Stranded in Staunton, or “When Woodrow Was Tommy”

Here are some observations on Staunton, VA—birthplace of Woodrow Wilson, where I spent my Thursday afternoon and, somewhat inadvertently, my Thursday night:

Staunton people know what Wesleyan is.

I spoke with so many people during my five days in Virginia. I spent time all over the state—in Charles City, Colonial Beach, Charlottesville, Fredericksburg, Staunton. But only two people I met in Virginia had heard of Wesleyan, where I go to school.

Spoiler alert: they both work at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum, two doors down from Woodrow Wilson’s austere birth home in Staunton, VA.

Wilson taught at Wesleyan for two years during his academic career, from 1888-1890. Most notably, he founded our debate team, still called the T. Woodrow Wilson debate team, and supposedly lived in 159 High Street, what is now Earth House. (He oversaw the formation of the National Park Service as president, so I guess that’s earthy enough.)

Linda’s question to me: “Does Wesleyan have much pertaining to Wilson?” The short answer:  “No.” There’s really nothing. You can find his name in an 1888 yearbook in Olin, I think, and Woodrow Wilson Middle School lies down the street. The public school was named in Wilson’s honor in 1931. By 2004, two high school students were lobbying for the school to change its name because Woodrow Wilson was racist. Toto, I don’t think we’re in Staunton (home of Robert E. Lee High School) anymore:

Middletown’s Board of Education has a committee investigating whether to change the name of the Woodrow Wilson Middle School. The situation came about after two students at the school complained that Woodrow Wilson, a Wesleyan University professor who became the 28th president, was a racist. [ . . . ] Rene Romano, a Wesleyan associate professor of history and the chairwoman of its African American Studies program, said the students’ information was accurate.

Conversely, is there much about Wesleyan at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum? Well, no. Why would there be? Wes was little more than a two-year footnote in an impressive academic career, sandwiched between appointments at Bryn Mawr (where Wilson sported a badass mustache for the ladiez) and his alma mater, Princeton (where Wilson shaved said mustache and became president of the university in 1902, not necessarily in that order).

So three sentences in the museum seem more than sufficient. Click to enlarge:

Staunton people are proud of Wilson.

Or maybe proud is the wrong word. “People who live in the Shenandoah Valley are not prideful people,” explained Chris, who works in Staunton’s modest visitor center. I asked him to clarify. “They’re more reserved. You don’t go around saying, ‘I’m proud of this, I’m proud of that.'” I guess he’s right, but also I’m not so sure.

Wilson was born and spent the first year of his life here, even if he spent most of his childhood in Georgia and his political career in New Jersey. Staunton is where his home and library is. Here is where Wilson returned for a post-election homecoming in 1912, sleeping in the manse where he was born and celebrating his 56th birthday with a proper town banquet.

But Staunton residents certainly have a positive view of Wilson, compared with pretty much anywhere. If you’ve read my interview with Linda, you can imagine her flash of anger when I hinted at the Birth of a Nation incident, the firm, declarative “Absolutely!” with which she pledged Wilson a hypothetical vote.

“He was a good man,” Chris told me. “He was a good president,” even though “he was a politician, and he did things to gain office and then went back on his word.” Whether or not promising to keep America out of World War I was one of those things, Chris does not say.

Most are measured in their praise. “He was a good president for his time,” concurred a shopkeeper. (Staunton, I’ll add, offers a surprisingly vibrant downtown, historic downtown, notably home to the Blackfriars Playhouse.) “And he did alright. He tried to do the U.N., it was a League of Nations then, and that failed. And led to World War II.” Surely I looked at this man funny while interviewing him, for I could have sworn he said “he [Wilson] led the World War II.” He then told me about an annual town event, during which one gentleman “dresses up as Woodrow Wilson at least once and does the parade thing.” According to town councilman James Harrington, he may have been speaking of Wilson’s birthday, December 28, when townspeople enjoy free tours of the birthplace, or July 4, when Wilson’s Pierce-Arrow makes the rounds.

