Year of Fear, Chapter One: The Mystery of Caroline County, Virginia

February 11, 2020

This is the first chapter of the Year of Fear, a new series from The Delacorte Review and CJR. Each week until Election Day, we will bring you another chapter from one of our four towns. Click here to subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

Bowling Green, Virginia, the county seat of Caroline County, is about seventy-seven miles south of Washington DC, where Congress recently debated the impeachment of a sitting president, and forty-two miles north of the governor’s mansion in Richmond, where armed gun enthusiasts recently gathered to protest any and all attempts to limit firearm ownership.

Despite this geographic proximity, Caroline County residents appear somewhat insulated from political turmoil. It has been said that the only topics that draw a crowd here are guns, dogs, and high school football, although the Caroline Cavaliers have had some lean years, so even that is in doubt. The county’s 31,000 residents, most of them employed, underemployed, or retired, live in single-family homes within relatively quiet communities or scattered about the rolling rural landscapes. Twenty-eight percent of the population is Black, nearly five percent Hispanic or Latino, and about two-thirds white. A few residents claim ancestry from the Native American tribes that greeted Capt. John Smith and other English settlers in the early 1600s. Over the past fifty years, several gated lake communities, one golf course community, and a Disney-like subdivision called Ladysmith Village have sprung up, bumping up the population somewhat and changing some of its traditional characteristics.

But at heart Caroline County is one of the last rural areas along the Interstate 95 corridor and has yet to be overrun by apartment complexes and commercial development. In theory, more than 90 percent of the land is available for agriculture and forestry, although only 20 percent of its 549 square miles is actively farmed. Low hills and shallow valleys dot the landscape. If you go to the Visitors Center in Carmel Church, which is more of a destination for hungry travelers than a community, you can’t miss the reproduction of a thirty-three-foot prehistoric whale skeleton found twenty feet down in a local quarry in 1990, a reminder that this area was once under the sea.

Overshadowed by its more populous and prosperous neighbors, Caroline County has been in the national or international news spotlight only on rare occasions. A recent mention came after the presidential election of 2016, when it was determined that Caroline had been one of five “Pivot Counties” in Virginia. Its voters gave Barack Obama a 12-percent win over John McCain in 2008 and an eight-percent win over Republican Mitt Romney in 2012. But then they reversed course in 2016, giving Donald Trump a five-percent victory over Hillary Clinton, who won the overall vote in Virginia.

For ninety-nine years, the residents of Caroline County were served by a lively weekly newspaper, the Caroline Progress, which was family-owned and -operated for most of its existence. Staff size and page count dwindled after the paper was purchased by a Tennessee-based chain in 2007. The March 28, 2018 issue announced that it was the newspaper’s last.

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How Caroline County voters will feel come the March 3 Super Tuesday Democratic Primary in Virginia, and ultimately in the presidential election in November, is, at this point, anybody’s guess. How are the residents of this county dealing with the loss of their local newspaper, and what impact will it have on their lives and political decisions in 2020? These and other issues will be explored in later dispatches.

ICYMI: Read the intro to the Year of Fear project

For the most part, meanwhile, county residents here are resilient and self-sufficient. Many backyard gardens dot the landscape and hunting and fishing are popular pursuits. The County Sheriff’s Department is a well trained and equipped force, but many farmers and homeowners are also prepared to defend what is theirs.

There are more than seventy churches in the county, ranging from small country chapels to large and opulent edifices. In the old days the churches were also the social center and, along with rural post offices and general stores, the communication centers of their communities. To some extent that remains true, especially in the Black community. Other community organizations, such as Masons and Moose, the Ruritan and Rotary clubs, have been augmented by community centers, four libraries, and the relatively new Caroline County Y. Food—be it fried chicken, oysters, fried fish, blue crabs, salt fish, or biscuits and sausage gravy—is a big draw for gatherings and fundraisers.

If you are one of the millions of motorists who pass through the western third of Caroline County each year on I-95 or the parallel U.S. 1, you may be unaware that this county exists. People have traveled through here for centuries, with only a relative handful deciding to put down stakes. Revolutionary War troops marched through on the way to Yorktown and Union and Confederate troops marched through on their way to battles around the Confederate capital of Richmond. Amtrak passenger trains pass through Caroline on their way from Richmond to Washington but no longer stop at the abandoned stations of Ruther Glen, Penola, Milford, Woodford, and Guinea.

