Grand Ambitions: Bedford

Bedford has a National D-Day Memorial and big dreams for becoming a tourist destination. As one resident says, ” We do like to see folks come and see how we live.” 

Bedford County, and the eponymous city at its center, is tucked among the undulating hills near Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Alone, the tale of a “hidden treasure”—yep, a stash of gold, silver and jewels was supposedly buried somewhere in the Bedford area between 1820 and 1822 by Lynchburg innkeeper Thomas J. Beale—might be reason to visit this historic Virginia hamlet. But there is more to Bedford than mere fable. Here is a place that nicely fuses the old and the new, the traditional and the quirky, with a cultural DNA so rooted in Virginia’s agrarian tradition that Thomas Jefferson himself was humbled.

Formed in 1754, Bedford County was named after the honorable John Russell, the fourth Duke of Bedford, who at the time was Great Britain’s secretary of state. When New London, the county seat, was claimed by neighboring Campbell County in 1782, Bedford County accepted an offer of 100 acres along what is now Brambletts Road from native sons Joseph Fuqua and William Downey. A courthouse, prison and stocks went up, and in October of that year, still giddy from their newfound freedom from England, the residents dubbed the new county seat Liberty. The name was changed to Bedford City in 1890, when the industrial age saw the arrival of a tobacco factory, stores, taverns and more people.

But war, not commerce, has had the greatest impact on Bedford. Beginning with the Civil War, when more than 400 Bedford men died in battle, Bedford has lost more than its share of native sons to military conflict. And it was the losses sustained on just one day—D-Day, June 6, 1944, the turning point in WWII’s European theater when Allied Forces stormed the German defenses on France’s northern shores—that infamously put Bedford in the spotlight. Like 11 other Virginia communities, Bedford provided a company of soldiers (Company A) to the 29th Infantry Division when the National Guard’s 116th Infantry Regiment was activated in February 1941. About 30 Bedford soldiers were still in that company on D-Day, with several others assigned to other D-Day companies. In the first 15 minutes after their landing crafts hit the Normandy beaches, 19 sons of Bedford lay dead. Two more died before the sun set that day. On the basis of city population, no community in America suffered a heavier D-Day loss.

For that reason, the U.S. Congress authorized the construction of the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford. “[We] lost so many. It’s hard not to wonder how it would have been a different place if those boys had come home,” says Lynn Scott, the tourism administrator for the town of Bedford and Bedford County, sitting in her office in the lavish $2.7 million, 10,700-square-foot, four-year-old Bedford welcome center overlooking the memorial. Situated on 88 acres, the D-Day Memorial and its massive 45-foot-tall granite “Overlord” arch, named for the invasion’s military code name, opened in June 2001. The national memorial crowns the top of the city’s highest hill and offers a dramatic representation of the D-Day landing, including a water feature that simulates bullets hitting the English Channel around bronze statues of soldiers wading toward an aggregate cement “beach.” “The memorial is a big thing for a relatively small community,” says Bedford County administrator Kathleen Guzi. “It has given us a greater sense of pride in our community. It had always been there, the knowledge of Bedford’s sacrifice for the country, but it was dormant. Being the home of recognition for all the lives lost … we’re not Washington, D.C., so it’s a big deal.”

Indeed, nearly 80,000 visitors streamed into Bedford last year to see the memorial. In a county with fewer than 67,000 residents, that’s a lot of tourists. “It really hasn’t changed the look and the feel of the community that much so far,” says Guzi. In fact, she suggests, few would object to a jump in the tourism numbers. “Bedford is poised and ready to become a real destination,” she says. “We are not a big tourist mecca, but we do like to see the folks come and experience what we live every day.”

Hang a left as you exit the D-Day Memorial, and you’re within spittin’ distance of Bedford’s so-called Centertown. Rising three stories at the corner of East Main and Court streets is the Bedford City and County Museum. Doug Cooper, museum director and head of the county’s extensive genealogy library, points out that while he is a native of neighboring Campbell County, he married a Bedford girl. “It’s a changing place,” Cooper says of Bedford, “but not too much.” Indeed, earlier this year, city officials announced plans to explore the benefits of reverting to town status. The change could be fiscally advantageous because the town could rely on Bedford County for some shared services.

About 90 percent of the Bedford museum’s artifacts are in storage, but the 10 percent you can see on the building’s two exhibition floors make for some pretty interesting stories. One example is the flag hand woven out of a lady’s blue silk skirt. On one side is the picture of George Washington that, legend has it, was painted by a blind boy. On the other is the Virginia state seal. Given by Bedford ladies to the Southside Dragoons, a militia from the south side of Bedford County, the flag was captured by Yankees in the battle at Gettysburg. A Confederate Major William F. Graves from that militia spent the rest of his life locating and then finally retrieving the flag from “up north” sometime in the 1920s, Cooper says. Then there’s the wooden leg of an unfortunate Bedford boy named Michael Townsend Mattox, who lost his limb in battle and carved a new one while Union forces held him at Fort Monroe in Hampton. “When he got out at the end of the Civil War, he walked all the way back to Bedford on that wooden leg,” says Cooper. “Now, I’m sure he probably caught some wagon rides along the way ….” The boy’s great-great-grandson is president of the First Citizens Bank across the street from the museum, where he can no doubt keep a close eye on his ancestor’s prosthesis.

