A Bit of Town History

A Bit of History

Of “Old”

Liberty/Bedford, Virginia



Thomas A. Markham




(Click the underlined words to see Picture)


Situated in the western part of the Piedmont plain., about seven miles from the scenic Peaks of Otter, Bedford has had a long, proud history. Over the years its name has been altered several times. First called "Liberty” when it was founded in 1782, it became known as "Bedford City" during the boom of 1890. In 1912, when all hope of Bedford developing into a large industrial center had faded, "City" was dropped, only to be in­corporated in the name again in 1968, when by action of the town council, it became known as the "City of Bedford”.


Painting of Town of Liberty



 The story of how the town of Liberty got its start is an interesting one. When New London, which served as the county seat until 1782, became a part of the newly formed Campbell County, Bedford was forced to look for a new site. William Callaway, Jr. was asked to make a survey of the county in order to locate the new court house as near the center as possible.


Picture of William Calloway, Jr.


     In the meantime an offer of a hundred acres of land along what was known as Bramblett's Road was made by Joseph Fuqua and William Downey. A committee, consisting of William Mead William Leftwich, William Trigg, Henry Buford, and James Buford, was asked to examine the land to determine its suitability and re­port to the court  by July 23, 1782. The report being favorable, James Buford was asked to make a contract for the building of a courthouse, prison, and stocks. Accordingly, a courthouse 20' by 30' with a twelve-foot pitch and a chimney of thick dirt or stone was erected in a grove of oaks on the site of the present Bulletin-Democrat building, and the first court was held on August 25, 1782.


About Joseph Fuqua


 In October, 1782, in response to a petition by the justices of Bedford, the General Assembly of Virginia, passed an act establishing the town of Liberty in title County of Bedford, which was named after John Ressell (Duke of Bedford) the English Prime Minister, with the provision that the court-house property continue to remain in county hands.  William Leftwich, James Turner, James Wright, William Meade, William Callaway, James Buford, and Robert Clarke were named as trustees of the hundred acres and were authorized to “divide” it into lots of half an acre each, or more, with convenient streets, which shall be and the same as, hereby established a town by the name of  “Liberty”.  It has been suggested that the name "Liberty" was chosen for one of two reasons; namely, because of Patrick Henry's great speech on "Liberty" or because of the new gained freedom the colonies had so recently won from England.


 The following quotation, which appeared in The History of Bedford County, Virginia, by Lula Jeter Parker, was culled from a newspaper clipping in the possession of C. R. Hurt of the county, and describes “Liberty” in the year 1830. :


·        Liberty, P. V. and seat of justice, is situated on a branch of Otter River, 26 ms. S.W. from R. and 223 ms. from W. Lat. 37 dg. 17' long. 20 dg. W. of N.C. The Lynchburg and Salem Turnpike runs through the town, which contains, besides the county buildings, 70 houses, two Baptist and one Free Church; Masonic Hall, two taverns, five mercantile stores, one tobacco manufactory, two tanyards, three house carpenters, one wheelwright, and two turners.


 The mail arrives and departs fifteen times in a week. “Liberty” contains nine attorneys and four regu­lar physicians; whole population 350. 


Henry Howe, in Historical Collections of Virginia published in 1856,  had this to say about Liberty:


·        Liberty, the County-Seat, is on the Lynchburg and Salem Turnpike, 26 miles southwest of, the former, and contains five mercantile stores, one Baptist, one Presbyterian, one Episcopal and one Methodist church, a large and handsome courthouse, built in 1834, and a population of about 600. This neat and flourishing village is the admiration of travelers, be­ing surrounded by a beautiful, rolling, fertile country, bounded by a background of great sublimity.


  Reverend Joseph A. Craves, in his History of the Bed­ford Light Artillery, has given the following description of the town:


·        “Liberty”, in May, 1861, was a quiet, unpretentious town. The streets were paved with poor material and only for a short distance. Our orators and poli­ticians were James F. Johnson, William Burwell, William L. Goggin and the Hon. John Goode. Our leading merchants were Alfred Bell, 0. P. Bell, S. H. Hoffman and William Graves. The storehouses in which they did business were inconvenient wooden buildings, without any apparatus for heating them save in the counting room, into which a very few persons were allowed to come; but they kept a full line of almost every kind of merchandise. There were no soda fountains, nor hardware stores, nor tobacco warehouses.


