A Weekend in Wytheville

Surprisingly hip, this town yields funky finds and unravels a family mystery.

(Photo by Sam Dean)

My husband, Alex, and I tear down I-81 from Roanoke to Wytheville, late for a meeting at the Bolling Wilson Hotel. We roll past the big yellow pencil above Wytheville Office Supply, a fantastically silly local landmark, and lurch into a parking space.

(Photo by Sam Dean)

After hustling inside, I ask for Farron Smith, the hotel’s owner. I’m told she’s run across the street to Skeeter’s Hot Dogs, a vintage lunch counter that looks straight out of 1940, the year it opened. Known for its Skeeterdogs—which come dressed with mustard, onion, and chili, along with “baby” Cokes—Skeeter’s is one of Virginia’s oldest continuously operating restaurants and, like the big pencil, it’s a Wytheville mainstay.

I catch my breath and scan the lobby’s neoclassical columns, purple and gold harlequin-backed chairs, and brightly colored sofas. As I’m pondering the quirky art that completes this scene, in walks Smith. She waves off my apologies with a warm smile and, without missing a beat, ushers me into the hotel’s vintage elevator.  


First Lady Edith Wilson’s Hometown

Although the town is named for George Wythe, a lawyer who signed the Declaration of Independence, Wythe himself never set foot here. Instead, Wytheville is more readily known as the “crossroads of the Blue Ridge” and the birthplace of First Lady Edith Bolling Wilson, the second wife of President Woodrow Wilson.

(Photo by Sam Dean)

“Wilson was raised here, in the space above what is now Skeeter’s,” Smith explains as we step into Perch, the hotel’s rooftop bar. As we take in the stunning view across historic homes and steeples to the rolling Blue Ridge Mountains, Smith explains that she’s spent decades researching Wilson. In addition to naming the hotel for the town’s most famous resident, she’s also written a children’s book about Wilson and opened a museum in her honor—one of just eight nationwide dedicated to a first lady.  

From Perch, we work our way down, past well-appointed guest rooms, to the first floor, where the hotel’s restaurant, Graze on Main, serves elevated Southern fare: shrimp and grits and pan-seared trout accompanied by Hoppin-John, collards, or roasted red pepper risotto. Graze also offers an extensive bourbon selection and what I later find to be the best carrot cake I’ve ever tasted.

Along the way, Smith explains the hotel’s clever connections to its namesake. After losing their large farm during the Civil War, the Bollings crammed some twenty relatives into a small apartment, along with just as many canaries. Young Edith was their caretaker, and Perch honors her peculiar flock.

Meanwhile, Graze on Main gives a nod to animals that would later represent Edith’s thrift as first lady. During World War I, she let sheep graze the White House lawn to reduce landscaping costs. Edith is often called the “first female President” because she served as her husband’s emissary after Woodrow Wilson suffered a severe stroke in office in 1919.

(Photo by Sam Dean)

Edgier Than Expected

I welcome this local history lesson, partly because I’m a history nerd and partly because Wytheville ties to my own family’s history. My Momma was born there in 1947. I only visited the town with her once before she passed, and that remains a huge regret. I could have learned so much about her hometown if only I’d taken the time. Still, I’ll always remember a delightful dinner at 1776 Log House, our sole meal in Wytheville.

This eclectic restaurant—inside a rustic 18th-century cabin—recently reopened after a fire gutted its kitchen in 2021. Built as tenant housing for furniture makers, the interior features exposed log walls and antique furnishings, but there’s also a mountain-hippie undercurrent running through the place. The bar floor is made from recycled corks; houseplants hang in many windows; and out back, you’ll find an unruly garden peppered with abstract, rusted metal yard art. 1776 Log House reflects the town itself, which is steeped in history, but far edgier than you might expect.

Take Formato Fine Arts. A gallery and event space founded in 2019 by Lily Formato, an 18-year-old local who wasn’t quite ready for college. This funky space runs the artistic gamut. Pastoral landscapes hang across the room from stylized go-go boots.

(Photo by Sam Dean)

Formato says there are two secrets to her success: The first is TikTok, where she’s amassed over 40,000 followers by posting videos with “tips for submitting to art galleries” and “gift ideas for your artsy friends.” Now, artists from around the world clamber to hang their work in Wytheville. Second, she draws the community into her gallery with art classes and, surprisingly, standing-room-only drag shows.

“We had about 60 slots available, and they sold out in three days,” she says of her last show. “It was really PG too, no alcohol, and I had a line of people trying to get in for overflow tickets.”

While Formato’s animated hands work the air like she’s painting, my husband Alex browses art and our pup curls up on a comfy sofa. It’s tempting to linger here all day, but we still have a lot to see—and I’m ready for coffee.


