It’s a Complicated Place, Franklin County

I’ve had the chance to learn and write a little bit about the history of the southwestern Virginia counties that border Smith Mountain Lake. I’ve learned some of the area’s darker history from Beth Macy’s excellent book, Truevine, and also from our neighbor, who grew up in Woolwine, Virginia, not too far from here.

I’ve seen the Confederate soldier manning the porch at the Franklin County Historical Society, and have been in there doing research when other folks have come in looking for their ancestors among the volumes of data amassed inside.

But this week I was grateful to the Washington Post for its article about how Franklin County, a tiny county (56,000 of us as of 2019) was introduced to the Black Lives Matter movement. “When Black Lives Matter came to white, rural America,” tells the story of three women, Katosha Poindexter, Bridgette Craighead, and Malala Penn, who are trying to raise awareness of racial justice here.

I learned that Franklin County is nearly 90 percent white, which supports what I’ve seen in the past two years we’ve lived at the lake. I learned that the Ku Klux Klan was very active not very far from where we now live. And sadly, from some of the comments on local social media pages about the women’s BLM protest, I learned that some ugly attitudes are still around.

Fortunately, I’m catching up today with a college friend who has a keen eye and ties to Smith Mountain Lake; maybe Heidi will help me sorth things out.

Where I Live

For the last couple of weeks it feels like most of the things I tend to write about are terribly trivial.

… an unnecessary insertion into a week filled with long overdue conversations about race that deserved our full and undivided attention.

Monica Hesse, The Washington Post, June 9, 2020

But like most of us, I suspect, I’ve been thinking about race a whole lot since the end of May, along with my place in making things better.

Because the place where I live, in this corner of southwest Virginia, has a lot going for it:

It’s hay bale season and every field is now full of these
We also have ridiculous scenery
And real farmers!

And we live among some of the kindest people you’ll ever meet.

But this corner of the world is also trying to figure out, I think, where it stands regarding its past.

The Confederate on the porch used to stand at the courthouse. He moved to the historical society when he was replaced (with another Confederate)

And while it’s not too unusual to see a Confederate flag in someone’s yard, on the other hand, our county’s school board voted just last week to ban the symbol from its dress code, overturning a decision to the contrary that was just made in January of this year.

There’s a lot to think about.

From Here? Come Here?

I am doing some work with the Smith Mountain Arts Council — just press releases, but that’s enough that they invite me to monthly board meetings — and it’s a sad time for the arts council because we are having to cancel all of our events, of course. This was the subject of some conversation at our last meeting (on Zoom); the council comprises many talented and energetic people (mostly retired) who want to offer some kind of outlet for performance and give their neighbors a chance to get out for an evening.

One of the guys in the group finally spoke out, confessing that he and his wife would absolutely not be going out until they were completely comfortable that it was safe. There was much agreement.

Then I ran into a neighbor this morning who expressed some exasperation that businesses aren’t opening back up quickly enough. I was a little surprised by her reaction, and I’ll admit that was because she is well into her sixties, in a demographic that I assumed would be more on the side of keeping things locked down a little longer.

But that’s just my oversimplified thinking, obviously.

I do a lot of thinking about the people who are “From Here’s” — whose families have lived in Franklin County for hundreds of years, who have Confederate soldiers in their family trees, and who have seen the fortunes of this place rise and fall with manufacturing, tobacco, the railroads, and farming. On the other hand, a lot of us folks around the lake are “Come Here’s” — people who are mostly retired, and who have moved from places in North Carolina and Virginia, certainly, but many of whom are from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin (where my neighbor mentioned above originated).

Items like this little fella are available for purchase at a local gift store.

I fall into the trap of thinking that the Come Here’s think one way, and the From Here’s think another. But my conversations over the last couple of days once again illustrate that that’s more than a little naive. Then I default to thinking, gee, I wish I was a historian or sociologist, just to try to make sense of it all.

Tomorrow, I promise, I will lighten up and talk more about fun quarantine activities and pondering if our college son will ever get out of bed before mid-afternoon.

A Shocking Scene on the Road

I saw something today that reminded me how special this area is.

I had a little bit of business to attend to at one of the local marinas this afternoon (fun fact: there are marinas all around the lake, and some of them got their start 50+ years ago, when a family saw its farmland become covered in water from the Smith Mountain dam project and decide to pivot into a new line of work. These are resourceful folks around here).

