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My Visits to Schuyler, Virginia
Schuyler, Virginia: The REAL Walton's
As with all other
photos in my website, you can click on any photo here to see a
larger image (600 x 400 pixels). For you REAL Waltons fans,
I've also included super-sized versions of the photos (1200 x 800
pixels), as noted.
reproduce any of the maps or photos which appear on this page,
but if you do, please have the courtesy to credit
Virginia, is a pleasant community of 400 residents nestled in the
foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in central Virginia, about 70
miles west of Richmond. Schuyler (pronounced "Sky-ler") was the
boyhood hometown of author Earl Hamner, Jr., who wrote several
semi-autobiographical stories about his experiences there while growing
up during the Great Depression, including Spencer's Mountain, which, in 1963, was
made into a movie starring Henry Fonda and James McArthur. If you
happened to see Spencer's Mountain, you might be confused
because, while the movie took place in Wyoming, Hamner's book had
actually been set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.
Perhaps Earl Hamner's
most famous book, though, was The Homecoming which was the
catalyst for the CBS television series, The Waltons, which aired from
1972 through 1981 and was one of the most popular television shows of
the 1970s. Of course, the fictional town in the television series was called
"Walton's Mountain," not Schuyler.
was my favorite television show back then, perhaps because my father was Earl Hamner's age (born exactly three months
after Earl in 1923) and, like Earl, grew up in a large
family in a rural mountain community during the Depression -- although in
Washington, not Virginia.
My First Visit to Schuyler (1985)
watched The Waltons for years, I'd never heard of Schuyler until the
early 1980s. That's when, as a Geography grad student at the
University of Wisconsin, I befriended a fellow grad student there named
Marilyn (see News: August 8,
2001) who, as it turned out, was also a Waltons fan. During
the numerous conversations that she and I had about John-Boy, Mary Ellen and Grandpa Walton --
not as sophisticated, I'm sure, as the discussions that our more erudite
colleagues were having about spatial analysis coefficients and fluvial
geomorphology -- Marilyn mentioned that Earl Hamner had
grown up in Schuyler, Virginia, and had used that town as the basis for the
fictional "Walton's Mountain" in the television series. After she
told me this, I decided to visit Schuyler if I ever got to Virginia.
That didn't take long because I bought
my Toyota pickup truck in
1984, and a year later, I decided to take a semester off from my studies
at the University to travel around the U.S. (or as I told my graduate
advisor, "To do field research.")
I drove down
the east coast of the U.S. for the first time that fall and when I got to Virginia,
in October 1985, I took out my AAA road map and found Schuyler. As
I drove along Skyline Drive, the ribbon of pavement that straddles the
crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I savored
the vivid fall colors and the crisp blue sky. I camped that
evening on Skyline Drive overlooking the beautiful Shenandoah Valley and
admired a spectacular crimson sunset.
morning, a Sunday it was, I came down off the crest and, after taking
several wrong turns, finally found Schuyler. As I quickly
discovered, Schuyler wasn't really a "town" with grid streets and a
downtown. It was more like a hamlet, with scattered clusters of houses strung
along the numerous winding and mostly-empty country roads that meandered
through the Blue Ridge foothills. I was
expecting to see something there denoting the Waltons, maybe a
"John-Boy's Burgers" or a "Dew Drop Inn," or perhaps
just a sign pointing out the Hamner house, but I was disappointed and
surprised not to find any indication that Hamner had ever lived in
Schuyler. I did drive past several large houses, but I wasn't sure
which, if any, had been the Hamner house. After about 20
minutes, I spotted a real estate sign advertising "Waltons Mountain
Property For Sale," certainly not the monument to The Waltons that I
was hoping to see, but at least an indication that I was in the right
Finally, on my way out of town, I saw an old country
store called the "S&H Grocery Store" which, according to the sign there,
was the inspiration for Ike Godsey's store, so my visit hadn't been a
total waste. I'm glad I took a picture of it, too, because the
store burned down a few years later.
Above left: View from the Blue Ridge Parkway, looking east into the
Virginia piedmont and John-Boy Walton country.
Here's "Ike Godsey's General Merchandise" (known in real life as the S&H
Grocery Store). Unfortunately, it burned down a few years later,
though a new store has sprung up in its place.
Above right: Walton's Mountain
for sale? I'm sure Grandpa was rolling over in his grave.
My Second Visit to Schuyler (2001)
years later, in July of 2001, I decided to revisit Schuyler during one
of my many trips around the U.S., a trip that I've documented (perhaps
too well) elsewhere
in this website. I was eager to get back to
Schuyler since I'd read in my AAA TourBook about a "Walton's Mountain
Museum" that was now open there. It was my 2001 visit to
Schuyler, in fact, that inspired me to create this section of my website
devoted to The Waltons.
