“Lost” County Community Still Humming Quietly Along

The Shenandoah Valley-Herald
Though it is indicated in small print on the maps, and marked by a green sign at the intersection of Liberty Furnace and Dellinger Gap roads, the community of Jerome, Virginia, only exists as a significantly populated geographic place for a few hours each Sunday, when the pews of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church fill for worship. Otherwise, the place has gone mostly silent, save for the occasional car winding through the narrow valley on the western fringe of Shenandoah County.

In times long gone, things were a bit busier in downtown Jerome, first inhabited by German settlers in the early 19th century. But then came change and progress, and, like countless other country hamlets, Jerome went the way of the Model-T. The schoolhouse closed down in the forties, the post office shut its doors a few decades later, and then lights in Harvey Dellinger’s general store went off for good. The hardware store’s been closed for years, and all that remains of the gas station is a rusting, antique pump across the road from the church.

“[Jerome’s] basically just a fork in the road,” says Floyd Reynolds, who bought a place there decades ago, when the post office was still open, and moved to Jerome for good about 20 years ago.

The community is also one of 30 in Virginia featured in the recently published book, “Lost Communities of Virginia,” by Terri Fisher and Kirsten Sparenborg, affiliated with the Community Design Assistance Center at Virginia Tech. By exploring the histories of Jerome and other settlements across the state, the authors write, the book provides “intriguing details of a way of life now gone.”

St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, perched brilliant white on a hilltop, and visible far down the valley, has always been, and remains, the foundation of Jerome. The congregation was organized in 1827. Its first pastor rode his horse 18 miles from New Market to preach there once each month, and the community itself took its name from Rev. Jerome Paul Stirewalt, who was the church minister in the 1880s.

Elwood Funkhouser, now 87, has been a lifelong member at St. Paul’s, and resident of Jerome. He went to the Jerome School through seventh grade, and after finishing high school, came back to farm the home place just south of the church.

“Every family that was here, we knew ‘em all,” says Funkhouser.

That’s the biggest thing that’s changed over the years, he says. Today, there are more newcomers living in the area.

By general 21st-century standards, though, Jerome is a close-knit fork in the road. Standing at the kitchen window of the house where she grew up, Judy Heltzel points down the valley to the neighbors’ farms, telling stories about who lives where, and what they did when. Heltzel just missed out going to the Jerome School; by the time she started first grade in 1950, she rode up over the hill to Conicville.

St. Paul’s is visible, too, out the kitchen window.

“The real focal point of Jerome was the church, really,” Heltzel says.

The kids in “Luther League” were in charge of mowing the lawn. The women took turns cleaning the building and cutting flowers for the altar. One of Heltzel’s early memories is of a “Tom Thumb” wedding, where the children of Jerome acted out a wedding. She was a flower girl; her cousin was the groom, and a friend was the bride.

Today, St. Paul’s membership stands at more than 400, although active membership is about 150, and Sunday attendance is somewhere close to 100, according to Kate Schroeder, pastor of St. Paul’s.

“They’re deeply rooted in family and hard work,” she says. “Many of them are farmers, good as gold.”

And while the stores and post office and nearly every other public space in Jerome has gone quiet, the church still serves as a hub for activities in the community: dinners, neighborhood watch meetings, youth activities.

For decades, before they returned to the community where they’d been raised, Heltzel and her husband lived in Edinburg, and the whole time, on Sunday mornings, they’d wind up into the mountains, past several other churches, back to Jerome, back to St. Paul’s.

For years, when she and her husband were living in Edinburg, they drove past a handful of other churches.

“It’s home,” she says, simply, seated in her kitchen in Jerome, Virginia – lost, perhaps, in some narrow sense, but still ticking along in a quiet, steady way.

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