12 July 2012

Terri Fisher and Kirsten Sparenborg. Lost Communities of Virginia. Earlysville, VA: Albemarle Books, 2011.

From Virginia Tech News
Here is something that I will only say once, and if it weren’t for the eternal nature of blogs, I would deny ever uttering (writing) it from here on out. So all of you out there who bleed maroon and orange, listen up! Here it is: reading Lost Communities of Virginia made me wish that I had gone to Virginia Tech. If I had become a Hokie, I would have gotten involved in the Community Design Assistance Center and the Lost Communities of Virginia Project.

Alas, I didn’t. I went to the University of Virginia, where I got a phenomenal education in architectural history and where I got placed in my first job after college, Patrick County, probably my favorite place on the planet. So not going to VT wasn’t the worst decision of my life, but I am still pretty jealous of the Hokies who got to perform all of the research and write the beautiful book that is Lost Communities of Virginia.

In 2011, the CDAC put out a handsome publication compiling information about thirty of the 2,600 small communities that “[cover] the breadth of Virginia’s geography, history, and community types” (Lost Communities of Virginia Project). What makes these places unique? They have been lost to the hands of time.

Consider Clover in Halifax County, which I visited last year after reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. It is obvious from vacant buildings that Clover used to be a booming town, but the livelihood seems to be lost. There are many places throughout Southside with similar stories. Maybe it was the pulling up of railroad tracks, the closing of a factory, or some other circumstance that made it lose a few citizens here and there until it became just a sign with a name but not much else. Of course, the size of a place does not account for its character or what it means to people who used to spend time there. The Lost Communities of Virginia Project tries to capture these special aspects so that once a place is lost it is not gone.

I had to wait the requisite six months to get this title through InterLibrary Loan in my North Carolina library, and it was certainly worth the wait. The thirty communities that are highlighted are broken into seven groups: 
  • Gathering Places
  • Farming Communities
  • Cultural Enclaves
  • Resort Communities
  • Transportation Hubs
  • Resource Extraction Towns
  • Company Towns. 
Included early (immediately after the title page, in fact) is a large county map of Virginia with pinpoints of each community. In Southside Virginia, five places are presented: 
  • Almagro in Pittsylvania (a Cultural Enclave)
  • Boydton in Mecklenburg (a Gathering Place)
  • Clements Mill in Franklin (a Gathering Place)
  • Moneta in Bedford (a Farming Community)
  • Pamplin City in Appomattox (a Resource Extraction Town)
In addition to pictures (current and old) and a description of each place, interviews are interspersed throughout each chapter. The oral histories offer a better understanding of what each place was truly like in its heyday and what may have contributed to its decline. 

Thumbing through it at first, I questioned Boydton's place in a book about "lost" communities. Sure, it is small, but I would not call a place that earned the number six spot on Time magazine's Top 10 Outrageous Earmarks List for its $98,000 walking tour a complete ghost town. After all, it is Mecklenburg's county seat. But reading about how at various times Boydton boasted Randolph-Macon College (now in Ashland), three grocery stores, and a bowling alley, in addition to other signs of commercial and cultural life, I learned that what Boydton had been at one time truly is lost. Perhaps I should go take a walk there to learn more and to celebrate that former state.

What I really like about this book is that it does not simply evaluate neat architectural sites that are now in ruins, like Bryan Clark Green, Calder Loth, and William M. S. Rasmussen's 2001 Lost Virginia: Vanished Architecture of the Old Dominion (which is really fascinating), but that it attempts to capture the community in its entirety - people, places, and lore. There are certainly lessons to learn. What will the impact be of the closing of post offices throughout the country and throughout Southside Virginia? How can we preserve the uniqueness of our region's small villages? How can we encourage people to share their remembrances? I, for one, am grateful for the Lost Communities of Virginia Project at Virginia Tech's Community Design Assistance Center for addressing the challenge.

And for the record, the University of Virginia Press distributes Lost Communities of Virginia, so UVA does have a strong connection to the project! :)

Find Lost Communities of Virginia in the Charlotte County Library catalog.
Have you read Lost Communities of Virginia? Please share your opinion about the book and this summary.

What to visit some of the "lost communities?" The CDAC will be coming out with the Lost Communities of Virginia Southside Driving Tour soon!

What are some "lost communities" that you would like to know more about? 


  1. Thanks for the great review! I love the part about wishing you were a Hokie. :)

    You can learn more about what we're currently up to with Lost Communities of Virginia on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/LostCommunitiesOfVirginia


  2. I've been wanting to look through that book myself! Speaking of Moneta, I have spoken with a couple of young men (in their 20's) there who do blacksmithing and framing and wish to revive old Moneta in a smaller but similar educational fashion as Williamsburg, VA. It is wonderful to see young people our ages working hard to preserve the history of these places and hopefully revive them to their former glory.

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