Sign Of The Times

This summer, take a tour of Virginia’s historical markers.

Photo courtesy of Virginia Department of Historic Resources

powhatan

Chief Stephen R. Adkins of the Chickahominy Indian Tribe and then-Chief Kenneth Adams at the Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe unveil the Powhatan marker at Tree Hill Farm in Henrico. 

For 93 years, travelers in Virginia have enjoyed the inscriptions of hundreds of historical markers along the highways and byways. The distinctively shaped signs highlight people, places, and events of regional, statewide, or national significance. In times of social distancing, following a trail of markers is a fun way to explore your area and escape your cabin fever.

“The markers provide an open-air museum, allowing people to read about historical events at the sites where they actually took place. People can learn things about their communities they may never have known,” says Jennifer Loux, marker program historian and coordinator with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, which has been responsible for installing and maintaining the markers since 1949. The Virginia State Library is responsible for researching and approving new makers. 

Most markers measure 42 by 40 inches and include a unique topic title and assigned alpha-numeric identification code, as well as the Seal of the Commonwealth within an upside down equilateral triangle positioned at the top of the sign.

Launched in 1927 with just a handful of markers along U.S. Route 1 between Richmond and Mount Vernon, the Virginia Historical Marker Program is the oldest such program in the nation. Today, more than 2,500 markers dot Virginia’s map, identifying the locations of the graves of country music’s Carter family in Hilton; the original locations of northern Virginia’s Nike missile installations; Langley Field, which played a significant role in the history of manned space flight; and the Richard and Mildred Loving marker in Carolina County, which was approved on the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Supreme Court case that ended the ban on interracial marriage. Assistant highway marker historian Matt Gottlieb says Virginia’s most publicized marker is likely the one in Hampton highlighting the place where African slaves first landed on the shores of the New World.   

“The historical markers serve as a meaningful interruption as we’re going about our daily lives—an interruption that tells us ‘something of note happened here’ and that links our present moment to the past by prompting us to imagine the people or events associated with that particular spot,” says Karen Sherry, curator at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.

For a database of Virginia’s historical markers, see VCRIS.DHR.Virginia.gov/HistoricMarkers. If history isn’t your thing, why not visit the Virginia LOVE signs scattered across the state instead? A complete map can be found at Virginia.org/Love.

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