By Britney Grover
There aren’t many cities in the United States with a history as long as that of Lexington, Virginia, from Native American habitation as long as 11,000 years ago, to the life and death of Stonewall Jackson, to the world-class Virginia Horse Center’s continuing legacy. For a town of just over 7,000 people, Lexington is a hotspot for horse lovers and history buffs alike, one that shouldn’t be missed.
Sue Tallon has lived in Lexington for over 30 years, beginning when her husband was hired as director of riding at a local college. “Then they built the Virginia Horse Center, and I didn’t start being a secretary because of it, but it did coincide,” Sue said. She began working horse shows at Commonwealth Park in Culpeper, Virginia, eventually expanding to all over the area including the Washington International Horse Show for 12 years. “Now I work all over the place, but I do about six shows a year at the Virginia Horse Center, which is very lucky for me because I get to stay home for the winter and still work. It’s been a real bonus; Lexington is a lovely place to live.”
As show secretary, Sue is often the first one exhibitors ask for recommendations if they’re visiting the area. When it comes to food suggestions, Sue is quick to respond. “Lunch, dinner or anything, my top, number one go-to place is The Southern Inn Restaurant.” Though The Southern Inn will celebrate its 85th anniversary this year, the restaurant has been renovated and innovated, including a nearly complete rebuild following a lightning strike in 2010, to become a popular contemporary American cuisine destination. When it comes to good food, lightning certainly does strike twice. “George Huger is the owner-chef, and I love his rigatoni Bolognese. It’s my favorite, but everything is good.” So good, in fact, that Sue overcame her child nemesis: brussels sprouts. “When I heard about the new fried brussels sprouts appetizer with bacon aioli sauce, I thought, ‘I don’t think I’ll have that.’ Now, I tell them it should be on the dessert menu, too; it’s so good! George fixes them outstanding. Absolutely outstanding.”
In addition to a varied menu and great food, Sue also lauds The Southern Inn Restaurant’s wine list and cocktails. “I enjoy going and eating at the bar, because you just meet nice people that way. We’re a big tourist town, especially for Civil War buffs.” But even if you wouldn’t consider yourself a “buff,” Lexington’s historical sites are rich and interesting. Robert E. Lee, who was president of Lexington’s Washington & Lee University, is buried beneath the Lee Chapel on campus, where visitors can also peruse a small museum. Outside the chapel, a plaque marks the final resting place of Lee’s favorite horse, Traveller, where visitors traditionally leave pennies and other offerings, such as apples or even sugar cubes. The University’s current president lives in the Lee House, where Traveller’s stall door stands open to let the horse’s spirit wander freely.
Another horse honored in Lexington is Little Sorrel, the mount of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. Little Sorrel stands in the Virginia Military Institute Museum alongside Jackson’s bullet-riddled raincoat. The Stonewall Jackson House is a museum in downtown Lexington where visitors can learn more about the famed general, and his tomb is in Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery, a popular stop for historical tours such as the Lexington Carriage Company’s horse-drawn carriage rides. A more modern military icon, George Marshall graduated from Virginia Military Institute in 1901, and his life and accomplishments are presented at the Marshall Museum, including his Nobel Peace Prize.
“Preston Hall at Virginia Military Institute has an interesting museum on the history of the school,” said Sue. “So there are a lot of interesting things to do. If you’re a history buff, you’re in heaven. If you want to hike and you like that sort of thing, there’s plenty of that to do, too.” Located in the 10-mile nook between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains, Lexington is home to many trails along rivers or through the woods. Kayaking, golf, fishing, hunting, and even skiing and snowboarding in the winter will keep the adventurous soul busy. “The river goes right by the Virginia Horse Center, which has tons of trails you can walk or ride on, and go right down to the river.”
For the shopper, Lexington is rife with gift stores. “We have a beautiful store called Hamilton-Robbins. It’s lovely, and I love going there. They always have something — if you need a gift for someone, it’s the first place I would go. We have The Cocoa Mill, they make chocolate and have great stuff. Our downtown isn’t huge; it’s smaller than a mall. But it’s cute, and it’s always a kick.”
For entertainment, Washington & Lee University’s theater program is never a miss. “We also have a local ballet company, and an outdoor theater. They do a lot of outdoor concerts and things during the summer.” For a picturesque 1950 experience, try Hull’s Drive-In Theatre: a genuine drive-in movie theater that shows first-run movies. Hull’s shows double features every night, offers an FM sound broadcast, is pet friendly and is completely non-profit and community-owned. “At one point, it was going out of business and everybody got together and saved it,” said Sue. Now, Hull’s gets most of its funding from donations and concessions, and is mainly volunteer-run.
With a rich history and small-town community, Lexington experience doesn’t stop when one gets to the Horse Center, either. “It’s a great facility. Since I’ve lived in what’s the USEF Zone 3 for all of my life, I knew a lot of the trainers who come here when they were kids, and we have a really good bunch of exhibitors. The people who come from other zones to show at some of our bigger horse shows have always remarked, ‘It seems like the trainers are all friends,’ and I say, ‘Well, they are!’” Sue related with a laugh. “They are. They all help each other out, and they’re just a great bunch. A lot of them are well-known all over the country. We have a good bunch of exhibitors here, and I’m always happy when I come back. It’s like family. It really is.”
For more information and to plan your own Lexington stay, go to LexingtonVirginia.com.
Photos Courtesy of Lexington and Rockbridge Area Tourism