If you weren’t paying attention, you could drive right through Rappahannock County without knowing it. Aside from Amissville, which runs along U.S. Route 211, the county’s many villages are tucked off the main byway on the way to Shenandoah National Park. Until the road was re-routed it ran directly through the village of Washington, bringing visitors and business.
Things are different now. The park still draws plenty of tourists but many enter through the bigger highways that come in from Washington D.C. or Fredericksburg. There are other reasons Rappahannock remains a quiet, sparsely populated puzzle piece among Virginia’s 95 other counties.
Local ordinances that have sought to keep it rural prohibit building on less than 25 acres. As a result, land and home prices are among the highest in the region, making it a difficult place to live for people with lower incomes — including the many youth and service workers who prop up the local economy.
Those rules are what keeps Rappahannock so pristine, say supporters of such measures. Many of them are fighting against forces that have brought change and development in the form of big-box stores and residential sub-divisions to surrounding counties. If all goes according to plan, Rappahannock will stay preserved through the ages like a fly in amber.
But some long-time residents are already seeing a transformation.
“I get the sense that Rappahannock hasn’t changed much over the decades,” I say during a stop at a local farm market.
“Oh yes it has,” says Janet, who runs the market and surrounding orchard with Roy, her husband. “There used to be a lot more farms around,” she says, sweeping her hand toward the land behind their property. Now it’s all houses. The farms mostly cattle or vineyards.
Those changes in the landscape are a point of debate and reflection for a county where the family farm is respected and upheld, even by those who aren’t in agriculture. There is also a broad understanding that there aren't enough jobs, that the population is aging and there are few incentives for the dwindling number of youth to stay or return.
These are, of course, challenges most rural areas face. But in Rappahannock they are uniquely tied to preserving a way of life few want to part with. “Welcome to God’s country,” a woman told me one afternoon. And sometimes it does feel that way. A beautiful slice of land at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains where time slows down and the outside world doesn’t seem to matter. For many, however, living here is a struggle and as slow as time can go, it cannot stop or go backwards.
Janet may not love the changes, but she and her husband have adapted. Their orchard continues producing apples and blueberries and peaches and the store they advertise with handwritten signs on U.S. Route 211 has absolutely everything.
It's fear that prevents people from being open to change, some residents say. Fear of the unknown, fear that change is a slippery slope and once it begins there will be no stopping it. Some people carry the scars of relocation, relatives of households whose property was taken when the Coolidge administration created Shenandoah. Others came here because it was so quiet and pristine and having gotten lucky they don't want to let anyone else in.
Yet like so many rural places, it's grappling with its future. With few jobs and few incentives for people to move in, where is Rappahannock headed? It's a question that might seem the ideal one on which to bring the community together, but it seems to be doing the opposite.