Staunton has one architectural advantage over most of other small towns in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia: it escaped the Civil War unscathed. Many of its 18th and early 19th century homes and buildings still stand and are wonderfully preserved. Scottish-Irish immigrant John Lewis and his family built the area's first homestead in 1732, and most of Staunton's early settlers were Scots-Irish.
Staunton's early history reads like a catalog of small town America, from organizing its first volunteer fire department (with one female member) in 1790, to incorporating with a population of 800 in 1801, to the location of the Augusta Female Seminary, now Mary Baldwin College, in 1842. The arrival of the Virginia Central Railroad in 1854 made Staunton a transportation hub for all of western Virginia. Two years later, Woodrow Wilson arrived in Staunton, born to the local Presbyterian minister and his wife. Wilson's homecoming as president-elect in 1912 was the most elaborate celebration in Staunton's history.
Staunton's fine collection of historic preservation areas includes the Gospel Hill Historic District, so named in the late 1790s when religious meetings were held at its blacksmith shop. Its elegant homes include examples of Victorian, Greek Revival, and Federal styles. The Downtown Historic District is a compact 19th-century "Main Street," with buildings that date from Staunton's boom years between 1860 and 1920, and fine concentrations of Victorian-era architecture. Its Wharf Historic District harks to the days when the railroad changed Staunton from a rural village to a center of commerce, with strong and sturdy warehouses. Since 1972 the Wharf Historic District has been on the National Register of Historic Places, and its depot and other preserved buildings house restaurants, antique shops and specialty boutiques.
Marker History - A Guide To Staunton's Historical Markers Information can be found here on Staunton's Historical Markers.
1. Staunton (pronounced STAN-ton) was named for Lady Rebecca Staunton, wife of the Colonial Governor of Virginia William Gooch. No one really knows why Staunton is pronounced the way that it is. Some believe that the pronunciation is because "that is the way that the family pronounced the name (although Staunton descendants pronounce the "u".) It has also been suggested that since most area settlers were Scots-Irish and Germans and not English like the Staunton name that when Staunton was pronounced by those with Irish and/or German accents, it sounded like it did not contain a "u". It is anyone's guess!
2. In 1732, Scots-Irish settler John Lewis and his family became the first Europeans to settle in the area.
3. In 1738, Augusta County, named for the Prince and Princess of Wales, was created and stretched all the way to the Mississippi River. It included land that now comprises Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, much of West Virginia and part of Western Pennsylvania including the present site of Pittsburgh.
4. Surveyor Thomas Lewis, son of the first settler in the area, John Lewis, laid out Staunton's streets and plots in 1747.
5. Judge Archibald Stuart, a friend of Thomas Jefferson, built one of the earliest neo-classical homes in the nation in Staunton in 1791. Still standing at 120 Church Street, the house is currently occupied by descendents of the builder. Justice Stuart purchased some old law books from Thomas Jefferson in the early 19th century. Sixteen of these books were discovered in the attic of this house in the 20th century and most of them are now on view at Monticello. What is significant about this is the fact that few books that actually belonged to Jefferson survive. Because of debts, Jefferson sold his library to form the nucleus of the Library of Congress. The British during the War of 1812 burned the Library of Congress.
6. For 17 days in June of 1781, the Virginia State legislature met in Staunton, after being forced by British troops led by Tarleton to flee Richmond. The building that served as Virginia's capitol stood on the present site of Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Staunton. While meeting on this site, the legislature elected a new governor to replace Governor Thomas Jefferson. Members of the state legislature who were present included Patrick Henry and Daniel Boone!
7. The Mountain Sax Horn Band was established in Staunton in 1855. Since many of its members served with Stonewall Jackson during the Civil War, the band changed its name to The Stonewall Brigade Band. At the Surrender at Appomattox, General U.S. Grant allowed the band to keep their instruments rather than to surrender them as spoils of war. Because of this gesture, the band would maintain an unusual relationship with Grant. When President and Mrs. Grant's train passed through Staunton in 1874, The Stonewall Brigade Band serenaded them. The band marched in his inaugural parade, performed at his funereal and at the dedication of his tomb. Beginning in the 1870's the band beginning receiving financial assistance from the City of Staunton. Today, it is the nation's oldest, continuously performing band that receives municipal support. The band presents free concerts every year on Mondays from June through August.
8. On December 28, 1856, the future president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, was born in the Presbyterian Manse (or minister's home) on North Coalter Street. Following his election to the presidency in 1912 and on the anniversary of his birth, Wilson returned to a major parade and celebrations in Staunton. He spent the night in the room in which he was born. President Franklin D. Roosevelt later dedicated the house as a museum in 1941.
9. Two U.S. Presidents have spoken to the citizens of Staunton from the front portico of the main building at Mary Baldwin College: Woodrow Wilson spoke as president-elect in 1912 and Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke here in 1960.
10. On January 1, 1900, William Haines was born at 419 North New Street in Staunton. Haines became one of the leading film stars of the 1920s and 1930s, and was named the leading male film star for 1930 (his female counterpart was his close friend Joan Crawford.) William Haines appeared in over fifty films, he was the first M-G-M star to speak on film, and he has a "star" on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. By the mid-1930's, Haines had established himself in a second career as one of the leading interior decorators in Hollywood. His clients included prominent figures of the film community such as Joan Crawford, Frederic March, Claudette Colbert, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Carole Lombard, Joan and Constance Bennett, Ann Southern, Barbara Stanwyck, William Powell, Frank Sinatra, Lionel Barrymore, Marion Davies, Douglas Fairbanks, studio head Jack Warner and Director George Cukor. In 1969, he was hired by Ambassador Walter Annenberg to design the interiors of Winfield House in London, the official residence of the American Ambassador to the Court of St. James. The million-dollar commission received international attention. In a career that continued until his death in 1973, he achieved fame as one of the most influential interior decorators of the 20th century. Custom-made furniture that he designed has become highly collectible, and he is now regarded as one of the most important interior decorators of the 20th century.
11. In 1911, the Staunton Fire Department purchased the first motorized fire apparatus in the state. Named "JUMBO" by its manufacturer, the fully restored Robinson Pumper Fire Engine is on view daily at the Staunton Fire Department. Since the fire engine is located at the Fire Department. It is essentially open 24 hours a day!
12. Some of the famous people who have attended schools in Staunton include Juliette Gordon Lowe, the founder of the Girl Scouts of America who attended Stuart Hall; Tallulah Bankhead who briefly attended Mary Baldwin College, and U.S. Senator and candidate for President Barry Goldwater who graduated from Staunton Military Academy.
13. The present Trinity Episcopal Church, built during the mid-1850s, has an extraordinary collection of stained glass windows; many created by Tiffany Studios. Only one other building in Virginia, Old Blandford Church in Petersburg, can boost more Tiffany designed windows.
14. Architect Thomas Jasper (T.J.) Collins moved from Washington, DC to Staunton in 1890, and over the course of twenty years, he designed or remodeled some 200 buildingsmost of which survive. His sons later joined the firm, which survives to this day, over a century later. Many of the buildings designed by the firm are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The grandfather of T.J. Collins entered the competition to design The President's House (better known today as The White House.) His design came in second to that of James Hoban, whose plans were used to build The White House.
15. The area of Staunton surrounding the railroad station is known as The Wharf, a curious name for a neighborhood that is nowhere near a wharf! In fact, the name is an historical one dating to the 19th century. The warehouses in this neighborhood reminded people of buildings that you might see along a wharf. In Staunton's case, the railroad acts in same manner as a wharf, and in fact, the neighborhood's old warehouses really do look like those that one might see along the waterfront of a port city.