The Waltons

Schuyler, Virginia:  The REAL Walton's Mountain


Schuyler, Virginia, is a pleasant community of about 400 residents nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in central Virginia, about 70 miles west of Richmond.  Schuyler (pronounced "Sky-ler") was the boyhood hometown of author Earl Hamner, Jr., who wrote several semi-autobiographical stories about his experiences there while growing up during the Great Depression, including Spencer's Mountain, which, in 1963, was made into a movie starring Henry Fonda and James McArthur.  If you happened to see Spencer's Mountain, you might be confused because, while the movie took place in Wyoming, Hamner's book had actually been set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.


Above:  Schuyler is in central Virginia, at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Perhaps Earl Hamner's most famous book, though, was The Homecoming, which was the catalyst for the CBS television series, The Waltons, which aired from 1972 through 1981 and was one of the most popular television shows of the 1970s.  Of course, the fictional town in the television series was called "Walton's Mountain," not Schuyler.


The Waltons was my favorite television show back then, perhaps in part because my father was Earl Hamner's age (born exactly three months after Earl in 1923).  And like Earl, he grew up in a large family in a rural mountain community during the Depression although in Washington, not Virginia.

My First Visit to Schuyler (1985)

Although I had watched The Waltons for years, I'd never heard of Schuyler until the early 1980s.  That's when, as a Geography grad student at the University of Wisconsin, I befriended a fellow grad student there named Marilyn (see News:  August 8, 2001) who, as it turned out, was also a Waltons fan.  During the numerous conversations that she and I had about John-Boy, Mary Ellen and Grandpa Walton not as sophisticated, I'm sure, as the discussions that our more erudite colleagues were having about spatial analysis coefficients and fluvial geomorphology Marilyn mentioned that Earl Hamner had grown up in Schuyler, Virginia, and had used that town as the basis for the fictional "Walton's Mountain" in the television series. 


After she told me this, I decided to visit Schuyler if I ever got to Virginia.  That didn't take long because I bought my Toyota pickup truck in 1984, and a year later, I decided to take a semester off from my studies at the University to travel around the U.S. (or as I told my graduate advisor, "To do field research.") 


Above:  View from the Blue Ridge Parkway, from my 1985 visit.  This is looking east into the Virginia piedmont and John-Boy Walton country.

I drove down the east coast of the U.S. for the first time that fall and when I got to Virginia, in October 1985, I took out my AAA road map and found Schuyler.  As I drove along Skyline Drive, the ribbon of pavement that straddles the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I savored the vivid fall colors and the crisp blue sky.  I camped that evening on Skyline Drive overlooking the beautiful Shenandoah Valley and admired a spectacular crimson sunset.


The next morning, a Sunday it was, I came down off the crest and, after taking several wrong turns, finally found Schuyler.  As I learned, Schuyler wasn't really a "town" with grid streets and a downtown.  It was more like a hamlet, with scattered clusters of houses strung along the numerous winding and mostly-empty country roads that meandered through the Blue Ridge foothills.  I was expecting to see something there denoting the Waltons, maybe a "John-Boy's Burgers" or a "Dew Drop Inn," or perhaps just a sign pointing out the Hamner house, but I was disappointed and surprised not to find any indication that Hamner had ever lived in Schuyler.  I did drive past several large houses, but I wasn't sure which, if any, had been the Hamner house.  After about 20 minutes, I spotted a real estate sign advertising "Waltons Mountain Property For Sale," certainly not the monument to The Waltons that I was hoping to see, but at least an indication that I was in the right place. 


Finally, on my way out of town, I saw an old country store called the "S&H Grocery Store" which, according to the sign there, was the inspiration for Ike Godsey's store, so my visit hadn't been a total waste.  I'm glad I took a picture of it, too, because the store burned down a few years later.



Above left:  Here's the original "Ike Godsey's General Merchandise" (known in real life as the S&H Grocery Store) during my visit in 1985.  Note the text on the sign.  This is the store that the Hamner family patronized in the 1930s and that Earl Hamner based Ike Godsey's store on. Unfortunately, it burned down a few years after my 1985 visit.  However, a new store has sprung up in its place.  

Above right:  Walton's Mountain for sale?   I'm sure Grandpa was rolling over in his grave.

My Second Visit to Schuyler (2001)

Sixteen years later, in July of 2001, I decided to revisit Schuyler during one of my many trips around the U.S., a trip that I've documented (perhaps too well) elsewhere in this website.  I was eager to get back to Schuyler, since I'd read in my AAA TourBook about a "Walton's Mountain Museum" that was now open there.  It was my 2001 visit to Schuyler, in fact, that inspired me to create this section of my website devoted to The Waltons.


Above:  Approaching Schuyler from the west, I came across the Rockfish Post Office and railroad station, which had been closed since 1985 (ironically, the year that I'd last visited).  John-Boy used to write about hearing the train whistle at Rockfish.  This is it. 

