Sunday, July 14, 2013
A Virginia By-Way
By Alice Urban
SCHUYLER, Va. - At the crossroads of Schuyler and Rockfish River roads there is a simple, white, two-story house.
A large tree in the front yard provides shade for the long porch that is furnished with a single white rocking chair.
During the Depression, the home was a gathering place for the children of Schuyler to meet, play ball and explore the countryside. It is the childhood home of Earl H. Hamner Jr., creator of the 1970s hit television show "The Waltons" and the inspiration for the TV family's iconic homestead.
Now, the home - and the small town surrounding the crossroads - is a different kind of gathering place. It's a location more than 15,000 tourists visit each year to experience a piece of Americana and to see the sites that provided the basis for the Emmy-winning show that ran for nine seasons from 1972 to 1981.
"It was a good place to grow up," Hamner said fondly in a telephone interview from his home near Los Angeles. "Many of the places mentioned on the series actually do exist in Schuyler."
While filmed on location in California, the fictional Walton family would have been at home in the tiny town of about 300 residents 40 minutes southwest of Charlottesville, Va., in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The draw for most visitors to Schuyler is the Walton's Mountain Museum, a quaint, community-run, seven-room exhibition of Walton memorabilia, set recreations and town ephemera housed in Schuyler's former elementary and high school, which also serves as the town's community center.
"A lot of people like the kitchen" said museum director Leona B. Roberts of the highlights of the nonprofit museum, which opened in 1992. "People who visit always say they can connect the kitchen with going to their grandma's," Roberts said, adding that the kitchen was an important meeting place for the Walton family.
"The show is something that has a lot of family value to it, and it's something we don't have on television in this day and time," she said. She thinks the strong family values portrayed in the show and feelings of nostalgia for a simpler time are what continue to draw visitors to the museum.
Inside the museum, visitors can wander through replicas of protagonist John-Boy's room, the family living room and kitchen in addition to Ike Godsey's store, which is half exhibition and half museum gift shop.
A moonshine distillery is another highlight, although museum staff joke that the moonshine itself may taste a bit like water. Visitors can also see a script room along with various displays of show and town history.
Much of the museum's collection was donated by collectors of Walton's memorabilia or Depression-era keepsakes. Be sure to ask museum staff about Schuyler's soapstone mine that once employed more than 1,000 workers but downsized considerably during the Depression.
Retired soapstone plant employee Talmadge "Junior" W. Tyler works as a greeter at the museum on weekends. President of the class of 1953, Tyler graduated from Schuyler High School - now the site of the museum - with Hamner's younger brother, James, the inspiration for "The Waltons" character Jim-Bob.
Tyler recalls the Hamner family as similar to those in the rest of the town. "To me, they were just like we were. We all come up the hard way - if you didn't raise it, you didn't eat it. But we just didn't have nobody smart enough to write about it," Tyler joked.
While no Hamners still live in Schuyler, Earl Hamner, 90, continues to visit his beloved town when he can. He was back in Virginia to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award earlier this year. In addition to "The Waltons," Hamner is also known for his work on "Falcon Crest," "The Twilight Zone," "Heidi" and "Charlotte's Web," among others. He is the author of several books.
"I'm rather in awe that such a thing could happen," said Hamner of his town remaining a tourist destination decades after the show ended. He said that visitors with whom he's talked have found Schuyler attractive, interesting and quaint. "They weren't disappointed," he said, "because I hope I have not romanticized it too much on television."
However, it may be just such a wholesomeness that made "The Waltons" beloved to so many fans. "We chronicled a decade of these people's lives who were growing up in a very challenging time in our society, who had to weather the trials of a deep depression," Hamner said. "This was a grim time that forced us to be resourceful, self-reliant and brave."
He believes such values are still relevant for television today. "I would like the industry that I have spent my life in to do more to good; I would like it to ennoble mankind instead of providing only grotesque images," he said. "I feel that we in television are obliged to present some kind of affirmative image of mankind."
Such affirming messages can still be watched through "The Waltons," currently in reruns on the Inspiration Network, and experienced by visiting the small town that inspired the show.
A visit to Schuyler makes a pleasant afternoon drive from other sites in the Charlottesville area including the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, James Madison's Montpelier and several Civil War sites.
Other stops in Schuyler include "Ike Godsey's" convenience store - the site of the general store that inspired that of the show, the Hamner family's Baptist church, the Hamner home (open to the public with entrance fee) and Walton's Mountain Country Store.
Walton's Mountain Museum is open daily from the first Saturday in March to the first Sunday in December from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults and children 6 and up; children under 5 are free. Admission includes a 30-minute video about the show produced for the museum.
Reprinted with permission of Alice Urban and James S. Gleason, Library Services Manager The Republican/masslive.com, 1860 Main Street, Springfield, MA 01102