It’s been more than 20 years since The Waltons ended its nine-year television run with a final “Good night, John-Boy,” in 1981, but The Waltons’ legacy lives on in Schuyler, Va., the town where the show’s creator Earl Hamner Jr. grew up.
In a physical sense, Schuyler (pop. 400) hasn’t changed much since the Great Depression, the era in The Waltons television series. The town’s main street, a winding, tree-shaded lane that ambles past front porches and large lawns, probably would be familiar to John-Boy, the fictional character that emerged from Hamner’s youth. And though Ike Godsey’s general store has been replaced by the C&P Market and Deli, the Hamner home, right next door to Polly Crum’s Bed & Breakfast, is occupied by Earl Hamner’s brother, Jim Hamner, the model for Jim-Bob Walton. The elementary school Hamner attended still stands, but now it’s a community center—and the home of Walton’s Mountain Museum.
And that, perhaps, is the biggest difference in Schuyler today, for the museum attracts thousands of visitors annually, all of them in search of Walton’s Mountain. No such place ever existed except in the imagination of Earl Hamner—and in one of the most popular family series ever to run on television—but Schuyler has become a destination for people from all over the world looking for the place where John-Boy grew up.
Some stay, such as Cathy Miller and Jeanie Brandt, owners of the Schuyler Family Restaurant in the former Schuyler High School next to the museum. Brandt is from Long Island, N.Y., Miller from North Carolina, and both watched The Waltons when they were younger. Though that didn’t bring them to western Virginia when they first visited the area, both fell in love with it, sitting green and cool in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains—and they remained.
“You make lots of friends during your life,” Miller says, “but we’ve made friends here that are special.”
Though the restaurant “survives” on tourists, it’s also popular with locals, and Miller says they provide take-out meals to elderly people in town. When Hurricane Isabel knocked out most of Schuyler’s power last September, they were among those who checked on neighbors and assisted when needed. A few months ago, the restaurant helped launch an elderly meals program at the community center/museum, working with museum director Leona Roberts. “We like being involved in the community,” Miller says. “I feel very much at home here.”
For others, Schuyler has always been home. Homer Tyler, 70, who says he’s “sleeping in the same room I was born in,” has lived here all his life, save for a four-year stint in the Air Force. He recalls the Hamner family and the Depression era when he grew up—like so many other Schuyler residents.
“We were poor,” he says, “but we didn’t know we were poor. We were all in the same boat.”
Now Tyler helps out at the museum, which showcases replicas of John-Boy’s room, the Walton’s kitchen and living room, and Ike Godsey’s store. He also volunteers as a guide when tour buses stop at the museum, showing the tourists around Schuyler, the model for Hamner’s Walton’s Mountain. He notes, too, “that in a few more years, people not raised here will outnumber those who were. Young people have nothing to keep them here. They move on.”
Yet, despite change, Schuyler still resembles the Walton’s Mountain depicted on television. Earl Hamner, who turned 80 last July and now lives in Studio City, Calif., to be close to his work as a writer, says, “Schuyler may be typical of many small towns. No matter how many people move in and try to change it, it will still be the repository of traditional values.”
There were advantages to growing up during the Depression, Hamner says. “We had a common adversary, the Depression itself, and it forced us to be independent, to be both self-reliant and to depend on each other.”
Those values, along with common courtesy, decency, and a concern for neighbors, still exist in Schuyler and in most small towns across America, Hamner says, just as they did on fabled Walton’s Mountain.