Once again, I headed along Skyline Drive, then dropped down into the Virginia piedmont.  And once again, as I approached the Schuyler area, I quickly got lost, which is pretty easy to do along the many twisting country roads in that part of Virginia.  As I was driving along, I realized that I had absolutely no idea where I was, a sobering admission for a self-proclaimed "geographer."


Soon afterwards, however, I spotted the Rockfish Post Office, so I knew I must be getting close to Schuyler.  According to the sign there, the post office had closed in 1985, and the only occupant was a large and unfriendly dog who bore absolutely no resemblance to the Walton's dog, Reckless.  He wasn't anywhere near as friendly either, and barked at me as I got out of my truck and continued to bark as I walked around the nearly-deserted settlement of Rockfish.


Above:  The Rockfish Post Office.

After I took a few pictures, I made an aborted attempt to pet the snarling canine, then, with my hand fortunately still intact, hopped back into my truck and headed down the road, in search of the elusive Schuyler. 

  • Click here to read an e-mail I received from the owner of the Rockfish Post Office in 2009.

I'm normally a pretty good navigator, but my two geography degrees didn't help much as I drove along the empty country road while trying to figure out where the heck I was.  And no, I didn't ask anyone for directions mainly because:  1). There wasn't anyone around, and 2). I'm a guy.  After a while, though, I found a sign pointing me to Schuyler, and once I got there, I followed the signs to the Walton's Mountain Museum, a large red-brick building near, what I guessed, was the middle of Schuyler.


Above:  The high school that Earl Hamner attended is now the local Community Center and Walton's Mountain Museum.  Built in 1925, it's much different than the schoolhouse portrayed in the show.  As you may recall, John-Boy graduated from high school in 1934 and went on to the fictional "Boatwright University."  Earl Hamner actually graduated from this high school in 1940, then attended the University of Richmond.

Back during the Depression when Earl Hamner was growing up, this impressive building, built in 1925, was the community's high school.  Earl graduated from this high school in 1940, six years after John-Boy Walton, who graduated from the much smaller Walton's Mountain School, as portrayed in the TV series, in 1934.  As Schuyler fell on hard times, though, the high school was converted to an elementary school and eventually, in 1991, it was closed and converted to a Community Center.


In 1992, and with permission and financial support from Earl Hamner, the Community Center was converted into a joint Community Center and Walton's Mountain Museum.  Through museum admission receipts and gift-shop sales, the museum has provided support to Schuyler's food bank, literacy program, fire and rescue squads, children and senior citizen programs, scholarships for high school students, health clinic, and local library.  Obviously, the museum is a great deal for visitors and the Schuyler community alike.


I walked into the museum and paid the $5 admission fee to a pretty girl inside, who directed me to a back room where a short video, called something like "The Making of The Waltons," narrated by Earl Hamner, had just started playing on a large TV in front of about 20 other Waltons fans.  After the program finished, I spent an enjoyable hour in the museum admiring all kinds of memorabilia that only a true Waltons fan like me would appreciate, including signed photographs, the original radio that was on the show, and a replica of the Baldwin sister's "recipe machine."  The admission price includes a guided tour of the museum and after the tour, you're invited to linger as long as you want.  The laid-back museum is a great place to visit if you're a Waltons fan, or even if you're not a fan.



Above left:  Another view of the museum.  It costs $5 to get in and if you're a Waltons fan like me, it's well worth it.

Above right:  The walls inside the Walton's Mountain Museum are covered with photos of the Waltons and Hamners.


As I discovered, Schuyler had been a flourishing soapstone company town during the early 1900s and Earl Hamner's father, Earl Sr., had worked in the soapstone factory.  Soapstone, in case you're wondering, is a metamorphic rock that's soft enough to be carved into durable furniture, flooring tile, or countertops.  In fact, the area in Nelson County (where Schuyler is located) and adjoining Albemarle County contains the largest soapstone deposit in Virginia, and one of the largest in the U.S.  With the increasing popularity of synthetic materials during the 1900s, though, the demand for soapstone tumbled along with, unfortunately, the fate of Schuyler.  Early in the Depression, Earl lost his job in the factory and, as in the television series, set up and operated a sawmill next to his house. 


Above:  The Walton (er, Hamner) House still stands.  This is the house that the show was based on.  When I visited Schuyler in July 2001, James Hamner ("Jim-Bob") was still living there.  Maybe he was inside watching The Waltons?

On my way out of the museum, I asked the pretty girl at the entrance where the Hamner house was located, and she told me that it was right across the road and down a little ways.  She also told me that Earl's youngest brother, James Hamner (the "Jim-Bob" character in the series), still lived there and didn't mind if folks took pictures of the house from the outside, but she asked me to respect James' privacy.  The girl also told me that the S&H Grocery Store, the inspiration for Ike Godsey's store which I had photographed in 1985, burned down in the early 1990s, although a new store had sprung up in its place.


