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As Appomattox marks its historic past, it wrestles with how to give itself a future

The rebuilt courthouse (about three miles from where Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered) in the town of Appomattox, Va., is now a theater. Next year is the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. NOTE: Photo created with stereographic visual effect using 1960s Diana plastic camera.)

APPOMATTOX, Va. — Let us say a prayer for Appomattox.

Next year is the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, and perhaps for a brief moment our attention will turn from the swirl of minutiae that consumes our lives and allow us to reflect on the lessons to be found in this small town tucked into the rolling hills of central Virginia.

Appomattox. The name rolls off the tongue with surprising ease and no small amount of delight. It was in a farmhouse near here on April 9, 1865, Palm Sunday, that Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, effectively bringing a halt to four years of bloody conflict.

A large and active group of people in the town of Appomattox and the county of the same name are preparing for the sesquicentennial. But the truth is, there is a far more important issue here than how many people show up in April to hear speeches at a restored village owned by the National Park Service.

This modest and welcoming community is gripped with an identity crisis. It is in part tied to the unraveling that haunts so much of rural America. The factory jobs have all but left. The new economy has yet to show up. Many residents say they would just as soon not depend on Civil War tourism or be a bedroom community to Lynchburg, about 22 miles west, but there may be no other choices.

What's at stake is more than just paychecks and longer commutes. Appomattox is like Selma or Yalta in that it is a small place where an event so important happened that the name has become a shorthand for something larger than itself. The notion of surrender, which is why Appomattox matters, makes us uncomfortable. We don't like to quit, to give up, even when it's done with honor and accepted with grace. But sometimes it's necessary to stop what we're doing, accept that the plan isn't working, and do something else. That is what is slowly taking place in Appomattox, another surrender, different from the first but also filled with the uncertainty of what comes next.

The surrender here takes many forms, large and small. People want a steakhouse, preferably with the stamp of approval conferred by a national chain. They're getting a Hardee's. They had hoped a major hotel would be built in time for the events next year. That won't happen by then, if ever. At Appomattox County High School, the staff spent the summer changing its block-letter "A" logo on everything from sticky notes to uniforms after the licensing agency representing the University of Arizona sent the school a cease-and-desist letter claiming potential confusion among consumers. "Our lawyer said we should change it rather than litigate it," said Chris Dodge, the athletic director.

People in Appomattox keep two lists of what their community lacks. The first carries a touch of envy. There is no Target here, no Starbucks, no cinema or bowling alley, no hospital. The new-car dealers pulled out a few years back. The second list, said with pride, includes a lack of traffic, crime and drama. There are no bars, pawnshops or even a jail.

But it's not just a community defined by deficits. There's a good bookstore and cafe and plenty of local hardware stores. People work hard, speak their minds and watch their tongues. It's the sort of place where a clerk in the county's revenue office can create a budget crisis by recording $638,000 in the wrong place, and her error is forgiven as a mistake anyone could have made. And the land here is beautiful, a well-worn quilt of meadows and forests and small crossroads. At dawn, with the fog lying low in the fields and the quiet of a new morning, it is easy to squint your way past the problems of today into a simpler time long past.

Visitors to the town, population 1,733, are welcomed by a sign that shows portraits of Lee and Grant and proclaims the community as "where our nation reunited." It's a good slogan, but not quite true, more of a fudge than a lie. The surrender didn't happen in Appomattox. It happened three miles away at McLean House in what is known as Appomattox Court House, the county seat in 1865. It was already a community in decline, bypassed by the railroad that swung to the south. When the courthouse there burned in 1892, the replacement was built in what is now the town of Appomattox, and the fading village of Appomattox Court House was all but abandoned.

The distance between the park and the town is a buffer that adds to the peace and serenity of the surrender grounds. But it's also a barrier. Unlike in Gettysburg, where the national military park spills into the town, in Appomattox, the history is by default and design kept at arm's length.

