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/, 1860 Main Street, Springfield, MA 01102


  1. What a wonderful article, and thanks so much to Alice Urban for details on a destination I've long wanted to visit. My "dream house" has always been to have one like that in which Earl and his siblings grew up.

    Many thanks also are extended to Leona Roberts, Talmadge "Junior" Tyler and others who work to preserve a time, place, and the lives of people whose family and community values continue to resonate with all of us today.

  2. Thanks for linking this Mr. Hamner. I finally got in my car last summer, and visited Schuyler. It was how I always dreamed it would be. I took a walk past your family homestead at sunset, breathed the air, and found tears in my eyes. I felt like I was at home too.

  3. I went to Schuyler on two occasions. The first time was coming back from a trip and nothing was open but a B&B. I bought the book Goodnight John-Bob which was very interesting. The second time my husband and I went and did the everything. I am fascinated with the way Earl Hamner Jr can take the simple details of life and make them so engaging. He can transform the common folk to interesting characters. If you like the Walton's you will enjoy walking on it hallowed grounds. Robin

  4. Loved the article. I continue to watch The Waltons, and I am happy that so many of you do also. It is nice to hear of other families who lived and walked side-by-side with the Hamner family. I am sure many of their stories are the same. While times must have been very hard, it is great to see how hard work, family values and God kept them together. Thanks for sharing. And I love Earl Hamner Jr's works.

  5. My husband and I just visited in June 2013. I called it my pilgrimage because I am such a huge Waltons fan. Being such a fan, I didn't realize until we visited Schuyler, how much the show influenced my life. To begin with, my husband and I have been married for 35 years and have 8 children, 5 boys and 3 girls, just like the Hamner family. Of course, I didn't plan that exactly but it's such a funny coincidence, I thought it was worth sharing. We loved the town and felt very at home there. The museum was wonderful as well as the Hamner home. I am so happy we visited and plan on returning some day.

  6. Thank you for sharing this, Earl!

  7. Mr. Hammner, You are a blessing to people like me who really tries to stay intouch with the past. I am very intrested in your time during wwll as a writer for stars and stripes on people you came into contact with. My father was a member of the 82nd airbourn and had several medals but I grew up with out him and never knew what kind of a person he may have really been untill his death, and my oldest son got me watching war documentrys. I grew up on the east coast of north carolina while my dad was in texas. His name was John Wesley Pike. Now I wish I knew more about him and his trials during the war. I would love to know more about your years during the war. Keep on You Are A Blessing to people like me.

  8. Just found and bought a copy of The Homecoming in an antique shop a few days ago and am wondering if there is a possibility that I could receive a signed bookplate from you? I would be happy to send a blank bookplate with a SASE, if necessary. Thanks so much for writing such wonderful books!

  9. I came across the Walton's reunion piece just this afternoon at the local library. I was gratified to see you sitting among the cast. My parents grew up in the Appalachian mountains in Eastern Kentucky -- poor children of the Depression (both were born in 1925). Your work has always resonated with me as a consequence and I have always appreciated your affectionate but honest portrayals of their world -- something no longer evident in today's media. "The Hunt" episode of the Twilight Zones remains a favorite and I only recently watched it on YouTube again. Thank you so much...

    Graham Combs

  10. I Really Love this Blog...! I Have always appreciated...!

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