April 2 - May 4 - A Couple of Burgs
We saw a lot of stuff in April, some of it what we anticipated, a lot of it things we hadn't planned on. Our report covers just two stops. And it's long. Sort of sorry about that.
On April 2, we arrived at the 1000 Trails Williamsburg Resort at Williamsburg VA (8), a park we'd never before stayed in. While we'd been to Williamsburg twice before, we'd always stayed about 40 miles out in Gloucester Courthouse. This park was added to our portfolio a couple of years ago, and is within 10 miles of Colonial Williamsburg, our prime reason for coming. We stayed 20 days.
We got to the park just before Easter weekend, and were lucky enough to get settled before the double whammy of holiday weekend and Virginia's Spring break, which pretty much filled up the RV park after we arrived. Sometimes we have good timing.
We celebrated Easter at Williamsburg Presbyterian Church. It's a relatively old church, but in a new facility, finished in 2006. With 1500 members, we expected a great Easter service. We underestimated. The church, which seats about 500, was packed. We counted 65 people in the choir. There was a brass septet, which even included a tuba! The sanctuary is fronted by a magnificent pipe organ, which features 33 Stops, 39 Ranks, across three manuals and Pedal (for you musical types). And when all that music power plus a full congregation fired up for the first hymn, it was enough to send chills down your back. At least it did ours. We worshiped there twice more while we were in town. You just gotta love a church with a clothing drive named "Drop Your Drawers and Knock Your Socks Off". Or one with a "Bacon and Bibles" men's breakfast study group.
Music turned out to be a surprisingly large part of our nearly three weeks in Williamsburg. The 300 year old Bruton Parish Church in Colonial Williamsburg has a free Candlelight Concert three nights a week, and we went to at least six of them. We heard a couple of baroque instrumental groups, a high school concert choir from North Carolina, an evening of flute and organ featuring the 6,000 pipe organ (more about that later), but the best one was an evening put on by the music department of Virginia Commonwealth University from Richmond. It featured two vocal quartets, a 30+ member female chorus, and a 13-member "flute choir" which they said included every type of flute there is, from the tiny piccolo to the enormous double bass flute that stands on the floor. It was the most flutes we'd ever heard in one ensemble.
About that organ - we couldn't figure out how that much sound was coming from what appeared to be a relatively small organ in the organ loft at the front of the sanctuary. Turns out there are pipes tucked away in almost every part of the building. There are pipes in the bell tower. There are pipes in the attic. It's surround sound in a 300 year old building. Bruton Parish is actually several years older than 300 years, dating to 1664. The current building, which has been in continuous use since 1715, was built after Williamsburg became the colonial capitol and it became the official church of the Royal Governor.
Our other outstanding musical evening came complements of the US Army. Seems that nearby Fort Lewis is the home of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command. We have no idea what the "TraDoc" does, but they have a band, and it did a three-performance "spring tour" that included a stop at a community church just up the road from our RV park. We both agreed it was the best concert band performance we'd ever seen or heard. With over 50 people on stage, all professional musicians, the sound was faultless. The concert lasted about 90 minutes. Wow! In later conversations, we also decided it may have been the only concert band performance we'd ever seen or heard. Nevertheless, it was outstanding.
Non-musically, we spent a few days wheeling about Colonial Williamsburg on our mobility scooters, trying to take in things that we didn't see in our previous visits. Most of that stuff is in the slideshow.
Historically speaking, our best encounter was at the site of Jamestown - the first permanent English settlement in the new world. When we were last there in 2008, they were starting on a major archeological investigation of the settlement. We said then we'd need to come back to see what they found. As we were buying our tickets, we asked about the introductory video that was about to start. The ticket agent said to skip the movie and go catch the Archeological Tour. "It's much, much better", she said.
As the tour started, our tour guide Mark Sanders told us that every year, the international archeological community publishes a list of the top 10 archeological finds of the year, and that two of the finds that made those lists in the last few years were on our tour. That got our attention. He started off by explaining that unlike a lot of major historical sites in the US, the Jamestown settlement site is privately owned and thus not subject to the US National Parks regulations that no longer allow archeological digging. So they dig. He explained that until about 10 years ago, the prevailing wisdom was that much of the original fort had been lost to erosion from the James River. In their digging, they found that the foundations for all of the old fort were still on dry land. And that meant that all of the original settlement, which was inside the fort, was also still on dry land. They hired more archeologists.
