Rapp Facts: ‘She had . . . stories to tell’

The story book by Mary Elizabeth Hite was reprinted in 2009.
Have you ever wished you knew more about that old church on Long Mountain Road, the Mount Salem Baptist Meeting House? Have you ever wondered just who Francis Thornton was? Or maybe you’ve seen the sign for that wonderful old house, The Shade, and wished you knew something of its history.

You could call the Rappahannock Historical Society and ask, but perhaps you’d like a book that would make these kinds of local topics come to life. Few history books are devoted solely to Rappahannock County, but one such volume is “My Rappahannock (Virginia) Story Book,” by Mary Elizabeth Hite. You can buy it at the Society’s office on Gay Street in Washington, where it’s recently been marked down to $35. That works out to about ten cents per page for this fascinating, unique and warm account of everything that was in our county. Well, many things, anyway.

Readers of Hite’s book should know that it isn’t strictly accurate in every detail. It is fair to call it a “history” book, but it is more than that, and therein lies much of its charm. In her introduction to the original, 1950 edition of the book, Hite says, “I have written of my beloved county as it appears to me….I have told true stories and some legends of the people of my county.” Much of her material comes from oral histories and from old diaries — such as that of Caroline Homassel Thornton of “Montpelier” — that county residents loaned to her.

In his introduction, the late James W. Fletcher writes, “Here is a book that the people of Virginia, particularly of Rappahannock County, have awaited for years…[preserving] the legends, traditions and history that would have been forgotten had it not been for the authoress.”

For example, “Miss Dolly,” as Hite was known, writes of goings on at the Thornton family mansion “Montpelier,” on F.T. Valley Road near Sperryville. Apparently Caroline, wife of Philip, the grandson of Francis Thornton (whose initials gave the valley its name), put on a wedding feast for a “mountain girl” who had been her housekeeper for some years. Caroline entertained the girl’s family and friends by playing her piano for them. One of the guests spotted a marble statue of a Greek goddess and was reported to have said, “Is that one of your kin? She sholy is a brazen woman.” The book is packed with anecdotes like that.

The book had its second printing in 1974, and it was in steady demand over the years until that edition, too, ran out. Copies were hard to find, and they became expensive collector’s items, says Judith Tole, the Historical Society’s executive director. “We got so many queries it became apparent it was time to reprint it,” she says. The 2009 edition was published for the Society by Dietz Press in Richmond and is not (yet) in short supply at organization’s offices.

The Hite family has been in the county since the early 1800s, says Lucia Kilby, Miss Dolly’s niece and herself an avid amateur historian. Mary Elizabeth grew up at Mont Medi, about six miles from Sperryville down F.T. Valley Road (Route 231), and the house is still in the Hite family. “Miss Dolly was always interested in family and relatives and stories,” Kilby says. “She was an interesting person. She never married, but she had lots of stories to tell.”

In her introduction to the 1950 edition of the book, Hite wrote, “Perhaps my modest effort will be of use to someone in the generations that are to come, who will carry on the story of Rappahannock. I hope so.”

You can help carry on these traditions by becoming a member of the Rappahannock Historical Society, 328 Gay St., Washington. Contact us at 540-675-1163 or rapphistsoc@comcast.net.