Pascal once suggested that each Dear Susan contributor might offer a post about their local habitat—whether neighborhood, home town, city or countryside. So here’s my portrait of Lexington, Virginia, a small town nestled in the great western Valley of Virginia. (It’s not technically part of the Shenandoah Valley, which lies to the north, but locals don’t seem to mind if you refer to this valley with either term.)
I’ll try to convey the look of this historic town in which I’ve lived for over half a century.
Lexington was first settled in 1778, at the ford across the North (now Maury) River along an old Indian path that became the Great Wagon Road down the Valley for European settlers, with a covered bridge over the river. It was the first of 24 US towns to be named after the one in Massachusetts, where the initial battle of the Revolutionary War was fought. It wasn’t incorporated until 1841, but had been growing as a commercial hub on the river; batteaux carried iron and other goods down to Richmond. With the arrival of the railroad in the 1860s it became a transportation hub, and eventually the old covered bridge was replaced with a “modern” one in 1935, which was needed for the vehicular traffic on Route 11, the new Valley Highway.
Higher education is the main business of Lexington. In 2022 its population was 7893, an all-time high, and a substantial fraction are students at Washington and Lee University and Virginia Military Institute. W&L is a private undergraduate liberal arts college, with an undergraduate business school and graduate law school; the total student body is about 2150. VMI is a state military school, with an undergraduate population of around 1700. (Not all W&L students live in the town, but all of the VMI cadets do.) Washington and Lee has had a number of name changes, from its origin as Augusta Academy in 1749 to Liberty Hall Academy in 1776 (in a burst of Revolutionary fervor).
It then became Washington Academy when President Washington gave the financially struggling school some stock in the James River Canal Company and then Washington College in 1813. After the Civil War, a defeated General Robert E. Lee was enticed to become president of the still-struggling school (with under 50 students), and during his tenure enrollment grew to over 400 students. Lee died in 1870 in the on-campus house that now bears his name, and the school promptly renamed itself once more as Washington and Lee University. His family crypt is on the campus of W&L, at the rear of the chapel.
Both Washington and Lee are controversial these days. The chapel’s name was recently changed back to “University Chapel” from “Lee Chapel,” and some have protested. This sign, e.g., is one of several posted on nearby highways by a group of alumni; they want to save the name, not the chapel.
(For what it’s worth, Lee didn’t want the University Chapel named after him.) The campus is renowned for its Colonnade, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the red brick with white column architecture is found throughout the campus.
Virginia Military Institute was founded in 1839, with 23 students, and is one of only two state military schools in the country; the other is South Carolina’s Citadel. It has always sought to graduate “fair specimens of citizen-soldiers” (J.T.L. Preston), and they were active in the latter capacity during the Civil War—for the Confederacy, of course. In the Battle of New Market, the entire student body fought as a unit, and there were 57 casualties. There is a large mural depicting this event in the chapel (yes, the chapel).
Since early days the curriculum has expanded from an emphasis on science and engineering to the full panoply of liberal arts, and not all graduates have become military officers, though many have done so (266 alumni US Generals or Flag officers). The student body has become more diversified in recent decades, though not without resistance, including a legal challenge to admitting women that went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1996.
One of Lee’s most trusted generals, Thomas J. Jackson, better known as “Stonewall,” also has links to Lexington. He taught “natural philosophy” at VMI before the war, and his pre-war house is now a museum; previously it served as the city’s hospital for nearly half a century before a modern one was constructed in 1954.
Jackson is buried in Oak Grove Cemetery (formerly called Stonewall Jackson Cemetery), with an impressive statue sculpted by E. V. Valentine erected before a very large crowd in 1895.
The center of the VMI campus is the Parade Ground. Weekly military parades are held here, including this full dress one during Graduation week in 2022. Flanking the Parade Ground are various academic, administrative and residential buildings—and the Barracks, where all the cadets (locally called “Keydets”) live during their time at VMI. The Barracks were designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966. Here’s a newer wing of the Barracks, with the Corps student leadership in front—and yes, a diminutive woman is the Corps Commander this year.
Life is rigorous at the Institute, including a great deal of physical exercise.
A close second to higher education as a local economic engine is tourism, founded not only on the many links to Confederate history but also on the 19th century look of many parts of town (the downtown area is a Nationally Recognized Historic District). Here are some views of Main Street; the church is the Lexington Presbyterian Church, at the central intersection of town, with three banks on the other corners. One image typifies “nightlife” in Lex Vegas.
Columns are a big thing all around Lexington. Here’s an old school, now a fraternity, the Post Office and a typical Main Street house.
Politically, Lexington is a blue dot in a sea of dark red, reliably voting Democratic while being outvoted by Rockbridge County Republicans (and they are the majority not only in the county but all up and down the Valley). When national leftists promoted “Defund the Police,” some locals put up “Defend the Police” signs; not surprisingly, they are primarily Trump voters, with flags displaying other allegiances as well.
Just across the street, a neighbor has posted a very different message.
Residential neighborhoods reflect the demographics: Median household income is over $57,000, but the poverty rate is above 20%. As a result, there are some very comfortable neighborhoods, but also some more modest ones. Here are some examples of each.
