Amissville of old, brought to life

Historical Society’s program, new booklet recall a thriving village and its notable folks

It’s easy to think there’s not much to Amissville, that those green welcome signs on U.S. 211 are an overblown introduction to a half-dozen buildings along the road. Yet once there was a real town which, in 1900, was home to more than 150 people served by four merchant stores, five physicians, a jeweler, a cobbler, two grist mills, a large sawmill and a blacksmith named Jackson.

The Spindle House, still sitting quietly at Indian Run Road (Rt. 730) and U.S. 211, was a recruitment point for local men to join the 49th Virginia Infantry early in the Civil War. Later, the house may have been the headquarters of Union Gen. Armstrong Custer’s Michigan Brigade and Cavalry during the summer of 1863. Photo by Cathie Shiff.
The Spindle House, still sitting quietly at Indian Run Road (Rt. 730) and U.S. 211, was a recruitment point for local men to join the 49th Virginia Infantry early in the Civil War. Later, the house may have been the headquarters of Union Gen. Armstrong Custer’s Michigan Brigade and Cavalry during the summer of 1863. Photo by Cathie Shiff.

Last Sunday, during the Rappahannock Historical Society’s annual meeting, more than 60 people filled the fellowship hall of Amissville Methodist Church to celebrate the people and history of the county village. The event was also the launch of the latest historical society booklet, “An Early History of Amissville, Va.”

The meeting opened with a panel of three speakers, each of whom presented a different aspect of local history. First up was Noel Laing, a retired veterinarian who lives off the same road where his family has lived for four generations.

It was his grandfather, William Laing, who emigrated here from Ireland; the land reminded him of the Emerald Isle, and he named the farm “Bunree” after his ancestral village. Over the years, the family raised sheep and meat and dairy cattle, plus grew hay and row crops.

William was assisted by four strapping sons, one of which was renowned “jump jockey” Noel Laing. Still considered one of the most successful American steeplechase riders of all time, as his nephew and namesake Noel said Sunday, he had a string of victories during the sport’s golden age in the 1930s. During this period, Bunree Farm had a horse breeding operation that produced quality hunters and steeplechase horses.

Noel described the laborious process of harvesting hay before the arrival of the tractor and baling machinery we take for granted today. After the hay was cut, the stalks were arranged into long windrows by a large hay fork, often pulled by his grandfather’s Belgian draft horses, Tom and Morgan. Then the windrows were hand raked into “ricks,” a pile of hay two feet high and three to four feet long. The ricks were then transferred to a hay wagon, again by hand using hay forks in a process that was as much art as it was laborious.

“The hay was thatched in alternating layers,” Noel explained. “You didn’t just throw it in.”

The loose hay was then transferred into the barn loft with the use of a large hay hook, hoisted and lowered by a rope passing through pulleys to a team of horses on the other side of the barn.

Noel also remembered the huge apple crops produced by orchards throughout the county. It continued as the region’s largest cash crop until harvesting costs escalated with the end of the migrant labor supply in the late 1960s.

Amissville native Jan Hackley Makela was next up with stories about local businesses, many of which were lost to make way for the widening of 211 in the 1970s. Her father owned Hackley’s Store, which opened at its current location in the mid-1930s on the corner of Lee Highway and Viewtown Road. Though under new management, the store is still open today.

Childhood memories enlivened her narrative, such as a certain soft-spoken elementary school teacher who cleared the playground of snakes before allowing pupils to exit the classroom. She was referring to the one-room Amissville School with the potbellied stove, just across the highway from her family’s store.

She described evenings when entire families came to shop at either her father’s store, or at their “friendly competitor,” the Latham Store across Viewtown Road. Patrons could purchase just about everything they needed — shoes, clothing, food, animal feed, seeds, hammers and nails.

If a young man was in the market for a wedding ring, Hackley’s had the “blue catalog,” with pages of gifts to be special-ordered and delivered to the store. In summertime, the men lingered on the front steps while the women shopped inside. Meanwhile, the children, amid fireflies and waning light, entertained themselves with freeze tag and other games.

“This was before the Walmart era and stores with huge discount inventories,” Jan said. “That was the end of the country general store.”

John Tole, historical society president and local historian, gave a presentation on the Civil War in Rappahannock, with an emphasis on action in the Amissville area. While no great battles were fought here, John showed that both the beginning and end of the war featured Amissville.

The first Confederate casualty was Peyton Anderson, a native of Amissville and member of the 6th Virginia Cavalry, who was shot through the arm while on picket duty at Fairfax Court House. He recovered from his injury and later joined Mosby’s Raiders. Peyton’s brother, Joseph Anderson, was not so fortunate. He became the last Confederate casualty when he was fatally wounded at Petersburg.

Two other Amissville brothers soon found fame during the war, this time as physicians who saved the life of Stonewall Jackson’s artillery officer, Maj. R. Snowden Andrews. During the Battle of Cedar Mountain in August 1862, a number of Confederate officers had already been killed when Andrews was severely wounded by a shell fragment that tore open his abdomen. Thomas and William Amiss nursed him back to health with such skill that the case is still included in medical texts today.

While there was no Confederate unit with the word “Amissville” in its name, local men who were members of the 49th Virginia Infantry were thought to have drilled on the open area adjacent to the corner of Indian Run Road and 211. The spot is now the location of a trailer park.

Commanded by Gen. William “Extra Billy” Smith, the unit saw action from First Manassas to Antietam, Gettysburg, Wilderness, Cold Harbor and the surrender at Appomattox, with many battles in between. Famous for their courage, they lost more than half of their original number during the war.

Troop movements in the county by both northern and southern forces tended to be part of advances or retreats from major battles elsewhere. For example, Jeb Stuart’s cavalry shielded the retreating Confederate army after the Battle of Antietam as they traveled south to Culpeper.

In November 1862, in probably the largest Civil War action in the county, Stuart’s troopers engaged federal troops at Corbin’s Crossroads, near Seven Ponds and Viewtown roads. However, the federals flanked him and pushed him back.

Less than a year later, Confederate troops could have prevented the massacre at Little Big Horn. From their position atop Battle Mountain, the ever-brash Gen. Armstrong Custer and his Michigan Brigade and Cavalry attacked more than 30,000 retreating troops in Gen. A.P. Hill’s and Gen. Longstreet’s brigades passing below.

Troops under Gen. Henry L. Benning flanked his position, and Armstrong had to run for his life. Two soldiers under Armstrong’s command were later awarded the Medal of Honor for the capture of Confederate artillery pieces. However, one could imagine they also had assisted their cocksure commander during his escape.

At the conclusion of John Tole’s presentation, society executive director Judith Tole asked the audience to share stories about Amissville. Many in the crowd bore the names of, or were descended from, families listed in the new Amissville history booklet. Aged eyes brightened hearing names from long ago, cousins discovered new cousins and the audience soon shared enough stories for a a second edition of Amissville history.

Judith asked the audience for help to record the new information, both volunteers to tell the stories and chroniclers to record them. Soon, the meeting adjourned and new friends shared barbecue, biscuits and homemade apple pies, just like when Amissville was a real village with a blacksmith named Jackson.

The Rappahannock County Historical Society, headquartered at 328 Gay St. in Washington, is open on 11 to 5 Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. Call them at 540-675-1163 or visit