by Patricia Apelt
After the bison and Native Americans had made their trails along the valley floor, early American pioneers followed. Their major route soon became known as The Great Valley Road, Boone’s Trace, The Great Road, The Wilderness Trail, then Route 11, and a part of it is now known as Main Street, Abingdon, Virginia.
In 1746, an expedition lead by Dr. Thomas Walker explored and surveyed the region and in 1769 a chance meeting of one of Dr. Walker’s friends, Joseph Martin, with Daniel Boone would change American history. Martin had accepted a challenge from Dr. Walker to form a settlement in what is now Powell Valley, Virginia. In 1773, a group led by Daniel Boone came by on their way to Kentucky. By this time, Boone had been leading groups of pioneers along this route west for many years.
In 1775 Judge Richard Henderson, a wealthy businessman and a group of his friends hired both Martin and Boone to work for the newly formed Transylvania Company. They intended to encourage settlement in the western states of Kentucky and Tennessee. Martin would serve as entry taker & civil leader in Powell Valley while Boone would serve as chief guide & scout and civil leader on the Kentucky side of the Cumberland Mountains. Boone led settlers from as far away as Pennsylvania through both the Cumberland Gap and Big Stone Gap, using The Wilderness Road for a large part of his route. It is estimated that approximately 2 to 300,000 hopeful settlers used the Wilderness Road in the years 1775 to 1810.
One of Daniel Boon’s favorite camping sites was along the creek flowing through parts of modern-day Abingdon. A legend tells us that while camped at this site, there was once an attack on Boone’s hunting dogs from wolves that lived in a cave nearby. He then started calling the area Wolf Hills and the emerging settlement was known by that name for several years. Wolf statues, carvings, and other artwork still turn up frequently in the town gift shops. A home was built on the property, but the wolf cave entrance has been preserved and can be seen in the back of the yard of the home.
“Black’s Fort was erected in the year 1776 on the lands of Capt. Joseph Black, on the west bank or near the west bank of what was then known as Eighteen Miles Creek, alias Castle’s Creek, by the settlers living in the vicinity, and about five hundred other settlers who had fled from their homes west of Abingdon upon the outbreak of the Indian War in 1776. It was one of those rude structures which the pioneers were accustomed to make for defense against the Indians, consisting of a few log cabins surrounded by a stockade.” The Cave House From an article written by C. ROBERT WEISFELD, Special to the Washington County News on Nov 13, 2015:
This fort was named the county seat of Washington County and was known by Black’s Fort until it and the surrounding settlement were incorporated in 1778. The fort itself and all of Wolf Hills was then re-named Abingdon in honor of First Lady Martha Washington’s ancestral home, Abingdon Parish in England.
The settlement had several groups of residents meeting as early as 1770 for religious services. These were usually held in individual homes, and some were served by circuit riders from more populated areas of the state. The first minister who came to Abingdon in 1773 was Parson Charles Cummings. He was known as “The Fightin’ Parson” because he always leaned his rifle against the pulpit while he led the service. Whether it was protection against the Indians or the wolves was never clear. His log cabin has been moved to the Sinking Spring Cemetery and preserved as it would have been in his lifetime. Several congregations grew over the years, including a Swendenborgian Church (New Jerusalem Church) in 1835, and the Catholic Villa Marie Academy of the Visitation (a girl’s school) in 1867. Today, there are United Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, and Baptist churches, as well as other denominations.
As early as 1782 the town had several log houses, a log courthouse, jail, a blacksmith shop, and three taverns.
One of those taverns was built in 1779, has been well preserved, and is still used as a restaurant and meeting room today. Known simply as The Tavern, it has cozy fireplaces, low ceilings, narrow doorways, very good food, and it’s very own ghost.
Back when The Tavern was also an Inn for overnight guest such as Henry Clay, Louis Philippe, King of France; President Andrew Jackson; and Pierre Charles L’Enfant, designer of Washington D.C.
It also had a fair number of women that only came to be “Pleasure Doxies” for some of the travelers staying there. One of them was murdered by the man who hired her, then he promptly left town and was never caught. She continues to search all over the tavern looking for the man, but she also occasionally pinches customers on the rump, or knocks china to the floor, or floats around creating other mischief. The entire staff of The Tavern make sure they always work in twos, and especially never close up after hours alone. She can be mean.
Walking several blocks East on Main Street brings you to The Martha Washington Inn and Spa, known as “The Martha” to the locals. The Martha Washington Inn & Spa began life as the retirement home for General Robert Preston following his successes in the War of 1812. It was built in 1832 as a private residence for General Preston and Sarah Buchanan Preston and their nine children. Much of the architectural integrity of this historic landmark has been meticulously preserved for over a century and a half. The original brick residence still comprises the central structure of The Martha Washington Hotel and the original living room of the Preston family is now the main lobby of the hotel and the grand stairway and parlors are today much as they were in the 19th century.
In 1858 the Preston family home was purchased in order for the mansion to become an upscale college for young women. In honor of the first lady of our nation, the school was named Martha Washington College. The college operated for over 70 years through the Civil War and the Great Depression. In fact, it was during the Civil War that many of the Martha’s most intriguing ghost stories and legends evolved.
The “War Between the States” had a dramatic effect on the college. Schoolgirls became nurses and the beautiful grounds became training barracks for the Washington Mounted Rifles. Union and Confederate troops were involved in frequent skirmishes in and around the town with the College serving as a makeshift hospital for the wounded, both Confederate and Yankee. One of the nurses fell in love with a Union officer who was dying from his injuries. To help him feel better, she would often take her violin to his room and play for him. She still does.
There is often seen a fully saddled horse running over the grounds, looking for his master who died in a battle on the grounds. There are several other sightings of ghost in different areas of the building and upstairs in one wing, there is a blood spot on the floor that will not stay hidden.
