Bedford County, Virginia
By Ellen Moyer
Thomas Jefferson moved to Bedford County, 80 miles west from his home Monticello, to build a retreat home on land he described as the finest in Virginia. His plantation home, Poplar Forest, was for him a private place where he could enjoy the “solitude of a hermit,” away from the hustle and bustle of his public life, as well as to share special times with his family.
From the portico of the unusual octagon house he designed, Jefferson could view the hazy Blue Ridge Mountains, once the demarcation line between the Colonists and the Iroquois nations. “The mountains of the Blue Ridge and of those the Peaks of Otter, are thought to be greater height, measured from their base, than any other in our country, and perhaps in North America,” he said. By the time he began construction of Poplar Forest in 1806 on land inherited from his father-in-law, he knew this was no longer true. Lewis and Clark had proved the Eastern Appalachian chain of mountains to be far lower in elevation than the mountains of the West.
What they were, however, is older. The Peaks of Otter consist of three mountains: Sharp Top, Flat Top and Harkening Hill. These ancient mountains are hard granite, igneous rock 550 million years old if not older, now weathered away to 4,000 feet above sea level.
Granite from Sharp Top, Virginia’s commemorative stone, was used to the build the Washington Monument. The stone, placed in the 555-foot obelisks interior, is engraved recognizing Sharp Top’s 3,875 feet as Virginia’s highest peak. It isn’t. Flattop is 130 feet higher and Mt. Rogers, at 5,729 feet, is Virginia’s highest.
Ancient Sharp Top is, however, very special. It looms over the valleys east and west of the somewhat younger Blue Ridge Mountains and is crossed with hiking trails. In 1943 a B-25 WWII bomber crashed into it. Most spectacular is the stunning 360-degree panorama view from the top. Farms dot the lowland valleys below, to the west, there is the Blue Ridge Parkway, the worlds longest and most narrow park, and at its base lies the town of Bedford.
Bedford County, named for the Duke of Bedford under England’s King George II, was founded in 1754. According to Jefferson, it was an area “for soil and climate” that was “Virginias finest.” The first courthouse was built of logs in 1782, the year the Virginia Assembly created the town named Liberty as the county seat. The name was changed to Bedford City in 1890.
Liberty still seems an appropriate name for the town that houses the National D-day Memorial. Bedford, population 3,200 in 1944, lost more men per capita than any city in the U.S. on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944. The memorial of bronze and granite and reflecting pools and waterfalls honors the courage of all of the men in their fight for liberty. Within the privately owned memorial on a hill overlooking the Peaks of Otter and the Blue Ridge are quiet places for thought and reflection.
Today, Bedford boasts a population of 6,000 within its seven square miles. The downtown historic district, which is lined with antiques shops and cafes, houses a variety of architectural styles: Italianate, Classical revival, and Romanesque revival, from the 1830s to today. Robert E. Lee and Edgar Allen Poe once sat on the wrap-around porch of the Historic Avenal Plantation built in the 1830s. It is said this national registered historic place also houses a resident ghost.
Nearby the Wharton House built in 1883 features gardens open to the public. Both the armies of the South and North visited Bedford during the Civil War. The Civil War Trail passes through the town. Nearby is Johnson’s Winery and Orchards, which has been operating since 1919, and now is on the Bedford Wine Trail. Maps and information are available at the welcome center at the intersection of Routes 460 and 122.
Route 122 leads south to Smith Mountain Lake. If you visit in the Summer, you may want to visit this man-made boating, fishing and swimming leisure time playground. Route 43 takes you nine miles to the Blue Ridge Parkway milepost 86. Nearby is the Otters Den B&B, a restored log home built in the 1700s that offers an outdoor hot spa and country breakfast.
On the parkway, the Peaks of Otter Lodge built in 1964 provides lodging and food. Follow the parkway south to milepost 121 to Mabry Mills, one of the most photographed gristmills in America. Enjoy a mouth-watering brunch at the restaurant. Watch the flat footers dance away in the evening at Floyd’s Country Store. Spend the weekend, hike Sharp Top, visit the City Museum and reflect on World War II, the Civil War, even the Revolutionary War aftermaths displayed at Poplar Forest. Visit cider mills and wineries and old sites for white lightning. Discover the culture of the Blue Ridge surrounding Bedford for an adventure you will long remember.