Locals Helping Locals
(Photo by Sam Dean)

Ducking into Châu’s Corner Bakery, I find myself facing a shelf full of gleaming chocolate-covered cream puffs. Before I can even order, Châu Châu, the shop’s owner and a Houston transplant, offers me a molasses cookie, fresh from the oven. I consider saving it to pair with coffee, but the cookie is so warm and soft it begins to bend under its own weight. I gobble it down while Châu explains how the town rallied to save her bakery and phở shop during the height of the pandemic.

“We had a smaller amount of customers, but the people that came in, they’d spend more,” she says, explaining how regulars would buy phở for friends or order treats for employees. “They would spend hundreds of dollars on brownies and cookies. Who would do that?!”

I don’t spend quite that much, but I do leave Châu’s with a loaf of French bread that’s lightly crisped on the outside and chewy inside, plus a handful of those cream puffs, the perfect airy snack while we walk and I try to picture my family here.

My grandma spent much of her youth in Wytheville. She met my grandpa—a traveling television salesman—while waitressing at the Spring Court Motel, but I have no idea where she lived. I text my aunt. “I’ll get back to you,” she replies, before I meet Todd Allen, the design talent behind Todd Allen Home Decor.


(Photo by Sam Dean)
Handmade Style

A former merchandising manager for Ralph Lauren and Marc Jacobs, Allen returned home to Wytheville after living near Raleigh for years. Armed with years of experience and seriously over-the-top creativity, he launched his own hip home store, Todd Allen Home Décor. While I expected typical imported decorations, Allen, with help from his own grandmother, makes most of his products by hand in his Wytheville design studio.

“I make all the pillows, all the serving trays. I reupholster the furniture if I find a piece I like.” He nearly fails to mention that he also does stunning paintings, builds blanket ladders, and re-textures and hand-paints pottery. When I point out his dizzying creative skills, he’s almost shy. “I just try to do something a little different.”

Leaving Allen’s workroom, I spot a text from my cousin Tammy, the family’s unofficial genealogist. “They lived across from the Wythe Theater, between a liquor store and a pharmacy.” Bingo. This apartment would have been ruled by my grandmother and her sisters, all rowdy teens. “They’d lay on the roof, sunbathing, and the neighbors would complain to their momma,” Tammy adds. I’m not surprised these raucous ladies caused a stir. There’s just one problem. Looking around, I don’t see a Wythe Theater.

I ask Shane Terry, from the local visitor’s bureau, when I meet him for lunch at 7 Dogs Brewpub, a sprawling warehouse that once stored caskets. “I’ve heard of it,” he says, shaking his head, “but I’m not sure where it was.” He takes a sip of Scottish 80, a malty ale that some folks describe as “bread in a glass.” The pub’s fare is simple and delicious—flavorful fish tacos, golden fried pickle chips, and creamy mac ‘n’ cheese.


(Photo by Sam Dean)
Bookstore Jam Sessions

With our bellies full, Alex and I meander into Oracle Books to talk with Randy Shell. Another transplant, he moved to Wytheville from Austin, Texas, seven years ago. “I always wanted to run a bookstore,” he says, “and this is one of the few places in America where I could afford to buy a building.” As with Lily Formato’s gallery, Randy’s store serves multiple functions. It’s also a musical hotspot where locals leave dulcimers and fiddles so they can drop by to jam.

And Shell has stumbled into the used record business. People just bring them by, including an 80-year-old who used to play at The Apollo. He recently gave Shell 78-speed albums that include the first recording of Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene,” plus work from Fats Domino, Big Maybelle, and Little Richard. “I’m going to have him come down and play some of these records and talk about why these people were important,” Shell says, “and what effect they had on him growing up as a young, Black musician.”

Still intent on finding my ancestral apartment, I ask Shell if he’s heard of the Wythe Theater. He walks out the door. “Right there,” he says, pointing to a narrow, yellow-brick building across the street. I angle myself to see up our side. Ahead, a restored neon sign reads Counts Drug and, two doors further, there’s an ABC store. This is it. The building between them is now Schewels Furniture. It’s bricked from top to bottom but tall enough for a second-story apartment. Maybe the structure was refaced, or maybe it replaced my grandmother and her sisters’ home. Either way, it solves my little family mystery.

I walk to it and turn to see the town through the eyes of these wild, young women, who would later help raise me. They must have strolled to Skeeter’s. They surely saw neighbors helping neighbors. I think growing up here fostered a love of historic and charming places, a trait shared not just by Momma and me, but my whole family. It dawns on me that so many of the values these women instilled in my generation—to watch out for others, to take time to chat with neighbors, to cherish and foster a real sense of community—started right here.

Standing in front of their old home, I realize that while I never lived in Wytheville, this little town—full of kindness and quirks—somehow managed to shape me, too.


