by Colette Boehm, Laurie Rowe Communications
It’s a diverse and amazing history and it’s on display here. This was ground zero for the worst polio epidemic in U.S. history. It was home to a First Lady often dubbed the “first woman president.” These are just two pieces of the unique history of the Southwest town of Wytheville. Long before the Interstate system, Wytheville was already a favored spot along one of the region’s most popular routes, the Great Lakes to Florida Highway. Today, located at the crossroads of two major Interstates (I-77 and I-81), this is still a convenient stop for travelers. And the Great Lakes to Florida Highway Museum is just one in the collection of museums and historical attractions that gives those who stop and stay an understanding of the unique history and culture of this exceptional destination.
Wytheville’s past is on display at several area museums and the Thomas J. Boyd Museum (295 Tazewell Street) is the perfect place to start. The museum is named for the man considered to be the Father of Wytheville. Thomas Jefferson Boyd was an attorney and entrepreneur and also served as mayor and a member of the Virginia legislature. The museum depicts local history, including displays about the Civil War years and the severe polio epidemic that plagued the county in the summer of 1950. The Discovery Corner offers ten interactive stations where children can learn math and science, as well as local history.
Nearby, the Haller-Gibboney Rock House (205 E. Tazewell Street) was the home of Wytheville’s first resident physician and has played a significant role here since its 1823 construction. Dr. John Haller served this community as a doctor, county coroner and delegate to the Virginia Legislature. The Hallers and their descendants, the Gibboneys and Campbells, lived in the home for 140 years. During that time, they allowed it to be used as an infirmary and a school during the Civil War and later as a boarding house. Now recognized as a historic landmark, the home contains more 1,400 original artifacts and period furnishings.
The Wytheville Training School Cultural Center (410 E. Franklin Street) is the region’s only African American heritage museum. This building was constructed in 1882 as a school for African American children and was in operation until 1952. A non-profit organization was established in 2000 to preserve the school and has now opened it as a public museum. Displays chronicle the achievements of local African Americans and photos, stories and memorabilia tell the history of African American education in Wythe County.
Wytheville is also the birthplace of First Lady Edith Bolling Wilson, the second wife of Virginia-born President Woodrow Wilson. The Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Museum (145 E. Main Street) is located in Wilson’s birthplace and childhood home. This first lady led an amazing life and was a strong and interesting character long before marrying a sitting U.S. president. This museum is one of only eight historic sites across the country dedicated to the interpretation of a first lady. It tells the story of the critical role Edith Bolling Wilson played in the White House at a pivotal moment during World War I. She has been called the “secret president” and the “first woman president” by historians.
The Great Lakes to Florida Highway Museum (975 Tazewell Street) offers a look back to the era when Route 21, known as the Great Lakes to Florida Highway, was the primary route to Florida from the Midwest. As a gas station along the route, this building had direct access to the highway’s travelers. Memorabilia from the building’s opening in 1926 as a gas station through its evolution into a 1950s grocery store is on display. The museum is located near the E. Lee Trinkle Visitors Center, offering the perfect opportunity for visitors to find out more to see and do in Wytheville.
And these historic attractions are only the beginning of the Wytheville story. It has a historic downtown that is also home to a whole host of one-of-a-kind spots. Nearby, significant sites like the Historic Shot Tower (283 Pauley Flatwoods Road, Austinville, VA 24312) over the New River and the Mansion at Fort Chiswell (325 Factory Outlet Drive, Max Meadows, VA 24360) add to the area’s appeal for history buffs.