Historic Village known as Lovingston, Nelson County, Virginia
by Carla Quenneville
This area of the western Piedmont region of the Virginian Colony was initially settled in the first quarter of the 18th century (1725-1750). The westward movement of the Tidewater English Gentry and the eastward movement of the Scotts-Irish and German settlers from the Shenandoah Valley, converged in what would become Nelson County. Land grants were being deeded at the time and two friends, James Loving and James Stevens of Caroline County, received a large tract before the American Revolution.
Created from a division of Amherst County in 1807, Nelson County was named for one of our founding fathers and the former Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia (1781), Thomas Nelson Jr. A central location was sought for the county seat and placement of the courthouse, to make reaching the center of government convenient for the count residents. Commissioner James Loving, owning several large tracts of land patents (over 4,000 acres) donated thirty acres of his land near Loving’s Gap. The central location, strong springs and position on the Stage Road made it enticing. The town would be named Lovingstown.
Early growth in Nelson Co stemmed from its proximity to the important overland transportation route from Lynchburg to Charlottesville. By the early 19th century this pathway, called the Stage Road, was a vital link in Virginia’s tobacco trade routes. Thomas Jefferson described Lynchburg in 1810, as “perhaps the most rising place in the United States…and ranks second richest city per capita in the nation”. Though the nation was still small, growth was inevitable. The prominence of Lynchburg resulted in the Stage Road becoming a major south/north corridor for both goods and passengers. As the Stage Road passed right through what would soon become Lovingstown (1809), this was the perfect resting point halfway between the two cities- Charlottesville and Lynchburg.
The location to build the courthouse (1809) was based mainly on the elevation on the hill to avoid floods. Governor William Cabell (1805-1808) described the floods of 1771 as “the greatest flood known… carried away almost every house on low ground, destroyed the orchards, many people drowned”. Floods have occurred about every 100 years, in 1871 and then in 1969 (Hurricane Camille) with equally devastating results.
The courthouse, designed by Shelton Crosthwait and based on a Jeffersonian town-hall plan, survives to this day, 213 years from the town’s conception, as of this writing. The jailhouse, built in 1823, was designed by none other than Thomas Jefferson himself. The courthouse square served as the town’s green, known as the Public Lot. George W Varnum, one of the trustees, drew up a plan for the town with the courthouse dominating the public square and streets were laid out in a grid pattern running north- south and east- west. Additions have been made to the courthouse several times but the original structure remains intact and is one of only seven courthouses of this type in Virginia.
Varnum laid out 49 lots, each measuring 32 yards x 76 yards (about .5 acres). A Clerk’s office was built in front of the courthouse in 1811 and still stands today. A tavern was built on lot #1 directly across from the courthouse. Also established in 1811 was a US Post Office. Other taverns were built in the village from 1809 to 1818. Most are still standing today and are now residences. Twenty two of the forty nine lots laid out were sold in the first year. The first eleven signed the purchase agreement on May 19, 1809 and the second eleven signed on July 4, 1809. It was required to build a dwelling of logs measuring at least 12’x12’ within 5 years of ownership. The names of some of the first land owners known are: George Varnum, Thomas Fortune, James Loving, Joseph Loving, Robert Rives, Thomas Cock, John Wright, Robert Kincaid, Henry Bibb, and Joseph Shelton. Many of these family names survive in the county to this day.
Lovingston featured “watering holes to spare” with as many as five taverns open at one time. These establishments were the only purveyors of spirits in the county. By 1835, the Gazeteer described Lovingston (population 250 at the time) as the prosperous county seat, and a “thriving little village beautifully situated in a cove with commanding views of fine countryside”.
Some of the commerce of the day in the village included 6 mercantile stores, 1 Apothecary,2 schools, 1 tanner, 2 saddlers, 1 blacksmith, 2 cabinet makers, a milliner, a dressmaker, a wheelwright, a house joiner and a chair maker. The town boasted three Christian denominations- Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist. There were three attorneys and two practicing physicians.
Today the village of Lovingston appears closely as it was originally envisioned by it’s founders who platted the tract in 1809. She stands as a quiet residential and commercial community in the heart of Nelson Co., surviving as a Colonial Courthouse town that grew and adapted to changing social, cultural and physical changes, resulting in a cohesive and vibrant historic community.
The year 1969 was significant in the county’s history and development for two reasons. The Route 29 Bypass was completed, removing the flow of through traffic in the village of Lovingston, and Hurricane Camille hit the county on Aug 19-20, 1969, leaving unprecedented damage in it’s wake. The bypass effectively insulated the village from modern commercial intrusions and preserved the historic structures throughout this mountain cove. The bypass also served as a rescue staging area for all the responders after Hurricane Camille had unleashed her fury across the region. Listed as the “greatest recorded storm ever to hit a heavily populated area in the Western Hemisphere”, Dr. Robert H. Simpson of The National Hurricane Center. 125 residents og the county lost their lives that night. 193 homes were destroyed and 135 miles of roadway were completely swept away, plus 23 bridges lost. The town of Lovingston suffered sever mudslides, flooding, building damage and 3 lives lost.
Today you can still see scars on the side of the mountain above Lovingston, and throughout the county, as evidence of that horrific night 53 years ago. The village is undergoing a fresh revitalization. With the historic significance, architecture and the desire of the local residents and business community to restore and refurbish this charming village, Lovingston will once again be a shining hub for tourists and locals alike to enjoy.