There are surprisingly few areas of neglect in Lexington.
Most lots are tidier.
Many are somewhere in between.
This is a house we lived in for 18 years, three decades ago, a typical brick dwelling.
And here’s the duplex we now inhabit in a retirement community, front and back.
That’s the quick tour. Lexington is worth a longer visit in person. So if you happen to find yourself in this part of the world, please give me a call and I’ll show you around!
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Lad, it’s always a pleasure to see another one of your articles – you seem to raise the bar, both on the standard of your photos and also on the standard of the accompanying text.
Because I live in the most remote capital city in the world, I’m waiting for the day I get that dreaded “tap on the shoulder”, and I’m left wondering what I could produce. Hmm
I love the architecture – obviously not all houses meet the community standard, but those that do would look just as much at home in a National Geographic.
Isn’t it interesting how tolerance has moved in one direction while intolerance has moved in the opposite one? We now have gay marriage but abortion is being outlawed. We now have an insurrection at the Capitol but people all over the place are trying to tear down statues that commemorate our history. Humans are peculiar creatures – maybe that’s why I devote so much of my time to the company of animals.
Of course it’s all happened before – the Church ripped the genitals off all the statues it could find, and placed them – all carefully catalogued, so there’s no doubt who they belong to! – in the Vatican Museum. Not, of course, on display. Nobody’s ever explained to me how Michelangelo’s “David” survived the purge. And it’s not restricted to America or Italy – a giant Buddha in Asia was wrecked.
Personally, I believe that all these historic monuments need to be preserved. I’e no delusions about being the brightest light bulb on the ceiling, and someone much wiser than I am once remarked that “If we don’t know where we came from, we don’t know who we are! Or words to that effect.
I supposed there’d be screams of rage from all directions, if anyone dared to suggest a statue of Adolf Hitler. Maybe they’d accept a gap, somewhere along the line of statues of others, with a small white card advising “this space is reserved for a sculpture of AH, if and when we ever find one”. Then again – maybe not.
Consider yourself tapped on the shoulder, Pete 😆
Oh dear – me and my big mouth! Of course I could just swipe some of my wife’s – mostly taken with an Olympus Tough – weird places in the north west, and in the Northern Territory. I haven’t seen too many shots like that on DS yet.
We do not 🙂 And we would love to 🙂
Pete, I’ve never visited Perth–it’s about as far away from Virginia as you can get on this planet. So I’d love to see the local sights and read your incomparable commentary. You are indeed tapped!
As for history, there’s the fact of the matter (what actually happened) and then there’s the story about the fact, which is always told by someone at some time (that’s supposedly why they call it “history”–his story). Statues and monuments are that way in part: yes, they do memorialize someone (at some time, not forever) but they are also someone’s story. Whether that story is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is open to question. Many of the statues of famous Confederate generals in this country were erected in a white backlash to Reconstruction, and seek to preserve a very partial view of the past, heroes of the war to preserve the “Southern way of life” against Yankee oppression. I don’t say these folks shouldn’t be remembered; the question is how they should be remembered, to what ends. –This is obviously a complex and fraught subject!
Lad, in our travels through life, we start offby asking everything. Then we know everything. And later, if we live long enough, we find out more about everything.
But in the end we realise that we actually “know” remarkably little.
I think I’ve told this story before – but it has a connection here, so it’s worth repeating. I once asked a professor at Milan’s famous Bocconi University a question about World War 2 – specifically, about Mussolini, because I was getting the impression he wasn’t quite the ogre that Hitler was.
And his response was very interesting. He said – “If you want to know anything about Italian history, first you have to read a book written by someone from the extreme right. Then you have to read on written by someone from the extreme left. And then you have to make up your own mind as to what you think actually happened!”
It’s often said that the victors write the history books. But even that’s only a partial truth.
History is important for a whole range of reasons. So burying it – denying it – really is more destructive that it might first appear. Just as “sunlight is disinfectant”, it is better to “know” your history. We will never understand ourselves, and who we are, if we don’t know where we came from and how we got here.
Pete, you have become Socrates! Socrates was told by the oracle at Delphi that he was the wisest of men. He knew he was ignorant of the deepest things, and sought instruction from others, only to find that he knew one essential thing more than they: he knew he was ignorant and others didn’t even think about the matter.
Knowledge is like an expanding balloon: the more we learn and expand the volume of knowledge within, the more the surface area increases, introducing us to greater and greater volumes of ignorance.
You’re right about reading a variety of viewpoints—about history but also about anything. Often we just seek to reinforce and entrench our current views, instead of challenging them—“confirmation bias.” I agree history is important, and is at least part of who we are. Still, it’s not my cup of tea; I much prefer (popular) science and fiction. I should read more of it (and now that my corneal transplant has finally settled, I’ve gotten new glasses and can read much better than before, so I have fewer excuses for not reading history, shame on me. My only excuse is that there are so many books, so little time!)
I wholly agree, Lad.
To me, history is interesting only if it serves our betterment today. Otherwise, it is entertainment, which is fine for those who enjoy it, but I am not one of them. And seeing how history has a habit of repeating itself, it’s fair to say our learning abilities (from history) are dismal.
