THE CASE FOR "SUBCULTURE"
Though not a "subculture" in the traditional sense of a shared, specific interest, Highland County presents a culture ripe with shared values and beliefs. The mountains that surround the county have imposed a remoteness on the region that has impacted the way the economy and its social structure have evolved. To this day, people rely on themselves and watch out for their neighbors. They trade and barter, live only with what they need, and pass down "folklores" and skills long forgotten by the rest of the country.
highland county SNAPSHOT
- SMALL POPULATION: With under 2,300 residents, Highland County is the least populous county the entire state of Virginia and one of the least populous counties east of the Mississippi river
- NICKNAMED "LITTLE SWITZERLAND": Its picturesque vistas and agricultural economy have earned it the nickname America’s “Little Switzerland"
- 40 MILES FROM WV BORDER: Situated just 40 miles from the West Virginia border, Highland County sits deep in the rolling hills of Virginia’s Shenandoah region.
cast of characters
A life-long resident of Highland, Robin and his wife farm & operate his great-great-grandfather’s home as a Bed & Breakfast.
At age 32, Dorothy is the Executive Director of the Chamber of Commerce and an owner of several businesses, including a dance studio.
Owner of the Sugar Tree Store in town, Glenn produces upwards of 70,000 gallons of maple syrup per year and sells it across America.
Margie moved to Highland County in 2002 with her husband. She is responsible for the many beautiful "barn quilts" across the county.
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It’s not every day you request to interview someone and you walk away with your arms loaded with gifts, but that’s the spirit of Highland County. Highland County first crossed my radar some years ago when I was traveling back to West Virginia from a college ski trip. Situated just 40 miles from the West Virginia border amidst a host of mountains and what my dad likes to call “kiss-your-ass-turns,” I crested its peaks in my little blue hatchback and prayed to God I’d make it down the mountain alive. But amidst that fear was total awe. When the mountain finally topped out, a picturesque scene greeted me: snowy white caps peacefully nestling a town of chimneys and pasture.
With no time to spare and a mostly-full tank of gas, I soldiered on, but always remained curious about the area and noted the town’s markers: the “T-Bone Tooter’s” restaurant just a few miles outside of the town and the “Sugar Tree Store” right before the turn-off to West Virginia. It was years before I returned, but when I made my first trip back to West Virginia from Brandcenter, a familiar and exciting sight came into view: “T-Bone Tooter’s”. As it turns out, Highland County is located smack in the middle of my journey home from Richmond to Bridgeport, and it was this connection to West Virginia that led me to ask my fellow I-79er-West-Virginian-and-Richmond-Resident, Charlie, about the town.
“Hey, when you’re driving back home, do you ever pass this town with like a ‘T-Bone Tooters’ and a ‘Sugar Tree Store’ in it?”
“Yeah, I know Highland. My Granddad has a farm there. If you want, we can stop there on the way back to West Virginia next time and break up the trip a bit.”
Not long after that I spent my first weekend in Highland County. It was there, in the Cowpasture River, that I caught my first trout with a fly rod and got the full run-down of the history of the county. I learned about its residents, its maple syrup production, and its farming society and when my original subculture fell through, Highland was an immediate next option for me. Luckily, the county was in the midst of their annual Hands and Harvest festival, so I simply e-mailed a few names from the list of artisans and requested interviews. Within a day, all had gotten back to me and the following day I was once again in Highland County. First up was Robin Vance and his wife Nancy.
Robin greeted Charlie and me that morning with possibly the best sentence I’ve ever heard while interviewing someone: “My wife made you this poppy-seed bread. She’s sorry she couldn’t be here, but wanted to thank you for choosing us to interview.”
When he learned I had brought a “local boy” with me, Charlie, whose Granddad had had a summer farm in the county for years, but who had never actually lived there himself, the gifts and stories ramped up tenfold. He spent his entire morning with us. From 9 in the morning until 1:30 in the afternoon, Robin took us around his property, sharing dating advice, “old folklores” from the county, and making sure I’d milked his Jersey cow, cracked a butter nut with a rock, pumped a pail of water from the well, and done anything else I could have wanted to do. We left with two grocery bags full of freshly-picked apples Robin had climbed a tree to get, two cookbooks, and a pile of old CASS Railway slats so Charlie could “make [me] a jewelry box.”
By day two of our trip, Robin was already looking out for Charlie’s truck. We stopped at the Sugar Tree Store for some provisions and as I filmed rows of dry-goods and instant meals, a tap at the back of my shoulder signaled Robin’s arrival. He had something in his truck for us and wanted us to meet him outside when we were done shopping. It was a quart of his family’s home-tapped maple syrup. “Now you’ve got everythang you need to make them recipes in that cookbook I give you.” We parted ways, but not before Robin invited us back to his home that night for dinner and made us promise we’d come again in February so he could take us tree-tapping.