money to launch a diversity initiative, creating markers about women, African Americans and Indians. Those markers told the stories of, among others, dressmaker and abolitionist Elizabeth H. Keckley (in Dinwiddie County), artist Grandma Moses (in Augusta County) and Indian chief Powhatan (in Henrico County).

Small price: The Department of Historic Resources spent about $116,000 on the marker program in the most recent fiscal year. The money included the salaries of its one full-time employee (Loux) and a part-time historian, as well as travel and other costs.

The department "does not currently have any funds for manufacturing new markers, or for replacing old or damaged ones," Loux said.

Look both ways: You would think that historical markers carry the same message on each side, but that's not always the case.

"Z markers" – those whose code begins with a Z – stand along county and state lines. Each side refers to the place you are entering.

Still stewing: Roadside markers sometimes deal in sensitive subjects, among them the notion of historic firsts.

For example, a 1997 marker in Brunswick County says that "according to local tradition," the area is the original home of Brunswick stew – made in 1828 with squirrel meat. But other counties in the South disagree.

"We keep hearing about it to this day," said Wagner, the architectural historian. "Truth be told, it was probably popular all the way across the South."

Thanks, a lot: Some Virginians boast that the first Thanksgiving was held southeast of modern Richmond in 1619, two years before the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony held their more famous event.

Other people say the first Thanksgiving predates Virginia. For example, the Jacksonville Historical Society in Florida points to a handful of other "first Thanksgivings" held by the Spanish and French in Florida in the 1500s. The group's website says: "If you want to be historically accurate, serve alligator" at Thanksgiving.

Back here in Charles City County, a 2012 marker reads "First English Thanksgiving in Virginia." Said Wagner: "It was handled carefully."

Native ties: As with the story of Thanksgiving, the tension between Indians and English settlers is viewed more honestly today. Consider the 2009 marker in Northumberland County titled "Indian Prisoners Abandoned on Tangier Island."

In 1645, after Native Americans attacked English colonists for encroaching on Indian lands, Gov. William Berkeley led military strikes against the Indians and took many prisoners. Colony leaders decided to abandon male prisoners older than 11 on Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay to keep them from returning to their tribes. "Their fate is unknown," the marker says.

Lesson on wheels: Loux said she doesn't have a favorite marker, but she is drawn to "School Transportation" along U.S. 1 in Hanover County. Installed in 2016, it is the first marker to note that many school systems provided buses to white schools in the early 20th century, but not to black schools. "Black children often had to walk miles to school, leading to nonattendance," the marker says.

Across Virginia in the 1930s, black residents, including several in Hanover, raised money for buses. Loux said the parents and grandparents of many Virginians living today faced these obstacles and others.

"We need to think about how these conditions affected black citizens' ability to make use of their talents and fulfill their potential, secure good jobs and build wealth," she said.

Historic happiness: With the public playing the lead role in suggesting and funding markers, program officials take great satisfaction in promoting history.

"One thing about the marker program: You get to say yes to people a lot, and you make people happy," said Salmon, the former manager. "That doesn't happen in government a lot."

And despite that post-WWII notion that there is little history left to note, Salmon said the marker program will never run out of material.

"There is lots of history left to tell," he said. "There always is."

***

TO LEARN OR HELP

* You can read most markers online. Go to dhr.virginia.gov/highway-markers and click on "marker online database search."

* Most modern markers in the database are accompanied by photos, but there are many older signs without photos. If you have a photo of a marker for which there is no image, consider emailing it to highwaymarkers@dhr.virginia.gov.

* There are audio tours featuring some markers, including those along Interstate 95. Find details at dhr.virginia.gov/highway-markers/tours.

* You can find the text of markers in "A Guidebook to Virginia's Historical Markers" by Scott David Arnold, a former manager of the program. (The most recent edition was printed in 2007, so you won't find the latest markers.)

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