ROCKINGHAM, Va. — Families have placed turkey at the center of American Thanksgiving tables for generations.
Now the farm on which the modern turkey industry was born is a launching point for families.
Harry Jarrett, the great-grandson of Charles Wampler Sr., has operated an event center for several years at the family’s Sunny Slope Farm. Its rolling hills just west of Harrisonburg have become a popular place for couples to marry.
Earlier this decade, Jarrett said he and his wife, Beth, were the lead and associate pastors, respectively, of Neffsville Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, when he became wistful for home. Their daughter, Sarah Whitmore, was married in 2011 on the concrete pad that once held a brooder house, and that ceremony sparked interest in the wedding business.
Jarrett said his parents, Libby and Harry Jarrett, agreed to lease him 67 acres from the portion of the 350-acre family farm that they owned.
With that transaction, the business known as On Sunny Slope Farm was born on land that’s been in the Wampler family since 1828. He said couples tend to like getting married on a farm that’s been owned by the same family for nearly two centuries.
“What people really like about coming here is this almost 200-year story,” said Jarrett, 54. “There really aren’t many places that you can talk to the fifth, sixth and seventh generation that have lived in the same place for almost 200 years.
“There’s this rich story and history that can be told, and our story can become all of these couples’ story and these families’ story.”
Jarrett said six friends and family members were married there in 2012 and contributed needed items, such as the reception tent. The light schedule allowed him to work out the operational kinks in the business. Bookings took off the following year and ballooned to 68 by 2017.
Though he said he’s read that that Shenandoah Valley has become a destination-wedding hotspot, competition has trimmed On Sunny Slope Farm’s wedding total to 53 this year. Packages start at $4,500.
“Really almost anybody that has a barn or can buy a barn seems to be opening up a wedding venue these days,” said Jarrett.
The venue, though, proved to be the beginning of what’s become a deep dive into the nuptial industry.
Jarrett launched My Shenandoah Valley Wedding, a website with more than 200 wedding vendors that he’s vetted by working with them. He offers a concierge vendor-selection service. He’s also become the sales manager for weddings and social events at the Hotel Madison and Shenandoah Valley Conference Center, a new facility in downtown Harrisonburg.
“I think what I offer — especially now that I’m on the sales team of the Hotel Madison — what I’m able to offer people is a true Valley destination experience that is fully supported, complete in every way,” he said. “It’s very much a one-stop shop; I can even officiate weddings.”
With all he’s learned in six intense years in the wedding business, Jarrett said he’s now ready to offer a new service — consulting.
A family whose son is in James Madison University’s Hart School of Hospitality, Sport and Recreation Management bought a historic farm and house in Texas and want to use it as a wedding and event venue, he said. He plans to show the young man everything from how he markets On Sunny Slope Farm to how to perform client care and follow-up to how to hold high-quality weddings for 250 people at the same venue on three consecutive days.
One drawback he’s found as a wedding venue is that even if a ceremony goes perfectly, ideally he won’t get repeat business from the couple. That’s part of the reason On Sunny Slope Farm hosts three annual fundraisers, to allow couples and families the chance to return to the place where they were married.
The farm’s Food Truck Festival, held in the spring, raises money for Open Doors, a thermal homeless shelter operated each winter by Harrisonburg and Rockingham County churches. Its summertime Wine & Oyster Festival benefits the Artisans Center of Virginia in Staunton.
A fall event, the Spirit of the Valley Festival, was added this year. It featured Americana music, with proceeds going to The Heritage Museum in Dayton and The Farm Museum in the Shenandoah Valley in McGaheysville.
Jarrett said he’s a strong proponent of community building, and he views the festivals as a way On Sunny Slope Farm can help accomplish that.
Another structure that can be rented on the farm is the “Home Place” — the five-bedroom, 2.5-bathroom farm house Charles Wampler Sr. once called home. Charles Wampler Jr., who eventually guided the family business, was born in the house on Thanksgiving Day in 1915.
Built in 1872 and renovated 16 years ago, it can be leased through Airbnb. This Thanksgiving, Jarrett said, a family enjoyed the holiday in the house that once was the home of the father of the modern turkey industry.
While weddings, festivals and even the occasional graduation party or similar event is held at On Sunny Slope Farm, the grounds hold true to its heritage. Beef cattle are backgrounded on part of the farm, and alfalfa, hay and corn are raised there.
Sunny Slope, Jarrett said, also has welcomed horses, sheep, goats and other farm animals. But it’s best known for turkeys.
Charles Wampler Sr. was growing free-range Bronze turkeys in the early 1920s when he began wondering if the birds could be raised in captivity to protect them from predators. Jarrett said his great-grandfather wrote to about 100 agriculture professionals asking whether it could be done, and only A.L. Dean, who led Virginia Tech’s department of poultry science, gave him any hope.
In 1922, Wampler successfully incubated eggs and grew out a flock in a poultry house he’d build at Sunny Slope Farm.
Jarrett said his great-grandfather also is credited with adopting the contract business model still used in the poultry business in part to his Brethren religious beliefs and the desire to help his neighbors.
During the depression, he said, local farmers didn’t have the money to buy chicks and feed to grow turkeys, so they struck a deal with Wampler. He supplied the birds and the feed, they provided the labor and shelter, and they’d sell the finished birds back to him.
The arrangement helped many local residents avoid losing their farm.
Accomplishments such as those made Wampler one of five men who were inaugural inductees into the U.S Poultry Historical Society’s Poultry Hall of Fame back in 1953.
Jarrett said he’s held preliminary discussions with Virginia Tech agriculture department officials about rebuilding a working model of the first experimental house on the farm and returning Bronze turkeys to it. The goal would be to provide a place where people could come and learn about how today’s turkey industry was born.
“That would be super cool, I think, to have that here,” he said, “and people could come and learn about the history of turkeys and actually see how it was done, reestablish a free-range flock.”