Approaching on I-95 from the north, you endure the inevitable traffic snags of rapidly growing Northern Virginia before getting the first clue that you are approaching someplace different, in the form of a new and prominent brown directional sign announcing the way to the “Stonewall Jackson Death Site” in Caroline County. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, the Confederate general, was gravely wounded by friendly fire at the Battle of the Wilderness and was carried by his men as far as Guinea Station at the northwestern edge of Caroline County, where he died on May 10, 1863. A national monument and restored house still mark the spot. It was known as “Stonewall Jackson Shrine” for more than nine decades. But “shrines” are perceived as places of worship and veneration, and the National Park Service renamed it last fall—a decision influenced in part by controversy and violence in Richmond and Charlottesville over statues memorializing the leaders of the Confederacy.

Southbound travelers wishing to avoid the logjams around Washington DC and northern Virginia can instead cross the Potomac River from Maryland, continue through King George County, and traverse Caroline County diagonally on US Route 301. That way you pass through Port Royal, population 205, one of two incorporated towns in the county. This was a bustling tobacco port back in Colonial Virginia, when ocean-going sailing ships were able to navigate the Rappahannock River as far north as the rapids in Fredericksburg.

If instead you approached from the south, on I-95, the first clues that you are approaching Caroline County would be signs for the Kings Dominion amusement park, just south of the North Anna River, and for Meadow Event Park in Caroline County. Once known as The Meadows, this former horse farm was the birthplace of Caroline County’s most famous native son, albeit one with four legs, not two. Secretariat, thoroughbred horse racing’s Triple Crown Winner in 1973, was born in Caroline County, as was his stable-mate, Riva Ridge, who won two races of the Triple Crown in 1972.

In some respects, change comes slowly to Caroline County and its residents, many of whose families have lived here for generations.

Bowling Green, population 1,166, is the sleepy county seat in the approximate center of the county and looks much the same as it did fifty or even 100 years ago, although a few storefronts that once housed mom and pop businesses are vacant. Most county residents drive to Hanover County to the south or suburban Fredericksburg to the north for their shopping, dining, and entertainment. This was a bustling community during World War II, when Fort A.P. Hill was quickly created to meet the training needs for a rapidly growing U.S. Army. The 77,000-acre military outpost still occupies a large chunk of the county and as many as 70,000 soldiers and airmen receive short-term training here each year, though the base’s permanent party of military and civilian employees is minuscule. While local residents are patriotic, the fact that the Army post removes 22 percent of the landmass from the local tax base while contributing little to the local economy is a source of friction. The Fort’s old USO club now houses the Bowling Green Town Hall and a Community Center used for weddings.

In Caroline, several large warehousing operations, an electrical component manufacturer, and a cluster of truck stops and fast food eateries provide some jobs, as do agriculture and forestry. But 70 percent of the county’s workforce commutes to jobs beyond the county’s borders. Many drive as far away as the DC Beltway or to Richmond for lucrative jobs in technology, manufacturing, government, and government contracting. The county maintains an inventory of attractive properties already zoned for business or residential expansion, including a 1,200-acre tract that includes a proposed commuter rail station, but to date there have been few takers.

Like many living in the Southeastern States, Virginians and Caroline County residents struggled with issues such as a depleted economy and racial segregation for many years after the Civil War, or as some still insist on calling it, “The War of Northern Aggression.” In 1958, in a well-known incident based in the county’s Central Point, Richard Loving, a quintessential white Southern good old boy, and Mildred Delores Jeter, a young neighbor of Black and Native American ancestry, married in Washington, DC. After returning home, they were arrested by Garnett Brooks, Caroline County’s archetypical knuckle-busting southern Sheriff, and charged under the state’s racist 1924 anti-miscegenation laws.

The Lovings fought their prison sentences and were thrust, somewhat reluctantly, into the national spotlight when Attorney General Robert Kennedy and the American Civil Liberties Union championed their cause. The US Supreme Court eventually ruled in their favor nearly ten years later, in the landmark Loving v. Virginia decision. After that, the Lovings returned home and lived in peace and relative obscurity for eight years, until their car was struck by a drunk driver and Richard was killed. Mildred survived and lived until 2008. Just two years ago a long-overdue historical marker was dedicated to the couple.


Next week, Chapter Two: What’s Vexing Macon?

This project is supported by a gift from the Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism Fund at The New York Community Trust.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the year that the Caroline Progress closed. It was 2018, not 2015.

Greg Glassner is a Caroline County resident with more than forty years of experience in the newspaper business, the majority of it as editor of community weeklies in Virginia. He was editor of the Herald-Progress in Ashland for eight years, retiring in 2012. He also served as interim editor of the Caroline Progress in Bowling Green for six months in 2015, and wrote a weekly column and feature stories for both papers until they ceased publication in March 2018. A US Army veteran who saw service in Southeast Asia, Glassner is the author of five books, including biographies of US Attorney General William Wirt and Virginia Gov. William “Extra Billy” Smith.