The first of the Top 10 finds was the location of the original settlement church. Finding that, and knowing that in the 1600s the local church was also the town assembly space, gave them the site of the first establishment of a democratic form of government in the world. Although a crown colony, the settlers were pretty much left to themselves to generate a profit for the owners back in England. To that end, they set up a "town council" elected by the residents to run things, with the royally-appointed governor at the head. First democracy in the world. Made the top 10 list that year.
As the digging continued, they excavated the settlement's community food warehouse. Along with the bones of all the usual edible animals - deer, goats, chickens, hogs - they found some unusual bones - cats, dogs, rats, mice. And, disturbingly, some human bones. And those human bones clearly showed the same signs of having been butchered for meat as all the others. Subsequent testing and lots of research determined that the skeleton was that of a teen-age girl (about 14 yrs old), probably a servant girl, who had probably died of natural causes. The winter of 1609 came to be known as "the starving time" - a winter of no food that killed a lot of the colonists. A supply ship from England had sunk, the natives in the area were hostile so the colonists couldn't go out to hunt or fish, and it was bitterly cold. A lot of the settlers died that winter.
The finding of those human bones and subsequent research made the discovery the first (and so far only) documented case of survival cannibalism in the world. And it made the 2013 edition of the list. Although journals of the time by surviving settlers alluded to the consumption of human flesh, and there are other known stories of survival cannibalism (the Donner party, for example), it was these bones that provided physical evidence to support the stories. They've since done a forensic facial reconstruction of the young girl, and her skull and that facial reconstruction are both on display in the settlement's museum. And the research continues. They were able to get DNA from the bones, and through that hope to be able to find kinfok in England who might be able to identify the girl, now known only as "Jane". They've narrowed their search down to three counties in Southern England.
On a much lighter note, we drove the 30 or so miles into Hampton VA to the Virginia Air and Space Museum, which among other things is the official visitor center for NASA's Langley research facility.. The museum is very much aimed at kids. And it shows a serious need for funding. There were a couple of neat displays, but as far as air museums goes, it's definitely not top tier. We still don't have a clear idea what kind of research they do or did at the Langley facility. We wish them luck.
Other than that, we did a little shopping, ate out way too many times, Judy did her daily workouts at a nearby Curves, and we enjoyed the weather. We arrived a few days ahead of real spring weather, but within a few days the dogwoods and magnolias and redbud trees were in glorious bloom, and we were wearing shorts again. It's kind of neat having spring this many times.
On April 22, we hooked up and drove about 200 miles to the Gettysburg Farm RV Campground (9), a few miles north of Hanover PA. In addition to the RV sites, this is what we'd call a "dude farm" - a few animals of several species that make up a petting zoo. Of course, there are also all the usual campground features - swimming pool, horseshoe pits, etc, plus about a half-mile of water frontage on a good-sized creek. We chose this park because (a) we wanted to visit Gettysburg again; (b) it's a 1000 Trails park and thus free to us; and (3) there's a Curves nearby where Judy can get her exercising. What we weren't aware of until we got there was that we were in the middle of the birthing grounds of the American snack food industry.
We made two visits to Gettysburg. The first was to tour the new visitor center and museum, which wasn't yet open when we were there before. It's a wonderful museum, with an excellent film that explains the whole three-day Gettysburg battle. Arguably, the centerpiece of the museum is the Gettysburg Cyclorama, a huge painting that depicts the final battle - Pickett's Charge - where the Confederate forces attacked the Union position and were repulsed. The cyclorama was painted in 1883, 20 years after the actual battle. It's 42 feet high and 317 feet long, and is displayed as a 360 degree view of the battle, with the viewer in the center. It's been newly restored, and the display enhanced with sound and lighting effects. The foreground of the display is all real three dimensional objects and scenery, while the painting makes up the background. It's really effective.
Our second visit was to take the 24-mile driving tour of the battlefield. The tour is laid out to take you to the various locations in the sequence that events happened over those three days. There are hundred of monuments to every military group that had anything to do with Gettysburg. Some are extremely modest, some are magnificently extravagant. At almost every stop, we encountered private tours of the battlefield. There's a cadre of private tour guides that will escort you around the area and explain what was going on. From our eavesdropping, we could tell these guys really know their stuff. We're actually pretty casual history buffs, but even we absorbed a little.