I thanked her, then stepped outside and spent another hour poking around Schuyler.  I stopped by the new grocery store and drove down to the Rockfish River, which runs through town.  Then I checked out the Hamner house where Earl's parents, Earl Sr. and Doris Hamner, the "John" and "Olivia" characters on the show, raised eight red-headed children during the Depression. 


Earl Sr. died in 1969, never to see his son Earl Jr.'s work The Homecoming made into the CBS movie and later into the critically-acclaimed television series.  Doris, however, lived until 1990 and enjoyed seeing her son, now a famous author, reap the rewards of her family's sacrifices many years earlier.  Doris, in fact, once joked that, "she could afford eight children but CBS could only afford seven."


James was actually in the Hamner house when I walked by.  I snapped a few shots of the house but I didn't bother him, because I figured the poor guy had been besieged by too many ardent Walton's fans over the years and I didn't want to add one more to that list.



The Hamner House Today

In June 2012, a reader wrote to me about the Hamner House.  Unfortunately, the house fell into disrepair after James Hamner, the last Hamner resident, passed away in 2004 (three years after my visit).  However, I'm happy to report that the house has been restored, much to Earl Hamner's delight.  You can even take a tour inside the house.  Earl posted a message about the restored house, along with several photos of it, here.

Note:  Due to poor health, James moved to Charlottesville soon after my visit and, sadly, passed away in April of 2004.  The Hamner house was slated for demolition, but I'm glad to report that it was recently purchased by a Walton's fan who has vowed to preserve it.  See my note to the right.



During my visit to Schuyler, I tried to imagine what life must have been like for the Hamner family while living here during the Great 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:  A replica of the Baldwin sisters' "Recipe Machine." 

Above center:  Earl Hamner's award collection, including two Emmys.

Above right:  A tribute to James Hamner, inspiration for the "Jim-Bob" character and Earl's youngest brother.  Sadly, James passed away in 2004.



Above left:  A re-creation of the Walton's living room.  The radio was on the small table to the left.  Speaking of which...  

Above center:  ... here it is.  This was the actual radio that John brought home in the truck in the first season's introduction, and which the family listened to in several episodes.  It's on loan from the Smithsonian Institution and arrived at the Walton's Mountain Museum in 1999.  As Earl Hamner said at the radio's unveiling ceremony, "One of my favorite images of those days is of the entire family sitting in the living room listening to the radio."

Above right:  You can buy all kinds of interesting Waltons stuff in the gift shop, including "A piece of Walton's Mountain" (a soapstone brick) for $8.50.  I got a t-shirt and a mug, but I wish I'd gotten the soapstone.



Above left:  The cast of the Waltons.  This same picture was used on the cover of the ultimate Waltons book, Goodnight, John-Boy.  An alert reader sent me an e-mail noting that John-Boy is holding a copy of the Blue Ridge Chronicle, so I'm guessing that this was from the fifth season, when John-Boy began his newspaper career.

Above center:  Here's the actual Hamner family.  Each of the members was the inspiration for a character in the show.  Top, left-to-right:  Earl Hamner ("John-Boy"), Clifton Hamner ("Jason"), Marion Hamner ("Mary Ellen"), Audrey Hamner ("Erin").  Center:  Doris Hamner ("Olivia"), Earl Hamner, Sr. ("John").  Bottom, left-to-right: Paul and Willard Hamner ("Ben"), James Hamner ("Jim-Bob"), Nancy Hamner ("Elizabeth").

Above right:  A different angle providing a better view of many of the Hamners, although Marion and Audrey Hamner are obscured by the glare. 



Above left:  Call Sheet from the episode, "The Volunteer," which aired in 1977.

Above right:  As I mentioned above, "Ike Godsey's Store" (known in real-life as the S&H Store) burned down in the early 1990s.  This store was built in its place.  It's a short ways from the Walton's Mountain museum and the Hamner house.



Above left:  Schuyler was a company town during the 1930s and Earl's father, Earl Sr., worked in the soapstone factory, as did just about everyone else in Schuyler.  This is the Rockfish River and dam that provided power for the factory.  The factory closed during the Depression.

Above right:  Looking downstream from the bridge over the Rockfish River.



Table of Contents:

The Waltons

My Home Page on The Waltons

The Story of The Waltons

The Cast of The Waltons

Introductions to The Waltons

Introduction:  First Season

Introduction:  Second Season

Introduction:  Third Season

My Favorite Episodes

"The Conflict" (#51 - 52)

List of Episodes

The Waltons Trivia

Earl Hamner's Acting Debut (#26)

The Story of Martha Corinne (#51 - 52)

That Beguiling Darlene Carr (#68)

The Waltons' Screen Doors

>  My Visits to Schuyler, Virginia (1985 and 2001)

The Rockfish Post Office

Links and Other Info on The Waltons

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