Learn about Gordonsville’s famous fried chicken with Hidden History’s Brian Bullock
“My mother paid for this place with chicken legs.” Bella Winston – Former Waiter Carrier
Nestled in Southern Orange County, Virginia, the town of Gordonsville is known for its fried chicken. Every year the town puts together their famous fried chicken festival celebrating the special heritage of the entrepreneurial and cuisine specialists: the Gordonsville Waiter Carriers.
“The town is separated by the railroad track. When the train came through, they could pick their fried chicken and serve it to the people, and that was their income. They were entrepreneurs early in life,” said Emily Winkie, a longtime resident of Gordonsville. She shared this while discussing the entrepreneurial group of women who made Gordonsville famous for its fried chicken.
Each year, many families and groups get together at the festival selling their chicken and competing in the competition for the rights to say they have the best fried chicken in the community. Recipes passed down from generation to generation are used to keep the tradition alive, while maintaining a culture and sense of community amongst the residents of the town.
The festival is an amazing event where heritage and community are shared, but there’s still so much more to the history of Gordonsville’s famous fried chicken and the waiter carriers who put it on the map.
Located up the street from where the festival is held is the historic Exchange Hotel. In 1862, thanks to its strategic location, the hotel became part of the Gordonsville Receiving Hospital where they took in more than 23,000 sick and wounded from the nearby battlefields such as Cedar Mountain and Chancellorsville. Soldiers were brought in by the trainload.
While the facility was primarily of Confederate allegiance, the hospital treated the wounded from both sides; 26 union soldiers were recorded as having died in the facility as well. By the end of the Civil War, 70,000 men had been treated at the Gordonsville Receiving Hospital. The hospital also served newly freed slaves as a Freedmen’s Bureau Hospital.
After the Civil War ended, the Exchange once again became a hotel, where it was one of the places the Waiter Carriers would conduct their business. Two major rail lines made stops in the town and the Exchange was a major stop, through which produce from the Shenandoah Valley got to its consumers. During this period, there were no dining cars on trains and some very business-minded African American women spotted this as an opportunity for an entrepreneurial venture.
These women weren’t permitted to work at the Exchange or many other businesses in town, so they made money in front of the hotel where they would serve hungry passengers fried chicken, pies, biscuits and other home-cooked delights. The chicken and other cuisine was so good, developing a reputation that passengers would wait until Gordonsville to eat. That’s how the route became known as the Chicken Bone Express.
Many of these formerly enslaved women achieved a substantial degree of financial independence through their entrepreneurial venture. They even bought and owned their own houses from selling fried chicken. “My mother paid for this place with chicken legs,” said Bella Winston, a former waiter carrier, speaking about the home they lived in; a true testament to the economic empowerment and independence gained by these women.
The Gordonsville waiter carriers sold food all the way up until the 1920s and ‘30s. However, their legacy still lives on through the entrepreneurship of their descendants.
You can learn more about Gordonsville’s famous fried chicken and the waiter carriers in the latest episode of Hidden History with Brian Bullock on the new VPM History YouTube Channel. Check out the Hidden History website to catch up on past episodes and stay tuned for more Hidden History!