(Photo by Sam Dean)
Get Outside

New River Trail State Park: Access a section of this 57-mile rail trail in nearby Foster Falls, where you’ll find canoe and bike rentals, boat launches, and a horse arena. The town’s Victorian-era Foster Falls Hotel is undergoing a meticulous restoration and will soon reopen to guests for the first time in over a century.

Beagle Ridge Herb Farm: This 160-acre property features five miles of walking trails through lavender, herb, and butterfly gardens, a Japanese meditation garden, and multi-acre pond. BeagleRidgeHerbFarm.com

Big Walker Lookout: This 100-foot tall observation tower stands at the peak of Big Walker Mountain. From here visitors can see mountain peaks in five states. Guests access the tower from the Big Walker General Store. 

Claw of the Dragon: Wytheville stands at the epicenter of this 200-mile scenic motorcycle route that snakes west into Marion and east into Galax. ClawOfTheDragon.com

Cobb Hill Alpaca Farm: Visitors to this family owned and operated farm can interact with more than a dozen alpacas, collect eggs from free-range chickens, and find handspun yarns and apparel at the farm store. CobbHillAlpacas.com

HIKES:

  • Crystal Springs Loop: Two miles intersecting a rhododendron-lined creek and open fields.
  • High Rocks Trail: 3.5 miles lined with wildflowers and stunning valley views.
  • Seven Sisters Trail: 8.5 miles along a ridge with mountain vistas and an adjacent campground.

Polio Epicenter

Once a popular summer tourist destination, Wytheville entered the national spotlight in the summer of 1950, when it became the town with the highest number of polio cases per capita in the country. Tourists stayed away and local families sent their children to live with relatives or, if they could, left town altogether.  

A deadly disease that could paralyze the circulatory and respiratory systems, polio had been instilling fear across the country since the late 1940s. With a population of 5,550, Wytheville saw 184 cases that summer. One person in every 30 became ill, and the local death rate was 10 percent, double the statewide number.

The story is detailed in A Summer Without Children: An Oral History of Wythe County, Virginia’s 1950 Polio Epidemic, edited by Stevan Jackson and published in 2005 by the Wytheville Department of Museums. Included is an essay by resident David Huddle: “In a Time of Fear and Suffering, Our People Responded with Courage and Decency.” In 1955, Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was licensed, launching a widespread campaign to successfully vaccinate children against the disease. 

The Thomas J. Boyd Museum chronicles Wytheville’s history, as well as the devastating polio epidemic. Exhibits include an iron lung and extensive newspaper coverage. Wytheville.org


Make It a Weekend

Bolling Wilson Hotel: Historic 30-room hotel with rooftop bar and restaurant. Complimentary breakfast, Wi-Fi, and daily newspapers. 170 E. Main St. BollingWilsonHotel.com

Trinkle Mansion Bed and Breakfast: Four elegant guest rooms plus a private garden cottage. Guests enjoy a three-course breakfast. 525 W. Main St. TrinkleMansion.com

1776 Log House Restaurant: This iconic restaurant is back after a devastating fire in 2021. Gift shop and bakery on site. 520 E. Main St. LogHouse1776Restaurant.com

7 Dogs Brewpub: Dog-friendly craft brewery with a full menu. 360 W. Spring St. Facebook: @7dogsbrewpub

Seven Sisters Brewery: Dog- and family-friendly craft brewery. 355 E. Main St. SevenSistersBreweryVa.com

Châu’s Corner Bakery: Bakery and phở shop, all homemade and delicious. 195 S. 1st St., Suite 102. Facebook: @ChausCornerBakery

Devoted to You Boutique: Vintage boho clothing boutique. 145 W. Main St. Facebook: @ShopD2U

Glitz N Glam Boutique: Stylish women’s clothing. 190 W. Main St. Facebook: @tjglitzglam

Antique Station: High-quality selection of antique furniture, sterling silver, glass, majolica, and art. 1998 E. Lee Hwy. Facebook: @vaantiquestation 

Old Fort Antiques Mall: A collection of over 60 antique dealers. 2028 E. Lee Hwy. Antiques-Va.com

African-American Heritage Museum: Photos, memorabilia, and a children’s library in this 1882 schoolhouse tell the story of African-American education in Wythe County. The school was in operation until 1952. 410 E. Franklin St. VisitWytheville.com

1870 Octagon Mansion History Museum: By day, check out historic artifacts—including Abraham Lincoln’s death mask—in this private collection. By night, this hotspot is popular with ghost hunters. 585 W. Main St. Facebook: @octagonmansionat585

Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Museum: One of only eight museums in the nation to focus on the achievements and life of a first lady. 145 E. Main St. EdithBollingWilson.org

Wohlfahrt Haus Dinner Theatre: German-themed dinner theater. Summer schedule includes The Sound of Music through July 24, For God and Country, Aug. 12–Sept.18, and Grease, Sept. 23–Oct.23. WohlfahrtHaus.com


This article originally appeared in the August 2022 issue.

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