The Great Southern Divide in Virginia

I was raised in Maryland but even though it is South of the Mason-Dixon line (the traditional North-South dividing line), I always considered myself a Northerner (what can I say, no matter the topic, I like winning).  The Washington Post heads even further down South and takes a look at the changing state of affairs in “rural” Virginia and the North-South divide within this important Battleground State:

There’s debate about where the South really begins. The Mason-Dixon Line? The Potomac? The Rappahannock? The “sweet tea line?” What’s certain is that, by the time you’ve reached David Lamb’s horse farm in Orange County, you’re there. Oakland Heights Farm offers riding lessons and holds rodeos in the splendid heart of the Piedmont, on Route 15 a couple of hours southwest of Washington. Lamb is a Civil War buff who says his side lost, and grouses about prickly Yankees who swoop in and buy huge tracts of land and put up fences. Ask him what being southern means, and he says, “You can show up and sit on my front porch and have a glass of iced tea with me.”

Route 15

Southern hospitality isn’t about to disappear, but the intensity of American politics in this election season can make for awkward encounters and tricky relationships, to judge by dozens of interviews in recent days along Route 15 in Virginia. The north-south scenic byway offers a transect of the cultural fault line between Northern Virginia and what might be more traditionally defined as the South. Virginia has a long history as contested territory, and this year it’s a critical battleground state in the presidential election, with 13 electoral votes in the balance. For a full generation, since the political realignment during the civil rights era, Republican presidential candidates had an apparent lock on the old Confederacy. [NOTE: this isn’t true.  Whomever won the South won the election and in 1976, 1992 and 1996 it was a Democrat] But Obama, boosted by support in the booming Northern Virginia suburbs — known among some unreconstructed southerners as Occupied Virginia — won the state four years ago and has enjoyed a small but steady lead in recent Virginia polls.


As a general rule, the true South is more conservative, and more friendly to Republican candidates. The only catch is that the South is changing, modernizing, diversifying. Crude electoral maps and broad-brush political analysis can miss the granular complexity of America’s political geography, because so many people have added to their list of inalienable rights the right to defy stereotypes. “The nature of the South is changing faster than the stereotypes are. Much of the South now looks like San Jose. Is it still southern?” asks John Shelton Reed, a retired professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina who has studied the cultural borders of the South. So where is the border, professor? “If I had to say, and I guess I do, I’d say just about the Rappahannock [River] when you’re going south,” he said. “When you get 50 miles from Washington, you’re probably in the South.”

Changing landscape

Route 15 is the asphalt version of what was known long ago as the Carolina Road. The road crosses the Potomac at Point of Rocks, Md., and is just a two-lane country road when it reaches Lucketts, Va., in northern Loudoun County. Dominating the heart of Lucketts are a couple of antique stores, including Really Great Finds, where Carrie Sisk, 36, the retail manager, is a local and remembers when Loudoun County was just cow farms…Keep heading south, past Leesburg with its outlet stores, and you’ll see the antebellum plantation Oatlands, where preservationists are fighting to keep housing developments out of its viewshed. Oatlands says “South,” but the eye is drawn beyond the old grain silo to the rack of new housing on the distant hillside. Eventually you’ll see signs for the Winery at La Grange, which sits at the base of the Bull Run Mountains…Onward to Warrenton, which is now a suburb of Washington. “When I was a kid, Main Street was dirt,” says William Lawson, 75, a funeral director standing in the shade on Main…Tom Armstrong, 59, an arborist, pops out of the post office and says he remembers when this part of Virginia was rural and didn’t have many middle-class people, just the poor and the very rich. He likes the more multicultural feel of the area. He’ll vote for Romney, saying he doesn’t like the Democratic position on entitlements: “I really don’t think being a citizen of the United States entitles you to anything.” [I normally edit out partisan citizen quotes but that last one was too good to leave out.  That’s a man I want to have a drink with.]