We had no water works, no telephone, and no electric lights. When the moon did not shine we took our lanterns.


Map of Liberty 1870



The following excerpts are from a talk made by T. W. Richardson, postmaster at Bedford, before the Board of Trade at its annual meeting on Friday, March 18, 1921:


·        I came to Bedford a little over twenty-five years ago. Bedford had then something around 2,000 in­habitants, and there were hardly half a dozen men in the place who had assets amounting to $25,000. Bedford now has over 3,000 population, and there are: at least half a dozen men who could scratch around and find $100,000 each.  There was a tumble-down store on the Roadcap corner with billboards on vacant fronts behind it. This corner with its terrazzo floors, splendid fittings and handsome clerks has been built in less than fifteen years, and Fizer's store and the Gills building not long before.  When I walked out Longwood Avenue on my first trip to Bedford, I passed the house now oc­cupied by Ellis Bibb, the next was Mrs. Lee’s and the Judge Tucker's (the John Goode house). The next building on that street was at the Forks of the Road. Call to mind the handsome residences on that street now. Look at the fine dwellings on Avenel Street, only one of which was there much less than twenty-five years ago.   Those of us who were here at the time will never forget the old board walks and the mud and slime of some of our principal streets, hack owners some­times actually refusing to take their teams to the station at the worst seasons. This has all been changed by the enterprise and progress of Bedford citizens. All the principal streets have concrete side­walks; there is about a mile of brick paved streets and several miles of macadam.





Bedford's economic development seemingly was shaped by two major happenings in its early history. One of these was the Great Fire of 1884, which started in a store operated by J. N. Early located on the southeast corner of Bridge Street and Railroad Avenue.


 Most of the buildings along both sides of Bridge Street were made of wood and flimsily constructed so that when the fire was discovered on the morning of October 12, 1884, very little could be done, as there was no organized fire department and a meager water supply. Soon the heart of town was         “A Blazing Inferno”.  When daylight came, only two buildings were left standing, and the scene was one of desolation.




The fire, however, proved a blessing in disguise, for when the owners rebuilt, the establishments were made larger and of more permanent material such as brick. The town also realized the necessity of having greater Fire Protection and a more Adequate Water Supply. It wasn't long before reforms along these lines were effected.


The second event was the Boom of 1890. Liberty, like many other places in southwest Virginia, was seized with an urge for expansion. Ever since the Great Fire, the town had grown amazingly. Liberty, in fact, hoped to imitate Roanoke and become a thriving industrial center. Many promoters were drawn to the little town, and several new land companies were formed, such as the Central Land Company, headed by 0. W. Kelsey, and the Bedford Real Estate Company, of which E. P. Vandershee was president.


 Land adjacent to town was bought by these com­panies, and a map of the period shows that the newly acquired property was divided off into proper streets and avenues. At this time the name "Liberty" was changed to "Bedford City", and an imposing new hotel, called Hotel Bedford, was built on the site where the  Elks National Home is now.


However, the expected "miracle" never happened. As a result, businesses failed, banks closed, and Bedford experienced a depression impossible to describe. When the town recovered by slow degrees, it was evident that Bedford would never attain the status of a big city. In fact, the term "city" was dropped, and the citizens seemed content that their town develop at a slower pace. 