As for confirmation bias, it is the foremost reason for my loathing of (so called) social networks. Their owners have made obscene fortunes from ransacking the environment and locking the planet in one big confirmation bias loop. They are single handedly responsible for more of the ills of our society today: selfishness, racism, a general dumbification of the planet, the attention span of a nat, a general disdain for culture, effort, dignity, respect … And those traitors are worshipped globally, which is probably the saddest part of it all.
Pascal, You are a great wordsmith: “dumbification of the planet”! Amen. (That may also be why so many consider philosophy a waste of time.)
Exactly. Why bother with the thoughts of great men when Facebook can provide all the food for hate and addiction?
Why bother thinking, really thinking, at all?
This is really a reply to you both. Yes, humans do NOT generally learn the lessons of history.
And yes, to the dumbification that comes from the internet. A What “they” have created can be – and often is – used as the voice of pure evil. It can be manipulated, to damage people, businesses, economies and nations.
And a large part of the reason for that, is that it is virtually faceless. You can’t “see” the other person. Their internet identities are commonly concealed behind pseudonyms. If they’re “wrong”, you have limited ways of correcting them.
But then you get other voices, like Wiki and DS. Heaps of them. ANd to a large degre, the good ones contribute to the growth of the economies of countries around the world, and improvements, knowledge sharing, and a better world.
Books – Lad, reading to totality of all the books in the world is beyond anyone. When I was younger I devoured books. These days I scarcely ever get time to read another one.
But knowledge continues to feed my world, my life. I’ve always lived by the principle that the person who has ceased to learn, has ceased to live.
Thinking is something that – for me – actually commences during REM sleep, continues as I awaken, and goes on non-stop till I’m in bed wondering how to make it stop, so that I can go to sleep again. When suddenly it HAS stopped, and in that instant I am asleep and didn’t even notice the transition.
Philosophy goes withe the territory. I discovered it by accident, when I had a lecturer in Law School who spoke solely in latin, which hardly anyone understood. So I amused myself getting a free course in Philosophy 101, from the notes left behind, all over the blackboard, by whoever inhabited the lecture theatre before us. Philosophy, for the mind, is similar to the way weights train the body – while it’s not compulsory, it certainly helps the processes of logic, thought, comprehension, development, expansion and a whole raft of other things.
I guess science, engineering, etc are complementary to that. Just as important. But it’d take more brains than I’ve got, to take all of that on board, too.
Thanks as always Pete. I have no disagreement whatsoever, just a couple of additional points:
“Life-long learning” is an over-used truism–but still true. If you stop thinking and learning, you’re dead. Still, the kinds of learning matter. Stuffing your head with more and more trivia (entertainment and gossip, e.g.) isn’t worthwhile thinking. Learning about new areas of life (for me in retirement it’s meant photography and a bit of botany) is mind-activating, as is pondering the deepest questions we face, that become more insistent as we age: what does it mean to lead a good life? is there a. purpose to be found in life–or is purpose wholly created? is there a transcendent omni- being? is there anything after death?
Philosophy has analytic and synthetic sides: Analysis of concepts and scrutiny of arguments (reasons, evidence), making more and more fine-grained distinctions, detecting ambiguity, exposing fallacies–and much more. This side is very useful in sharpening the mind in other areas as well. But there is also synthesis: to see the whole, to put together as much as you can into one harmonious view, to devise a set of coherent categories that can illuminate everything. This side expands our imagination and opens us to new aspects of the world and to novel points of view. Both sides are invaluable, in my humble experience. The internet does little to encourage either side.
I live about 3.5 hours south. I’d like to visit. Perhaps you can advise. email@example.com
Lad, that I know you to be a master of what I would call “neighborhood photography” doesn’t make looking at your work less tantalizing. If anything, it gets better each time. And Lexington is just any neighborhood, like Hernandez, either…:-). Kudos and congrats. My fave shots are those of the university and tat of Stonewall Jackson. Thanks again!
Thanks Philippe. I like the term “neighborhood photography.” It’s not landscape, not street photography, not architectural, but something that tries to convey a sense of “being there” in a particular place—in an attractive way.
Thank you for this post, Lad. Your post defines precisely why it makes going to DearSusan on an early Saturday morning enjoyable. Well documented, spot on pics and post and easy to read with thought provoking comments. Thank you.
Thanks for your generous comments Pascal. Glad to bring a little joy to another creature, something we should all do more often!
Incidentally, a retired friend once said: “When you’re retired, every day’s a Saturday!”
Thanks for the wonderful photographic tour of Lexington, Lad! Your images truly highlight the highs and lows of such an historic area – well done! You’ve definitely perked my interest in visiting. Kudos
Thanks Nancee. Do look me up when you visit!
Lad – I really enjoyed this.
The Trump Voter and Peace neighbours look like a pairing you’d find in a National Geographic article.
Thanks Mer. This is a deeply divided country, with too many people making fame and fortune dividing it every more deeply, and we are struggling to live together. It’s easier I think where you know your neighbors personally.