A Colorful History
Bedford County, Virginia
Thomas A. Markham
(Click the Underlined Word to see Picture)
The Bedford County story begins with the Indians, the Cherokees and later, the Sioux. The Cherokees lived around the Big Spring and later groups were located near Montvale, on Goose Creek. There were many villages in the valley and wigwams were set up on the surrounding banks of the rivers and streams. These waterways, along with the Indian trails, formed links between various Indian capitals in the territory. One of the main Indian Trails led through Bufords Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains and ran westward west of Roanoke. Ruins have been found of Indian settlements near the site of the Hotel Mons which was demolished to make way for the Blue Ridge Parkway. Legend has it that the closest settlement to Bedford was apparently on Turkey Mountain on the Parker Road. Here was found an amphitheater, cut from solid rock by the Indians, which formed a council meeting place. The chief sat at the highest elevation and the lesser dignitaries below. Lower still the tribe convened and held their feasts and revels while the Chief looked on from his seat of honor. There was a campground near and fine specimens of tomahawks, arrow heads and pipes have been found. The Indians enjoyed this happy hunting ground until the early 1600’s when the white man came and began to usurp his land.
In 1634 the Colony of Virginia was divided into eight areas which were governed much like the English Shires. Lieutenants were appointed to keep an eye on the hostile Indians. Sheriffs, Sergeants, Bailiffs and other officials were elected to enforce the law and administer the government.One of the Shires was named Warroequysake, but this unpronounceable name was abandoned on 1639 when the area was divided into the counties of Isle of Wight, Norfolk and Nansemond. In 1652, Surry County, adjoining Isle of Wight, was formed, and in 1720 portions of these two were set apart and made up the County of Brunswick. Lunenburg County was formed from Brunswick in 1746, and in 1753 Bedford County was formed from Lunenburg by an act of the House of Burgesses, or Virginia Assembly, which became effective in May, 1754. Bedford County was named in honor of John Russell, the Fourth Duke of Bedford, who was Secretary of State of Great Britain from 1748 to 1757.
The county was originally composed of people coming from England and Scotland with smaller numbers of Germans, Welch, Irish and French. Among the early pioneers are found the names, Thomas Markham, William and Richard Calaway, Robert Charles and Richard Ewing, Mathew Talbot, John Smith, Robert Page, Joshua Early and William Bramblett. These families settled near New London.
The establishment of a court in a new county was of primary importance and the first action taken. At the time of the formation of Bedford County, the House of Burgesses provided, "that the court for the county be constantly held by the justices thereof, upon the fourth Monday in every month."
The first court was held May 27, 1754, near Forest at the home of Mathew Talbot, one of the justices, and continued there until November 1754. It then moved to a rude structure built by William Calloway, also a member of the court, five miles south of Mathew Talbot's home and served for court until July 23, 1766, when the court ordered that the land in this area be laid out into half-acre lots and a town by the name of New London he established there. The name reflected the loyal feelings most of the colonists had at that time for the Mother Country.
New London was the first county seat and the principal town of the county for 29 years. It was a well-known trading center for many years for the entire frontier country and a stopping place for travelers moving westward. A stockade was located there for confining Indians who refused to cooperate with the white settlers who were usurping their valuable hunting grounds.
For years Court Day on the fourth Monday was a Bedford County institution. It was the big day of the month and sometimes lasted two or three days. Justices brought their wives and people came from far and near to join the festivities.
Mrs. Lula Jeter Parker describes Court Day in her hook, "History of Bedford County", "Trappers and hunters came on foot and on horseback bringing furs and sometimes wolves' heads to secure bounty offered by the court.
"Liquors flowed freely at Eckol’s Tavern opposite the Court House and at Thompson's Ordinary. Some imbibed too freely and thereafter were in the custody of friends or the jailer. There is mention of one Court session which had to be postponed two hours until an unnamed justice had time to sober up.
