The REAL Walton's Mountain (Schuyler,
If you watched television during the 1970s, the name "Blue Ridge
Mountains" might ring a bell because it was the setting for The Waltons,
one of the most popular shows of that decade. The Waltons was a fictional show but it was based on the life of author
Earl Hamner, who grew up during the Great Depression in the town of
Schuyler (pronounced "Sky-ler"), Virginia. Hamner wrote a book about
his upbringing called Spencer's Mountain which, in 1963, was made into a
movie starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara as Clay and Olivia Spencer, and James
MacArthur as their son, Clay-Boy, the model for Earl Hamner himself.
Above: The Waltons (left to right):
Elizabeth, John, Olivia, John-Boy, and Mary Ellen.
Rear: Jason, Grandma, Ben, Jim Bob. Grandpa and Erin aren't shown.
Hamner later wrote another book with a similar theme and setting called
The Homecoming, which was based on an actual event in his family one
year at Christmas during the Depression. The Homecoming was made into a CBS TV movie
in 1971, but since the name "The Spencers" was copyrighted, Earl Hamner
decided to call the family "The Waltons." The show starred Patricia
O'Neal and Andrew Duggan as the parents, John and Olivia Walton, Richard Thomas
as the new-and-improved son, John-Boy, Ellen Corbin as Grandma, and Edger Bergen (father of Candace Bergen
and Charlie McCarthy's former sidekick) as Grandpa.
The Homecoming aired on December 19, 1971 and was a huge ratings
success, so CBS decided to turn it into a TV series, which debuted on September 14, 1972. The
cast was similar, except Will Geer became the new Grandpa, and the younger
and healthier Ralph Waite and Michael Learned were cast as the parents
(yes, Michael was a woman, something I never quite figured out). The
CBS executives couldn't have picked a worse time slot for the show,
though, because The Waltons
off against two extremely popular shows: The Mod Squad on ABC and the
#1 rated program in the country, The Flip Wilson Show over on NBC.
During its first
few weeks, and despite acclaim, The Waltons wallowed near the
bottom of the TV ratings. It seemed that the show, stressing homespun
themes while stacked up against glitzy
competition, was doomed from the start, and no
one in the Waltons cast expected to stick around very long. To
help rescue the show, CBS
mounted a PR campaign, which was how I first heard about it. I was an avid
Flip Wilson fan back then, but that winter, I saw an advertisement in
Life Magazine entitled "Help Save The Waltons," describing how this
family-oriented show on CBS was on the verge of being cancelled because of low
The Waltons theme song.
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Well, it worked because,
through the ads and word-of-mouth, not only did I start watching it every
Thursday night at 8 p.m., but so did millions of other Americans. The show
received a lot of critical acclaim, as well, with both Richard Thomas (John-Boy)
and Michael Learned (Olivia) winning Best Actor Emmys that first year, along
with Ellen Corby, who played the crusty Grandma, the first of 19 Emmys the show
would eventually win. The show's family-oriented message was a welcome
relief during that time of political upheaval, with the Vietnam war and
the Watergate scandal dominating the news.
few years of the The Waltons, when Ellen Corby and Will Geer (a.k.a.,
"You old fool") were both alive,
were definitely the best. After about five years, things started to fall
apart and the show began going downhill. John-Boy headed off to New York,
Mary Ellen got married, Will Geer died, and Ellen Corby had a stroke. The
show became pretty pathetic towards the end, especially with Livvy
shuffled off to a sanitarium and
a reconstituted John-Boy working in New York City (does anyone remember the
second John-Boy?) The final episode aired
in 1981, although The Waltons probably should've said goodnight to
America a few years earlier. Nevertheless, the show has since thrived in
syndication while endearing a whole new generation of viewers.
Above: Introduction from the show's first season.
I'd visited Schuyler once
before, back in 1985, but there were no signs or interpretive facilities then so I didn't know which
was the actual Walton (oops, I mean Hamner) house. I guess The Waltons
have quite a following, though, because in the early 1990s the old Schuyler High
converted into the "Walton's Museum."
It's easy to get
lost amidst Schuyler's winding, hilly roads but the museum is pretty easy
to find, located a few yards from the Hamner house, which is owned by the
youngest Hamner child (the "Jim-Bob" character in the show), and just down
the road from what was Ike Godsey's store. I paid my $5 admission fee to a blond
teenage girl at the door who kindly directed me to a back room, where a
video describing the making of The Waltons, narrated by Earl Hamner, had
just begun. There were about 20 other Waltons fans in the museum,
and after we watched the video we all got a nice guided tour.
Altogether, I spent an enjoyable hour at the museum
looking at all kinds of memorabilia that only a true Waltons fan would
appreciate, including signed photographs, the original radio that was on the
show, and a replica of the Baldwin sisters "recipe machine."
visit to Schuyler, I tried to imagine what life must have been like for
the Hamner family while living here during the Depression. No,
there's no such thing as "Walton's Mountain" and there never
However, as I discovered, the very real town of Schuyler had its own
special charm, and for that I was glad.
left: The high school that Earl Hamner attended (class of 1940) is
now the Walton's Mountain Museum. It costs $5 to get in and if you're a
Waltons fan like me, it's well worth it.
center: Here's the Walton (er, Hamner) house in Schuyler, Virginia.
Earl Hamner's brother James ("Jim-Bob" from the show) still lives here. He
was probably inside watching "The Waltons."
right: I took this picture of "Ike Godsey's Store," known in
real-life as the S&H Grocery Store, during my last visit to Schuyler in 1985.
Unfortunately, it burned down a few years later, although a new grocery store has
sprung up in its place.
Note: Inspired by my
2001 visit to Schuyler, I later decided to create a section of my website
devoted to The Waltons, as shown below:
Travels (2001-02) >
Story List >
U.S. Stories > The REAL