The largest reason for that detachment now sits vacant next to the Dairy Queen and across U.S. 460 from the Wal-Mart that may or may not have been built on a significant Civil War site. For 37 years, Thomasville Furniture Industries operated an enormous factory here, 14 football fields under roof, that at its peak employed 1,000 in a county of 15,000. After a series of layoffs, it closed in 2011, part of the bankruptcy of the parent company, Furniture Brands International. The machinery was auctioned off in April. Even today, nearly everybody has a connection to the factory, which anchored Appomattox's sense of self-reliance and was a comforting constant until it wasn't.

"Appomattox put all its eggs in one basket with Thomasville," said Paul Harvey, the mayor. He's a dentist who grew up here, moved to Richmond, then returned in 1998 to a community that wasn't much different from the one he left. "Now, we're really trying to play catch-up."

Before Thomasville's closing, neither the town nor the county made much effort to recruit business or even figure out how to cash in on tourism. Mostly, the two elected boards fought, often over the town's efforts to expand its boundaries and tax base through the addition of water and sewer service. The county pushed back, encouraged by residents who didn't want to pay city taxes. It's not exactly North vs. South, but Appomattox developed a reputation for petty fighting.

"Companies aren't interested in places that are feuding," said Ronnie Spiggle, chairman of the county board. He has a unique vantage point of what has taken place and the efforts of late to repair the relationship, including the county allowing the town to annex the property where the Hardee's is being built. Spiggle was mayor for 28 years, and his ex-wife is on the town council.

Spiggle is also a funeral director, with the solicitude and bearing of a man who takes care of the living and the dead. I asked him what Appomattox wanted to become, and he said nobody really knew, but it was a constant source of friction, with one side wanting development, the other side wanting no part of that, and a hard road to the compromise necessary to take advantage of what was going to happen next April with or without a clear roadmap.

"To have the war end here makes it a special place," Spiggle said. "We sort of take it for granted. We have one chance next year to put our best foot forward and to show people a community that makes people want to come back."

The pivot to an economy built around history and tourism, tying the future to the past, is tricky. It's also compounded by the fact that for all the peace found at Appomattox Court House and the pleasure of hearing a reenactor in a soft accent tell stories of days gone by, attendance is a little shaky. That's what worries the mayor, that the window to build a new Appomattox around history is already closing.

According to the National Park Service, the golden days of visitation were in the mid-1990s after the release of the Ken Burns documentary "The Civil War." More than 105,000 people came through the park's visitor center in 1994. It dropped to the low 60,000s but has increased in recent years to just under 75,000, thanks in part to the opening of the Museum of the Confederacy's satellite facility in 2012. Attendance is off this year, possibly because some visitors are delaying a trip until next year, when a full slate of events is scheduled, many coordinated with a local group called the Appomattox 1865 Foundation.

Rusty Small is on the foundation board. He is also lead pastor at Liberty Baptist Church, which sits at the corner of Church Street and Lee-Grant Avenue (not far from Booth Drive). His father came to Appomattox from North Carolina to open the Thomasville plant, and Small has watched the boom and bust from both a practical and theological perspective. It's not that communities choose to die, he said, rather that "they choose not to live and take the steps to vibrancy."

Next year, he said, "the park is going to be ready. The foundation is going to be ready. The community not so much. I don't even want to think about it. It hurts too much. I feel as though the 1865 story is our story, and it is our county's identity. I can't conceptualize what it means to live in a divided country. We think we live in a polarized nation, but there was a time when the U.S. was going to be a divided nation, and to think that last bit of that drama was played out here. It can't be overstated."

A few months ago, the Appomattox Town Council pushed through a local excise tax on cigarettes, which could bring in $20,000. In 2013, it raised the meals tax to 8 percent, for an additional $240,000. Some proceeds are going to beautification. Another part is to keep property taxes low, and a third portion is to fund economic development, hopefully to build modest momentum to carry over after the big whoop-de-do.