The following is a list of the known  Mayors of Liberty,  according to Edward Pollock in the Sketch Book of Liberty:



Mayors of Olde Liberty



·        Samuel Hoffman - elected June 5, 1849

·        Dr. John A. Otey - elected June 8, 1850

·        William L Hoit - elected October 3, 1853

·        John A. Wharton served until June 5, 1849

·        Hugh White - elected May 9, 1854

·        P. Bell - elected July 25, 1855

·        John R. Steptoe - elected July 30, 1856

·        (Minutes missing from Feb.18, 1857 –

     Nov.27, 1860)

·        Dr. John A. Otey - elected Nov.27, 1860

·        (Minutes missing from May 3, 1862 to Oct 23, 1866)

·        John A. Otey again mentioned as mayor in the minutes of Oct.23, 1866

·        W. Leftwich - elected July 23, 1667

·        Dr. T. M. Sawyer - elected April 13, 1871

·        P. Sell - elected July 1, 1878

·        McLeod Kasey - elected July 1, 1880

·        Dr. C. A. Board - elected June 14, 1881

·        Dr. T. M. Bowyer - elected July 1, 1884

·        Dr. C. A. Board - elected Jan.12, 1886












  Memorial Day used to be a big event in the lives of the Citizens of Old Bedford. It was a time of paying annual tribute to the memory of the Confederate Dead, and the ceremonies were conducted under the auspices of the William R. Terry Chapter of U.D.C. On this day the streets, places of business, and even individual houses were appropriately decorated.  The following is a brief account of an observance re­ported in 1910:




·        A committee of the chapter, headed by Mrs. S. Griffin, president, repaired first to the Ceme­tery on Piedmont Hill, leaving a tribute of flowers to the 500 soldiers from many states buried there. Then they moved on to Longwood Cemetery and adorned the graves of nearly 100 soldiers with flowers and small flags.   At 10:45 the chapter officers drove to the Courthouse on Main Street to greet the veterans who had assembled there, and escorted them in a march to the Belmont Theater, where the chief ceremonies were to take place. They were cheered along the way by hundreds of onlookers waving banners.  The veterans, many attired in Confederate Uniform, were commanded by Gen. S. Griffin, Chief Marshall, and his aides, Maj. W. H. Mosby, Maj. W. F. Graves and Caption T. S. West.  The invocation was offered by the Rev. S.S. Lambeth D.D., who served with distinction throughout the war, and the speaker was the Hon. James W. Marshall of Craig County, a noted orator of the day.  Later the soldiers marched to the courthouse lawn, where a Splendid Monument had been erected to the Confederate dead the year before. Here a prayer and benediction were offered by the Rev. T. C. Page, after which the veterans repaired to the Alliance Warehouse, where a sumptuous banquet had been prepared for them, and were served by young ladies dressed in white with sprigs of red roses pinned on them. 


  The fourth Monday in each month was a special oc­casion for people in Liberty nearly a hundred years ago. It was Court Day, and though the County Court system was abolished in 1901, the old “court day" continued to be observed for County Courts. years by many throughout the county. 


 The town took on a holiday air, and people streamed in from near and far to transact business and also to see and be seen. The local merchants and eating places did a thriving business. Horse trading was a favorite "sport" on that day, and many a farmer realized too late that he had been cheated on “Jockey Alley."


In 1887 Micajah Davis was judge of the County Court and Robert S. Quarles, clerk. Commonwealth's attorney, Henry C. Lowry, served in both the Circuit and County Courts.






  The following account comes from a newspaper article found in the scrapbook of a deceased Bedford resident. It is signed “Yeto”, which spelt backwards is "Otey"- presumably a descendant of the pioneer, John Otey:


·        Where J. A. and Charley Wharton's houses and the Episcopal Church (now the Christian) presently stand was a dense oak forest. Mrs. Burwell’s house now stands on the ground on which the boys of the town had cleaned out a round race track of one hundred yards in length, and many a closely con­tested foot-race was run over this course. Between this and the Forest Road (now Bridge Street) was where barbecues were held. I well recall the pits dug in the ground and filled with burning coals over which whole shoats, quarters of fat beef, and hun­dreds of squirrels were spitted and placed to be cooked. When they were done 'Old Jack Seldon' and other cooks took them up and placed them upon rudely improvised tables, surrounded them with baskets of ready-baked bread, pies, pickles, etc., and announced that dinner was ready, when the people would gather in from every direction and proceeded to satisfy their appetites, rendered doubly keen by inhaling the savory smell which had for some hours been rising from the rich viands during the culinary process to which they had been subjected.