I found myself traveling behind a Franklin County school bus, and when it got to a stop at one of the neighborhoods off Burnt Chimney road, two youngsters (both under 10, certainly) climbed out, and as the bus drove away, they jumped on their bikes which they had evidently left at the bus stop this morning to ride to their home.

To someone from the “mean streets” of Fairfax County (up in ultra suburban Northern Virginia), this was a shocker. I don’t know if that shock says more about Franklin County or me.

I’ve got some secrets for you

Not really secret secrets, but a whole lot of tidbits that I’ve been snooping up over the spring and summer.

I’ve been lucky enough to have been writing a few stories for our local Laker Magazine. And even better, they are history-related; researching them has taken me all over the place, which is awesome when you move to a new spot.

So check this out.

In May, right before the 75th Anniversary of the D-Day Invasion, I wrote a piece about the National D-Day Memorial that’s just up the road from us in Bedford, Virginia (it’s on page 24). I also added an article about Moneta, Virginia, which featured in the 1991 Disney movie, What about Bob? (Of course, you knew that movie was filmed at Smith Mountain Lake, not Lake Winnipesaukee, because it’s easier to spell it was early fall when they began filming and chilly New Hampshire was busting out in colorful leaves.) That one is on page 66.

In June, I wrote about Huddleston, Virginia (page 32), one of the communities near the lake that was, at one time, a more substantial town. It was named for Henry Huddleston Rogers, a guy who used his own funding to build a railroad to transport coal from the fields in West Virginia down to the ports in Hampton Roads. He also had some famous friends…

In July, I got to share some information about Wirtz, Virginia (page 36), which is a very tricky place to actually find. This article also includes a huge shout-out to the folks at the Franklin County Historical Society, because I bothered them so much I think I started to get on their nerves a little bit.

In the August issue, I had a piece about some very unusual residents of Penhook, Virginia (page 34 and SPOILER: they were German POWs, working as farm labor during WWII), and the mistake that gave the community its name. In researching the story, I was able to drive by the dairy farm that still stands on Route 40, and also make the acquaintance of the marvelous man whose wife had been tasked with bringing water to the prisoners working on her grandfather’s farm back in the 40s.

I added the page numbers for the links, above, because I know you’re busy and I really just appreciate you even taking a minute to (a) peruse these li’l projects and (b) even read this blog after I’ve neglected it for so long. But the Laker Magazine is really a gorgeous showcase of what makes SML cool and lovely. It is definitely worth looking through.

I hope you enjoy that end-of-summer reading! If you ever cross my path in person, rest assured that I have multiple copies of the hard-copy magazines to share. 🙂

Meet my Neighbors: German Baptist Brethren

Our home in Franklin County has a well.

When we first offered to buy it, a well inspection was part of the home inspection. Our well inspector, Dale, was my first introduction to the Old German Baptist Brethren.

The German Baptist Brethren are a community that has been a part of Franklin County since the 1700s. Many of them dress “plain”: the men wear long beards, broad-brimmed black hats, dark colors. The women wear white or black caps over neatly pulled-back hair and dresses that cover their arms and legs. But oh, those dresses are beautiful! Made of cotton prints, I’ve seen them in every color imaginable.

I was fortunate because the company that inspects wells also offers exterminator services, and Steve, who came out here to take care of a little pest problem, appeared in his hat, suspenders, and impressive beard, and struck up a conversation. After a minute or two, he said, “Well, I’m being very rude! Here I am asking you questions about yourself and I bet you have questions about me!”

As they say in Franklin County, this was a blessing. I’ll be honest, one of the drawbacks to this part of Virginia is a certain lack of diversity. And I love this diversity of a different kind.

The Roanoke Times just added an article about a big German Baptist meeting that is coming up next week (old news to me because Steve told me about it!). But you should check it out and you can see more about these new neighbors of mine.

Cherry Blossoms, FraCo Style

This is our first spring in the southwestern part of Virginia, and for a couple of weeks, I found myself really missing the cherry blossoms in Washington, DC.

The cherry blossoms are famous. They ring the Tidal Basin near the Potomac River and draw crowds from around the world. Seriously large crowds, my friends, and the challenge of finding the right time to visit and avoid those crowds is a DC-area pastime in itself.

Beautiful, right? For awhile, it seemed like all of my northern VA friends were posting pictures just like this one, making me wistful for the old homeplace.