The “South”

Below Warrenton on Route 15, the landscape starts to change. There are fewer housing developments, and fewer just-built mansions that look like they sprouted in a pasture after a recent rain. You’re nearing the Rappahannock, an unofficial border, and now you see vintage motels, what used to be called motor courts, and the occasional old house being eaten by vines. A truck stop has a big sign out front: “BBQ World.” This is Quarles Truck Stop, where the manager is Donn Sachs, 63, a Tidewater Virginian who doesn’t feel he’s in the South when he’s this far north: “A lot of people don’t even know what grits are.” … Just a little ways ahead, in the hamlet of Opal, a sign on the right says, “Clark Bros — Guns.” It’s a gun shop with an outdoor shooting range in back. There’s a fiberglass bear, ferociously kitschy, on the roof. “This is kind of where it starts,” says owner Steve Clark, and he’s referring, of course, to the South.

The Rappahannock River

Now comes the Rappahannock River, which is shallow this far upstream. Last weekend some local African Americans reenacted an August 1862 flight to freedom, in which slaves crossed the river here to escape bondage and join retreating Union soldiers. Ed Dudley, a Verizon employee, has parked a van on the northern side of the river so he can work on a line that leads to a water gauge in the river…In downtown Culpeper, you’re probably in the South, though you’re really not that far from Washington, which spews cultural seeds into distant pastures. Along the fault line you might think yourself deep in Dixie, only to see signs for yoga lessons and a wine bar.

Halfway to Orange is a vintage roadside store, the Midway Country Market. The proprietors are an African American couple who spent years teaching school in the District before relocating. Bob and Mary Royster, both 65, have packed their market with antiques, old tools, vintage glass bottles, furniture. You can buy pigs’ feet marinating in a jar, and pickled eggs. This is where you can buy souse — “head cheese.” …Route 15 comes to Orange, where Jimmy Harris, 57, makes a purchase at a produce stand, and says he was a contractor until “the illegal immigrants put me out of business.” …Eventually Route 15 hits Interstate 64. Just before the interstate there’s a new shopping plaza, with a Wal-Mart and a Lowe’s. The place calls itself “The Shoppes at Spring Creek” — the kind of spelling that makes a southerner suspect that someone’s taking on airs. Beyond that is the village of Zion Crossroads. A man sells produce on the roadside. People trickle into the laundromat and the convenience store. William Sprouse, 55, a logger and tree culler, says he’s undecided this fall…Route 15 keeps going, of course, because remember, it was the Carolina Road. The conversation about where the South begins can safely come to an end at this point. People here know where they live.


  1. Posted September 29, 2012 at 10:33 am | Permalink | Reply

    One of the things that is important to know about VA since 0bama was elected. The GOP has done very well in NoVa since 2009. Frank Wolf continues to win and Jerry Connolly almost lost in 2010. Also, Bob McDonnell almost won Fairfax Co. The GOP picked up 5 races in Fairfax in the last statewide election. I think that the GOP will do well enough in NoVa to secure the down state advantage to win the Commonwealth.

    • No Tribe
      Posted September 29, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Rappahannock River is the line.

      McDonnell is from NoVA, so that’s his secret of success. Sorta like Kaine being from Richmond.

    • NoVaMom
      Posted September 29, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Permalink | Reply

      McDonnell did win Fairfax, iirc by 2 points. We up here in occupied Virginia will try to hold the line on November 6 so downstate can win it.

  2. Mark
    Posted September 29, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink | Reply

    It was a family tradition in the summer to visit my extended family in South Carolina and Maryland. As a native Alabamian growing up in the 80s (38 years old), I remember every summer throughout my childhood when my family would drive over to South Carolina to visit one side of our family (who remained in Dixie) and then go up through the Appalachians through the Carolinas and Virginia on the way to visit the “Yankee” side of my family in Maryland. I remember always feeling “at home” no matter where we were in the South and always remarked at how Virginia felt like we were back in Alabama. It was the same until we approached the DC region and things just started to change. My father used to remark to my mother…(as Dorothy told Toto in the Wizard of Oz)…”we aren’t in Kansas anymore.”

    As a native Southerner born and raised in the land of BBQ, grits and sweet tea, and where people spoke of football, you automatically knew they were referring to Saturdays, not Sundays; it has always amazed me that no matter where in the South I went, I had a shared common bond of culture, dialect, food, and history. Like the gentleman in your article who was weary of Yankees coming in and buying up land and putting up fences and no sitting on the porch and having some tea, I can automatically understand his bearing and reference and background because we do the same thing down in Alabama. The gentleman you referred to understands the unspoken pain and pride all Southerners share as a birth right. That bond of the “War of Northern Aggression” and Reconstruction that built our shared regional experience. Families and traditions are the same in the South because we all shared the same history that no other region of the country shares.

