Letter: The real riches of Rappahannock

I came to Rappahannock County 45 years ago as a weekender for the same reason most people do: It’s beautiful, but also easy, quiet living and just far enough away from D.C. People are friendly, I don’t need to lock my car, local folks don’t honk their horns, parking is not an issue and there are no traffic lights. Aside from its beauty, Rappahannock’s richness, for me, lies in its home-grown people.

When I bought my house on Popham’s Ford Road in 1976, my neighbors were Dick and Lucy Jenkins whose chickens ran all over the place and incubated their chicks in an old rusted school bus. Johnny Gaines, who married Dick’s daughter, lived at the entrance to my road. A real country boy who taught me the ABCs of trial-and-error mechanics: only six possibilities — up down, in out, left right.

He was a genius at doing all the things I couldn’t do — a welder, mechanic, metal worker, house builder, moonshine maker. During the week, he’d be in bed by 7 to get up at 4 a.m. and drive to Reston, Bethesda or the Pentagon to do welding jobs for the government. Typically, he had a bunch of cars in his front yard, including my pink Cadillac.

He was a great neighbor and had skills to do anything I needed on the farm. About 10 years ago, he left Rappahannock; he said it was getting “too fancy pants, too expensive, too country club.” He was not a friend I would ever have made in The City.

It’s the Johnny Gaineses of this county that the “come-heres” should talk with — those, at any rate, who say they care about Rappahannock. You won’t find them at the Thornton much anymore, or El Quijote. You’ll find them at the fire halls on weekends when they have their breakfast fundraisers, or at the Old Hollow Store where you can get lunch or dinner for less than $10. That’s where you find the folks who go to bed at 7 and get up at 5. They aren’t usually represented at public meetings. During the day they’re at work; at night they’re in bed.

Al Henry was right in his commentary on the Jim Abdo flap. There’s nothing new in wealthy people from outside buying property in Rappahannock. For me the question is: What kind of a county is Rappahannock becoming? The dominant stream of thought is for it to become a high-end tourist trap with lots of weekend traffic — more cars, more noise, more congestion in Sperryville (a low-end tourist trap in the 1960s).

High-end tourism simply creates more economic segregation. Is Little Washington to become even more precious and, with the exception of the Country Café — one of last bastions of the blue collar dining in the county — irrelevant to the vast majority of the people in the county? (Except at tax time.)

No rural eyesores please, no poor people, no noisy kids, no Dollar Store, no affordable housing, still more expensive restaurants. Jewelry shops, spas and hair salons in symbiotic harmony with the big spenders who visit The Inn are welcome. But, certainly, no disgusting tattoo parlors. They might attract dangerous young people. How about a two-story parking lot next to the old bank building to accommodate all the hoped for tourist traffic? It’s coming.

And what about the county as a whole? Does Rappahannock want to lose more of its Johnny Gaineses? While the county may have very low taxes in the eyes of the D.C. emigrés like me, a collective $500 to $600 increase in sewer fees, fire levies and real estate taxes is a big deal for many local residents, especially retired folks who live on meager fixed incomes.

To stem the bleeding and keep Rappahannock from becoming a scenic, Nantucket-like preserve for the rich, the county might want to start looking at what other communities are doing around the country that are trying to address similar issues: Affordable housing for young, married and the older citizenry, taxes that drive out the lower-end income brackets.

Ninety Rappahannock seniors graduate every year. Unless their families have five-acre plots, most can’t afford to buy a piece of land here or find affordable rentals. Today, with the exception of North and South Poes roads, roofer, woodchuck, senator, mechanic, investment banker and veterinarian all can live sprinkled amid one another. But 20 years from now?  

Are the colonizers going to drive out the natives once again? Market forces are manipulated all the time by corporate America. Maybe little Rappahannock can do the same. We are not alone, and by doing some research perhaps the county can find ways to preserve the special cultural flavor that comes from its “born-heres.”

Most are wonderfully indifferent to things that matter so much to Washingtonians: Where you went to school, or who you work for, prestige addresses, perfect lawns. They just want to know if you’re a decent person and if you pay your bills.

I’m told Mr. Abdo has been around for 20 years and cares about the county, not simply his investments in Little Washington. I have friends who say he is a good man. He has been known to hang out at the Boston Store on Sundays, a gathering place for that part of the local population that gets up at 4 a.m.

I would happily join a group of like-minded people in the county to start studying ways to keep our most valuable asset from going offshore. Jim Abdo, you obviously have some business talent and know something about the working class from being in the construction business. Please consider joining me and some others with whom we can combine talents to work for the whole county and preserve the real wealth of Rappahannock.

John Kiser
Slate Mills

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