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It’s like Brigadoon, a wonderful place captured in
time. I feel myself calming the closer I come to home,” novelist Adriana
Trigiani told 150 luncheon guests on her latest return to Big Stone Gap.
But beneath the calm, there’s a whole lot going on.
This little town, with four museums, a greenbelt under development, a
passion for sports and the arts that defies description, and a volunteer
spirit that undergirds it all, seems to have a knack for drawing people to
it and getting them involved in making things better.
Trigiani’s $20-a-plate luncheon on the lawn of the
John Fox Jr. Museum was a prime example. The meal was served by 30
volunteers ranging from a bank vice president and a retired eye doctor to
the high school coach’s wife and teachers on summer break.
Income from the fundraiser goes toward buying an
event sign for the 101 Car, the tourist and information center in the Gap.
The meal also served as the prelude to an afternoon book signing for
Trigiani’s latest novel, Rococo, and gave the author the chance to catch
fans up on progress as she prepares to make a movie based on her first
book, Big Stone Gap, to be set in the town.
Trigiani grew up in the Gap in the 1970s, in a time
when coal was booming and the Tri-State Singing Convention was still
drawing large crowds to Bullitt Park every year on the second Sunday in
June. The volunteer-driven singing convention, which started back in the
1920s, brought crowds of up to 10,000 to the park for decades. While the
draw has withered to less than 1,000, the convention continues, still
in the puppy category at the ninth annual C. Bascom Slemp
Memorial Library Pet Show.
The Gap has seen a boom-and-bust economy since coal
mining became big back in the 1890s. In the bust period of the 1990s,
leaders looked hard at ways to diversify the economy and to put more
emphasis on tourism as an element in that mix. Trigiani’s first three
novels, the Big Stone Gap trilogy, helped boost the effort.
But tourism, tied to a volunteer spirit, really
started back in the 1960s, when mechanization of mining made employment
Pine Arts and Crafts president Barbara Polly and novelist Adriana
Trigiani greet each other before speaking to a crowd at "Adri's
Garden Party," a Gap Corporation luncheon to raise money for
the 101 Car.
A group of volunteers asked the sisters of
turn-of-the-century author John Fox Jr., if they could produce an outdoor
drama based on the writer’s 1908 blockbuster, The Trail of the Lonesome
Pine, to try to draw tourism dollars to the town. While Fox died in the
Gap in 1919, his legacy had put the town on the map.
The Trail had been made into a movie three times, in
1916 and 1923 as silent films, and in 1936 as the first outdoor
Technicolor movie, starring Sylvia Sidney, Fred MacMurray and Henry Fonda.
Only the Bible and Gone with the Wind had outsold it in its heyday. And
Fox’s earlier book, The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, had been
America’s first million-seller.
Trail of the Lonesome Pine state outdoor drama's all-volunteer
cost sings, dances, feuds and fights in this bittersweet love
story of a mountain girl and a "ferriner" who comes to
Production of the outdoor drama sparked development
of the June Tolliver House, a museum and gift shop next door to the
theater. Success of the play prompted volunteers to incorporate as
Lonesome Pine Arts and Crafts Inc., and under that corporate umbrella, to
ultimately own, preserve and operate the John Fox Jr. Museum, the Fox
family home acquired with original furnishings intact.
president Barbara Polly estimates that more than 3,000 volunteers have
participated in Trail productions in the 42-year run of the show. Polly
says the Trail is now the longest-running outdoor drama in the state of
Virginia and the official drama of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
manager George Polly stands beside a portion of the greenbelt, now
about two-thirds complete.
Town manager George Polly says the community has
always had a love of the arts, sports and recreation, and those priorities
have molded growth and activity in the town. “For a rural setting,
there’s a lot going on here. There’s something for the very young to
the very old.”
The town parks-and-recreation department operates
eight parks, and offers everything from aerobics and yoga to Seniorcise.
From 450 to 500 youngsters participate each year in Little League
baseball, and youth football, basketball and soccer programs, and Powell
Valley High School athletes have won state championships in golf, baseball
and football. There are two ballet and dance schools in town, and council
contributes to the Pro-Art Association, which presents a wide variety of
area musical programs and plays.
In nearby Powell Valley, Lonesome Pine Country Club
has an 18-hole golf course, driving range, pool and dining room. There’s
excellent fishing in several lakes and streams near the town.
Tony Scales, a local geologist with the Virginia
Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, likes to speak to local groups
about the geology of the place he calls home. “If you stand at Little
Stone Gap, at the Powell Valley overlook on U.S. 23 north of Big Stone,
you can see the folds that form the valley below,” he notes.
“The Appalachian Mountains are 250 million years
old, the oldest on earth. They once rivaled the Himalayas in height. Most
gaps in mountains are formed because the rock originally fractured. In Big
Stone’s case, the river wanted to wear through, and to this day, Powell
River is still wearing down the gap.”
Celestite, a strontium-bearing mineral that is
semi-rare, is found in the Hancock Dolomite rock formation up by the
Comfort Inn and Huddle House restaurant, he says. Fossils can be readily
found in an exposed slope on U.S. 23 next to the Powell Valley High School
Railroad Private Car No. 101 serves as the Regional Tourist and
Information Center. Visitors come for travel information, but
linger for Pat Gibson's great tours.