"At ten o'clock A. M., when court convened, the coach of Jimmy Steptoe, Clerk of the County from 1772 to 1826, would arrive and draw up with a swing at the courthouse steps. When he alighted and the coach had pulled away, he would turn to the front, sweep his hat off with a flourish, and march in. This was a signal for the justices to file in behind him and for the sheriff to take his position near the front, blow a blast upon his trumpet, and make the announcement that Court now convenes.
"This gathering at New London on Court Day must have been a colorful sight, for the gentlemen justices alone, to say nothing of their ladies, were dressed in colored silk velvet or broadcloth coats, knee breeches and silk stockings, usually white, and plumed hats worn over powdered hair and queues. Mr. Steptoe wore white broadcloth with blue silk trousers."
Patrick Henry and other Pre-Revolutionary orators were among the great men of the colonies who fired the early inhabitants of Bedford County with desire and determination to be free and independent.
New London served as the county seat until 1782, when it became advisable to divide Bedford County, because of the influx of so many settlers, and place the seat of government further west. When the division was made,
New London was found to be just across the line in the new county of Campbell.
The true history of the settlement of Bedford County is sketchy at best and to make things more complicated many of the official record’s of the early history were destroyed by fire in the Mayor's office in December 1926. Very fortunately, in 1949, records of the Town of Liberty were found among the papers of Colonel Daniel P. Aunspaugh, who was clerk of the Board of Trustees of the town. These papers had been stored for a century in the Old Aunspaugh residence on East Main Street. Mrs. Lula Jeter Parker was allowed to use this information for her History of Bedford County. Much of the information in this article was taken from her writings.
William Calloway, Jr. was commissioned to make a survey of the county to find the center. This was accomplished and 100 acres were set aside for courthouse and public buildings. A committee composed of William Mead, William Leftwich, 'William Trigg, James Burford, Henry Buford and Charles Gwatkins studied the situation and reported to the court in July 1782 of a 100 acre tract of land on Bramlett’s road owned by William Downey and Joseph Fuqua. These men Donated the land to the county. The court house was built and court was held in this new building on August 25, 1782. A town was established and given the name of Liberty. What inspired this name is not definitely known. It may have been Patrick Henry's famous speech (liberty or death), or it may have been due to the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown which established liberty and independence from the English Crown. It was said this name was "sweet to every patriot" and was the first community to be so called.
The 100 acres of land were vested in 'William Meade, William Callaway, William Leftwich, Robert Clark, James Buford, James Turner and James Wright, gentlemen, trustees, to be by them, or any four of them, laid out into lots of half an acre each or more, with convenient streets. The said trustees shall proceed to sell the said lots in such manner as they shall think best.
The rude, wooden structure originally used as the courthouse was found inadequate and on September 14. 1787. a brick courthouse was ordered to be built
This new building was so near the street that the noise of voices and passing vehicles disturbed the holding of court,. so in 1833 it was torn down and a New Courthouse was built on the same lot but back 30 feet from the street. Court was held in temporary quarters until the new courthouse was ready, approximately 1838. This beautiful two story, brick building of colonial design with its stone steps, iron railings, leading up to the portico, which was ornamented with large white pillars, was used also as a house of worship at times and it was with the regret of many citizens that it was torn down to make way for the present building.
According to records, Liberty, in the year, 1834, had a population of 350. The mail arrived and departed 15 times a week. Besides the county buildings there were 70 houses, two Baptist and one free church, Masonic Hall, two taverns, five mercantile stores. Also mentioned were nine attorneys and four regular physicians.
Progress was in evidence when in 1854, a Railroad was laid from Lynchburg to Bedford. By 1857, it was completed through the county running from Lynchburg to Bristol. It was named the Virginia-Tennessee Railroad, later the Norfolk and Western. To come through Liberty, a deep cut called “Fuqua Cut” was made north of Main Street and a Stone Bridge with perfect proportion and beauty was built with its archway across the track. The day the first train came through was cause for great celebration and people gathered from miles around to attend the gay and festive occasion. In 1907, the railroad was double tracked.