Another shopkeeper was oddly quick to tell me that Wilson was the first president to make a Jew joke. She, like a handful of others, seemed more excited about the fact that Staunton had briefly served as the capital of Virginia in 1781. “During one of the wars they stopped by here and set up the little Congress thing in the Trinity Church that’s right by the corner,” she told me, pointing and grinning. “George Washington actually slept here quite a few times,” bragged another. “Several of the early presidents and the founding fathers visited Staunton quite regularly. Washington was a member of our local Masonic temple.” (“Virginia has been a hub of this country from day one,” this man added, typifying the sort of red-blooded Virginian pride I poked and prodded and yanked out of its shell all through my journey.  “There’s the old saying, ‘I was born American but by the grace of God Virginian.’ Virginians have a long history to be proud of. I think Virginians have an attitude about it.”)

Staunton is mad haunted.

No, not by Wilson, but maybe by an ex-lover of his. And definitely by someone named Mr. Vains, who once owned a chocolate shop and may or may not have been involved in a mysterious execution. I learned this during a fantastic conversation with Sarah, an animated 17-year-old high school student and self-appointed town historian, who seemed to delve deeper, and more excitedly, into her town’s past than residents three or four times her age. “We’re one of the most haunted cities,” Sarah bragged, grinning as if she had just revealed her dad was Santa Claus. “I’ve been lucky enough to witness [a haunting] here, which is phenomenal.”

During twenty minutes in the upstairs lounge of a restaurant where one of her parents works, Sarah had more to say about Staunton history, folklore, and Generally Cool Shit (GCS) than anyone else I met, 17 or otherwise. “I’m very lucky to live here,” Sarah told me, totally sincerely, though she would like a time machine more than anything, and from the glint in her eye, I could tell she meant it. Here’s my interview with Sarah.

How long have you lived in Staunton?

All my life, so 17 years.

How long have you been aware of the history of the town?

Since kindergarten, actually. We went to a field trip in kindergarten to the Woodrow Wilson house, which was a lot of fun. After that I liked history and started more on history.

Do people in town talk about history a lot? How does it shape the identity of the town?

I think it shapes the town. I mean, we wouldn’t be much without the history, and so many people actually don’t know the history. They just think it’s old buildings and a lot of history of the ghosts and everything, I know people definitely know that, but they don’t know—

The ghosts?

Mmm hmm. We have a lot—we’re actually one of the high-rated cities in Virginia. We’re one of the most haunted cities.

Can you explain that?

Well, actually, the building that we’re in—it’s the Pompeii Lounge—used to be a chocolate shop, and it’s actually haunted. And in the building there’s a man named Mr. Vains, and he haunts. Across the street (points) there was an execution—no one really knows what it was, just found it, and so many places are haunted. The city’s over 200 years old.

How do you know these buildings are haunted? Have people witnessed the ghosts?

There have been witnesses. I’ve been lucky enough to witness one here, which is phenomenal.

What did you see?

We didn’t see anything, but I help out here and we had turned off all the lights and the radio and then we went to go leave and the radio started blasting and all the lights were turned on and stuff started becoming turned on and everything and then we started hearing specific music and jazz music from the time that he was living and his favorite music . . .

“He” meaning Woodrow Wilson?

Mr. Vains.

Who is Mr. Vains?

He is a man that—he had a chocolate shop here, and, uh, he—I don’t actually really know how he died.

What’s the story with the execution that took place here?

No one knows! He was found in that building across there. I’m sorry, this is really cool! (Laughs) And they found a body, and the body had been on a chair, tied like this, shot in the head, exactly execution-style, and they still to this day don’t know how it happened. But there are rumors that he was a homosexual, and the time being, people didn’t really like that.

Does Woodrow Wilson haunt the town?

We haven’t really heard stories about that, but there’s a woman, actually, and there’s a song about it, an old folk song, that she haunts the town, and a lot of people thinks he dates back to Woodrow Wilson. There were rumors and everything that he had seen another woman and she was an Irish woman and she was an immigrant and she haunts places. She had two children, and her husband died, but she had had an affair, and a lot of people think Woodrow Wilson was the affair. And when her husband died, people did not like her because she was Irish. And they called her a witch and everything, and she always wore black, and she had long hair, and she had two children, and she starved to death. And everyday she would go to the cemetery—have you seen the church yet? Trinity? It’s right in the end block, huge, huge cemetery which actually is very historical. Around, I think in the Revolutionary War, that’s a whole nother story. Um, she starved to death, and there have been witnesses of her walking. I’ve never heard anything about him, but definitely about her.

