In 1840, with the arrival of Gordonsville’s first railroad car, some enterprising African-American women began selling their cherished fried chicken and apple pies to passengers through the train windows. At the time, there was no food on trains that lumbered through this tiny town in central Virginia. Then in 1879, when the railroad modernized and added dining cars, Gordonsville’s reign as Fried Chicken Capital of the World ended. Today, the town’s residents are just as industrious, although they’re now selling high-end home decor and designer fashions alongside chicken and barbecue.
Gordonsville’s Exchange Hotel Civil War Medical Museum helps illuminate the events that took place in the region. The Exchange began its life as a hotel, but when the Civil War broke out, Confederate military leaders transformed the building into a “receiving hospital.” Trainloads of wounded Rebel soldiers were brought here where doctors developed mechanical limbs for them and treated the sick using medicinal plants like licorice root. After the war, the Exchange Hotel became a schoolhouse for freed black children. It’s rumored to be haunted by lost soldiers, and paranormal investigations are conducted regularly.
Less spooky is Gordonsville’s adorable Main Street, where bespoke shops, art galleries and restaurants sell items you would expect to find in Manhattan, not some tiny town in Virginia. Several of the historic brick buildings were built in the 1800s and straddle either side of the still-active railroad tracks. For good eating, stop at the Barbeque Exchange for their smoky meats or Inwood Restaurant to taste that famous chicken recipe. For coffee or treats, don’t miss Krecek Kakes bakery. Their handcrafted jalapeno mole candy and coconut cake are unforgettable.
Gordonsville has several exceptional shops, but a few that stand out include Laurie Holladay Interiors, bursting with decorative items for the home, especially custom-made lamps and shades. Annette La Velle Antiques’ warehouse is filled with European treasures. Stokes of England sells commissioned wrought iron works like wine racks and chandeliers. The two sisters who own Posh sew custom-tailored clothing and sell loads of yarn. Don’t miss Raindrops in Virginia, where a talented couple repairs clocks, creates stunning jewelry, hand-forges tools and builds home decor like stools and tables.
Gardening enthusiasts should visit the Market at Grelen, a neighboring homestead featuring fruit orchards, cottage rentals, a plant nursery and European-style garden shop. Take a hike or go horseback riding along their trails, then stop at their farm-to-table cafe for vegan quiche or homemade jam.
Horse country surrounds Gordonsville, and equine enthusiasts come here to watch the hunt and steeplechase events at Montpelier, James and Dolley Madison’s former estate. Montpelier operated as a think tank for political strategy during the Revolutionary War and founding of America, when Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and Marquis de Lafayette were all regular guests. Currently, visitors can take tours of the restored mansion and surrounding 2,650 acres of horse pastures and gardens.
Central Virginia also has a collection of wineries, but Barboursville Vineyard is decidedly noteworthy. In their Tuscan Tasting room, you can sample up to 16 different wines. Afterward, dine at their Palladio Restaurant or stay overnight at the vineyard’s 1804 Inn.
Gordonsville is one of central Virginia’s most charming towns, and residents still welcome visitors with open arms and assets worth stopping for.
Where to Dine
The Light Well
Located in downtown Orange, this hometown favorite serves coffee, breakfast, lunch, Sunday brunch, dinner and has live music on some nights. Features locally-sourced ingredients and pours craft beer brewed in Orange. // thelightwell.com, $$
La Finca Grill
This authentic Bolivian restaurant cooks up traditional South American dishes like cassava, chorizo, plantains, empanadas, ceviche and tacos. But they’re known for their burgers and steaks too. // lafincagrill.com, $$$
The Barbeque Exchange
This rustic restaurant has frequently been awarded as one of Virginia’s best barbecue spots. The meat and sides menu is extensive with crispy hush puppies, sweet cornbread, Brunswick Stew, cheesy grits and three kinds of cabbage salad. // bbqex.com, $
Where to Stay
Bluegreen Vacation Rentals at Shenandoah Crossing
Situated on Izac Lake, this resort has cottages and cabins with many of the comforts of home, like kitchens and satellite TV. The rustic decor is cozy, and there’s a club facility with a fitness center, snack shop and indoor pool. // Ranges from $109-$345; choicehotels.com/Virginia/Gordonsville/ascend-hotels
Holladay House Bed & Breakfast
Located in downtown Orange, within walking distance of restaurants and shops, the inn has six large rooms. Amenities include welcome cookies, made-from-scratch breakfast and friendly innkeepers with complimentary passes to local vineyards. // Ranges from $169-$269; holladayhousebandb.com
This historic plantation is on the grounds at Barboursville Vineyards. Three elegant suites and six cottages feel like luxurious escapes that offer stunning views of the countryside, each with their unique charms and decor. // Ranges from $240-$550; bbvwine.com/our-inn
In the fall, The Market at Grelen features Picker’s Paradise, a reclaimed craft and furniture fair. In November, see the 84th running of Montpelier Steeplechase.