After visiting Montpelier this past weekend, the home of President James Madison, I stopped in a little town about 20 minutes away called Gordonsville, Virginia. It is home to a very popular restaurant called the Barbecue Exchange, known for its amazing ‘cue and fantastic sides like spicy cole slaw and pumpkin muffins, both of which I sampled. I got there right at the lunch rush and waited in line probably 25 minutes for my lunch.
The restaurant is a small little roadside stop near the railroad tracks in Gordonsville’s historic downtown. While the ‘cue was as amazing as all the reviews promised, I learned in Richmond from the gal at the Virginia Historical Society that they’re actually better known for their fried chicken. In fact, Gordonsville is known as the fried chicken capital of the world, and host a Fried Chicken Festival in May every year. This year the pandemic has delayed it to October 2. The fried chicken contest requires bone in, skin on and prepared in typical Southern-American fried style. A pie contest judging cream, fruit and custard pies accompanies the main contest.
Forget Kentucky and the Colonel. This little town has been serving up fried chicken since the days of Reconstruction to hungry travelers. In the 1840s Gordonsville became a stop on the Alexandria and Virginia Central Railroads. Following the Civil War, the railroad continued to contribute to Gordonsville’s identity. It remained a rail stop even after ownership transferred to the Chesapeake & Ohio. It was at this time that Gordonsville earned the illustrious title of Chicken Capital of the World.
There were no dining cars on trains back then and some shrewd African-American women spotted a business opportunity and seized it. This is when the chicken literally crossed the (rail)road.
Virginia slaves typically raised their own chickens to supplant the meager rations of cornmeal, salt pork and lard that their owners bestowed them. They sometimes even sold their chickens to the owners to earn their own money. So fried chicken was something they made very well, as it was a common meal.
When the African-American women heard the train coming, they would run out carrying platters of fried chicken on their heads and sell to the people on the train. The chicken was so good that passengers would wait until Gordonsville to eat and the route became known as the Chicken Bone Express.
These enterprising, formerly enslaved women, were like the praline vendors of New Orleans, or the potlikker vendors of the Carolinas. They achieved rare degrees of financial independence in the post-Emancipation days. Many even bought and owned their own houses from selling fried chicken.
While there are few written sources to document the lives of these fried chicken ‘waiter carrier’ women, one great document is from northern journalists who traveled the South by train on goodwill tours. They documented their trip through Gordonsville in an 1873 book called The Pine and the Palm Meeting. They described it as follows:
“Upon the arrival of our special train, we were surrounded by a swarm of old and young negroes of both sexes, carrying large servers upon their heads containing pies, cakes, chickens, boiled eggs, strawberries and cream, ripe cherries, oranges, tea and coffee, biscuits, sandwiches, fried ham and eggs, and other edibles which they offered for sale.”
Wow – what a bounty to be offered when there was no dining cart available. Of course it was the fried chicken that became the most famous, and travelers purposely routed themselves through Gordonsville to have a taste.