If there’s one word you should associate with Fredericksburg, it’s authentic. The history here is layered like a rich tapestry, so complex that it’s impossible to run out of new avenues to explore.
So the challenge for the visitor lies not in finding enough material to stay engaged, but in finding a guide who can unlock the magic of the stories to be told here, and who can help show how all of these varied stories relate to each other, and to today’s world.
For that, you’ll want to call Scott Walker. Imagine the inspired, enthusiastic teacher of history that every parent wants their kid to have in school (or wishes they’d had themselves), but take away the pop quizzes and the high-stakes tests. Walker has been running Hallowed Ground Tours since he retired from a career in education more than a decade ago.
His tours are custom-made for every group he leads, whether it’s a busload of elementary students, a corporate board on a retreat or an individual seeking to trace the steps of an ancestor.
“Every tour is different,” Walker said. “There is no script.”
That’s partly because it’s impossible to write one tour that would encompass all of Fredericksburg’s history. When clients call and ask for “a tour of the battlefields,” Walker points out that there are four of them, with events spanning a time period of a year and a half, spread out over 110 square miles. Then there’s Colonial and Revolutionary history, an architectural treasure trove in downtown Fredericksburg and notable stories leading into the 20th century.
“Fredericksburg has more history than most visitors realize,” he says, pointing as an example to one of his favorite historical sites in the region—Chatham Manor.
This stately home is today the site of the National Park Service headquarters for the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. But its history is exemplary of the layered stories that abound in this region.
The Georgian home, built between 1768 and 1771, has hosted presidents from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln. It served as a Union headquarters during the Civil War and in the years after the war was a desolate wasteland.
It wasn’t until the 1920s, when the manor was purchased by the Devore family, that Chatham was renovated and restored to its status as a grand estate. The Devores added much of the statuary seen today in Chatham gardens. In 1931, the home was purchased by John Lee Pratt, a wealthy industrialist from humble local beginnings. Pratt willed Chatham to the National Park Service when he died in 1975.
If you’d like to experience one of Walker’s tours, you can find him every Saturday morning from April through mid-October at 10 a.m. in Market Square (behind the Town Hall building at the corner of Princess Anne and William streets) for “Bricks and Boards in the ‘Burg.”
The tour covers eight blocks within downtown Fredericksburg’s historic district (there is one small hill to climb), and explores the history and varied architecture of the area, with a focus on preservation. Tours last approximately 75 minutes and cost $5 for adults, $2 for students. No pre-registration is needed, just show up and buy your ticket.
If you’d like to dig deeper, consider attending one of Walker’s “History of Our Homes” tours, which focus on specific residential areas that include some of Fredericksburg’s most interesting and celebrated homes. The ticket price is the same, all tours begin at 11:30 a.m., and dates are as follows:
· July 4 – Washington Avenue – Meet at the small monument at the intersection where Cornell and Lewis streets meet Washington Avenue. (90 minutes)
· Sept. 9 – Lower Caroline Street – Meet for this MONDAY tour at the commuter parking lot at the corner of Caroline and Frederick streets. (90 minutes)
To really dig deep, you can arrange a private tour directly with Walker. Looking at the call history on his business phone, he rattles of a list of places where travelers requesting his services hail from: San Fransisco, Alabama, Georgia, Oregon, Arizona. Walker estimates that one-third of his business comes from the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
A universal interest in the Civil War, along with more individual quests to make a connection with ancestors, drive his clients to request his help.
Walker recalls a woman from Atlanta who wanted him to help her find the gravesite of an ancestor who was killed during the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg. Records available through the National Park Service told him where he should have been buried, but when he visited the site, he could not locate the grave.
The woman still ended up traveling to Fredericksburg. As Walker was leading her through the Confederate Cemetery in downtown Fredericksburg, he noticed off to the side about a dozen graves that he hadn’t seen. Sure enough, one of them bore the name of the woman’s relative. The memory of that moment still has a powerful effect on Walker.
“She brought a bag of red Georgia clay with her which she crumbled on top of the grave,” he said.
Proof that in a world where you can zoom into street-level views and pore through detailed archives from a computer desk anywhere, there is still no substitute for visiting a place in person.