Looking Back and Bouncing Back in Wytheville
Its “Summer Without Children” Helped Shape this Resilient Town
by Colette Boehm, Laurie Rowe Communications
Wytheville, VA, April 2020 – As people around the world began to face the harsh realities of coping with the threats and the limitations of a pandemic, the residents of Wytheville, Virginia needed only to look to their history for direction.
This town has always been a natural tourist destination. In the early 20th century, as northerners found their way to Florida and Interstate travel blossomed, Wytheville became a convenient stopping point for travelers. Early on, as is still true now, Wytheville offered the convenience of good food and lodging for long distance travelers along the Great Lakes to Florida Highway. Midway between Bristol and Roanoke, it was a popular stop for regional travelers, as well.
In the summer of 1950 things changed drastically. That’s when Wythe County Virginia came to be considered ground zero for a polio outbreak that spread across the country. Here, rates of infection were dramatically higher than the rest of the nation, as was the death rate among those infected. Along with the illness, fear spread among the 5,500-resident population of Wytheville, as well.
At the center of the most concentrated number of polio cases, plaguing children of every age, race and social status, Wytheville began the 50’s version of social distancing. Children were kept inside, resulting in stories of the “summer without children.” Stores and theatres were closed and church services were cancelled, as residents were afraid to venture out. And as the news of Wytheville’s fate spread beyond its borders, so did the fear. Visitors stopped coming. Billboards were posted on the busy highways, reminding travelers “If you do not stop with us this trip, we invite you to visit us on your next vacation.”
Today, the details of this dire season of Wytheville’s history, along with much more about this one-of-a-kind town, can be explored at the Thomas J. Boyd Museum (295 Tazewell Street, Wytheville, VA 24382). The Great Lakes to Florida Highway Museum (975 Tazewell Street, Wytheville, VA 24382) also offers a look back at that era when Route 21, known as the Great Lakes to Florida Highway, was the primary route to Florida from the Midwest.
While the 1950 outbreak didn’t begin to lessen until fall, the people of Wytheville persevered and, when it was safe to resume their normal lives, the town and its businesses thrived. Seventy years later, Wytheville’s resolve is strong now, just as it was in 1950. And as travelers yearn to get out and experience authentic destinations, this town, with its proven staying power, will welcome them. It stands ready again to invite travelers to “visit us on your next vacation.” From its eclectic downtown business district to its collection of popular attractions, this exciting destination has more reasons than ever for visitors to stop and enjoy the one and only Wytheville.
IF YOU GO
There is only one Wytheville. In addition to its unique history, this Virginia destination is also known for its one-of-a-kind attractions and wide-open spaces. Hiking and biking trails and New River Water Trails offer easy access to exceptional scenic beauty and outdoor fun. In addition, there is an entire slate of homegrown attractions that can only be found in Wytheville.
There’s only one Wytheville. It’s true, no other town in the world shares this name. But with one visit, guests discover that its name is not the only thing making this destination special. Situated at the crossroads of two major Interstates (I-77 and I-81) this is so much more than a stopover location. With a classic downtown chock-full of gems, Wytheville offers unique lodging, dining and entertainment options. Nearby, there are trails for hikers and cyclists as well as for those who love birding and byways. Add a bundle of homegrown attractions, and you’ve got a must-see destination in Wytheville. There’s only one!