    I remember as a kid traveling through Virginia and seeing confederate flags throughout the countryside, especially the Shenandoah Valley. Whether from Alabama, Virginia or Arkansas, etc…, we all shared “the flag” and other cultural similarities as a symbol of a by-gone era and shared common bond and unique regional experience. Part of that shared experience is traditional values based in our shared culture and religion. This seems to baffle other parts of the country and they can’t seem to understand our siege mentality and cultural identity.

    However, as Bob Dylan wrote…”times, they are a changin” and the Mason-Dixon Line keeps moving further south. “Fortress Dixie” is shrinking as more Yankees leave the failed and dying Northern carcass because labor unions and a corrupt Democrat party have tried to squeeze industry and have fostered an anti-business climate. Yankee corrupt Democrats have killed the golden goose and traded the North’s regional wealth and economic supremacy for short-term favors, kickbacks and resulted in high taxes.

    “King Cotton” used to rule the South in our agriculturally dominant days; however, “King Dollar” is running Atlanta, Charlotte and Nashville these days. Businesses and industry have realized our Southern conservative values and economic opportunity are attractive and foster a pro-business climate and have decided to leave the dying “Northern Carcass.” There was a time 75-100 years ago when many blacks and poor whites left the sharecrops and plantations of the agrarian South and moved to Detroit and Chicago and other industrial powerhouse cities for the promise of economic opportunity. But organized labor union bosses and a corrupt Democrat party have ruined the northern and progressive “promised land” and now the “new South” is like a Phoenix rising from the ashes Sherman and Grant burned 147 years ago.

    Native Southerners need to come to grips a big dilemma. As we build a bigger and stronger Dixie, Americans historically vote with their feet. Just as “the great migration” moved North a century ago for jobs and opportunity in the steel mills of Pittsburgh and car factories of Detroit, Americans are now leaving Detroit and Pittsburgh and heading back to the South for jobs in auto plants in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina, banks and financial powerhouses in Atlanta and Charlotte, and technology companies in Raleigh Huntsville, Orlando, and Austin and of course northern Virginia and the DC suburbs.

    The hard part for native sons of the South is how we assimilate these “new” people coming from the North and points south and incorporate them into our shared cultural and political fabric and long shared history. We all together learned to become Republicans in the past generation (something that was foreign to us all for decades and generations in the South) because “times, they were a changin.” The Democrat party changed over the last generation and Southerners had to find a new home in the Republican Party. My generation was the first to naturally align itself in the GOP for not only cultural but economic reasons. My parents and grandparents took a long time to realize the shift and had a hard time realizing they were no longer Democrats. However, they have come full circle in the last decade or two and the word “Democrat” now has connotations to its use as a pejorative to describe an “outsider” or “not one of us.” The hard thing we have to do now is figure how to preserve and continue our Southern “Phoenix” experiment of growth and positive economics without allowing unions and Yankee corruption destroy us like it did the North.

    Southerners aren’t afraid of multiculturalism or diversity; we just want to preserve our unique identity (both black and white) and the ability to keep our good thing going. We define “our good thing” as pro-business, pro-growth, pro-Christianity, sweet tea, college football, Chick fil-A, BBQ and a friendly slower lifestyle where we like to stop and smell the roses and talk to our neighbors. We fear the more the failed “Northern experiment” comes to the South, the more we are likely to follow in their footsteps of failure and corruption. We welcome newcomers, but understand we are a unique and proud people that have suffered for a long time together and that built what we have today. Don’t come ruin our party unless you want to play by our rules and way of life.

    Welcome to Dixie and learn this saying…”Southern born, Southern bred and when I die I will be Southern dead!!”

    (Sorry my post was so long…)

    • Posted September 29, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Outstanding comment. Makes it worthwhile to read through the gibberish a lot of others write in the comments section. Thanks for sharing that.

  3. Jerry W.
    Posted September 30, 2012 at 12:13 am | Permalink | Reply

    If Obama wins the election any Southern state that votes for Romney should suscede from the Union that would be our only hope left.!!!!

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