Why Staunton’s Gypsy Hill Park is so Well-Loved
When it comes to icons, historic Staunton, Virginia, is loaded with them. The C&O train station, Mary Baldwin University, Woodrow Wilson’s Birthplace, the Augusta County Courthouse, old Western State Hospital, the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind—the list is long and illustrious.
But no single attraction may be as central to Staunton’s identity as Gypsy Hill Park.
Named for the nomadic families that routinely camped in the area many years ago, these 214 acres provided the city with its earliest supply of fresh water, served as a work camp for captured Hessian soldiers during the Revolutionary War, and was even painted by artists Grandma Moses and P. Buckley Moss. Today it is the city’s go-to spot for recreation, entertainment, and relaxation on a grand scale.
An Impressive History
Back in the 1730s, when Staunton was being settled, the rolling, forested hills that now make up Gypsy Hill Park were far outside the town limits.
The area, however, wasn’t unknown to the populace. As many as a dozen high quality springs bubbled out of the ground, attracting Indians, settlers, soldiers, and later, the gypsies for whom the park would be named
In the 1750s, despite the threat of Indian attack, Dutch settler Peter Hanger built a farm on the eastern edge of this spring-rich area. He named it, appropriately, Spring Farm, and lived with his family in relative peace and anonymity until the advent of the Revolutionary War.
Since Staunton was remote from the fighting, it was deemed perfect a place to house prisoners of war. After the Battle of Trenton in 1776, George Washington sent to Staunton some 200 captured Hessian mercenaries, knowing that the area was so wild and rugged that even if some of the enemy soldiers escaped, they probably would not get very far. Wild animals, starvation, even marauding Indians, would most likely get them.
Pete Hanger’s Spring Farm
Peter Hanger, out on Spring Farm, had long wished to build himself a fine stone house similar to the ones that rich Pennsylvania Germans owned. Suddenly, with the arrival of the Hessian prisoners, he had the means.
A number of the prisoners were put to work on Spring Farm. Between 1777 and 1780 they built for Hanger a rectangular Dutch farmhouse made of stone, with small-panel windows set in walls that were three feet thick.
This home fronted on what is now Churchville Avenue and sat at the entrance to the current Gypsy Hill Park. Sadly, the city of Staunton razed this house in the 1880s and put up a dancing pavilion in its place. The pavilion gave way to today’s Garden Center.
The Hessians are said to have exacted their revenge for being held prisoner and put to strenuous manual labor. The highly destructive “Hessian fly,” which plagued crops throughout the colonies, is believed to have been imported by Hessian troops in their straw bedding.
Spring Farm’s abundance of pure spring water quickly attracted the attention of nearby Staunton, which in the early decades of the 19th century began to pump water into the town for firefighting purposes and then for residential consumption. The city gradually purchased land in the Spring Farm area, and in 1876 gobbled up 30 acres to protect its water supply. Eventually, it owned all of Peter Hanger’s former homestead.
The Creation of Gypsy Hill Park
In May 1889, Staunton resident and city council member William P. Tams proposed the creation of a public place of rest and relaxation on the old Spring Farm property. Council voted unanimously to create it, and the indefatigable Tams then proceeded to spearhead much of the landscaping, path and road building and the erection of a pavilion and a bandstand—all without pay.
Just how much labor went into creating the park was chronicled in an Aug. 22, 1889, story by a newspaper reporter visiting the scene. He wrote that some 50 workmen and 15 double-horse teams were employed in making a 50-ft.-wide entrance and a roadway that would circumnavigate the park.
These same workmen, he reported, were also creating an ornamental gateway at the main entrance, establishing a second entrance just off of what is now Poplar Street, planting more than 1,000 shade trees, building spring houses to protect the city’s water supply and constructing a bandstand.
Building the meandering road we know so well today was no small task. Horses pulling as many as four industrial-sized plows dug up the earth; behind them came other horses dragging “scrapers,” machines that sheared off the excess dirt into large scoops. These scoops could be emptied without stopping the horses. Men wielding shovels had to move the dirt from that point on.
Even as all this was happening, the city was preparing to extend its trolley line to that part of town for the convenience of its residents.
On Nov. 1, 1889—Arbor Day—Staunton’s famous Stonewall Brigade Band played in the new bandstand while 1,500 trees were planted. And so, in grand style, the old Spring Farm property became Gypsy Hill Park, named for the traveling families who camped in the area because of the accessibility of fresh water.
“No fitter place could have been found, and the city was fortunate in being able to make such a selection,” wrote the Staunton Dispatch and News.
In 1892 the nearby Baldwin Fairgrounds—a longtime site for local gatherings, races, and fairs—was purchased to increase Gypsy Hill’s space for recreational activities.
Seventeen years later, yet more improvements—some of which we would recognize today—were implemented.
“On entering the park one notices particularly the handsome arclight over the gateway, the newly painted gates and fences, the beautiful fountain in the center of the driveway, and the well trimmed lawns and shrubbery,” wrote the Staunton Daily Leader in 1909. “To the left of the entrance, a place that was once a swampy haunt of weeds and bushes has been reclaimed and now presents the appearance of a well groomed lawn, while all the walks of the park have been repaired, old bridges remodeled and replaced…and several new cages erected for the animals.”
The bandstand was also remodeled and the duck pond near the main entrance was stocked with two beautiful swans. As was true in the days of William P. Tams, it was a single individual, working on his own, who made the most difference.
“The credit for the well-kept condition of the park and for many of the improvements is due to Mr. Payton Hutchens, the park policeman, who has been in charge of the place for nearly 20 years,” noted the Daily Leader. “Though handicapped by the loss of an arm, he does much of the work himself, and is always on hand to faithfully perform his every duty.”
Gypsy Hill Park: The Pride of A City
Throughout the years, private efforts have benefited Gypsy Hill Park in many ways, including renovating the park pool, donating plantings and volunteering to operate the Gypsy Hill Express train.
In 1972 the Staunton Fine Arts Association made a significant contribution to historic preservation when it renovated the old pump house at the Churchville Avenue entrance to Gypsy Hill Park.
Today, Staunton’s premier park boasts everything a city could want for relaxation and entertainment. Constitution Drive, a 1.3-mile roadway, circumnavigates the park and is a designated play street suitable for walking, jogging, cycling and rollerblading. Covered pavilions with modest outdoor cooking facilities and picnic tables are available on a first-come, first served basis.
There are also baseball fields, basketball courts, fitness stations, playgrounds, tennis and volleyball courts, football and baseball stadiums, duck pond, Lake Tams for fishing, historical monuments, garden center, gymnasium, golf course, community pool, dog park, and skate park.
Additionally, Gypsy Hill Park is home to a blowout Fourth of July celebration every year, driven by two sons of Staunton’s Statler Brothers—who for 25 years held a similar celebration and concert, free of charge.
The park remains what the Staunton Dispatch and Telegraph said it was in a 1906 article:
“…a park (Stauntonians) could take pride in and show with pleasure to every visitor who might happen within their gates.”