Bedford is attracting an increasing number of relocating retirees, who are bringing an appetite for big-city comforts to this rural setting. This trend has opened up a lot of entrepreneurial opportunities. In March, for example, Florida natives Mike and Beverly Pizza opened Blue Ridge Bagels on Fourth Street. “It’s a nice small town that seemed to fit us just right,” says Mike Pizza, who first considered Floyd County but quickly deemed it “too remote” to be his family’s new home. “We like being near the mountains and having a change in seasons,” he says. A contractor in his native Florida, Pizza planned to continue that career in Bedford until he realized that the county had no bagel shops. “I had to drive to Lynchburg or Roanoke to get a real bagel.” Now he gets half-baked Bronx bagels from New York City delivered weekly to his eatery and, after finishing the baking process, sells about 200 to 300 a day, as well as deli sandwiches and wraps. “We’re doing extremely well. Everyone in Bedford has been extremely supportive,” Pizza says.

Just two blocks east, another transplant is transforming the fine dining landscape in Bedford. Step into the Bedford Social Club and you’ll forget that just two seconds earlier you were in the middle of a rural Virginia town. With its urban décor, beige walls dressed with modern art above polished hardwood floors, the Bedford Social Club could be Soho or some hip new San Francisco eatery, and that’s precisely the objective of owner and head chef Michael Siehien. “When people come in and say, ‘Wow, am I still in Bedford?’ we know that we have accomplished what we set out to do,” says Siehien. For three years, the native New Yorker has served up prime steaks, seafood and innovative dishes to natives and other “come-heres,” and he’s enjoyed educating palates along the way.

Siehien says that, early on, many people were confused by the restaurant’s name. “I named it as a playful homage to the Buena Vista Social Club, the Cuban jazz group. But I got a lot of questions and resistance from the locals, who wanted to know if it was some sort of private club. I had to overcome a collective mentality, which was the last thing I thought I would have to do.”

You wouldn’t expect to find the Siehien name on more than one business in town, but Siehien’s younger sister, Patti, has gotten into the entrepreneurial act herself with her newly opened Artisan Café on Depot Street. Patti Siehien sees Bedford as a town in transition. “People are coming to look around, to have lunch and to shop,” she says. “I love to see Bedford booming.”

While most Bedford restaurants and shops are shuttered on Sundays, newcomers Kim Cashman and Jerry Lewis are busy selling English china and out-of-print mysteries at their newly opened North Bridge Antiques and Books. “I had a shop in Evington, about 10 miles from here,” says Cashman. “I’m a lot busier now, and I’ve got lots of space.” She and Lewis have filled every nook and cranny of the shop with antique furniture, books, toys, rugs and an impressive collection of Depression and Hiesy glass, prized by antique stemware aficionados.

Bedford’s new cadre of restaurateurs and shop owners are not the first to discover Bedford. Thomas Jefferson was so mesmerized by the 4,000 acres of rolling green hills he and his wife, Martha, inherited from her family that he established what proved to be a very profitable tobacco farm and summer retreat there. Located in Forest, a 15-minute ride east of Bedford’s Centertown on Route 221, Jefferson’s Poplar Forest is re-emerging after decades of neglect during which the some-600-acre property was nearly overrun by Lynchburg suburbs.

Built over four years, from 1805–1809, Poplar Forest presents visitors with a view of a Jefferson unplugged, so to speak. Jefferson was devoted to geometry—octagons in particular—and so he designed a two-story summer house with eight sides. He was so enthralled with the project that he forgot to add stairs to the house and had to do so late in the construction process. Instead of brick-and-mortar wings, the house was initially flanked by earthen mounds capped by double rows of trees that balanced the house and cleverly blended landscape with architecture. Originally hoping to bequeath the house to his grandchildren, Jefferson apparently realized that it was not big enough for a family and so added a right wing to include a kitchen, cooks’ quarters and smokehouse. To offset the asymmetrical house, Jefferson designed asymmetrical formal gardens on its south side.

During its 200-year history, the house had many private owners and underwent numerous alterations. Acres of the original property were sold off until 1984, when a group of local residents formed the nonprofit Corporation for Jefferson’s Poplar Forest and raised enough money to buy the site. Led by Jack Gary, director of archaeology and landscapes at Poplar Forest, archeologists have been slowly restoring Jefferson’s house and uncovering artifacts to reestablish the gardens and outbuildings at the heart of the plantation, which is ringed by c. 1970s subdivisions. The right wing, lost to fire in the 1850s, has been reconstructed over its remaining brick foundations. “Jefferson came here to get away from family and visitors at Monticello,” explains Poplar Forest President Lynn Beebee. “It was his retreat—to read, think and study and not be bothered by anyone … in the years after his presidency.” Jefferson visited the property on average two to four times a year, and while his longest stay was only two months, he was able to indulge his passions for math and agriculture at the summer house in relative solitude. The restoration effort at Poplar Forest, which is celebrating its bicentennial, is a fascinating work in progress—a restored look at Jefferson’s architectural genius and life outside the spotlight.

Bedford itself wants more attention. With wineries now populating the county’s western and northern reaches, the popular Smith Mountain Lake lapping at its southwestern border and the national war memorial marking the entrance to the town, the area seems poised to grow. And as far as most of the locals are concerned, that’s an exciting prospect.

(Originally published in the August 2008 Issue)

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