·          "Fives" was the game mostly played by the young athletes of the day. A yard was cleaned off and a battery erected in the hollow back of where Mr. Wharton's house now stands, and in the cool of the evening the contestants for victory would meet and play. The spectators, male and female, young and old, would gather under the umbrageous oaks and witness the game.


A tournament, as “Old Liberty” knew it, was a sport in which many contestants on horseback engaged for the purpose of seeing which one could collect the most rings on his lance as he dashed along a well defined course. The following description of such an event was taken from The Bedford Sentinel of August, 1869:


At the appointed hour the Knights assembled in front of Liberty House, and were drawn up into line by Col. Jno. G. Kasey, chief marshal, marched up Bridge to Main Street, and from thence to the grounds which were selected for the occasion, situ­ated in the suburb on a field formerly owned by Col. A. Otey, where a crowd of spectators had assembled to witness the contest for knightly honors. An ap­propriate

charge was delivered by Mr. Charles A. Bower, Esq.


  Dr. T. M. Bowyer, C. A. Nicho1s, Esq., and Joseph Wilson, judges, took their positions on the field, and the riding commenced in earnest. There were sev­eral fine fast horses on the track. The riding com­menced at precisely 12 o'clock and continued until two P.M. with the following results: H. S. Quarles, Knight of the Old Dominion, first honor; J. N. Early Knight of Piedmont, second honor; M. L. Kasey, Knight of Despondence, third honor; and C. Lowry, Knight of Trueheart, fourth honor. When it was officially announced that H. S. Quarles was the successful Knight, cheer after cheer rent the air as he left the field, showing that this knight was a general favorite.

  The Grand Coronation Ball came off at the Liberty House, at 9:30 P.M., and about that hour numbers of Bedford's fair daughters, together with others equally fair from other portions of the state, might have been seen wending their way in that direction intent upon paying homage to her Royal Highness, tripping the light fantastic and witnessing the crowning of her majesty by the successful knight.

  Miss Lelia Pleasants of Richmond was selected Queen of Love and Beauty, and right well did she grace the royal throne. Miss Ella Steptoe was se­lected as first maid of honor, Miss Samuella Owen, second, and Miss Rosa Bell, third. The throne, as may well be imagined, presented a dazzling array of beauty such as it is the pleasure of but few mortals to behold.

  Our friend Wilkes furnished refreshments for the party, and fully sustained on this occasion his repu­tation as a caterer. The dance continued until “day light in the morning” when all even at that hour left reluctantly and dispersed for their homes.



  Before the advent of radio and television, certain things loomed large in the minds of young people in Bedford. One of these was the arrival of the Circus, which usually came to town every summer. Sometimes it was a small circus, but often a larger, three-ring one, like Ringling Brothers or John D. Robinson. In the early days circuses were conveyed from town to town by their own special trains.

  On Circus Day the young boys of town usually con­gregated at the railroad station to watch the arrival and unloading of the cars. People for miles around thronged into town and lined the streets to watch the Big Parade, which started at the station and wound its way through town to the lot where the Large Tent had been set up.




And such a Parade! A string of elephants attired in brilliant colors and often bearing Circus Queens in gaudy array; huge gilded cages on wheels carrying wild animals, such as lions, bears, or tigers; large white horses, upon whose backs acrobatic feats would be performed; exotic animals, like camels and zebras, being led by circus hands; troops of clowns engaging in endless horseplay; an ornate wagon bearing the calliope, that magical old steam piano-all these things were a part


 The Big Tent afforded endless amusement to both young and old. Provisioned with peanuts and cracker-jacks, the spectators sat spellbound as the ringmaster announced act after act. Surely no circus performance at Madison Square Garden today could ever approach the sheer magic of those old circuses.




  The arrival of the stage coaches in Liberty Town was a momentous event one hundred and fifty years ago. Stages loaded with passengers and carrying mail would swoop into town from Shenandoah and Lynchburg. Well ahead of time, carriages and saddle horses would be fastened to posts along Courthouse Square. Ladies ar­rayed in their best, perhaps with parasols raised to shade them from the noonday sun, would promenade along the flagstone walk in front of the courthouse, awaiting the thunderous approach of the coach, drawn by four to six horses. Upon its arrival it was said that business men would rush from their shops and offices and work­men would stop to stare.

