Bright Lights, Small Town

Abingdon is one of those places where there are no strangers, only friends waiting to meet. But more than just a charming mountain hamlet, this friendly and endearing community is culture-rich, with creative street cred extending from Broadway to Hollywood and a deep history in the arts that rivals any urban hub.

Photography by Sam Dean

Are you going right or left?”

The question rings out fromthe back of home décor shop Magnolia Gifts and Home Accessories on Abingdon’s historic Main Street just as a couple heads for the door to leave.

“The owner, Teresa Tilley, is an artist, and she’s very modest about her work, but she is so talented. You should check it out if you have a minute,” says shop manager Morgan Heuser as she follows the clearly surprised out-of-town visitors to the sidewalk to point out T Tilley Gallery and Garden. “I think you’ll like it.”

Stranger or native, everyone is a friend in Abingdon. The 240-year-old town in Virginia’s southwest corner in the Appalachian Mountains has been watching people come and go since the pioneers first started their journey west through the Cumberland Gap in the 18th century.

And although it’s seen its share of strife over the past two centuries—from occupation by Union forces during the Civil War to the ebb and flow of livelihoods dependent on coal, tobacco and textile industries—Abingdon is, as any local or visitor can attest, seemingly immune to angst or divisiveness and miraculously soundproofed to the din of a bickering nation. It’s just not in its nature.

Wolf Hills Brewing Company

“On Sunday afternoons at Wolf Hills [Brewing Co.] we can usually pick out the tourists and are really quick to latch on to them,” says Zack Edwards, guitarist for the Abingdon-based band Annabelle’s Curse, and a hydraulic technician for the U.S. Geological Survey. “By the end of the evening we’re generally all friends and probably going to all end up at someone’s house for dinner.”

Abingdon is, as any local or visitor can attest, seemingly immune to angst or divisiveness and miraculously soundproofed to the din of a bickering nation. 

And then there was the time that a customer at Virginia Creeper Trail Bike Shop needed a ride home. The fellow had just finished a breathtaking spin on the iconic trail that winds down a former railway bed from White Top Station to nearby Damascus alongside a beautiful mountain stream and past sweeping mountain vistas. Back at the bike shop, trail expert Jose Flores happened to be there on his day off and offered to give the exhausted cyclist a ride. It turned out, home was five hours away in Richmond. “It’s the only time I’ve been to Richmond!” says Flores.

But it would be a grave injustice to chalk Abingdon up as merely a friendly, quaint mountain town reminiscent of Mayberry and other idyllic pop culture outposts. The depth and breadth of its cultural arts, recreational opportunities and rich history transcend even its irresistibly endearing nature.

From Main Street to Marquee

At the center of the rich artistic revelations in this remote Southwest Virginia town is the Barter Theatre. Opened in 1933 and dubbed the State Theatre of Virginia in 1946, Barter is situated in the heart of downtown’s historic district in a pair of buildings straddling Main Street that throughout the years have alternately served as town offices, a fire hall, a gymnasium for the now-defunct Martha Washington College and even a Methodist church. In the throes of the country’s Great Depression, an actor and native of Southwest Virginia, Robert Porterfield, came up with a unique survival plan for the theater: exchange produce from the farms and gardens of the region for admission to a play. His slogan, “With vegetables you cannot sell, you can buy a good laugh,” was a hit. For just 40 cents each, or a handful of something fresh from the garden or chicken house, the seats were filled just about every night. 

Sarah Laughland, Raven Flowers and Hannah Ingram in a production of Sister Act at the Barter Theatre.

Although a pig or a bunch of carrots won’t get you into a performance these days, the theater is thriving under the leadership of Richard Rose, producing artistic director for the last 26 years who oversees a 135-member staff and produces an astounding four shows on two stages daily. And while you’ll likely hear the trains rumble by on the tracks that run next to Barter Stage II during a performance, it only adds to the charm of the place. But, the quality of the performances is the real overwhelming factor. Following in the footsteps of Ernest Borgnine, Ned Beatty, Gregory Peck and Larry Linville who all—along with other acting greats—cut their teeth at the Barter, the actors today could easily be starring on Broadway. Productions—from staging to writing—routinely earn rave professional reviews. 

“Actors love it here,” says Rose. “They get to live in a wonderful town and play multiple roles they likely wouldn’t have a chance todo and all without auditions in between.” On a recent opening night, locals and tourists filledevery one of the 167 seats in the Barter II Theatre. 

Rose says that staying ahead of the curve and not being afraid to take risks has been the secret to his success. “You have to keep pace with trends,” he says. A ground-breaking mixed-race production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in the 1990s and a pair of naked actors in a 2003 production of The Liquid Moon are his favorite examples.

Theater patrons need only walk a few yards to lay their heads on the pillows of the town’s other grand dame, the Martha Washington Inn & Spa. Sipping tea, or something stronger, from the comfort of the white wicker armchairs that populate the expansive front porch of the historic hotel is a singular and profoundly Southern experience.

Guests enjoy the front porch at the Martha Washington Inn & Spa.

Built in 1832 as a retirement home for War of 1812 veteran General Robert Preston and his family, the neo-classical style home was sold and expanded to accommodate Martha Washington College for women in 1858. Besides a brief stint during the Civil War in which it served as a Confederate hospital, the school remained open until 1932. 

Barter Theatre actors called it home for a few years before it became a hotel in 1935. Since opening, the historic inn has welcomed more than its share of famous guests, including Presidents Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter, first ladies Eleanor Roosevelt and Lady Bird Johnson, and actress Elizabeth Taylor.

