Big changes in . . . oh, nevermind

Here at the newspaper office, there’s a tall bookcase with stacks of oversized volumes inside; the books are actually bound copies of the Rappahannock News that go back to the early 1950s — with the exception of a few missing months (and the one volume that mysteriously disappeared when a former reporter moved on and apparently needed to take his clips with him).

If there’s one thing anyone who has big plans for Rappahannock County ought to do, spending a day or two with these books would be a pretty good start.

If you’re paying attention as you page through the last few decades of Rappahannock’s week-to-week history, you will discover a theme:

Rappahannock citizens, both old and new, do not take kindly to makeovers.

If you’re also realistic, you’ll also realize that Rappahannock has indeed been made over — some old-timers would say drastically — in the years since U.S. 211, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, went from being a sleepy two-lane country road to a four-lane highway (which is still pretty sleepy, except during leaf season and way-too-frequent high-speed chases).

To understand what I’m talking about, just look at Rappahannock’s successful and not-so-successful endeavors of the last three or four decades.

Success story No. 1: The Inn at Little Washington, the county’s biggest tourist draw and largest private employer, now closing in on 40 years in business. If you go back and read the headlines from the 1980s and 1990s, you’ll note that the Inn, and its chef-proprietor Patrick O’Connell (and in those days, his partner Reinhardt Lynch) developed and expanded their restaurant and then their equally high-end inn pretty much an inch at a time — and were opposed, sometimes vehemently, for many of those earliest inches.

I hope O’Connell will forgive me for setting his genius for food and design aside for a moment to appreciate merely his perseverance.

Success story No. 2: The Thompson family’s Thornton River Grille/Sperryville Corner Store complex. Everything done over the past 16 years by Ken and Mary Thompson, and their son Andy and his wife Dana Thompson, has been in increments — each small improvement tied to a proven need, and then given time to prove itself before the next deliberate expansion. The elder Thompsons, who want to retire, and the younger Thompsons, who want to return to Texas, apparently have a serious buyer for their enterprise. Not a surprise.

There are many others success stories in Rappahannock, both large and small, and forgive me for not having space to name them all — but I wanted to add some other names to look up in the archives:

• David Cole, the AOL mogul who remade Gay Street and the Sperryville Schoolhouse, but who gave up on Rappahannock after the locals wouldn’t let him turn his Sunnyside Farm operation into an open-to-the-public education center.

• Jim Abdo, the D.C. developer and longtime Rappahannock weekender who bought some unused and under-utilized properties in the town of Washington a couple of years back and (in my opinion) had some pretty cool ideas about what could be done with them — but who made the mistake (again, my opinion) of announcing those plans in The Washington Post instead of the Rappahannock News.

• Finally, Jerome and Lucille Niessen, who saw a vast apple packing shed that had been converted into a vast antiques emporium in Sperryville, and then envisioned a Torpedo Factory-like center for artists’ studios, galleries and a state-of-the-art restaurant.

But their truly impressive makeover of the place they called Rappahannock Central, now mostly known as River District Arts, has been featured most often over the last year in commercial real estate advertisements, as the Niessens have moved on, and asked the remaining artists, including the Middle Street Gallery, to move out by last weekend.

They have a new offer to buy the building now from a well-known local couple.

Let’s all hope the interest payments don’t overwhelm any of the small, deliberate steps one needs to take, here in Rappahannock, to become sustainable.

Roger has been the editor of the Rappahannock News, off and on, since 2010. The views expressed are his own. You can email him at

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