Surrounded by earthy, friendly faces, the scent of fresh sourdough and roasted green beans slowly gives way to chocolate chip cookies. As the sun fades and the candles light, a small group takes the stage below an antique hand-painted sign that reads, “1910—Spring Creek—VA.” Though dressed up with tablecloths and bouquets, the awkward pair of pianos and miniature free library betray the building’s unassuming personality. For an hour, music and story fill the wooden hall. Few get the chance to experience such a wholesome scene, but thanks to Rachel Fitzgerald’s Spring Creek Supper Series, Bridgewater locals gather like this every month.
The dinner-and-concert events began in late 2016, when Fitzgerald returned to her hometown after the loss of her grandmother. “My one sister was living in Denver with her family, my other sister was in Morocco, and I was in Nashville while our parents were here. We were scattered across the time zones and had to work very hard to make it back for a memorial service. I just thought, why are we doing this to ourselves?” Fitzgerald had left Bridgewater a decade earlier, spending years as an English teacher in Richmond before working with food in Nashville, but when she lost her final grandparent, the importance of family crystallized: “I was ready to abandon the belief that there was a better house, a better city, or a better job. Instead, I decided to move closer to my parents.”
Returning to rural Virginia, the slow pace of life allowed Fitzgerald to reflect, and a walk past the Spring Creek town hall provided the spark she needed: “That hall is so beautiful, and no one is using it. I thought, why not do something? I love music, I love food, I love people getting together.” A few weeks later, despite the November chill, Fitzgerald hosted the first event—a family-and-friends dinner for 35 with the music of another Spring Creek expat, Oil Derek.
Though the series had “a good start,” Fitzgerald realized that her big city instincts were making things difficult. “When I first thought of it, I wanted to sell tickets and make it a bougie thing,” she recalled. “At first, my aspirations were not matched to the area very well.” Fitzgerald explained that Spring Creek folk seldom attend the kind of upper-end events commonplace in Richmond and Nashville. “I was ostracizing neighbors that can’t necessarily afford to fork out $40 per ticket, so we started hosting community potlucks.”
These potlucks rapidly expanded to occupy a majority of the calendar, with bigger ticketed performances occurring only seasonally. Moreover, while Fitzgerald capped the ticketed events at 50 seats, up to 70 locals regularly gather for the potlucks. “Everyone always knows someone, but no one knows everyone,” Fitzgerald quipped about the makeup of the audience. “No one is ever a complete stranger to anyone.”
As she explained, even the ticketed events rely on a community of volunteers:
It started out as just me cooking, but the people around here are so talented in a variety of ways. My friend down the road bakes the most astounding sourdough, so she’ll make the bread. My dad lives a mile away and he brews the coffee. It has become a great way to use the resources in the area. We even try to source as much of the produce as possible from the farmers around here.
Along with the lofty aspirations of her early events, Fitzgerald also abandoned a strict schedule, which now changes month-to-month. “I haven’t been too legalistic about it,” she said. “At first, I wanted to have one the second Saturday of every month, but we end up working with musicians’ schedules. Some months, we just decide to take a breather.” Some attendees discover upcoming events through the official Facebook page, but most, including those regulars without internet, learn through word of mouth, adding to the quaint appeal of the events.
The format of each evening follows the same routine. Depending on the season, people arrive between 6 and 7 o’clock. “People roll in and get to know each other. They usually bring some beverages to share,” Fitzgerald said. Then comes the food—either in buffet-style, “with labels, in case someone brings something really delicious,” or served in courses. The musicians eat among the crowd, which Fitzgerald described as the “true way to make fans.” When people start to eye the desserts, the band will walk up the stage’s creaking steps and begin playing and telling stories. From there, the night goes where it goes. “I don’t pay attention to time much,” added Fitzgerald, before recounting one event which moved to a friend’s backyard for a 30-person bonfire that lasted until 4 AM. “I hadn’t done that in about eight years, but you never know how these nights end up.”
The lineup draws predominantly from a list Fitzgerald built over years of attending small concerts in Richmond: “I saw a ton of musicians there and squirrelled away their names. Some of them I’ve been listening to for years.” While securing the musicians might sound like a daunting task—it’s a very small show in a town few have heard about—Fitzgerald said it’s simple: “Just write a nice email. People want to be in a room where their art is appreciated. Especially nowadays with internet and social media, there’s something so wonderful about being able to connect with people in a small room who are really listening.” When asked if the crowd size acts as an obstacle, she said, “We’re small, but mighty.”
The Spring Creek Supper Series shows few signs of slowing—but also few signs of growing, which is exactly how the planners and attendees want it to stay. “We don’t make a big deal out of it,” said Fitzgerald, adding that, “if I were to make it my full time gig, then it would become something completely different. That’s not what it is to me. It’s just an excuse to bring people together and enjoy all the best things of life: music, food, and other people. When you get in that room, it feels like you’re back in time. It feels like…we’re here together.”
Photography by Brandy Somers