Former railroad company resort marks its 150th anniversary

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By Joan Tupponce

Paul Garner understands why some Ashland residents call it the “Center of the Universe.”  Companies here can snag big defense contracts while enjoying the ambience of a small town. 

Garner moved his company, Spec Ops Inc., from Panama City, Fla., to the Hanover County town in 2004. He says Ashland’s location has been beneficial to Spec Ops, which designs and manufactures deployable command-and-control communications systems for defense, intelligence, homeland security and emergency management customers.

“Now that we moved, we are in the middle of the largest defense-related state in the country,” Garner says.  “I enjoy the quality of life here. You don’t encounter the traffic congestion or the frantic lifestyle of Northern Virginia.” Ashland residents can enjoy small-town parades, street parties and concerts on the lawn. 

This year marks Ashland’s 150th anniversary. Events throughout the year will mark the occasion, but a huge celebration is scheduled for October. Even though Ashland has grown significantly over the last 50 years — from 1,500 to 7,200 residents — the town has retained its old-fashioned atmosphere.

The town, about 15 miles north of Richmond, started as a resort community for RF&P railroad officials. Stately Victorian homes still line the railroad tracks that run through the heart of town.

The downtown business district, lined with mostly small shops and eateries, is clustered around the tracks. Retailers include Cobblestone Bicycles, Train Town Toy & Hobby, The Caboose Wine & Cheese shop and Ashland Coffee & Tea, a nightspot that features regional and nationally known entertainers. One of the oldest downtown businesses is
Cross Bros. Grocery, in operation for more than 110 years.

Downtown is also home to Randolph-Macon College. Methodists founded the private, liberal arts college in 1830, and it now has almost 1,200 students. 

Spec Ops’ occupies 10,000 square feet of space in the bustling I-95/Route 1 corridor, which is only a few minutes by car from downtown. The growing area has motels, restaurants and strip shopping centers as well as big-box retailers and industrial parks.

Garner hopes that Ashland’s 150th anniversary will prove to be breakout year for his company. “If all the jobs come in that we are planning on coming in, we could double in size, in sales and also employees.” The company currently has 30 employees and is the largest supplier of deployable command-and-control hardware for tactical operation centers for the U.S. Army.

For more information on Ashland’s 150th anniversary events, go to



Where to eat

Restaurant choices in Ashland range from Southern-style delicacies and down-home cooking to pizza and barbecue.

Local favorites include Pete’s Breakfast & Lunch and Homemades by Suzanne (open for lunch and catering only) where

you’ll find sandwiches and desserts. For an international flair, try El Azteca for Mexican food and the Brick Oven

Bistro or Anthony’s Pizza for pizza and Italian food. The Smokey Pig and Virginia Barbecue dish out some of the

best barbecue in the area while the Ironhorse Restaurant offers a more formal approach to dinner. To satisfy a

craving for ice cream, stop by the Club Car Ice Cream Desert Bar.


Where to stay

Many Ashland visitors stay at the Henry Clay Inn, named for the 19th century Kentucky statesman who was a native of

Hanover County. The Georgian-style inn, built in 1992, reproduces elements from two predecessor inns that were

destroyed by fire. Each of the inn’s 14 guest rooms has a unique style and is furnished with antiques. One of its

most inviting features is the expansive front porch where visitors can relax in rocking chairs.


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