Abingdon, Virginia – A Hidden Gem

2017-08-05 | Art, Travel

Abingdon Virginia – A Hidden Gem

My wife and I have stopped at Abingdon, Virginia every time we travel to and return from our favorite vacation spot – Snowshoe Mountain, West Virginia. Abingdon is at the halfway point between our home and Snowshoe. For over 15 years we have stopped at the same Cracker Barrel and filled up at the same gas station in Abingdon, never venturing into the town itself.

This time we made a point to spend a day in Abingdon and explore this city – a city we have only seen from the “outside”. It turned out to be a wonderful surprise, and most likely will alter the urgency of this previously carefully scheduled stop.

There are many things to mention in Abingdon. I’m only going to elaborate on a few of them, namely the hiking, biking, riding trail called the Virginia Creeper, The Martha Washington Inn, and the Barter Theater. Abingdon also hosts many events during the year, such as Virginia Highlands Festival, which began in 1948 as a 7-day display of crafts and music, is now a 16-day event.

The Virginia Creeper

The Virginia Creeper Trail starting at Abingdon VA

The Virginia Creeper Trail starting from Abingdon. It is 17 miles from Abingdon to Damascus then 17 more miles to the top of Whitetop Mtn.

The Virginia Creeper was originally a railroad bed. It was conceived as a way to get iron ore out of the area to market. Finally, after two failed attempts and bankruptcies, and a major change in purpose, the Virginia-Carolina Railroad Company purchased the assets of the previous company. In 1900 they opened for business in the nearby town of Damascus. By 1912 they had extended the railroad to the top of Whitetop Mountain. The railroad was used mainly to remove timber from the area.

The last remaining locomotive that ran the Virginia Creeper railway

The last remaining locomotive that ran the Virginia Creeper railway

Long story short, when all the usable timber was cut down and sold, the railroad began to fail. In 1977 the tracks were removed. The land was secured by the US Forest Service and was converted into a 34-mile recreational trail, starting atop Whitetop Mtn, going through Damascus, and ending in Abingdon.

Shuttles transport tourists to the top of the mountain, where they mount their rented or owned bicycles and descend the 17 miles to Damascus. We enjoyed hiking on the trail, starting at Abingdon. The trail is mostly gravel with residue of ancient coal from trains long ago. Much of the trail wanders through neighborhoods and is shaded by wonderful old growth trees.

The Virginia Creeper Information building at Abingdon Virginia

The Virginia Creeper Trail Information building at Abingdon Virginia

After a strenuous hike, one must eat, of course. We chose a local restaurant called Rain. It was close to their lunchtime closing hour, so we had the outside patio all to ourselves. The food was great and the service excellent. I had a portobello sandwich, while my wife savored the fish tacos. Content and happy after a good meal, we set off to see the historic Martha Washington Inn.

The exterior of the Rain Restaurant at Abingdon Virginia

The Rain Restaurant at Abingdon Virginia

Martha Washington Inn

The Martha Washington Hotel and Spa

The Martha Washington Hotel and Spa

The Martha Washington Inn was originally built as the home of General Francis Preston. General Preston was a hero of the war of 1812. He built the home in 1832 for his wife and nine children. The building went through many uses, including a training ground for Confederate soldiers, and the Martha Washington College for women, which operated from 1860-1932. It is across the street from the Barter Theater.

A plaque showing the history of the Martha Washington College

The history of the Martha Washington College

Now the inn, often referred to as The Martha, is a beautiful hotel. In 1984 it underwent an 8 million dollar renovation and is now part of the Camberley Collection of Historic Places. The Martha is quite pricey, and although we didn’t stay there this time, it is on our bucket list.

The Barter Theater

Although Abingdon is a small town of a little more than 8000 people, it is home to a theater that is a prime destination for many tourists. The theater now consists of two stages, each in a separate building. The theater began during the Depression when money and entertainment were scarce. Robert Porterfield, himself an actor, proposed opening the theater for business, paying either the 40 cent admission, or paying with produce or livestock. The Barter Theater was born.

“With vegetables you cannot sell, you can buy a good laugh.”

Porterfield was an enterprising soul in many ways. When he heard that the Empire Theater in NYC was going to be demolished, he arranged to salvage the furnishings and equipment. In a single weekend he was able to remove $75,000 of tapestries, lighting, seats, paintings, and carpet. The Empire Theater lighting system was used by the Barter well into the 1970’s.

The fountain depicting Midsummer's Night Dream at the Barter Theater Stage 2

The second stage at the Barter Theater. This stage has been recently updated. It is located across the street from the Barter.

Like Saturday Night Live, the Barter Theater was the “birthplace” of many budding young actors, including Ernest Borgnine, Wayne Knight, Gregory Peck, Ned Beatty, Patricia Neal, Hume Crony, Gary Collins, and Larry Linville.

The Barter Theater hosts many types of shows, such as Footloose, The Neverending Story, Million Dollar Quartet, Madame Buttermilk, and Ghost, Ghost, Come Out Tonight.

In summary

Abingdon, Virginia is a wonderful place to visit. The weather is good, there’s plenty of outdoor activities, there’s great culture, and, as in every city, a wealth of history. Next time you are on your way to your favorite place, if Abingdon is on the way, take the time to stop and enjoy the many experiences this town offers.