That church dates back to Monticello. Thomas Jefferson hid in that church from the British. And there was a young boy—I can’t remember his name—but he had a nickname cuz he went to Monticello to warn Thomas Jefferson that they were coming. And he had scars all over his face from the branches. They hid in that church for about three days.

What’s it like being surrounded by so much history?

It’s definitely never boring, and there’s always something to talk about. I want to major in History.

Are you a student in Staunton?

I am. I go to Robert E. Lee High School. And I had the best Government and U.S. History teacher. And she wouldn’t just tell you; she’d bring things in and show you. There’s so much stuff. You can go around and dig up stuff.

Is there a lot of attention to the Woodrow Wilson site?

There is. It’s a very big tourist site. I remember when I went there they would let you try on clothes that were in that time and era, and show you the ink that he would write. Back then they had to teach you how to write right-handed because of the ink, which fascinated me because I’m left-handed and trying to write right-handed was very difficult.

How do people feel about the fact that a U.S. president was born here?

It’s a very big deal because Staunton is so off-the-charts and not a lot of people know about this little town that has so much history and just is a big part of the history of the United States and so many people just don’t know about it. I mean, Civil War was a big era in this town. And then Woodrow Wilson, you know, he was a later on president, which makes it even better. Not a lot of people actually know that he was from Staunton, VA, which is sad, in my eyes, because he was a pretty good president. He was quiet, but—I don’t know, I feel kinda lucky.

Do most people here like Woodrow Wilson?

I think they do. He was definitely an odd president. (Laughs.) He was very quiet, and he didn’t do big, big things, but he was still a president. And he did help shape—I think every president helps shape the United States in some way. I have heard people say, “At least it wasn’t Richard Nixon.” (Laughs.) I have heard people say that. He was a very racist president.

He actually was one of the few presidents that made a Jew joke. I don’t know, it kinda bothers me. Especially since near his house, right by it, is an actual synagogue. And it shows that ignorance can definitely change a person because that’s how he grew up. Staunton—it’s not “south south,” but it’s still south. And he grew up with servants and racial jokes, and I think that they should learn that you should always be open-minded. And because of his father—his father was even more racist than he was—and when he became president he became less racist, but they still found letters that show that he was very racist.

Do people talk about that today?

They definitely do. Which still gives the south a bad name. They feel that because he was racist, he shouldn’t have been president at that time. I feel that if you are going to be president you shouldn’t be racist. I think he kinda changed and became less racist. At least I hope so.

What’s the value in preserving history in Staunton?

So many places have torn down their buildings. If walls to talk—if the bricks could tell you the stories—we’d have so much knowledge. And we can’t forget the past, because then we repeat our future. And without a past we don’t really know where we came from or what—I mean, they have letters from Woodrow Wilson, and I wanna know what he was thinking! His decisions made, what the town made an impact on him. I think we should definitely try to preserve because there’s too much history that could be lost. The older people kind of dying off and not telling their stories, and it just—I don’t know.

How would you characterize the state of Virginia’s relationship with history?

About every other town you can go to will have some odd history that you didn’t know about. I really like Virginia being basically the oldest state. I mean, it’s where the United States started. I’m very lucky to live here, I love Virginia. Everywhere you go there’s some secret about the town, whether it be good or bad. History’s a very big part of Virginia.

A lot of pride in that?

Yes. Yes. Definitely. A lot of people don’t really recognize it. Here [in Staunton], it’s about music a lot and the history of music. A lot of people just are ignorant and they don’t really care to have a listening ear. But then you find those people who do, and it really changes their perspective on Staunton, especially downtown Staunton, especially Virginia. I mean, most people you hear, they’re like: “Ugh, I live in Virginia, it’s a boring state,” then you have the people who take the time to listen and look up the facts about Virginia and see how it shaped our country. It’s quite unique.

So you want to continue studying history?

I do. I love it. I don’t know, it’d be nice to have a time machine and actually see what they were thinking, and I love looking at the letters of presidents and of people . . . So much history. I love it.


One Comment on “Stranded in Staunton, or “When Woodrow Was Tommy””

  1. [...] a look at these hands. Stranded in Staunton, or “When Woodrow Was Tommy” [...]


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