Warrenton’s History Lessons

Small Town Tells Big Stories

Posted February 26, 2010 at 3:57pm

If you feel the urge to hit Virginia’s roads this spring, don’t drive too far. Fauquier County, which has actually become a bedroom community of Washington, D.C., but far enough to have real farms and horse ranches, has a town that’s worth your while: Warrenton.

More so than many suburban communities, Fauquier typifies the strain between growth and preservation. Warrenton, the county seat of Fauquier, is a microcosm of that strain, meshing the old — as in, 19th-century old — with the new — as in Walmart Supercenter new.

But the small town — Warrenton had a population of 6,670 in the 2000 Census — manages to strike an overall balance. Just as Fauquier acts as a bridge between the more rural side of Virginia and the sprawl of D.C., Warrenton

acts as a bridge within the county, dividing the northern horse country from the farmland of the south.

Warrenton lies as a central junction to U.S. Routes 15, 17, 29 and 211 and was incorporated as a town in 1810. Although its namesake belongs to a Revolutionary War soldier, Gen. Joseph Warren, it’s the Civil War that stands out as the town’s top historical draw.

When a railroad reached the town in 1853, Warrenton was all but destined to play a pivotal role in the war. During the conflict, the town changed hands 67 times between the North and the South. After 1862, federal rule predominated, with the Rappahannock River in western Fauquier serving the border of dispute between the North and the South.

Even now, the Warrenton Cemetery provides a memorial to the scourge of the Civil War and contains the graves of Confederate Col. John S. Mosby along with other distinguished Confederate officers. The cemetery also contains a 25-foot high monument to 600 Confederate soldiers who fought in the battle of Manassas and were buried there in a mass grave. Modern-day Warrenton offers up the typical fare of chain restaurants, grocery stores and gas stations. It’s the old town that merits a day trip, not just for the history but also for an array of small shops and restaurants.

The best way to get the lay of the land is by walking it. First, swing into Warrenton-Fauquier County Visitor Center located off of the Main Street on 33 N. Calhoun St. The center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week and is stocked with more brochures than one could ever use. Ask for “A Walking Tour of Warrenton,” which offers three walking tours.

Like any old town worth its salt, the majority of Warrenton’s attractions are close to Main Street. The Old Courthouse, which was modeled off the Pantheon, stands at the highest point in town. It is often mistaken for a church, and with a striking clock, easily gives that impression. However, the building is still used for county legal proceedings. Although it’s not open on weekends, the courthouse leaves plenty to admire from the outside.

Adjoining the courthouse is a statue of John Marshall, a Fauquier native and fourth chief justice of the United States. Another spot close to the courthouse that’s worth seeing is the Warren Green Hotel. In 1825, Gen. Marquis de Lafayette was honored with a banquet there, and in intervening years numerous presidents — from James Monroe to Theodore Roosevelt — stayed there. Although the building is now used for county office space, it’s fun to think of all the historical connections to the once-functioning hotel. Also adjacent to the courthouse is the Old Jail Museum. With free admission, it’s worth the visit to see how an original 19th-century jail functioned.

If you’re inclined to really get into history, the Fauquier County Public Library, across from the courthouse at 11 Winchester St., has the Virginiana Room. In addition to archiving county newspapers, census records and military records, the room provides biographies of famous residents and a rich history of the county. The library is a popular site for genealogical tourism.

On the third Sunday of each month, the library and the Fauquier Heritage Institute sponsor afternoon historical talks called “Lectures in American History.” The lectures take place in the John Barton Payne Building on Main Street. Upcoming topics mostly focus on the Civil War and the Colonial era, but prospective attendees should call 540-341-7019 to confirm.

A stroll away from the courthouse and down Main Street offers the treat of 19th-century church architecture. Both the Baptist and the Presbyterian churches in old town Warrenton were used as hospitals during the Civil War.

There are plenty of quaint shops to pop into while advancing down Main Street, including art, jewelry, antique and equestrian stores. One store, the Scoti, even specializes in Irish and Scottish crafts. Most stores are either closed or offer limited hours of operation Sunday, so if shopping is your draw, Saturday would be a better day to visit.

Old town Warrenton offers up some worthy destinations to grab a meal. Good choices for a sit-down meal include Claire’s at the Depot, the Iron Bridge Wine Co. and Main Street Grill Restaurant, while Bartleby’s Café, Jimmie’s Market, the Madison Tea Room and the Red Truck Bakery & Market are good sandwich spots.

At the opposite end of Main Street is the Mosby House. The house of the man also known as the “Gray Ghost” is currently under restoration, but the grounds can be walked.

And if large-scale events will draw you to Fauquier County, Warrenton offers several.

Starting April 15, the old town will hold farmers markets each Saturday. And on May 15, Main Street will be shut down for the town’s annual Spring Festival, which attracts more than 100 art and food vendors.