Orange County, VA
Orange County, VA is located right smack in the middle of Fredericksburg and Charlottesville, VA. After doing some genealogy research and learning about where my ancestors migrated from, I had to jump in my car and explore the land of my fore-fathers and fore-mothers. In this travel guide, I visited the towns of Unionville, Freetown, Gordonsville and Orange to experience the laid back demeanor and historical relevance of this region. Let’s get ready to learn, see and do things in Orange County, VA.
- James Madison’s Montpelier: The fourth president of the United States is best known for serving during a time where America was fighting the War of 1812 with Britain in addition to being the father of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights which are the foundational documents to the U.S democracy. Though James Madison is the most recognized name, you probably have also heard the story of Paul Jennings, the enslaved butler of the Madisons’ and his valiant effort of saving the portrait of George Washington from a burning White House that was lit on fire by the British during the War of 1812. My goal when visiting any plantation or presidential home is to always learn about the African Americans who were forced to work to the bone to maintain the estate. The Montpelier Historical Society has done an excellent job highlighting the African American experience and looking to the descendants of the enslaved to serve on the board. However, currently there is some discontent between the two parties on how appointments to the board are determined and hopefully a swift resolution will occur that is ethical and just. The Mere Distinction of Colour exhibit takes you around the property to where the enslaved community worked, lived and died. I was moved by seeing the fingerprints of small enslaved children who were tasked with building bricks for the president’s house. Montpelier offers several tours, but on this particular visit I joined the Highlights of Montpelier tour. The cost was $35 for an adult ticket and allows you to spend all day exploring the grounds. FYI, they do not offer discounts on their tours.
Munch Tip: Becoming a member may be the best deal available. The membership fee is only $50 and the $35 entrance fee will be applied to the cost of your membership.
- The James Madison of Orange County Museum: Don’t be fooled by the name of this museum. It provides a broader story of Orange County and its residents. The museum is segmented by themes that span from Orange County’s African American community to the agriculture richness of the area. I particularly enjoyed the exhibit in the African American room that focused on the patriots that served during the American Revolution. The cost of entry to the museum is $10. It’s a great pit stop to get an overview of the county. You can easily explore this museum in 1.5 hours.
Munch Tip: In the James Madison room you can see presidential relics from James Madison and Zachary Taylor who also happened to be second cousins.
- Sweet Vine Farm Winery: An oasis in the middle of Unionville, VA is the first black woman owned winery in the state of Virginia. Seidha Armstrong, the owner, descends from three generations of women who have created one kind of wines that are fermented and bottled directly from their kitchens. True to its namesake, the winery specializes on wines that are on the sweeter side. I loved how during the tasting each wine was assigned a song that embodied the personality and flavor notes of each bottle of wine. There are currently six wines in rotation and the prices range from $25-$30 per bottle. My favorite wine was the TYPO. In this particular wine there is a mix of blueberry and grapes. Only a little dab’ll do ya, but you could easily drink the whole bottle. After your tasting, order a full glass of wine and explore the grounds of the property. While you walk you will see where some of the wine grapes are grown and there are ample places on the property where you can take selfies and capture the ambiance of the winery.
Munch Tip: Sweet Vines Farm Winery offers memberships where you can receive free tastings, discounts on additional wine bottles and early access to VIP events. You can learn more about the membership on their website: https://www.thevines.farm/ .
- Exchange Hotel and Civil War Museum: This structure has lived many lives since its establishment in the 1840s. Starting out as a tavern and then transitioning to a hotel, and once the Civil War broke out changing again to a hospital for wounded Soldiers of the Union and Confederate armies. At the end of the Civil War its final significant purpose was becoming an outpost for the Freedmen’s Bureau. The proximity to the railroad made this the perfect spot to share correspondence with the Freedmen’s Bureau Headquarters in DC and receive supplies needed for the hospital. The railroad tracks are literally footsteps from the front door. When walking into the museum you enter through the back of the hotel and warmly greeted by the museum curator. After a brief introduction and precursor warning about the hotel being haunted, I gingerly walked throughout the museum to not disturb the ghosts. There are three floors that showcase the whole lifespan of this hotel. On the third floor is where you will find the Freedmen’s Bureau exhibit. In the exhibit you can see how many court cases were held in the makeshift courthouse that was extracted on the first floor of the building. This allowed for cases to be settled between African Americans and the former enslavers who refused to pay or feed the people that worked on their land. I was shocked to learn that African Americans couldn’t enter the courtroom to defend themselves. In order to have representation they would have to pay $100 to a white lawyer to plead their case. There is so much packed into this historical landmark that anyone with an interest in American and Military History will walk away with a broader understanding of Gordonsville and our country. The entrance fee cost is $12 for adults and $6 for children.
Munch Tip: The curator informed me that they are working to expand the museum by telling stories of the enslaved men who worked as nurses when the hotel was a hospital during the Civil War. I’ll be keeping an eye out for when these updates will occur and heading back out to check out this exhibit.