A $5 million capital improvement of the property in 2008 saw the addition of a spa complete with indoor pool and hot tub, as well as tennis courts and an adorable (and completely unexpected by many guests) putt-putt golf course. With complimentary glasses of port wine served every evening in what used to be the Preston family’s parlors and library and late night snacks left for guests in all the well-appointed hotel rooms, it’s not surprising that reservations, especially in the fall, should be made well in advance. 

“The port service is very popular,” reports hotel general manager Christopher Lowe. “That’s just based upon how much we give out, and the guests that beg for second and third glasses.”

The hotel’s restaurant, Sisters American Grill, is one of Abingdon’s handful of truly fine dining opportunities. The newest of those is Morgan’s, found just a few blocks away on Main Street. Having dinner at Morgan’s you begin to understand Abingdon’s heart. 

“It’s a small town, but we’re fairly like-minded and accepting. Come on by, and we’ll have dinner.” ―Zack Edwards

Unlike so many other cities touted by travel outlets as the destination of the moment where you might end up trying hard to find where the locals go, or, failing that, get stuck in a restaurant serving phony versions of local specialties, there are no places in Abingdon where tourists and locals don’t dine together.

Such is the case at Morgan’s, where you can only tell local from visitor when its namesake and co-owner, Morgan Wallace Gilbert, greets diners at the table by their first names. Visitors get just as warm a welcome, though. “It’s so nice to see you all!” she gushes with sincere enthusiasm. She eagerly fields questions about nearby farms that have raised the vegetables, meats and grains her husband, Chef Stephen Gilbert, has deftly combined for the seasonally driven menu. In late summer, a locally sourced whiskey-brined pork chop is accompanied by apple, bacon and cornbread stuffing, all resting on pomegranate reduction and kilt greens from nearby farms. A pan-roasted chicken breast shares a plate with black rice, market-fresh carrots and Benton’s Bacon Jam from the Gilberts’ Tennessee neighbors. 

A native of Abingdon, Stephen trained at the Southeast Culinary Institute in Bristol and worked at a number of restaurants in the region, including the town’s historic Tavern Restaurant just a block north from Morgan’s where he served as chef. “My husband always wanted to open his own restaurant,” says Morgan. “It’s been even better than we had thought it would be.” 

A stone’s throw away is White Birch Food and Juice, whose founder and owner Nicole Dyer came to Abingdon in 2012 from her home in New Hampshire as part of an AmeriCorps program to eliminate food deserts in remote Appalachian communities. “There has been a huge change in the past six years understanding the value of choosing locally produced food,” says Dyer. When her AmeriCorps service concluded, she remained in Abingdon and managed the town’s farmers’ market for two years before opening White Birch. 

Fresh produce at the farmers’ market.

Open Saturday mornings and Tuesday afternoons April through November, the market’s more than 50 vendors offer a robust assortment of everything from fruits and vegetables to baked goods, eggs, meats and cheeses from regional farms. Once highly dependent on mining, forestry and industry, the Appalachian region’s economy has become more diversified. With bountiful natural resources and a growing demand for its agricultural products, the region’s farmers have the land and necessary workforce to meet that demand. Washington County, where Abingdon is located, is the third largest agricultural community in the state with more than 1,600 farms occupying nearly 200,000 acres. Livestock and hay are its top agricultural products. 

Market-fresh foods drive the menu at White Birch, which is open daily. On a Sunday afternoon seats at the counter and the smattering of tables in the small eatery are full. A locally sourced beef burger topped with homemade chutney and goat cheese is a favorite, says Dyer’s partner in the restaurant, Kyle King, as he refills glasses of tea and juice.

Creative Spark

Even if it’s just to hop off I-81 for a quick bite to eat, you won’t visit Abingdon without experiencing its devotion to the arts, and in addition to local talents on stage and in the kitchen, visual artists and musicians are as much a part of the town’s fabric as are its stately brick homes and homemade biscuits and greens. 

From the bowls your entrée is served in at Morgan’s to the galleries of Heartwood, a regional artisan hub here featuring the crafts, food and music of culture-soaked Southwest Virginia, evidence of the artistic spirit is everywhere you turn. 

“The need for the people of this region to express themselves creatively—through pottery, quilting, weaving, music or painting—is strong,” says Chris Cannon, executive director of Heartwood. “We want to tell our story in our own way.” 

He calls Heartwood the “mother cooperative” of artisans. Built in 2011 by the Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Commission, the center not only showcases artworks created by the more than 300 members of the region’s ‘Round the Mountain artisan network, it also invites local musicians to jam every Thursday night. “We are just replicating what communities in this region have historically done for centuries—come together and tell their stories,” says Cannon.

“The need for the people of this region to express themselves creatively—through pottery, quilting, weaving, music or painting—is strong.” ―Chris Cannon

Adjacent to Abingdon’s farmers’ market, the Arts Depot has found a home in an old freight train station where rooms have been carved out of its cargo storage areas to provide studio space for potters, painters, weavers and sculptors. On Saturdays, market shoppers mix with tourists to hear the artists talk about their works and buy finished creations. “I think I came with the building,” laughs Sara Reese, a clay artist and Depot Artists Association board member. A native of nearby Bristol, Reese moved decades ago to Abingdon, which she describes as magical. “I took a pottery class in Bristol and the minute I touched clay, there went the normal life I thought I’d have,” she explains with a big smile to visitors gathered around to hear her story.

Fine art from around the world mingles with contemporary regional art and rotating collections of cultural heritage exhibits at Abingdon’s William King Museum of Art. Founded in 1992 and named for the Irish American who left his fortune to build a school for boys in the town, the museum rounds out Abingdon’s robust devotion to art. 

“We’re lucky to be here,” says Zack Edwards, who after a day of geological work is headed to Wolf Hills Brewing. “It’s a small town, but we’re fairly like-minded and accepting. Come on by, and we’ll have dinner.”  

This article originally appeared in our October 2018 issue.

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