But at heart Caroline County is one of the last rural areas along the Interstate 95 corridor and has yet to be overrun by apartment complexes and commercial development. In theory, more than 90 percent of the land is available for agriculture and forestry, although only 20 percent of its 549 square miles is actively farmed. Low hills and shallow valleys dot the landscape. If you go to the Visitors Center in Carmel Church, which is more of a destination for hungry travelers than a community, you can’t miss the reproduction of a thirty-three-foot prehistoric whale skeleton found twenty feet down in a local quarry in 1990, a reminder that this area was once under the sea.
Overshadowed by its more populous and prosperous neighbors, Caroline County has been in the national or international news spotlight only on rare occasions. A recent mention came after the presidential election of 2016, when it was determined that Caroline had been one of five “Pivot Counties” in Virginia. Its voters gave Barack Obama a 12-percent win over John McCain in 2008 and an eight-percent win over Republican Mitt Romney in 2012. But then they reversed course in 2016, giving Donald Trump a five-percent victory over Hillary Clinton, who won the overall vote in Virginia.
For ninety-nine years, the residents of Caroline County were served by a lively weekly newspaper, the Caroline Progress, which was family-owned and -operated for most of its existence. Staff size and page count dwindled after the paper was purchased by a Tennessee-based chain in 2007. The March 28, 2015 issue announced that it was the newspaper’s last.
How Caroline County voters will feel come the March 3 Super Tuesday Democratic Primary in Virginia, and ultimately in the presidential election in November, is, at this point, anybody’s guess. How are the residents of this county dealing with the loss of their local newspaper, and what impact will it have on their lives and political decisions in 2020? These and other issues will be explored in later dispatches.
For the most part, meanwhile, county residents here are resilient and self-sufficient. Many backyard gardens dot the landscape and hunting and fishing are popular pursuits. The County Sheriff’s Department is a well trained and equipped force, but many farmers and homeowners are also prepared to defend what is theirs.
There are more than seventy churches in the county, ranging from small country chapels to large and opulent edifices. In the old days the churches were also the social center and, along with rural post offices and general stores, the communication centers of their communities. To some extent that remains true, especially in the Black community. Other community organizations, such as Masons and Moose, the Ruritan and Rotary clubs, have been augmented by community centers, four libraries, and the relatively new Caroline County Y. Food—be it fried chicken, oysters, fried fish, blue crabs, salt fish, or biscuits and sausage gravy—is a big draw for gatherings and fundraisers.
If you are one of the millions of motorists who pass through the western third of Caroline County each year on I-95 or the parallel US 1, you may be unaware that this county exists. People have traveled through here for centuries, with only a relative handful deciding to put down stakes. Revolutionary War troops marched through on the way to Yorktown and Union and Confederate troops marched through on their way to battles around the Confederate capital of Richmond. Amtrak passenger trains pass through Caroline on their way from Richmond to Washington but no longer stop at the abandoned stations of Ruther Glen, Penola, Milford, Woodford, and Guinea.
Approaching on I-95 from the north, you endure the inevitable traffic snags of rapidly growing Northern Virginia before getting the first clue that you are approaching someplace different, in the form of a new and prominent brown directional sign announcing the way to the “Stonewall Jackson Death Site” in Caroline County. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, the Confederate general, was gravely wounded by friendly fire at the Battle of the Wilderness and was carried by his men as far as Guinea Station at the northwestern edge of Caroline County, where he died on May 10, 1863. A national monument and restored house still mark the spot. It was known as “Stonewall Jackson Shrine” for more than nine decades. But “shrines” are perceived as places of worship and veneration, and the National Park Service renamed it last fall—a decision influenced in part by controversy and violence in Richmond and Charlottesville over statues memorializing the leaders of the Confederacy.
Southbound travelers wishing to avoid the logjams around Washington DC and northern Virginia can instead cross the Potomac River from Maryland, continue through King George County, and traverse Caroline County diagonally on US Route 301. That way you pass through Port Royal, population 205, one of two incorporated towns in the county. This was a bustling tobacco port back in Colonial Virginia, when ocean-going sailing ships were able to navigate the Rappahannock River as far north as the rapids in Fredericksburg.
If instead you approached from the south, on I-95, the first clues that you are approaching Caroline County would be signs for the Kings Dominion amusement park, just south of the North Anna River, and for Meadow Event Park in Caroline County. Once known as The Meadows, this former horse farm was the birthplace of Caroline County’s most famous native son, albeit one with four legs, not two. Secretariat, thoroughbred horse racing’s Triple Crown Winner in 1973, was born in Caroline County, as was his stable-mate, Riva Ridge, who won two races of the Triple Crown in 1972.
In some respects, change comes slowly to Caroline County and its residents, many of whose families have lived here for generations.
Bowling Green, population 1,166, is the sleepy county seat in the approximate center of the county and looks much the same as it did fifty or even 100 years ago, although a few storefronts that once housed mom and pop businesses are vacant. Most county residents drive to Hanover County to the south or suburban Fredericksburg to the north for their shopping, dining, and entertainment. This was a bustling community during World War II, when Fort A.P. Hill was quickly created to meet the training needs for a rapidly growing US Army. The 77,000-acre military outpost still occupies a large chunk of the county and as many as 70,000 soldiers and airmen receive short-term training here each year, though the base’s permanent party of military and civilian employees is minuscule. While local residents are patriotic, the fact that the Army post removes 22 percent of the landmass from the local tax base while contributing little to the local economy is a source of friction. The Fort’s old USO club now houses the Bowling Green Town Hall and a Community Center used for weddings.