I headed along Skyline Drive, then dropped down into the Virginia piedmont. And once again, as I
approached the Schuyler area, I quickly got lost, which is pretty easy to do
along the many twisting country roads in that part of
As I was driving along, I realized that I had absolutely no idea where I
was, a sobering admission for a self-proclaimed "geographer." Soon
afterwards, however, I
spotted the Rockfish Post Office, so I knew I must be getting close to
Schuyler. According to the sign there, the post office had closed
in 1985, and the only occupant was a large and unfriendly dog who bore
absolutely no resemblance to Reckless. He wasn't anywhere near as friendly either, and barked at me as I got out of my truck
and continued to bark as I walked around the
nearly-deserted settlement of Rockfish.
After I took a few
pictures, I made an aborted attempt to pet the snarling canine, then,
with my hand fortunately still intact,
hopped back into my truck and headed down the road, in search of
the elusive Schuyler.
to read a much friendlier description
of the "Dogs at the Rockfish Post Office" sent in by a website
reader in 2007.
to read an e-mail I received from the owner of the Rockfish Post
Office in 2009.
Above left: As I approached Schuyler from the west, I
discovered the Rockfish Post Office and railroad station, closed since
1985, the year that I'd last visited. John-Boy used to write about
hearing the train whistle at Rockfish. This is it.
Above right: The Rockfish Post Office.
a pretty good navigator, but my two geography degrees didn't help
much as I drove along the empty country road while trying to figure out where the heck I was. And no, I
didn't ask anyone for directions mainly because: 1). There wasn't
anyone around, and 2). I'm a guy. After a while, though, I found a sign
pointing me to Schuyler, and once I got there, I followed the signs to the
Walton's Mountain Museum, a large
red-brick building near, what I guessed, was the middle of Schuyler.
Back during the Depression when Earl Hamner
was growing up, this impressive building, built in 1925, was the
community's high school. Earl graduated from this high school in
1940, six years after
John-Boy Walton, who graduated from the much smaller Walton's Mountain School,
as portrayed in the TV series, in 1934. As Schuyler fell on hard times,
though, the high school was converted to an elementary school and
eventually, in 1991, it was closed and converted to a Community Center.
In 1992, and with permission and
financial support from Earl Hamner, the Community Center was converted into a
joint Community Center and Walton's Mountain
Museum. Through museum
admission receipts and gift-shop sales, the museum has provided support
to Schuyler's food bank, literacy program,
fire and rescue squads, children and senior
citizen programs, scholarships for high school students, health clinic, and local library.
Obviously, the museum is a great deal for
visitors and the Schuyler community alike.
Above left: The
high school that Earl Hamner attended is now the local Community Center
and Walton's Mountain Museum. Built in 1925, it's much different
than the schoolhouse portrayed in the show. As you may recall,
John-Boy graduated from high school in 1934 and went on to the fictional
"Boatwright University." Earl Hamner actually graduated from this
high school in 1940 and attended the University of Richmond.
Another view of the museum. It costs $5 to get in and if you're a
Waltons fan like me, it's well worth it.
The walls inside the Walton's Mountain Museum are covered with photos
of the Waltons and Hamners.
After I walked into the museum, I paid the
$5 admission fee to a pretty girl inside, who directed me to a back room
where a short video, called something like "The Making of The Waltons,"
narrated by Earl Hamner, had just started playing on a large TV in front
of about 20 other Waltons fans.
After the program
finished, I spent an enjoyable hour in the museum admiring all kinds of
memorabilia that only a true Waltons fan like me would appreciate, including
signed photographs, the original radio that was on the show, and a
replica of the Baldwin sister's "recipe machine." The admission
price includes a guided tour of the museum and after the tour, you're
invited to linger as long as you want. The laid-back museum is a
great place to visit if you're a Waltons fan, or even if you're not a
discovered, Schuyler had been a flourishing soapstone company town
during the early 1900s and Earl Hamner's father, Earl Sr., had worked
in the soapstone factory. Soapstone, in case
you're wondering, is a metamorphic rock that's soft enough to be carved into
durable furniture, flooring tile, or countertops. In fact, the
area in Nelson County (where Schuyler is located) and adjoining Albermarle County contains the largest soapstone deposit in Virginia,
and one of the largest in the U.S. With the increasing popularity
of synthetic materials during the 1900s, though, the demand for
soapstone tumbled along with, unfortunately, the fate of Schuyler.
Early in the Depression, Earl lost his job in the factory and, as in the
television series, set up and operated a sawmill next to his house.