  The main thoroughfare through the town was the old Lynchburg-Salem Turnpike, constructed under the General Turnpike Act of 1818 and completed in the early 1830's. At one time there were toll gates at in­tervals along this road, and coaches and passengers had to pay to go over it. A pocket map of the state of Vir­ginia, published in 1846, with stage routes given on the margin, showed Lynchburg as quite a stage center. One route was from the Hill City via Liberty, Fluke, Fincastle, Sweet Springs on to Lewisburg, 112 miles, three times a week. Another was from Lynchburg by way of Liberty to Salem three times a week.  In the beginning the roads were bad and travel was slow.  For that reason taverns and ordinaries were located at internals along the route to provide food, shelter, and care for travel-weary passengers and horses. About 1780, when New London was the county seat and Jimmy Steptoe the clerk of the court, a stop at the more pre­tentious Echors Tavern in this thriving little town must have been a real treat, especially if passengers could get a glimpse of “Jemmy Steptoe" arriving from nearby “Federal Hill” in his powdered wig and queue, white broadcloth and his tri-corn velvet hat." Farther up the "Pike," about six miles from Liberty, was Merriman's Tavern, a large brick structure, built in 1821 by Edward Merriman and operated by him for many years. It was said that Andrew Jackson once spent a night there.

  As early as 1787 in the town of Liberty, Smith's Tavern, which later became the Aunspaugh home and still later the home of Mr. Willie Stone, was a favorite stopping place. If the year was 1825, stage drivers had a choice between the Eagle Tavern, operated by John Armistead Otey and located on the site of the present Masonic Building, or Bell's Tavern, located on the lot where the First and Merchants Bank now stands.

 In these taverns there were usually a tap room, a parlor, and a dining room, the larger ones having sleeping accommodations above for guests. Prices for food and drink were set by the County Court and posted.  In 1830 a warm dinner with toddy cost 50 cents; a cold dinner with toddy only 25 cents. Lodging for the night was   121/2 cents. Breakfast and supper were 371/2 cents. 


 In the tap room both peach brandy and French brandy were selling at 17 cents per pint, while apple brandy and common whiskey cost only 12 1/2 cents a pint. More exclusive items, such as sherry, Lisbon, and port, could be bought for 50 cents per bottle.

  As the stage left Liberty and traveled along the western edge of the town on a portion of the route known as "Bramblett's Road," the passengers might have craned their necks to view "Cedar Hill," now owned by the Cauthorn family, but the older part of which was probably built before 1779 by William Bramblett, Jr., son of the early pioneer, William  Bramblett, Sr. When Jimmy Steptoe assumed duties  as clerk of the court in Liberty, he lived at "Cedar Hill." If the year were 1836, afar off to their right they might have glimpsed stately "Avenel," built by the Hon. William Burwell, whose father was private secretary to Thomas Jefferson and a friend of Robert E. Lee.

  Beyond Liberty, at what was 'known as Buford's Gap, stood Buford's Tavern, which  was in  operation by 1770.  Many tales have been handed down regarding the hospi­tality and gay entertainment typical of this old inn. Guests arriving there by stage from the Black Horse Tavern located on a protected shelf of the Blue Ridge Mountains were often amazed to find a hot meal await­ing them. Little did they know that an obliging tavern keeper at the Black Horse had rushed to an overhanging ledge and blasted out a signal on a stage horn, inform­ing Paschal Buford, the tavern keeper, “how many chickens to toss into the pot" and just the  number, of biscuits to fling into the great  oven."

  Sooner or later, many good  and useful  things have to bow to progress, and such was the fate  of the stage coach. When the Atlantic, Mississippi and Ohio Railroad (now the Norfolk and Western) was built in 1852, travel by stage soon became extinct.  Thus closed a boisterous but colorful chapter in our history.


The  End