Liberty must have remained at a standstill for the next several years. In 1861, the town was described by The Rev. Joseph Graves as quiet and unpretentious. The streets were paved for only short distances and with poor material. The storehouses where the leading merchants did business were inconvenient wooden buildings, without heat except in the counting rooms. There were no livery stables; only a few carriages were owned. The citizens walked.
The Reverend Graves further describes Liberty:
"Our butcher” (and we had only one) would ride out in the morning and buy a small beef, drive it home and butcher it about nightfall, on the lot of Col. Dan Aunspaugh. When next morning, about four o'clock; all who wanted beef would go there and purchase it, and the market would be closed by six a.m. to be opened no more until the butcher went again to the country and returned. We had no water works, no telephones, and no electric lights. When the moon did not shine we took our lanterns."
There were three historical periods or events that were influential in the growth and development of what is now the City of Bedford. The first happened on October 12, 1884, while the town was still called Liberty. A fire broke out in the early hours of that Sunday morning, burning the business area on both sides of Bridge Street. The blaze had started in a general merchandise store occupied and operated by J. N. Early. There was no fire fighting apparatus; consequently the blaze raced through the wooden buildings
The alarm had awakened the citizens who rushed to the scene and immediately. formed a bucket brigade. There was no water supply other than the springs and wells within the corporation. Some of the town folk, seeing the fire was getting out of hand, rushed into the buildings, dragged out the merchandise and piled it in the center of the street in an effort to save as much as they could. But when daylight came, the flimsy, wooden structures on both sides of Bridge Street, with the exception of two, were burned to the ground. This was said to be the darkest day in the history of Liberty, but in reality it was a blessing in disguise for it forced the town to Pipe Water from springs located on the southside of the Peaks of Otter, and in restoring the business district, substantial and permanent brick buildings were erected.
The second period was the great land boom that swept through this part of Virginia and through Liberty. The citizens were in a fever of excitement as extensive plans were made for the growth of the town.
According to Mrs. Parker, in her History of Bedford County, "Prospective buyers were dashing hither and yon in horse-drawn carriages to view the newly laid out parks, drives and mansion sites."
A magnificent hotel was built of brown stone and shingles where the Elks National Home stands today and at the request of the town a Railroad Station was also built out of the brown stone. They even went so far as to change the name of the town from Liberty, to Bedford City. It seemed to the city fathers to have more of a ring of prosperity although the conservative citizens were strongly against the change.
The two-years the "boom" lasted, were exciting times for the people of Bedford City. Land companies were organized, vacant land in town and surrounding areas was purchased and laid out in tots and streets.
Until 1890, Liberty's streets were lighted by kerosene lamps but at that time, one of the promoters of the boom, George L. Colgate, built a small steam electric plant on Depot Street and sold to the town 18 street lights. These burned until midnight on dark nights and not at all when the moon shone.
Unfortunately. at the end of two years, it was discovered that no one had profited a thing. In fact, money had been lost and quite a panic followed. Banks closed, the name of the town was discarded, the population decreased about 500, valuable farm lands had been cut up into streets and general chaos prevailed. It was a few years before Liberty recovered.
After his debacle was the third period which aided in the further development of Bedford. The citizens combined their energies and resources to rebuild their town which they did permanently and substantially. The word city was dropped and the town was known as Bedford until 1969 when city status was attained. It is now known as the City of Bedford.
The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks chose Bedford over many possible sites in the United States for their National Home. The Hotel Bedford property, built during the boom was purchased by them and the Elks National Home was established in 1903. This building was torn down in 1914 and the Present Building was erected.
The Home has brought much prestige to Bedford County and thousands of visitors have passed through the grounds to view the Christmas lights and display.
Just as in the early days, Bedford County has drawn visitors and new inhabitants down through the years. The serenity of the countryside, the beauty of the mountains, the lure of Smith Mountain Lake area, the delightful climate, the good living that is provided is still a source of wonder and a drawing card