The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

Woodstock Court Days

By VA Division of Travel and Tourism

Issue: September, 1989

There is no such thing anymore as the Court Days that you have heard about. Of course, the County Court still meets at stated intervals but these Court sessions today are not accompanied by the social and commercial activity that we have come to associate with the traditional Court Days.

By definition, Court Day was the day when the County Court was in session. Through the years, the Court schedule has varied. In horse and buggy days, when life was less complicated and there were fewer court cases to be settled, it might have been possible to convene on the second Monday of every month. Even if there was no business to come before the Court or the docket could not be cleared in one day, the second Monday of each month was reserved as Court Day for Shenandoah County.

Some Court Days were bigger than others. March was especially big. After all, it wasn't the court schedule, or the frequency of the occurrence, that gave Court Day its particular flavor. In those days Court Day had become a social and commercial institution. Crowds of people thronged the streets on Court Day. The railroad ran special trains bringing people to town.

What brought these people to town? Some came because they had business with the Court. The Circuit Court served the whole county, so those who came to town may have come from as far away as Strasburg or New Market or Fort Valley or Forestville or Liberty Furnace. Many of the farm families came to do serious shopping. Town merchants would do a land-office business on Court Day, and many individuals who had things to sell would set themselves up for business on the streets.

In the spring, fur dealers would descend upon the town to buy hides from the farm boys who had trapped skunks and other animals during the winter. The smell of home-cured hides strung along Court Street remains a fragrant memory to old timers.

Perhaps the biggest transactions of all on Court Days were the deals made on horses. A lot of horse flesh changed hands on Court Days. Not everybody who came to town on Court Day had business with the Court nor brought a shopping list along, some came just for the fun of it. Picture this: a patent medicine vendor with his painted wagon drawn up near the Town Pump on Court Square, dressed like an Indian and cracking jokes while he sold medicines to gullible farm folks; an organ grinder with his monkey; a man who played a bagpipe; and a man with a dancing bear.

Court Day was a fun day as well as a serious day for serious business. Sad to say, not everyone in the Court Day crowd was peaceable and law-abiding. It was thought advisable to have extra police on that day. The Town Sergeant was employed full-time on Court Days rather than on a fee basis. In 1870 the Presbyterian Church Session met to consider charges brought against one of its members for unbecoming conduct. Among those charges was the report that "on Court Day he became so noisy and disorderly that the Sheriff was ordered to arrest him... On that same day he was seen to stagger on the street and to break glass in the window of Schmitt's Drug Store. Also on that day he had to be lifted out of the mud in the alley near Mr. Culler's house."

Court Day must have been a lively occasion... and one with a long, long history.

Editor's Note: Each year the community of Woodstock, Virginia recreates the court days of old. The event features a mock trial of a local historical court case and re-enactment's of such things as Revolutionary War hero Peter Muhlenberg's famous patriotic sermon in his own historical church. There are arts, crafts, games, food, music, fiddling and banjo contest, historical tours, street dance, 5 mile road race, 3/4 mile fun run, pancake breakfast, pig pickin' and much more. This year the event was staged in June, but you may contact Ms. Carole Paulett at 703-459-2542 for information about next year's event.