Pat Gibson, in her third summer as a part-time
hostess at the 101 Car, a restored train car that serves as the regional
tourist and information center, says folks from all over the nation and a
number of foreign countries drop in to ask questions and learn about the
town. The car, itself, is an attraction as well.
“It’s just incredible to imagine that someone
designed a railroad car in 1870 that would be as functional as it is
today,” she says. The corner sinks in the sleeping quarters are
original, as are the etched-glass panels in the china cabinets and the
built-in brandy dispenser in the dining room wall.
What do visitors typically want to know? Directions
to reunion sites. The location of Glencoe and River View cemeteries, which
have large numbers of Civil War veterans. Museum and drama hours. And
everything imaginable about Adriana Trigiani.
“We even have a brochure with a map that lists all
the places she writes about in the book and pinpoints where they are.
Everybody wants to eat at Mutual Drug and see the drama, if it’s in
season,” she says.
Is there really a Strawberry Patch community and a
Cracker’s Neck? Yep, and the Victorian houses on Poplar Hill are just as
beautiful today as they were when they were built a century and a quarter
ago, she tells folks.
paintings that could hang in the world's finest galleries are
among the variety of holdings at the Southwest Virginia Museum
Historical State Park.
The Southwest Virginia Museum Historical State Park
walking tours give the history of old homes and old neighborhoods. The
museum, director Sharon Ewing says, represents all the historical periods
of Southwest Virginia, from early American Indian tribes to Appalachian
families, and from the industrial revolution to the building of the town.
Even the museum, originally the Rufus Ayers mansion,
is unique. “The woodwork is all native red oak, accented with nine
different decorative motifs. But the thing that fascinates a lot of people
is the floor. People are used to wide planking and these boards are only
three-quarters-of-an-inch wide, tongue and grooved.”
In the more than 20,000 pieces of the collection are
a one-of-a-kind set of china commissioned by Queen Victoria for Prime
Minister Benjamin Disraeli and paintings from Dutch and French masters, as
well as one by American artist John Brown, all fully restored,
“comparable to works you would see in the Louvre or any large
metropolitan fine arts museum,” Ewing says.
Ongoing interpretive programming, rotating exhibits,
an annual show featuring 175 quilts, and a holiday exhibit featuring 80
Christmas trees bring folks to the museum throughout the year.
“If you love old photos, you can spend hours at the
museum looking through ours. If you have a special request for a photo of
a historical figure or place that we have in the collection, you can
request copies for a fee,” she notes.
on the happenings at the June Tolliver House, and likely volunteer
and avid history buff Garnett Gilliam will be in the middle of the
Garnett Gilliam, a volunteer at the June Tolliver
House and an avid photo collector, has amassed more than 25,000 local
pictures of old schools, ball teams, local folks and local bands and
groups, and opened the display to the public in the upstairs “School
Rooms” on the Tolliver House second floor.
Folks often discover photos of family members in the
collection, Gilliam says. “We had more than 3,000 people in town for
reunions last summer, and we’re seeing an increase this year. It’s
amazing what people find in these old pictures.”
Local books in the gift shop are a popular draw, and
displays include period furnishings and a gallery where artists display
Freddie Elkins, at the Harry W. Meador Jr. Coal
Museum, hosts visitors looking for old history and photos as well. The
museum, which opened in 1982, contains Meador’s and Stonega Coke and
Coal Co., later Westmoreland Coal Co., collections of photos, artifacts,
scrip, and mining equipment. Visitors see a miner’s kitchen, early 1900s
dentist’s office, 1902 equipment from the old Stonega Hospital, and
mine-safety equipment and tools.
“What I like best is the ‘No Smoking’ sign for
the mines back then, written in 17 languages. Can you imagine what this
place must have been like back then?”
Post newspaper editor Bill Hendrick lives in the Horace Fox house,
near Bulitt Park.
Few folks have looked harder, or longer, at what the
Gap was like in the old days than 35-year veteran Post newspaper editor
Bill Hendrick, now retired. Hendrick delights in the successes he has seen
residents attain. “Former Miss America Leanza Cornett is a local gal.
National Football League players Thomas and Julius Jones grew up here and
played Peanut and high school football here. Larry Dalton took music
lessons here as a child and is now a Steinway Artist who tours the world.
Former Virginia Gov. A. Linwood Holton was born and raised here, and the
list goes on and on.”
The house he lives in, near the entrance to Bullitt
Park, belonged to John Fox Jr.’s brother, Horace, the fellow who laid
out the streets in the town. “We have the widest streets in the region
and we owe it to Horace Fox,” Hendrick says.
John Fox Jr. Museum is an incredible example of Victorian-era
homes. Built in 1888, this antique post card depicts the home as
it appeared when the author was in residence.
Without a doubt, the Gap is a volunteer town, he
says. Wellmont Lonesome Pine Hospital, Heritage Hall Nursing Home, the Fox
and Tolliver museums, the Trail drama and all the youth sports programs
involve volunteers. While garden clubs have gone by the wayside in most
towns, Big Stone Gap has three, the Intermont, Dogwood and Valley. Clubs
schedule standard flower shows at three sites on the same weekend in
December, and Dogwood hosts a show in June at the Fox Museum.
“There’s even a volunteer effort to build the
Lonesome Pine School and Heritage Center, where Garnett Gilliam’s photo
collection and a whole lot of other material will be on display for people
to copy and research.
“This has always been a historical town from the
word ‘go.’ It’s a perfect place for a retiree or anybody who loves
At A Glance ...