This story was originally published in the 2013 October/November issue of Chattanooga Magazine.
Southwest Virginia is particularly beautiful in fall when the Blue Ridge Mountains are covered in autumnal colors. Abingdon, located just over the border from Tennessee, is one place to take in the scenery, along with regional art and layers of history including a Revolutionary War mustering site. The 8,000-resident town has a 20-block historic district loaded with mom-and-pop businesses and restaurants offering farm-to-table meals accompanied by locally produced wines and beers. A monthly trolley tour takes diners to five restaurants for a sample dish and a brief presentation by the chef.
For a serving of history with your meal, or at least a meal in a historic setting, head to the ℹ️ c. 1770 Tavern. Located in the historic district, this building has had several uses over the last two centuries, including post office, general store and tavern accommodating travelers making their way along The Great Road or The Wilderness Road. A self-guided walking tour of downtown includes this and other buildings such as the home of William King, a 19th-century salt merchant. King’s name is also on the local art museum which displays permanent and changing exhibitions and has a sculpture garden.
Abingdon’s Martha Washington Inn offers 63 rooms filled with antiques, two on-site restaurants (a champagne brunch is served on Sundays) and luxurious spa treatments—including dips in an indoor saltwater pool. This building, like many others in Abingdon, has a long and colorful history, beginning in the mid-1800s as a home for Gen. and Mrs. Francis Preston. Later it was the site of a women’s college and Civil War hospital and became a hotel in 1935.
Most visitors come to Abingdon for one of two things: The Barter Theatre or the Virginia Creeper Trail. The latter is a 34.3-mile Rails to Trails Conservancy conversion project, a former rail line now used for cycling, horseback riding, walking and hiking. Native Americans created a path here that was later used by pioneers, among them Daniel Boone en route to Kentucky. (When wolves attacked his dogs while he was camping, he started calling the town Wolf Hills, a name that stuck for a while.) The railroad came in 1900 and left its mark in nomenclature as well as features—the trail’s Virginia Creeper title comes from the steam locomotives once used on the line (Virginia Creeper is also a kind of ivy native to the area).
Autumn is obviously a great time to experience the trail, especially for cooler temperatures and views of leaves in their glorious red, orange and yellow hues. Don’t worry if you’re not a full-time athlete; not only are portions of the trail considered easy enough for almost anyone, there are several options for using it. Bikes can be rented from several outfitters, some of which offer shuttles to the top of Whitetop Mountain allowing cyclists to coast back down the trail.
Once back in Abingdon, people often choose to take in a performance at the Barter Theatre. In fact, 150,000 people attend plays and musicals there each year. The theater’s name reveals a key feature of its founding during the Great Depression when money was tight. Actor and southwest Virginia native Robert Porterfield allowed the audience to trade “ham for Hamlet,” as an early motto went. Plays by Thornton Wilder, George Bernard Shaw, Tennessee Williams and Noel Coward were performed in exchange for produce and other foodstuffs. Today the theater honors this heritage with a few “Barter Days” in June when donations of food are accepted in lieu of admission.
The Barter’s season runs year-round except for January (when the theater is used for singer-songwriter concerts) for a total of 24 plays and musicals annually running the gamut from Shakespeare to Cole Porter, holiday fare, thrillers and new commissions. (Children’s programs are also offered throughout the year.) Like most structures in Abingdon, the theater building had an earlier use—it was originally built in 1831 for the Sinking Springs Presbyterian Church and was later used as the town hall. The décor includes many items salvaged from a New York theater slated to be torn down during the 1930s. A smaller, more intimate space across the street is used for newer plays. This building actually predates the main building by two years and was also previously a church. The Barter Theatre acquired and first renovated it in 1961.
Porterfield’s lasting contribution to Abingdon is the annual Virginia Highlands Festival. The two-week festival celebrated its 65th anniversary this past August and showcases the region’s music and performing arts, crafts and fine arts, as well as culinary arts. This combination is also found at the two-year-old ℹ️ Heartwood, a 27,000-square-foot complex with galleries dedicated to regional crafts, music (it’s part of Virginia’s Crooked Road music trail) and food. Heartwood also serves locally roasted coffees and locally produced wine, beer and other beverages.
Other venues highlighting regional crafts include the ℹ️ Holston Mountain Artisans cooperative with galleries located in a 1902 building that served as the county’s first jail(!) and the ℹ️ Arts Depot, a renovated freight depot, where visitors can chat with artists at work in several onsite studios.
ℹ️ The Abingdon-Crooked Road Music Festival takes place in town every October, there’s also a summer blues festival and other events throughout the year. Music is expected to play an even larger role in bringing people to town with the anticipated opening of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in nearby Bristol, Tenn., next August.
Information about all things Abingdon can be found at visitabingdonvirginia.com or by calling 800-435-3440.
Story by MiChelle Jones
Photography by Jason Barnette Photography