It was two weeks before anyone spoke of the hay bales.
This was odd, said Rachel Rowland, of Flint Hill, Va. — because the locals had certainly seen them: The display is 170 feet wide. Wrapped in glinting white plastic, the bales are stacked atop a rolling mountain hillside along Route 211, relaying their message to any nearby resident who drives to the closest grocery store.
“Farmers for Trump 2020,” the bales say, hand-painted with red and blue capital letters. “Keep America Great.”
There have been political signs on this particular Rappahannock County hillside for years. But they’ve always been simple, the locals say, thrown together with spray paint and cardboard. This sign, constructed in mid-August, was something different — professional, several people said — and it quickly amassed more than 84,000 likes on ForAmerica, a conservative Facebook page with a national reach.
It’s “so obnoxiously in your face” that it has become a traffic hazard, said Donna Burge, who lives adjacent to the bales. People are constantly pulling over on the four-lane highway to snap a photo, she said, smiling big with two thumbs up.
Surprised that no one in the community beat her to it, Rowland decided to raise the hay bale issue herself. She posted a photo to the local Facebook group at 7 p.m. on Aug. 31, blurring out the word “Trump.”
“This isn’t about the candidate,” wrote Rowland, an independent who plans to vote for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. “We have a large, very large, new political campaign sign in our county … Are signs this gigantic allowed?”
The short answer is no: Rappahannock allows political signs only up to 50 square feet.
But for most in the Facebook group, that was just a technicality.
The post generated more than 100 comments in 24 hours, becoming one of the most active posts in the group’s history. The conversation quickly turned political, and personal, as the vast majority of commenters came out as staunchly pro-bale. If you don’t like the Trump sign, someone wrote, you should move.
Rappahannock County — known for its sweeping mountain vistas, covering the northern stretch of the Shenandoah — leans conservative, with about 57 percent of the electorate voting for President Trump in 2016. But many residents say the political makeup seems to be shifting.
Less than 90 minutes from Washington, D.C., the county is attracting more Patagonia-clad urbanites, easy to spot as their Subarus speed off into the mountains. They buy weekend homes, then eventually settle in the area when they retire, or when the novel coronavirus allows them to work remotely. These “transplants” — or “trust fund hippies,” depending on whom you’re talking to — tend to be wealthier than the typical Rappahannock residents, mostly working-class families who have lived here for generations. The newcomers are almost always more liberal.
Mike Massie, who owns the hay bales, comes from one of Rappahannock’s oldest “native families,” local parlance for families who have owned farms here for centuries. The Massie family has been here so long that everyone knows the hay-baled hillside as “Massie’s Corner.” (Massie declined a request for comment.)
There has long been quiet tension between the transplants and the “natives,” said Bill Fletcher, Massie’s third or fourth cousin — no one can quite say for sure — whose family has owned farmland in Rappahannock since 1735. The transplants are always suggesting changes to improve the area, hoping to increase tourism and boost their new small businesses.
For many who have been here, the objections to the hay bales were the breaking point. They could tolerate the new wine bar — and the “corner store” that offers seven kinds of kombucha. But they would not allow a farmer to be told what kind of sign he could erect on his land.
Rowland, a chef, moved to Rappahannock in 1978, when she was in elementary school. She was not part of a farming family, but she grew up knowing many. Living here in her 20s, she remembers lively political debates in public spaces. When she posted on Facebook, Rowland wasn’t looking for controversy, she said. She just wanted to “start a conversation” with her neighbors about a subject she knew was on everybody’s mind.
“We should be able to talk to each other,” she said. “Why is that so hard?”
There is something special about Massie’s Corner. Driving out from Warrenton, the town with the nearest grocery store, you see hints of mountains here and there. But then you swing around a bend, and everything opens up, said Daphne Hutchinson, former editor of the Rappahannock News, who has lived in the county for 40 years.
“It’s when you know you’re home,” she said.
If landscapes could talk, Rowland said, this one would say, “Welcome to Rappahannock County.”
Any sign on this hillside sends a signal about the county’s identity, Rowland said — and she doesn’t want visitors to get the wrong idea. She already struggles to dissociate her beloved Rappahannock from unflattering stereotypes. Whenever she tried to coax her ex-boyfriend, a “D.C. liberal,” to come out and see her, he’d always ask her to make the trip instead.
“He’d always be like, ‘I don’t want to go out there. It’s all racists, it’s all about the Confederacy,’ ” Rowland said. “I don’t want people thinking that of us.”
The zoning commission really ought to do something about the sign, Hutchinson said, but it won’t.
“It’s a Republican sign — and the zoning commissioners are Republicans,” said Hutchinson, who identifies as a “flaming left-leaning liberal.” (The Rappahannock zoning commission did not respond to a request for comment.)
Others feel that the sign does accurately represent the county. Rappahannock is a farming community, said Athena Emmans, who has been working as a farmhand since she was laid off from her accounting job in March. She has been butchering cows for farmers during the coronavirus in exchange for meat to feed her 10 kids.