In 1965, as many as 20,000 people were expected for the centennial, but only 5,000 showed up, and they listened in the soft rain to a handful of speeches by historians and watched a grandson of Grant and a great-grandson of Lee shake hands.

At the time, there was another surrender taking place across the South. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted. Public schools in neighboring Prince Edward County, which had closed to avoid integration, reopened under court order that September. Appomattox never closed its schools, and many black students from Prince Edward moved in with relatives here and continued their education at Carver-Price High School, which is now a small museum, next to an auto parts store along Confederate Boulevard. The museum has limited resources and an uneasy relationship with the Civil War tourism being pushed in many quarters with such vigor.

I met Ora McCoy at the museum on a sweltering day in June, and she apologized for the air-conditioning being on the fritz. She graduated from the school in 1960, with the intention of becoming a beautician. But she then went to work at the post office, eventually retiring as postmaster of Appomattox. "We can't get people to invest in our community," she said. "It's almost like we're stuck in the Civil War."

According to the National Park Service, blacks account for less than one percent of visitors at Appomattox Court House, and many of the black residents of Appomattox with whom I spoke don't care much for the national park that defines their community to the outside world. It wasn't exactly their surrender, and the reunification that followed was often a cruel reminder of promises not kept. In addition, the focus on one event so far in the past can distract from the world as it is.

"It's important to keep in mind that the history didn't stop there," said Nicole Cabell, who graduated this year from Appomattox County High School and will attend Howard University this fall. "History is still being made here."

The past can be an anchor and a millstone, and perhaps it's unrealistic for the people of Appomattox to have a uniform opinion on the direction to move forward. But in the absence of consensus, a lot of lofty ideas get thrown around. They include developing a municipal water park, like the big one in Roanoke, and creating an outlet mall, like the shopping extravaganza near Colonial Williamsburg.

Penny Searcy laughed at that second idea. She is president of Penelope Inc., which started here and has eight stores across Virginia that sell women's jewelry and clothing. Its headquarters and distribution center are in Appomattox's mostly vacant industrial park, but Searcy closed the store here four years ago. The inventory just moved quicker at other stores, where there is more traffic, particularly in the off-season for the park, she said.

"We don't matter to national retailers," she said without a trace of anger or even resignation. That can be hard for people to accept, she said, but confronting the truth is an important part of community progress. She came to Appomattox nearly 30 years ago when her husband was transferred here with Thomasville, but her connection goes back to a great-grandfather, a Confederate soldier who surrendered at Appomattox Court House. "I've come full circle about living here," she said. "I don't see Appomattox as a dying town. We just keep on keeping on despite losing everything."

Many tourists initially confuse the old courthouse on Court Street in Appomattox for the one that it replaced more than 120 years ago, and a historical marker is out front to set them straight. It is a handsome brick building with white columns, formal yet approachable in the way we would like our justice to be. The interior looks much the same as it must have looked when court was held here, but the building is now the home of the Appomattox Courthouse Theatre.

I stopped by one evening and took a seat on one of the benches in the back. The cast and crew were trickling in for a dress rehearsal of "The Hobbit," which played to full houses over two weekends in June. Many of the young people were wolfing down dinner, clutching paper bags from Panera Bread and Sheetz and Cook-Out, totems of the world beyond Appomattox. There was a buzz of activity, fueled by caffeine, fries and a shared mission of something larger than any one person.

"The Hobbit" is about a lot of things, but it starts with an essential act of courage, of going on a journey even when the final destination is uncertain. Valerie Daugherty, the director, said the themes — the safety of the shire, the sense of place and the need to confront our fears — are the threads that run through Appomattox. She loves the place and thinks it can thrive again if it embraces change. But she is also a realist. She moved back to Lynchburg two years ago, giving in, with some regret, to the convenience of a bigger city. "Of all the places I lived, I was the most proud to live here," she said.

Ken Otterbourg lives in Winston-Salem, N.C., where he writes frequently about business and politics.

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