Despite the devastating effects of the Civil War, the Martha Washington College survived. However, the Great Depression, typhoid fever and a declining enrollment eventually took its toll. The Martha was closed in 1932, standing idle for several years. For a period of time the facility was used to house actors and actresses appearing at the Barter Theatre. Patricia Neal, Ernest Borgnine, and Ned Beatty are but a few of the prominent actors who began their career here… all of whom have later returned to visit The Martha.
In 1935, The Martha Washington opened as a hotel and throughout the years has hosted many illustrious guests. Eleanor Roosevelt, President Harry Truman, Lady Bird Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Elizabeth Taylor are counted among the many famous guests who have frequented the hotel.
In 1984, The United Company, representing a group of dedicated businessmen, purchased The Martha Washington and began a multi million-dollar renovation. Aware of this historic landmark’s importance to the town of Abingdon, the restoration was carefully designed to preserve and enhance much of its original splendor and architectural detail. In 1995, The Martha Washington Inn joined The Camberley Collection of fine historic properties.
Directly across Main Street from the Martha is the Barter Theatre. The man who began it was Robert H. Porterfield, (December 21, 1905 – October 28, 1971) from Saltville, Virginia, about 1-mile south of Abingdon. Growing up on a sheep farm, he soon realized he did not want to be a farmer, but did want to be an actor. He left home and went to New York City, but his timing was bad. Because it was The Great Depression, there was no work. After landing a bit part with a touring company, he came up with a great idea while riding a train with rest of the cast in the Midwest. Convincing some of his fellow very hungry and out of work friends to join him, they came back to Abingdon and began bartering produce from the farms and gardens of the region for the admission to a play. During this time, he continued to accept stage and film roles however, and his most prominent, credited film role was in the 1941 film Sargent York in which he portrayed Zeb Andrews, a local rival of the title character.
1933, Barter Theatre opened its doors, proclaiming “With vegetables you cannot sell, you can buy a good laugh.” The price of admission was 40 cents or equivalent amount of produce. Four out of five Depression-era theatregoers paid their way with vegetables, dairy products and livestock. To the surprise of many, all the seats for the first show were filled. The concept of trading “ham for Hamlet” caught on quickly. At the end of the first season, the Barter Company cleared $4.35 in cash, two barrels of jelly and a collective weight gain of over 300 pounds. Today, at least one performance a year celebrates the Barter heritage by accepting donations for an area food bank as the price of admission. Legion says that the very first ticket was paid for with a small pig. She was so cute the cast could not bring themselves to make bacon or hams from her. Instead, they would tie her out in front of the theater and her squeals would let people know a show was about to start. Porterfield was once quoted as saying “That one pig has done more for drama than any individual or institution.” (As printed in the book “WILL WORK FOR FOOD”, available from the Barter Theater Gift Shop.
The actors performing at the building were distracted not only by the occasional squealing pig or clucking hen, but noise from the town jail, which was located directly beneath the stage. The jail space was later used as a holding area for dogs suspected of rabies. It was eventually converted into dressing rooms for Barter actors.
Although being allowed to live in the now closed Martha Washington School for girls, the players used several stages during the early years, but finally found the home they have now. Built around 1830, it was intended to be the combined church for both a Methodist and a Baptist congregation. Before the construction was finished, the two groups decided they each needed their own building. It was purchased by the town of Abingdon and was used as an opera house and then the Town Hall. It is still owned by the town and the Barter still rents it from the town for $2.00 per year.
An interview with the current Producing Artistic Director Richard Rose brought out several interesting highlights. The Barter is the first true repertory theater in the country, was designated the State Theater for Virginia in 1941, with a residential acting company and technical crew of about 130 full-time employees and about the same number of part-timers. Most of their audience consists of return patrons from within a 150-mile radius. The Barter was at the forefront of “color-blind casting”, and have continued to do so. There are apprenticeships available for technical students, the Barter has a thriving children’s’ theater, and sponsors the annual Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights to encourage new writers. They often include some of these plays in their regular lineup.
Mr. Rose also talked about the ghost of the Barter. Before the renovation of the theater in 1995, a balcony ran down both sides of the upstairs almost to the stage. Several actors over the years talked of seeing Robert Porterfield, always dressed in a white suit, sitting in a seat on the front row of that balcony every opening night. Or he would be seen at other times looking out of one of the front windows. After the renovation of the theater, he has not been seen.
While interesting, there is so much more than ghosts and legends in Abingdon, Virginia. It is the beginning of the 34.3 mile Virginia Creeper Trail and the Muster Grounds for the Overmountain Men-1000 volunteers who helped turn the tide in our favor during the American Revolution. The Muster Grounds is also the trail head for the 330-mile Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail. If you do not care for hiking and/or biking, there are numerous historic places to visit, such as the Sinking Spring Cemetery, the William King Museum of Art, White’s Mill, and a self-guided walking tour of the downtown Historic District. There are numerous places to eat and several nearby motels, hotels, and inns for overnight stays. Be sure to check out the Abingdon Visitor Center/Hassinger House on Cummings Street. They have a very helpful, courteous staff that can offer tons of information about the area and the people.
Abingdon, Virginia is a wonderful small town with a big heart. A great place to visit or maybe even become a “local.” You would be welcomed.
If you go:
About the author:
Patricia Apelt has been an avid reader since she was first able to hold a book in her hands. She is now writing them herself, with two novels already published and a third is ‘a work in progress’. She is also exploring the world of Travel Writer and enjoying it very much. She has five grown children and lives with her husband and three dogs in Poquoson, Virginia. www.patriciaapelt-author-connections.com
Photo credit: RebelAt (talk) (Uploads) / Public domain