Some snack food facts: Did you know that 85% of all the pretzels made in America are made in the Hanover PA area? Did you know that America's best-tasting potato chips (according to several national testing and tasting groups, including Consumer Reports) are made in Hanover PA? Did you know that the only difference between hard pretzels and soft pretzels is how long you bake them? Did you know that York Peppermint Patties were originally made in nearby York PA? The opportunity for factory tours (and free samples) abound.
Snyder's Pretzel Factory in Hanover turns out 2.5 million pretzels every day, and ships them all over the world. They probably account for the bunk of pretzel production in Hanover. They offer a factory tour, and we went. They don't allow photography on the tour, so we didn't get any pictures of our own. But we did find a few on the internet and have incorporated them into our slideshow. Snyder's pretzels are extruded by machinery, which squirts them through dies onto conveyor belts that then transport them through the various stages of proofing, baking, seasoning and packaging. It's a highly automated process. And their warehouse is just as fascinating as the production areas. "Intelligent" machines gather up boxes of product that the conveyor belts bring in from various parts of the factory, sort the boxes into product-specific stacks, then put the stacks onto pallets and move them to the shipping area. The only human we saw was the guy with the forklift moving the final pallets around.
Their factory store offers some of every product made by Snyder-Lance, including more varieties of pretzels than you can imagine. We came away with enough pretzels to last quite a while. But we still bought more on our next tour.
Our other pretzel tour was the complete opposite of Snyder's. Revonah Pretzel Company makes their pretzels the old fashioned way - they mix the dough by hand, they twist the pretzels by hand, put them into the oven, and package them by hand. On a really good day when the weather's just right (there's no such thing as climate control besides opening or closing the windows), they'll turn out just 15,000 pretzels. They're mostly the big German-style pretzels. It's a small company - we saw only about 8 people working, including the owner who gave us our tour. They distribute mostly within about 75 miles of the factory. Their biggest seller, ironically, is their pretzel chunks - broken pieces of pretzels. Those broken pieces are so popular, they actually have to break up perfectly good whole pretzels to satisfy the demand. And even stranger - because of the extra labor involved, those broken pieces sell for more than the whole pretzels. We bought a bag of pieces, along with a couple other types. Revonah (it's "Hanover" spelled backwards) let us take all the pictures we wanted. They're very proud of what they do.
Unless you've spent some time in the northeast part of the country, you've probably never encountered Utz Potato Chips. They're made in Hanover, and distributed only from North Carolina to Maine, and west only as far as Pennsylvania and New York. Their factory tour is also photography-free, but we managed to find a few pictures on the internet. Utz is a family-owned business, with the fourth generation of the same family now running it. We heard a rumor that Warren Buffet was thinking of buying the company. Maybe the fifth generation doesn't want to carry on.
There are 5 different Utz factories in Hanover. Every time they'd outgrow one, they'd just build another and keep on using the old ones. We toured the newest and largest. In one big room, we could follow the potatoes from when they came out of the skinning machine to when the bags went into the boxes. They get sliced, rinsed, sorted, fried, salted, sorted again, checked for discolorations, and bagged in a process that takes about 15 minutes from spud to snack. It was a self-guided tour, with audio narration at each stop explaining what was going on. And the aroma was mouthwatering. Unlike most fried snack foods, Utz fries theirs in pure cottonseed oil, and claims that makes the difference. Whatever, they sure are good. They've posted copies of several major magazines that ranked them first on lists of best tasting potato chips. Al bought a bag after we left the factory. They didn't last long.
York County PA bills itself as the Factory Tour Capitol of the country, and there are a few tours we wanted to take but ran out of time. But we'll be back in the area in August, and will take another few tours - notably the Harley Davidson factory and a violin maker. And probably some others we don't know about yet.
On May 4, we hooked up again and continued northward into New York state. But that's for our next report.
You can imagine that we took a lot of pictures this month. Judy's been merciless in weeding out, leaving just the ones we like best, and there are still about 120 in the slideshow. Check them out here if you choose.