Patsy Cline’s Music Continues to Echo in Historic and Charming Winchester, Va.
Walking the streets of Winchester VA., is like walking though America’s history. The town was the headquarters for a young George Washington during the French and Indian War, and a quaint Gothic house on North Braddock Street was Civil War Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s headquarters during the winter of 1861-62; in fact, the town changed hands more than 70 times during the war.
Rebecca (Bryan) Boone, wife of frontiersman Daniel Boone, was born near Winchester. So was Pulitzer Prizewinning author Willa Cather. But Winchester’s most famous native daughter is perhaps one of country music’s most beloved icons country music legend Patsy Cline.
Born Virginia Patterson Hensley at Winchester General Hospital in 1932, she was the first female solo artist inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Her recordings have sold millions of copies worldwide and her hit Crazy is still the number-one played jukebox song 50 years after her death.
Though she lived only 30 years, Cline spent most of her life in the Shenandoah Valley, where she dreamed of becoming a professional singer. The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester is currently hosting an exhibit called “Becoming Patsy Cline,” which tells her life story from birth to the moment she went from regional star to national star by winning the nationally televised Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts show (the American Idol of its day) in 1957 at age 25.
“A lot of folks know who Patsy Cline is but don’t know she is Virginia Hensley,” says Corwyn Garman, exhibitions manager for the museum. “We wanted to present the human side of celebrity.”
The exhibit begins with her family history. Locals knew her as Ginny Hensley. The family lived in four Virginia counties and moved 16 times in 19 years. “This was not unlike many families of the era,” Garman says. Her father, Samuel Hensley, was a blacksmith by trade and the family moved frequently from job to job. But by 1948, her mother, Hilda Hensley, felt she could better raise her family without Sam, and she and the kids moved to Winchester.
Hilda Hensley was just 16 when Cline was born. She helped support the family as a seamstress and sewed many of her daughter’s famous cowgirl outfits, accented with rhinestones and fringe, on a 1938 Singer, which is part of the exhibit.
Ginny attended the Handley School, now Handley High School. She quit after eighth grade to help her mother and two younger siblings. She entered talent contests and got her first steady paying gig at the Club John Marshall in Front Royal, Va., where she sang songs such as Stardust and St. Louis Blues, says Garman. Big Band was the music of the day and Cline was inspired by the “girl singers” of the era, including Helen O’Connell and Anita O’Day. “That’s a side of her people don’t realize,” Garman says.
By 1951, Cline decided she would have a greater opportunity for success with country rather than with pop, and a year later got a steady gig with local DJ and band leader Bill Peer’s country band, among other music groups. Peer persuaded the singer to make her stage name Patsy Hensley.
Peer’s band, with Cline as vocalist, played the Moose Lodge circuit, which included Brunswick. It was there she met Gerald Cline, of Frederick, whom she married in 1953. The Clines lived in an apartment on East Patrick Street. Gerald wanted a traditional housewife, but Patsy wanted a career, Garman says. Within a few years, the marriage crumbled and, in 1957, Patsy married Charlie Dick, of Winchester. The couple moved to Nashville in 1959.
The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley exhibit includes 11 of Cline’s outfits and shows the evolution of her style—from cowgirl to sophisticate. “This is the first time the dresses have been on public display,” says Julie Armel, the museum’s director of marketing and public relations.
The exhibit opened in August and roughly 2,600 people visited opening weekend, according to Armel. The exhibit continues through July 6, 2014.
The last gallery features the audio segment of the Godfrey show from where Cline won the hearts of America when she sang Walkin’ After Midnight. It’s accompanied by a montage of photos, including one of Cline singing at the grand opening of a grocery store.
Many of the objects in the exhibit are on loan from the not-for-profit Celebrate Patsy Cline Inc., which owns the Patsy Cline Historic House on Kent Street. Items include the front porch glider where Cline could often be seen in one of her cowgirl outfits waiting for a band member to pick her up; her fourth-grade report card where she got a C in music; and the handkerchief Hilda carried during Patsy’s funeral. Cline died in an airplane crash at age 30 in March 1963. She is buried in Shenandoah Memorial Park, on Va. 522 (the Patsy Cline Memorial Highway). Fans often visit the grave site, leaving a penny for good luck.
The Patsy Cline Historic House at 608 S. Kent St. opened in 2011 and has logged more than 8,000 visitors, says JudySue Huyett-Kempf, executive director of Celebrate Patsy Cline Inc. Huyett-Kempf says two decades age while she worked in tourism, it occurred to her that there was nothing in town to recognize Cline. “I thought it was time to do something for her,” she says.
“You’ll find something in each room that belonged to the family,” says docent Tim Poole. Some of the objects and stories are from one of Cline’s cousins, who is also a tour docent.
“The living room windows always had lace curtains,” Poole says. The white butterfly doilies on the sofa were made by Hilda Hensley, as was the quilt on Cline’s bed in the upstairs room she shared with her mother, sister and brother.
Hanging above one of the beds is the photo of Cline that was displayed on her coffin in Nashville and Winchester. The black-and-white image, faded by sunlight, was acquired from her brother. Poole says visitors to the house have come from as far away as New Zealand and Japan. “I’m very fortunate to be a part of it,” he says.
Cline fans can also see WINC, the radio station where the singer made her on-air singing debut at age 14, and Gaunt’s Drug Store, where she worked at the soda fountain from 1950 to 1951. Pharmacist and owner Harold “Doc” Madagan still regales tourists with stories of Cline and, though the soda fountain is long gone, he displays one of the booths in the store.
If You Go
Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, 901 Amherst St., Winchester, Va. Hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Daytime admission includes access to the gardens and Glen Burnie House (April through October) and is $10 for adults, $8 seniors and ages 13 to 18, free for children 12 and under. Museum galleries are open all year. Admission is free for all ages from 10 a.m. until noon on Wednesdays. Visit www.theMSV.org or call 540-662-1473.
Patsy Cline Historic House, 608 S. Kent St., Winchester, Va. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, April through October. In November and December, the house is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday and is decorated for the holidays. Tours begin at 10 a.m., 10:45 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 12:15 p.m., 1 p.m., 1:45 p.m., 2:30 p.m. and 3:15 p.m. Tours are also available by special appointment by calling 540-662-5555. For more information, visit www.celebratepatsycline.org.