Just off I-85, near the intersection of Boyndon Plank Road and Old Stage Road in Brunswick County, stands one of Virginia’s standard historical markers – black lettering on a silver background – commemorating the county as “The Original Home of Brunswick Stew.” In Richmond , there’s a marker honoring the first Jewish congregation in Virginia, Kahal Kadosh Beth Shalome, founded in 1789. A marker in Accomack County honors “The Bear and the Cub,” the first recorded play performed in the colonies in 1665.
These are but a few of the more than 2,000 state highway historical markers that dot the Old Dominion’s highways and byways. They mark spots and honor Virginians famous and obscure from the spot in Caroline County where John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln ‘s assassin, was cornered and killed by Union soldiers in 1865 to Rassawek in Fluvanna County , the site of the main village of the Monocan Indians, according to John Smith’s 1612 map of Virginia.
The commonwealth’s highway marker program began in 1927 – one of the first in the nation – as a way to promote tourism and encourage nationwide interest in Virginia ‘s history. By the end of that year, the first markers appeared along Route 1 from Fredericksburg to Richmond . Seven years later there were about 1,200 markers set along the Old Dominion’s highways. Pull-offs had been created so motorists could stop and read the text. The earliest markers celebrated Virginia ‘s famous men, colonial structures and events of the Civil War.
In the mid-20th-century, some politicians and historians thought the program should be discontinued because all important topics had been covered. The popularity of the markers saved them, however. Since the 1970s, the Department of Historic Resources, which coordinates the program, has expanded the markers to include themes and sites that had been neglected.
Markers now commemorate important people and events in African-American, Native-American and women’s history. In its 81-year-history, the only time markers were not installed was during World War II.
Originally, the state paid for new markers, but since 1976, private organizations, local governments and individuals now foot the cost of markers ($1,350 as of 2007). Among the requirements: no marker can be erected for a living person; the person, event, place or fact must have gained importance at least 50 years ago; and markers must be placed in public right-of-way and maintained by the state Department of Transportation or local public works. The text is limited to 100 words and dates are always written in military style ( e.g. 7 Dec. 1941 ). Markers dealing with the Civil War must use the term “Civil War” and not “War Between the States.”
Once staff has reviewed applications for new markers, they present the proposal to the state’s Board of Historic Resources, which meets quarterly. In 2006, 45 groups sponsored new markers. Recently installed markers include Eagle’s Nest in King George County and Amorolick Encounters John Smith in Fredericksburg . Federal funds now support updating damaged, missing or outdated marks. For example, the Council on Indians is now among those who review texts on earlier markers related to Native Americans, which sometimes misrepresented them or referred to them in pejorative terms.
A complete list of the commonwealth’s official highway markers can be found in A Guidebook to Historical Markers — Third Edition, a joint project of the University of Virginia Press and the Department of Historic Resources. Markers can also be located online in the Virginia Historical Highway Markers Database. You can search by ZIP code, county or city, route number, marker number and category. There are more than 50 categories of markers from “Homes of Famous Virginians in the Nineteenth Century” to “music,” “literature,” “frontier forts” and “culinary.”
Speaking of the culinary arts, in addition to the home of Brunswick stew, originally concocted on a 1828 hunting trip when a camp cook simmered squirrel with butter, onion, stale bread and seasoning, Virginia’s markers celebrate Marion Harland, whose 1871 book, “Common Sense in the Household” was the best-selling cookbook in America, and Mary Randolph, whose 1824 “The American Housewife” is considered the first regional cookbook published in the nation.
For the devoted regional history buff, these are but a few of the tributes to the rich and sometimes little-known history hidden just off Virginia’s highways.
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