It was a cold winter's day as I drove northward on route 50. Virginia was still recovering from the worst snow blizzard for many years. The snow was piled up high on each side of the streets. It no longer had the appearance of snow however, it was more like piles of muck and dirt caused by the heavy volume of traffic and pollution. I continued my journey and slowly the highways changed to streets and eventually to one beautiful, single winding lane. I began to feel like I was leaving one world and entering into another. I was leaving behind the busy shopping malls, neon signs and hectic atmosphere to enter a place where it seemed that time stood still.
As I drove, my foot eased naturally off the accelerator. I could feel the comfort of the car seat as my hand lightened its grip on the steering wheel. The countryside was breath-taking. The hills were covered with a white blanket of snow, dotted with picturesque horse farms. In no time at all I found myself in the town of Middleburg. I felt like I was entering an old English village. The buildings were enchanting.
There was one building that stood out from all the others: The Red Fox Inn. This is the building I would like you to visit with me, to share its unique history, wonder, and magnificence.
Joseph Chinn built The Red Fox almost three centuries ago. The building still consists of the original stone structure with 30-inch walls. It served as a midway stop for colonial travelers riding the turnpike between Alexandria and Winchester. The young George Washington was among them. During the Civil War the inn was used as a Tavern, a hospital for the wounded Confederate soldiers, and a meeting place for famous Generals like Jeb Stuart and the renegade Mosby (1.59).
As I entered through the broad, red oaken front door, the warm interior dissolved the cold. I was greeted by a hostess who came from behind a small reception desk. Although the Red Fox has 23 rooms, only 9 are located in this building. While this inn is the scene of weddings, conferences, festivals and community activities, there are no modern conveniences visible at the front desk. No telephones, computers, or fax machines. You simply see an oil painting of two horses on the back wall and an old pendulum clock ticking quietly. The building gives the individual who enters into it, the feeling of antiquity and timelessness.
The hostess took a menu and seated me next to an open fire fueled with pine knots and chunks of split oak. The atmosphere was intimate and friendly. The ceilings were broad beamed and low. The walls were the original stone simply whitewashed and sparsely decorated with beautiful paintings of hunting scenes. Each painting was dimly lit by soft florescent lighting. (Most of the paintings are for sale as the owner, Mr Turner Reuter is an art dealer). Along one wall there were big wooden high-backed benches with leather seats. Across the top of these benches were scattered many pewter beer mugs and plates which really gave the feeling of being in a tavern. In front of the swinging kitchen doors was an antique hutch that you would expect to see in your great grand-mother's kitchen. It displayed an old dinner service decorated with hunting scenes. The menu contained some interesting choices of fare: quail wrapped in wild boar bacon, elk sausage served on a bed of buckwheat pasta, buffalo tenderloin, veal and venison.
When I finished a hearty meal I went into "The Tap Room" an adjoining dining area. This is without any doubt my favorite room in the entire inn. As you enter this room, you almost have to stoop as the door way is so low. The room is small and has a small service bar taking up half the left side of the room. This bar is made from the wood of a field operating table used by surgeons during the Civil War (1.60). There are benches running along both walls and the end wall is almost completely taken up by a massive open fireplace. Again there are pewter mugs, jugs and plates scattered along the top of these old tavern benches. Over the fireplace there is a picture of a red fox. He appears to be running away, and pauses to take one look back. He has a twinkle in his eye, and seems to say "not this time". To me this picture had a special significance. The inn is located in the center of America's hunt country, which at one time was notorious for hunting and killing the same beautiful creature. Today the hunting continues, but the fox is rarely killed. This picture is a mark of respect and appreciation for this intelligent animal.
As I sat there on one of these benches gazing into the roaring fire it was easy to let my mind wander, and think about the changing times, and times gone by. I imagined those days when confederate soldiers would gather in in this room, drinking beer and laughing loudly as they got drunk by the hearth of that very same fireplace. As I read through some history books which I had picked up earlier from the local library, I came across a quotation which really fueled my imagination. It was a description of General Stuart who was believed to have spent many evenings in the "Tap Room".
He was a social type, loving people, laughing much and leading out in song: for he had a rich and golden voice. He was fond of charades and wrote execrable poetry . . . there was never any sadness where he was . . . Stuart was a strong stimulant to all who tasted of his quality..." (2-5)
I left the "tap room feeling really relaxed and thoroughly enjoying my leisurely journey into an imaginary past. I asked the hostess about the rooms upstairs. She not only gave me permission to browse around, she also gave me a key to one of the suites. So off I went up the stairs, which creaked all the way up.
On the second floor there are five more dining rooms. Each one is named after a famous person in the Civil War. There is the Jeb Stuart room, the Fairfax room, the Mosby room, the Duffie room, and the Card room. The Card room is just big enough for a few big men to sit around a table in comfort and play poker. Each room has its own decor and ambience. The Jeb Stuart room is where Jeb held his meetings and planned strategies. This room boasts two open fireplaces. The entire room is dark wood: the ceiling is dark wood, the walls are dark wood and the floor is varnished plank wood. It has an air of officially about it. Somehow it feel like a mans room. A room where serious discussions are held. In fact when I was browsing around, some people were setting up a meeting.
On the other hand the Mosby room is bright and airy. Its large windows look out onto the main street, Washington street. The walls and ceilings are painted in a light cream. There are fresh flowers on the table and the paintings had softer tones than the paintings in other rooms. For example, in the hunt scenes the sky was a light blue and the hounds had softer brown markings; the hunt master's jacket was a bright red.
I then ascended the creaky staircase to the third floor where the hostess was kind enough to give me the key to the Martha Washington Suite. It was beautiful. There was really a feeling of stepping back in time and I could imagine Martha Washington lying on this great four poster canopied bed resting. There were three windows in this exquisite room each draped with heavy curtains of a light salmon color. The curtains matched the two armchairs, and although the fire was not lit, the room felt warm and homey. The room was sparsely furnished with a writing desk and a small table with a mirror hanging over it. There was a large painting of Mount Vernon, George Washington's home, over the fireplace. There was a bathroom on suite. It contained a tiny old-fashioned bath, a sink and toilet. There was a built-in closet behind the door of the bathroom. I was told the owner's mother and sister had thoroughly researched how an eighteenth century inn should look in furnishings, fabrics, wallpapers and bedspreads and applied it to this inn (3.302).
Leaving the inn on that cold winter's day, a tear fell from my eye. I felt a little sad returning to the reality of the suburban sprawl. I wondered if people, two hundred years from now, would look at our spaghetti turn-pikes: huge malls, neon lights and late twentieth century architecture with the same respect I had felt earlier. Somehow I don't think so. However, I was grateful to have discovered this quaint old place where one could reminisce on times gone by. It felt good to take a walk in the past. It was like a breath of fresh air.
An EPM Guide. Inns of the Blue Ridge. McLean: EPM Publication, 1993.
Thomason, John. Jeb Stuart. London: C.Scribner's Sons, 1929.
Chapin Brenda. Recommended Country Inns. Connecticut: The Globe Pequot Press, 1977.