Fried Chicken Played A Crucial Role In The History Of Gordonsville, Virginia

Approximately 20 miles to the north-east of Charlottesville, you'll discover the charming, small town of Gordonsville. Despite its modest population of around 1,500 residents, Gordonsville holds a distinctive claim to fame. When you ask the locals what they love most about their town, they'll proudly tell you that they're the fried chicken capital of the world.

Certainly, amidst the town's rich history, which includes stories from the Civil War and the expansion of the railroad, the standout feature is its association with an entrepreneurial spirit, culinary tradition, and the convergence of two American icons: Fried chicken and rail travel.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Gordonsville was a strategic stop on the Virginia Central Railroad, a crucial transportation link connecting the eastern and western regions of Virginia. Ever resourceful, local African-American women, previously enslaved, took to preparing and selling fried chicken to rail passengers in a bid for financial stability. As trains made their stops in Gordonsville, these women — known as waiter carriers — would move from one open railcar window to another as they served hungry and travel-weary passengers with platters of fried chicken, cakes, and other foods. For decades, passengers making stops in Gordonsville could savor homemade fried chicken. However, around the 1920s or 30s, trains evolved to include dining cars and the government restricted track-side catering. For these reasons, sadly, the profession died out.

The annual chicken festival at Gordonsville

Though the era of Gordonsville's chicken waiter carriers has come and gone, and the days of trains stopping in this charming town are long past, the people here refuse to let go of their rich history. Each year, Gordonsville hosts a delightful chicken festival, held in recent years during October. It's not just a celebration of their heritage but also a way to ignite the town's sense of community and, of course, have fun. The festival takes place at the Gordonsville Fire Department's fairgrounds, attracting both locals and visitors from near and far.

At the heart of this festival lies the much-anticipated fried chicken cook-off, a thrilling showdown where talented chefs compete for the title of the town's best fried chicken maker. The top three winners not only earn modest cash prizes (no more than $100) but also bragging rights for a whole year.

In 2017, the festival expanded its offerings by introducing a 5K race (called the Chicken Run) to the festivities. It also has a wine garden where you can taste Virginia's famous wines, as well as a pie-eating contest, craft-and-art booths, live shows, plus face painting and bounce houses for the children. So, even though this town may be small, its vibrant and friendly spirit takes center stage during the festival. If you happen to be in the area when it's on, we highly recommend timing your visit just right to enjoy the show.