- Bethel Baptist Church: You can not visit Orange County, VA without paying homage to the Queen of Southern Cooking, Ms. Edna Lewis. Born in Freetown, VA which is a community founded by former enslaved people. They created a self sustaining community that grew their own food, established a church and erected a schoolhouse to teach their children. This town is the foundation for Chef Lewis’s three cookbooks and where she drew inspiration from to cook in high end kitchens from New York City to Atlanta. So during my visit to Orange County, I wanted to thank Chef Lewis for her contributions to culinary and African American culture by visiting her home church, Bethel Baptist. The church was founded in 1890 by the residents of Freetown and among the founders was Chef Lewis’s grandfather. Across the street is the graveyard for the church. I was hoping to find Chef Lewis’s gravesite, but unfortunately I could not find it. I was glad to see several of her relatives there and how well preserved the gravesites were. One fun fact that I learned about Chef Lewis was thought she earned an honorary doctorate from my alma mater Johnson & Wales University. So basically we are kindred spirits.
Munch Tip: Before you visit, I highly recommend that you read the essay book, Edna Lewis: At the Table with an American Original edited by Sara B. Franklin. This book will give you a glimpse of who this icon was from the viewpoint of her colleagues and admirers.
- The BBQ Exchange: This restaurant has been recognized as one of Virginia’s unbeatable restaurants to get BBQ. And I couldn’t agree more! I ordered the pork belly sandwich combo that comes with two sides. I chose my mac & cheese and baked beans as my side. As I took my first bite of the pork belly sandwich, I was immediately blown away. The base was layered with collard greens and caramelized onion. The next layer of the sandwich consisted of a generous scoop of perfectly smoked pork belly. This sandwich was so good that it did not require BBQ sauce, which is unheard of for me, because I LOVE BBQ sauce.
Munch Tip: Not into pork belly, definitely try the ribs. They were beautifully smoked and paired perfectly with the sweet Virginia BBQ sauce.
- Champion Ice House: Gordonsville has long been known as the fried chicken capital of the world and the newest restaurant on the scene is on the trajectory to becoming ranked in that same caliber. Champion Ice is located on the main throughway in Gordonsville and it can’t be missed. The fried chicken was golden brown and was freshly fried on the spot. Their secret ingredient to making this delicious chicken was frying it in lard. It reminded me, how my mom used to make her chicken. I ordered the two piece platter that came with two sides and a biscuit. You also get to choose a sauce for chicken and I decided on the Nashville Hot Chicken sauce which added the extra little kick that I like to have when I’m eating chicken. The price for this platter was reasonably priced at $11. In addition to the delicious chicken, the service was excellent! The staff was very attentive despite having a crowded dining room in the middle of the afternoon on a Saturday.
Munch Tip: Every year Gordonsville has a fried chicken festival that takes place during the summer. I can’t wait till this summer to check out this festival for myself.
- Well Hung Vineyards: If the name of this restaurant and urban winery does not stop you in your tracks, the happy faces of the patrons leaving the building will make you curious to see what’s inside. I started my meal with a wine flight. I asked my waiter to surprise me and he based his recommendations on my preferences which are white wines with a sweet accent. My favorite was the dry rose. Usually, I do not care for dry wines but this one was cleverly deceiving because the wine was not dry at all. There were beautiful strawberry and cherry infused notes throughout the glass. I loved it so much that I ended up buying a bottle to take home. Now, let’s talk about the food. The lunch menu was abundant with delicious options. I kept it simple by sticking to the appetizers. I ordered the Portobello fries ($9), the bacon, apple & brie crostini ($8) and the garlic butter cream scallops ($15). Each dish was delicious and reasonably priced. I could have easily eaten two plates of the crostini because they were just that good. The combination of cheese and apple and is one of my favorite snacks and has always been a go to comfort food for me.
Munch Tip: The lunch menu is only offered on Thursday, Fridays and Mondays from 11 AM – 4 PM. Also, the menu changes based on the season, so make sure to go often to try the different dishes on the menu.
The Munch Travelogue Quick Sheet
Orange County, VA
- James Madison’s Montpelier
Address: 11350 Constitution Hwy Montpelier Station, VA 22957
Hours of Operation: Thursday – Monday 9AM-3PM
Price: $35 for Adults & $15 for Children
- The James Madison of Orange County Museum
Address: 129 Caroline St Orange, VA 22960
Hours of Operation: Everyday, 10AM – 5PM
Price: $10 for Adults, $6 for Military & First Responders and $3 for Children
- Sweet Vines Farm Winery
Address: 14376 Tower Road Unionville, VA 22567
Hours of Operation: Call 703-942-9336 for hours of operations
Price: $25 per tasting
- Exchange Hotel and Civil War Museum
Address: 400 S Main St Gordonsville, VA 22942
Hours of Operation: Tuesday – Saturday; 10AM – 4PM
Price: $12 for Adults & $5 for Children
- Bethel Baptist Church
Address: 12108 Marquis Rd Unionville, VA 22567
- The BBQ Exchange
Address: 102 Martinsburg Ave Gordonsville, VA 22942
Hours of Operation: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday; 11AM – 7PM
Friday, Saturday; 11AM – 8PM
Sunday; 11AM – 7PM
- Champion Ice House
Address: 212 N Main St Gordonsville, VA 22942
Hours of Operation: Tuesday-Thursday; 11AM – 8PM
Friday-Sunday; 11AM – 9PM
- Well Hung Vineyards
Address: 300 South Main Str. Gordonsville, Virginia
Hours of Operation: Everyday; 11AM – 8PM