Trump’s message of economic protectionism clearly resonates with farmers, Emmans said — especially now, when many local farms are struggling during the pandemic, unable to sell their meat when processing plants closed earlier this year. If the farmers are choosing Trump as their champion, Emmans said, residents should celebrate the sign.
“It’s spitting in the face of the other party,” said Emmans, who plans to vote for third-party candidate Jo Jorgensen. “But so what?”
Many newcomers to the county don’t have the same appreciation for farming, Emmans said. In Rappahannock, families with farms or small homesteads wait for their food, growing vegetables and raising their own meat. Most former urbanites, on the other hand, are used to going to the grocery store for everything they need, she said.
More so than other rural stretches of Virginia, locals say, Rappahannock has been slow to change. There is still no cellphone service throughout much of the county, and home buyers must purchase at least 25 acres of land if they’re buying outside a town, limiting development. Along with “natives,” Rowland says, there are “hippie queens,” local writers and artists who arrived in the 1960s and ’70s. They’re also eager to keep things the way they are.
“These people come up from D.C., and they want to take over,” said Fletcher. “Well, there’s an ecological balance in this county, just like there is in nature.”
The “been-heres” do want tourism from big cities. Many recognize that Rappahannock can’t thrive without it, said Hutchinson, 75: They just don’t want newcomers coming in and telling them how to change their county, or when that change should come.
It’s hard to know exactly what proposed changes will be controversial, said Kerry Sutten, a former intelligence official who retired to Rappahannock in 2018, opening a coffee shop that sells $5 turmeric lattes. Sutten identifies himself as “a gay man who sells espresso and expensive wine — exactly the kind of person the locals should hate.”
But somehow, he said, they’ve warmed to him and his store.
Other new additions have not been so well received. Many Rappahannock residents still bristle anytime someone mentions the bike path, a contentious proposal to build a one-mile bike route in 2018. Battle lines were drawn, neighbor turned against neighbor, Sutten said, as the region debated the impact that such unbridled development would have on the area.
In one particularly memorable letter to the editor, longtime Rappahannock resident Demaris Miller claimed the path would bring “pedophiles and rapists” to the area.
“The idyllic rural county we once lived in is being hijacked,” Miller wrote.
The area has certainly changed over the past 20 years, said Lilla Fletcher, Bill’s 27-year-old daughter. Fletcher grew up in the area but left for boarding school and college. By the time she came back, she said, the town of Sperryville, population 342, had turned into a “tourist metropolis,” with two breweries, a yoga studio and a boutique apothecary, offering herbal skin care products and incense. And while her father might be wary of some of these changes, Fletcher is grateful for them.
“Socially, a greater open-mindedness has come to this county,” she said.
Whatever changes come to Rappahannock must complement the “heart” of the county, Fletcher said. On the matter of the hay bales, she sides firmly with her father, who says the sign should stay “as long as there is freedom of speech in America.”
“It’s beautiful,” said Lilla, a Republican. “And it’s on their personal property.”
She is hesitant to say too much more about the sign — or about Trump. She considers herself a moderate who appreciates that there are “two sides to every story.” But she still treads carefully around political topics.
These days, she said, it’s so easy to say something politically incorrect.
If only there was a place where everyone could come together, says Rowland — where the transplants, the natives, the been-heres and the hippie queens could mingle. Then, maybe, real conversation would be possible.
Rappahannock used to have those places, she says, sighing as she leans back in her chair, wearing an oversized T-shirt that says, “Life is Good.” Rowland is visiting Hutchinson, the newspaper editor, whom she’s known since she was a kid. They split a plate of homemade sausage as they talk about the past.
“Conversation used to happen on the front porches of the country stores,” says Hutchinson. “But we haven’t had that in a long time. The country stores have all died.”
Asked about the Sperryville corner store, Rowland and Hutchinson respond in perfect unison:
“That is not a country store.”
“A country store is not going to sell pesto,” says Hutchinson, taking a large swig of white wine.
Hutchinson considers herself one of the few “crossovers” in the area, with friends who are transplants and natives, liberals and conservatives. For seven years, she’s been exercising with the “Water Lilies,” a group of women in their 70s and 80s who regularly convene for high-intensity interval training in one member’s backyard pool.
There used to be Republicans in the group — but now that she’s thinking about it, Hutchinson says, every single one of them has left.
“They stopped coming,” she says. “I don’t know why.”
They sit silently, mulling. Hutchinson has another sip of wine.
In the absence of thoughtful conversation, Rowland says, there are political lawn signs. Everyone in town seems to have one. More than any other election in recent memory, she says, stories of their demise have been circulating. Signs for both Biden and Trump have been stolen or defaced with red graffiti. At least one was run over by a truck.
To Rowland, all the signs seem “passive aggressive,” she says — the 170-foot sign, most of all.
There must be a better way to talk to your neighbors about politics, she says. For now, there is Facebook.
Reading through the hay bale comments, Rowland said, some of the personal attacks were hard to take.
“Could you imagine being so worried about what someone does on their property that you come on to Facebook?” commented Emmans, the farm hand and mother of 10. “Next they’re going to be concerned about what we do in our bedroom.”
Rowland took a deep breath and wrote Emmans a message, thanking her for her point of view.
Then she sent her a friend request.