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People joke about needing a passport to get into
They’re not far wrong. If more people knew what an
ideal community it is, everybody would want to come.
just a friendly, safe community to live in, with a great
educational system," brags Mayor Carl E. "Sonny"
Tarpley, himself a product of the schools.
In charming neighborhoods throughout the city nestled
in the Roanoke Valley and surrounded by the Blue Ridge and Appalachian
mountains, time seems to stand still. A hundred years ago children played
safely outside their homes, neighbors knew each others’ names and talked
across backyard fences. They still do.
Children ride their bicycles to school. Adults walk
and jog along the sidewalks at 10 at night. Grown children move back to
Salem to buy houses next door to their families — or frequently, move
into the houses where their parents used to live. The city spends its
money the way most jurisdictions wish they could: first on their
children’s education, then fiscal improvements, and recreation and
Many compare the 204-year-old community to Mayberry,
Andy Griffith’s television show hometown. Although Salem is 25,000
people instead of the much smaller Mayberry, Salem residents are still
getting their hair cut by Floyd the barber, who cut their daddy’s hair
and even their granddaddy’s. Floyd Howell started barbering 51 years
ago. He and and his wife Sue cut men’s and boys’ hair exclusively.
Make no mistake. It’s Floyd and Sue’s Barber Shop, not a salon.
“I’m not going to change. I’ve never, ever, put
stylist on my sign,” Floyd says emphatically.
of Salem's well-known landmarks, the duck pond at Lake Spring
It’s not just the adults who appreciate Salem.
“Salem is really small and exclusive. You feel really welcome,” says
Salem High School ninth-grader Claire Allison. “There’s a lot of
places for friends to hang out,” adds classmate, Amanda Giles.
“Salem is about family,” continues high school
secretary Trina Bateman, who graduated from the same school and met her
future husband, Richard, there. “It’s a very small hometown where your
children do come first. At events downtown, there is always something
geared for children.”
Ask anybody in the Roanoke Valley what Salem means to
them and the answer is usually football, the duck pond and the Salem Fair,
that attracts more than 100,000 people for 10 days in June and July.
The duck pond is what people call Lake Spring Park.
People of all ages delight in feeding bread to the ducks and visiting
gulls during the winter. High school kids get their pictures made in the
gazebo before prom and couples get married there.
Telia Harris enjoys a sunny winter day at one of Salem's
well-known landmarks, the duck pond at Lake Spring Park.
On a bright winter day, four-year-old Telia Harris
feeds ducks at the pond, with her mother, Glenda. “I like the warmth of
the community, that it’s close knit, has good schools, is small enough
you can be anywhere you want to be in 10 minutes but not feel like you are
living on top of your neighbors,” Glenda Harris adds.
There’s no denying Salem is a sports city and proud
of it. In the fall life revolves around Friday-night football, when
families tailgate on a scale usually seen at colleges — but without
alcohol — before cheering on the champion Salem High School Spartans in
city-owned Salem Stadium.
the fall, life in Salem revolves around Friday-night Spartan
football, when families tailgate on a scale usually seen at
City limits are marked by signs proclaiming
championships. The most recent is state football AA Division 4 in 2004,
and at press time, the team was vying to make that back-to-back
championships. Others include state basketball, girls soccer and
volleyball, tennis, softball and golf. Salem High also won the 2002-03
Virginia High School AA Scholastic Bowl. In fact, the school wins so many
championships, the city put up new signs last year that leave room for
future winning years.
Salem also has the Salem Avalanche, a fast-A
affiliate of the Houston Astros. The city hosts a slew of national college
sports tournaments for
Division III football and men’s basketball and Division II softball.
think there is a big difference in being snotty and being
proud," says Howard "Mooch" Semones, owner of
Spartan Silk Screen. Semones outfits his proud fellow Salemites in
their beloved maroon-and-white Salem jackets.
One of the first things new residents do is head to
Howard “Mooch” Semones’ Spartan Silk Screen to buy their
maroon-and-white Salem jackets.
“Salem people are proud people. That’s why I have
put hundreds of Salem jackets on these proud Salemites,” Semones said.
“The Roanoker Magazine once wrote Salemites have a snotty attitude. I
think there is a big difference in being snotty and being proud,”
emphasizes Semones, who graduated from what then was Andrew Lewis High
Customers visit with him and wife Beth and admire the
rubber tree that twists and climbs completely around the inside of the
small shop, a variety of caged birds, and Peaches and Claudia — two Shih
Tzu puppies who snuffle around customers’ toes as they come in.
knows everybody. I can't imagine living anywhere else," says
This day a steady stream of Salemites
flows through the store. “What I like is the small-town feeling,” says
Susan Bowles, who’s lived in Salem all her life. “Everybody knows
everybody. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
Many of Salem’s residents are
and third-generation Salemites, like Tammy Wickham. “I grew up
here. My dad’s from Salem, my grandmother is from Salem,” proclaims
Wickham, as she purchases an embroidered Salem jacket for her husband
Mark. “Everybody else in the family has a Salem jacket,” Wickham says.
