Today’s photograph comes to us from the second half of the 20th century, but its roots go back to the early 1800s. This photograph is of champion jouster Eric Wampler competing in a jousting tournament at Natural Chimneys while his children Earl, Jr., Betty, and David Wampler watch.
For those of you who haven’t seen jousting, make it a point to attend the annual tournament at Natural Chimneys Park near Mt. Solon. You will be amazed at the horsemanship and skill that is needed to charge down an 80-yard dirt track while holding a long lance and trying to spear tiny rings that are suspended from three pole arms are hanging over the track.
These days we don’t rely on horses for our transportation, so there aren’t many of us who spend a lot of time perfecting our horseback riding skills, much less perfecting the almost-lost-art of jousting. Such was not the case in Augusta County in the 1800s. Everybody relied on horses and special skills were particularly appreciated.
Of course many of us think of jousting as a medieval thing with knights in full armor charging at each other with lances and trying to dismount and maim the other rider. For a lot of reasons that kind of jousting disappeared into the history books, but in the 1800s, a fascination with knights and castles and kings revived jousting in a somewhat modified form.
Farm boys, skilled in horsemanship, were eager for ways to test their skills and show off for the ladies. And so the jousting tournament of having riders spear rings from stanchions rather than going head to head was born. Riders gave themselves medieval titles, such as the Knight of Churchville, and competed for the championship, who could go fastest down the track, while spearing the most rings. The diameter of the ring decreases at the elite levels of competition.
After the day’s competition, a grand ball was held and the knights and the ladies danced the night away. It was all a way to be entertained before television and the internet.
Whether jousting was popular all over the country or just in the Mid-Atlantic, I am not sure, but I can tell you that the hotbed of jousting was Virginia (including what is now West Virginia) and Maryland. The newspapers of the 1800s were filled with reports of tournaments as they were called. The stories included who was named the King of the Joust and who he chose as his Queen from among the ladies at the ball.
One of the state’s best jousters was a young man with dark hair and a dark beard from northern Virginia by the name of Turner Ashby. He rode as the Black Knight. Turner Ashby was also a dashing cavalryman and during the Civil War he was killed at Port Republic in Rockingham County during Stonewall Jackson’s victorious Valley Campaign in 1862. That is why there is a high school in Rockingham County today called Turner Ashby High School and their mascot is the Black Knight.
Let me get back to Natural Chimneys where this photograph was taken. If you haven’t visited this park, owned and operated by Augusta County Parks and Recreation, you should. These natural towers of limestone are millions of years old. Once a vast Paleozoic inland sea, creatures died and dropped to the bottom of the ocean, turning into limestone that accumulated and hardened over time. Subsequent geological upheaval and water erosion undermined the softer rock leaving only the “chimneys.”
In the minds of early 19th-century Augustans, the limestone chimneys resembled medieval castle towers and therefore provided the perfect setting for jousting tournaments testing riding skills. And taking place here for nearly two centuries have been jousting tournaments.
Some claim that the annual tournament at Natural Chimneys is the oldest continuous sporting event in the country, beating out the Kentucky Derby and the American Kennel Club show. Whether that is true or not, I am not sure, but I still think that is pretty cool.
Even today, there are probably more top-notch jousters in Augusta County than anywhere else and the National Jousting Hall of Fame, founded in 1979, is located at Natural Chimneys (visit it virtually at nationaljousting.com).