In Virginia’s earliest settlements, gathering places were essential for conducting business and learning news of the day. Gathering places have taken on various guises in Virginia as courthouse towns; town substitutes, such as mills and stores; commerce centers; and marketplaces or yearly events where people come together consistently, but infrequently.
As European settlement in Virginia moved westward from Jamestown, one of the first community types to appear in Virginia was the courthouse town. New parishes, and later counties, were formed to provide governmental resources to new settlers. Travel was difficult, so rather than requiring settlers to come to Jamestown, Williamsburg, or later Richmond to record land patents, deeds, surveys, marriages, and births, to pay taxes, or to attend a trial, Virginia was divided into counties. As communities grew and settlers moved farther westward, more counties were established to move the governmental centers closer to the people. Early courthouse towns often consisted of a courthouse and jail in a green or square with stocks for meting out punishments. Inns, taverns, and stores were soon built to serve people who had traveled many miles to the courthouse. Local residents were drawn to the courthouse towns as a center of activity: court trials were free entertainment, clerks provided services for new residents expanding their hold on Virginia’s territories, and stores offered much-needed commodities and a place to catch up with old friends.
In more isolated areas, a single building such as a mill or a store, or a small grouping of several service-related buildings, can become a gathering place for the outlying community. These town substitutes often have few residents, with most people traveling some distance to partake of the services and visit with friends, arrange business deals, and collect mail and news of the outside world. Some town substitutes have no residents and are only communities during the time that they are in use. Examples are tobacco and livestock markets and church camp meetings, where a community gathers several times a week, or sometimes just yearly, solely for the service that the community provides. People who attend the markets and meetings day after day, year after year become familiar to one another, creating their own communities serving their specific needs.
Many gathering places have become obsolete as transportation has improved. Rather than driving to the local small store, people can easily travel farther to a larger shopping center. Fewer markets and meetings exist today, and those that do are attended by a much smaller crowd than in the past. It is no longer necessary to stay overnight when visiting the courthouse on business. However, the courthouse town has remained the center of commerce for most of Virginia’s ninety-five counties. Usually located at a crossroads for ease of access, law offices, restaurants, and other services often remain, and business is brisk enough to warrant downtown revitalization. Rural counties often have an advantage over urban and suburban places that have outgrown their historical courthouses and face the decision to replace the historic structure with a larger more modern building, to expand in place possibly razing other historic buildings in the process, or to abandon the town center for the sprawling outskirts of town. (From Lost Communities of Virginia, p. 13-14)