By Margaretta Barton Colt, 
Author of Defend the Valley and Martial Bliss

When I was researching what would become Defend the Valley, I went from New York to Winchester and other points in Virginia at least once a year. Usually I was alone, but in the spring of 1990, I persuaded my husband, Harris Colt, to steal some time from our specialty bookstore, The Military Bookman, and go with me. 

In our brief time in Lexington we went to the Stonewall Jackson House, and there in the gift shop were prints of a contemporary primitive painting of Lexington’s historic buildings, 18 in number. The style and the idea captivated me, and I began to think how nice it would be to have a similar view of Winchester, of which I had become so fond. Soon after I returned to New York, I inquired of the Jackson House who and where Page Huff Dillon was.

Page lived in Rockville, Maryland. I called and asked if she might be willing to undertake a view of Winchester and Frederick County, the landscape of my book. She was a Virginian and familiar with Winchester, and was more than interested.

Page told me something of her background. She had been painting since her school years, and in Rockville, she had been taking art classes, although persevering in her own style. Her work included Virginia views and country scenes.

In 1975, Page’s mother, Frances Rodgers Huff Griffin, published a book, Waggon Road to the Western Mountains of Virginia. It was inspired by her own old house and its view down that historic road. Page did a painting for her mother of the house and the wagon road and other old houses along the way,  and had provided the illustrations for the book. A group interested in Stonewall Jackson’s Valley campaign visited her mother’s house and saw Page’s painting. When it and the book became known in Lexington, Page was approached by the Historic Lexington Foundation to create the town view I had seen and liked so much.

When we talked, the Dillons were in the throes of moving, to Reedville, so Page was not ready to take on a new project. I wasn’t ready to commit either, but said that if I got a book contract, I would treat myself to the painting, with the intention, even then, of contributing the reproduction rights to the Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society. Page concurred enthusiastically in this, and we were both able to go forward with the idea in March 1992.

In fact, two weeks after I received the book contract, I was writing to Elizabeth Engle about my ideas, and about Page. I had met Elizabeth early in my research and we were in constant communication anyway; she had a finger in every historical pie in Winchester. 

I outlined my ideas to Page and told her which buildings I wanted; many were of particular significance in my narrative. And I thought that the Valley Turnpike, in itself a significant historic “actor”, should pull the painting together compositionally; and this dictated the vertical format.

Page and her husband, Robert Dillon, soon went to Winchester to see the buildings I had chosen, and Bob photographed them for Page’s reference.

That June, Harris and I were going to Davis, West Virginia to buy a book collection, but with an important stop in Winchester. Elizabeth Engle had set up an initial meeting with the powers that be in the Historical Society – to present the idea of the painting and the donation of the rights.

By August, they had put together the Painting Committee. The group compiled a huge list of 50 noteworthy buildings. There was an “A” list and a “B” list, allowing it to be whittled down to a manageable number, with Page including all of the A list, and selecting the others according to what fitted in best in the design. Part of her technique was to make individual drawings of the buildings, cut them out and fit them together, almost like a jigsaw, experimenting with different sizes, scales and arrangements.

Page and I still hadn’t managed to coordinate our Winchester visits but made up for not meeting with lots of phone calls. She had told me, “I’m a fast drawer but a slow painter.” In April 1993, I was very excited to receive a long mailing tube containing a full-size, minutely detailed drawing, 36 buildings. It was wonderful and I had only minor suggestions. I lived with it for a couple of weeks and it was hard to part with, but eventually I sent in on to Elizabeth Engle and the committee who pored over it and developed their own questions and ideas.

At long last, in August 1993, Page and I met face to face at the Wayside Inn where we were staying. We had no problem finding each other in the quiet bar, and we had a wonderful evening.

Elizabeth had set up the meeting with the committee for Page to discuss her beautiful working drawing (now in the Handley Library Archives, the gift of the artist). The committee had listed so many buildings, and it was all more complex than Page’s other town views, with a number of details to be negotiated – such as the position of the sun! Page had managed to include twice as many buildings as the Lexington view. She had left room in the sketch “to maneuver”, knowing that a few buildings might be adjusted, perhaps moved, and details added or subtracted. She was enormously patient with the welter of comments, questions, and suggestions.

Afterward, Page and I drove around taking photos of a few more buildings. We needed a mill to represent that important part of Valley life, and a house to stand for Stephens City. Then Page went home and started painting. She had a fine feeling for the vernacular architecture, with singular balance and attention to detail in the composition. She combined this with a sense of whimsy and humor in peopling the scene with vignettes of everyday life. Her technique was extremely meticulous. She used acrylic paint, and one of her primary tools was a brush with one hair.

In May 1994, Defend the Valley, A Shenandoah Family in the Civil War was published, and Page, after reading it, playfully incorporated references and little stories, personal and historical, in the finished painting that had not appeared in the drawing. She knew that I would love it. 

She called one day to ask me my favorite color, then said “I’m putting you in a yellow dress on the steps of the Library!” The Military Bookman’s “reading horseman” logo represents Harris and rides past Ambler Hill.

The three ladies from the Milroy Valentine wait at the B&O railroad station. Page said she always showed herself in a buggy, and she drives toward the Tucker law office. General Sheridan strikes a commanding pose in front of the Logan House. That house, the grandest in town, was routinely appropriated by the occupying Federal commander.

Sukey, the Barton slave whose poignant letter appears in Defend the Valley, is shown with her family in happier days, by the mill at Bartonsville. The six Barton soldier brothers line up in front of Springdale, the Barton home of several generations. The sheep nearby are placed roughly where Frank Jones’s farm Carysbrooke stood. In his faithful letters from the army, Frank fretted a lot about the sheep, probably as a way of avoiding writing about his worries about his family. 

Strother and Mary Jones stand next to their house, Vaucluse. Strother’s grandfather, also Strother, built the house soon after his marriage in 1780, and the Joneses’ large family endured the war in the house, living there until about 1874.

Stonewall Jackson appears below the tollgate near Cedar Creek, where the Confederates briefly rested after the Battle of Kernstown; the cooking fire refers to the well-known dinner interrupted by the Yankees.

Frank and Susan Jones are riding in the stagecoach as it approaches Cedar Creek. The many apple trees refer to Winchester’s major product after the Civil War and for much of the twentieth century.

And Winchester’s famous author, Willa Cather, stands on the grass at Willow Shade, where she spent her childhood years. Only her last novel, Saphira and the Slave Girl, was set in the Valley. 

Although Page sent me one or two “work in progress” polaroids, I didn’t see the finished painting until we met in Winchester in May 1995. Before the meeting we took the painting to show to Elizabeth Engle. Then we introduced it to the Historical Society, where it was enthusiastically received. That October, the Dillons and the Colts returned for Page to oversee the first printing of the print, a fascinating process, and delivered the first copy to Elizabeth Engle. 

You can order a print of the painting HERE.