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The REAL Walton's Mountain  (Schuyler, Virginia) 

(Reprint from News: July 16, 2001)

July 16, 2001

 

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):

Front:  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 squared 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 ratings. 

 

Here's The Waltons theme song.

Requires a RealPlayerIf problems, see Help.

 

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. 

 

The first 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 School was 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."

 

During my 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 was.  However, as I discovered, the very real town of Schuyler had its own special charm, and for that I was glad.

  

       

Above 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.

Above 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."

Above 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:

Table of Contents:

The Waltons

My Home Page on The Waltons

The Story of The Waltons

The Waltons Cast

The Waltons Episode List

The Waltons Introductions

Introduction: First Season

Introduction: Second Season

Introduction: Third Season

My Visits to Schuyler, VA (1985 & 2001)

My Favorite Waltons Episodes

"The Conflict" (#51-52)

Waltons Trivia

Earl Hamner's Acting Debut (#26)

The Story of Martha Corinne (#51-52)

That Beguiling Darlene Carr (#68)

The Waltons' Screen Doors

Waltons Links and Other Info

 

 

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