On my way out of the museum, I asked the
pretty girl at the entrance where the Hamner house was located, and she told me that it was
the road and down a little ways. She also told me that Earl's
youngest brother, James Hamner (the "Jim Bob"
character in the series),
still lived there and didn't mind if folks took pictures of the house
from the outside, but she asked me to respect James' privacy. The girl also told me that the S&H Grocery Store,
the inspiration for Ike Godsey's store which I had photographed in 1985,
burned down in the early 1990s, although a new store had sprung up in
her, then stepped outside and spent another hour poking around Schuyler.
I stopped by the new grocery store and drove down to the Rockfish River,
which runs through town. Then I checked out the Hamner house where
Earl's parents, Earl Sr. and Doris Hamner, the "John" and "Olivia" characters on
the show, raised eight red-headed children during the Depression.
The Walton (er, Hamner) House still stands. When I visited
Schuyler in July 2001, James Hamner ("Jim-Bob") was still living
died in 1969, never to see his son Earl Jr.'s work The Homecoming made into the
CBS movie and later into the critically-acclaimed television series.
Doris, however, lived until 1990 and enjoyed seeing her son, now a
famous author, reap the rewards of her family's sacrifices many years
earlier. Doris, in fact, once joked that, "she could afford eight
children but CBS could only afford seven."
actually in the Hamner house when I walked by. I snapped a few
shots of the house but I didn't bother him, because I figured the poor
guy had been besieged by too many ardent Walton's fans over the years.
The Hamner House Today
In June 2012, a
reader wrote and told me about the Hamner House.
Unfortunately it fell into disrepair after James Hamner, the
last Hamner resident, passed away in 2004. However, I'm happy to report that the house has
been restored, much to Earl Hamner's delight. You can
even take a tour inside the house. Earl
posted a message about the restored house, along with
several photos of it,
Note: Due to poor health, James
moved to Charlottesville soon after my visit and, sadly, passed away in
April of 2004. The Hamner house was slated for demolition, but I'm glad to report that it was
recently purchased by a Walton's
fan who has vowed to preserve it. See my note to the right.
visit to Schuyler, I tried to imagine what life must have been like for
the Hamner family while living here during the Depression. No,
there's no such thing as "Walton's Mountain" and there never
However, as I discovered, the very real town of Schuyler had its own
special charm, and for that I was glad.
A replica of the Baldwin sisters' "Recipe Machine."
Above center: Earl Hamner's
award collection, including two Emmys.
Above right: A tribute to James Hamner, inspiration for the
"Jim-Bob" character and Earl's youngest brother. Sadly, James
passed away on April 1, 2004.
Above left: A re-creation
of the Walton's living room. The radio was on the small table to
the left. Speaking of which...
Above center: ... here it is. This was the actual radio that
John brought home in the truck in the first season's introduction, and which the
family listened to in several episodes. It's on loan from the Smithsonian
Institution and arrived at the Walton's Mountain Museum in 1999.
As Earl Hamner said at the radio's unveiling ceremony, "One of my favorite
images of those days is of the entire family sitting in the living room
listening to the radio."
You can buy all kinds of interesting Waltons stuff in the gift
shop, including "A piece of Walton's Mountain" (a soapstone brick)
for $8.50. I got a t-shirt and a mug, but I wish I'd gotten
Above left: The cast of the
Waltons. This same picture was used on the cover of the ultimate
Goodnight, John-Boy. An alert reader sent me an e-mail noting
that John-Boy is holding a copy of the Blue Ridge Chronicle, so I'm guessing
that this was from the fifth season, when John-Boy began his newspaper
Here's the actual Hamner family. Each of the members was the
inspiration for a character in the show. Top, left-to-right:
Earl Hamner ("John-Boy"), Clifton Hamner ("Jason"), Marion Hamner ("Mary
Ellen"), Audrey Hamner ("Erin"). Center: Doris Hamner
("Olivia"), Earl Hamner, Sr. ("John"). Bottom, left-to-right: Paul
and Willard Hamner ("Ben"), James Hamner ("Jim-Bob"), Nancy Hamner
Above right: A different angle providing a better view of many
of the Hamners, although Marion and Audrey Hamner are obscured by the
Above left: Call Sheet from the episode, "The Volunteer," which aired in
Above right: As
I mentioned above, "Ike Godsey's Store" (known in real-life as the S&H
Store) burned down in the early 1990s. This store was built in
its place. It's just a short ways from the Walton's Mountain
museum and the Hamner house.
Above left: Schuyler was a company town during the 1930s and
Earl's father, Earl Sr., worked in the soapstone factory, as did just
about everyone else in Schuyler. This is the Rockfish River and
dam that provided power for the factory. The factory closed
during the Depression.
Above center: Another view of the dam.
Above right: Looking downstream from the bridge over the Rockfish