That includes son Ryan, 11, who got his first jacket when he was a year
and a half old.
A couple of blocks away on Main
Street, after-school customers line up for fresh-squeezed limeade,
orangeade and lemonade at Brooks-Byrd Drug Store. Even in these days of
supercenters, Brooks-Byrd remains an independent pharmacy, run these days
by Cameron Brooks. Retired pharmacist Ray Byrd still lives in town and
fills in in a pinch.
O'Neill prepares fresh-squeezed limeade, orangeade and lemonade
for a steady stream of customers at Brooks-Byrd Drug Store.
Salem High School student Paul O’Neill, 17, flips
the handle adeptly to squish out a combination of orange-limeade for Emie
Weisman and her art teacher, Katherine Devine, who has a studio across
“I love the safe atmosphere in Salem, how I can
leave my studio and walk down the street in the middle of the day,”
Devine says. “I like the convenience, too. If my students and I want to
study something, we can walk to the library.”
Library Square is tucked next to St. Paul’s
Episcopal Church and across the street from the oldest congregation, Salem
Presbyterian, which is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year. It’s
one of the city’s oldest Christian groups, in terms of activity. The
church building at the corner of East Main and Market was built before the
a community with a good sense of its roots," says John Long,
director of the Salem Museum.
Salem is known as a place that saves many of its
historic buildings instead of razing them. “It’s a community with a
good sense of its roots,” says John Long, director of the Salem Museum.
He’s been collecting, cataloging and telling people about the history
since 1998 in the 1845 Williams-Brown House that houses the museum. Each
year Long and sister, Helen Johnson, the assistant director, bring Salem
history to life by arranging a Ghost Walk in East Hill Cemetery and North
East Hill Cemetery, the final resting place of Salem’s early black
citizens. On the walk historic figures tell visitors about their lives in
The brother and sister pull together a Holiday Homes
Tour that concludes Salem’s three-day Christmas extravaganza the first
weekend of December. It begins with an hour-long Christmas parade Friday
night, followed on Saturday by costumed carolers, roasting chestnuts,
store open houses and Mr. and Mrs. Santa leading children to the library.
Stand on almost any hill in Salem and you’ll see
the brick buildings of Roanoke College, the country’s second-oldest
Lutheran-related college set in the heart of the small city. Roanoke
College extends into the community and is intertwined with its history.
The college’s first president, Charles Brown, served as mayor of the
town of Salem.
Although Salem’s roots date back to 1802 and Gen.
Andrew Lewis, it didn’t become a
on almost any hill in Salem and you'll see the brick buildings of
Roanoke College, set in the heart of the small city.
city until 1968. Lewis — through a recording in the
Salem Civic Center next to an impressive painting of the fiery Indian
fighter — still brags about his adventures, including running off the
last Colonial governor of Virginia. You can see him around the city: The
former high school, now the middle school, is named for him. So is a
portion of I-81 around Salem. A larger-than-life bronze statue guards the
civic center where the general is ready to light a small ship’s cannon
fired on special occasions.
“Salem’s just a friendly, safe community to live
in, with a great educational system,” brags Mayor Carl E. “Sonny”
Tarpley, himself a product of the schools. “The school system, Salem
City Council, the city staff, all work together as a team. And, of course,
we’re known for our sports. I can just keep going on about Salem,”
says the recently retired banker. Tarpley was on council when he
encouraged the city to move its offices into the former Broad Street
School, now Salem City Hall. Many who work there can recall going to
elementary school in the building.
Not everyone grew up in Salem, although it may seem
like it. “Salem to me is first, home — and the best-run municipality
I’ve encountered in my travels,” says Lawson Koeppel. He adopted the
Salem area after working in newspapers from his home state of Alabama to
New Mexico and now is publisher of the 152-year-old Salem Times-Register.
He followed Ray Robinson at the weekly community paper published
continuously since 1854 — except during the Civil War.
Kavitz, executive director of the Salem Roanoke County Chamber of
Commerce, is "keeper of the ribbon."
“Salem’s open for business and it’s a wonderful
place to live,” concludes Debbie Kavitz, a Salem resident and executive
director of the Salem-Roanoke County Chamber of Commerce. Kavitz is
“keeper of the ribbon” who, as only a smidgen of her responsibilities,
coordinates several ribbon cuttings each month for new and expanded
“What makes Salem is the diversity of everything
from sports to ballet, its medical centers and public school system,”
she points out, “and extremely close church families ... the essence of
community you see in all the neighborhoods.”
At A Glance ...
24,747 as of the 2000 census
14.31 square miles
FACT: During World War I Salem won national prominence as one of the few
towns in the country in which every child owned at least one War Saving
Stamp. Due to fuel shortages, churches suspended Sunday night services,
but the mayor called on residents to pray silently at the sound of church
and fire bells during a lights-off moment at nine o’clock each night.
Fifteen Salem men were killed in World War I.