But then I noticed something along the roads.

This place is awash in redbuds.

We had a redbud in front of our house when I was growing up. We also had a crabapple, whose flowers mimicked those cherry trees and made the redbud look a little less, well, profuse by comparison. Sad to say, our redbud was not a major player in my childhood floral memories.

They definitely have a different flavor. In the past, I had only seen them as little glimpses of pink contrasting the sea of new green around them.

But when you get a lot of them together, it’s pretty impressive.

Franklin County has a lot of redbuds.

In fact, I was reading an old newspaper article about the initial filling of Smith Mountain Lake where the reporter bemoaned the loss of the redbud trees as the waters rose. And even better, when a friend posted a photo of his own (northern Virginia) redbud, I learned that he is a Franklin County native with stories to tell about growing up here.

So I (almost) quit missing the cherry blossoms because these buds have a beauty that is quite as nice.

Shakespeare in the Mountains

Jim loves a William Shakespeare play and we have been hearing for years about the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia. Now that we are only two hours away, we decided to check it out.

Staunton is just north of us, and we had a beautiful trip through the woods. Jim made arrangements for us to see a matinee performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor, which allowed us a leisurely Saturday morning before heading up to see the show.

The American Shakespeare Center has been around since 1988, according to its website, and in 2001 it settled into its current theater, the world’s only recreation of Shakespeare’s Blackfriar’s Playhouse. It is beautiful!

“Sit on the stage if you can,” suggested my friend Colleen when I told her we were going. And indeed, there are ten stools lining the sides of the stage, but at our show, they were taken up by high school students (whose clear enjoyment of the show added to the general merriment of the afternoon).

Because it was amazingly fun. I have never seen a Shakespeare production where:

  • The bar selling beer and wine at the beginning of the show (and during intermission) is on the stage itself.
  • The cast begins the performance with some musical numbers: a bluegrass-sounding tune, followed by renditions of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” a raucous “She’s a Bad Mama Jama,” and, at intermission, J. Geils Band’s “Love Stinks.” If you haven’t seen The Merry Wives, trust me that these selections are all on point.
  • They leave the lights in the house up so the actors can see and interact with the audience.
  • The lady sitting next to you wears a “cold shoulder” top to show off her tattoo of the bard himself on her shoulder.
Just like this one I got from Wikipedia.

It was a veritable festival of Shakespeare that made me understand how people can be superfans. I was inspired to include his work into more of my reading rotation, and we will definitely be making that trip again.

Trip to the Capital

You might have heard that here in my state (Virginia) the governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general have some troubles on their hands. Well, I took off to Richmond yesterday to set them straight.

Not really. In my pursuit of Franklin County history, I spent the day at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, which is also in Richmond.

As soon as I started trying to track down information on some of our local communities, it occurred to me that the Virginia Museum’s library might have some information to share. In response to a quick message left on their Contact Us page, I got an email from one of their reference pros who had found some actual books for me to peruse!

Reasoning that Richmond was only a three hour drive up the road, I set off bright and early yesterday to traverse the commonwealth and get some answers. About Franklin County, not our executive branch.

The library is a seriously scholarly place. The friendly woman at the front desk had me register as a researcher and explained that if I needed a book, I could look it up on their online catalog and write its information on a call slip (in pencil, you know, because they don’t allow pens or highlighters) (they had pencils to share), and they’d pull it for me. She then indicated a number of computers on the far side of the library.

Some of the computers were located on a nice, spacious desk area, and I headed right for them. “Can I help you?” asked a well-dressed man who looked like he belonged there. “Well, I think I’m okay,” I replied. “I’m just going to set up here and look up these books that I got from your colleague.”

He patiently explained that I had parked myself in the employees-only section of the reference room, but then also showed me to the computers for the regular folks as well as how to look up items in the online catalog, just to show there were no hard feelings.

Did I find all the answers I needed? Hmmm. I still think that Linda over at the Franklin County Historical Society is the real source of Franklin County intel. But it was amazing to learn from a book from 1926.

And I left with a huge appreciation for historians and library professionals. This project — as well as the current events in our state — reinforces for me how very complicated history can be.

Visit with Ghosts

I made it back to the Franklin County Historical Society today; while I think I’ve done all the research I need there for my project, I really wanted to see the museum on the second floor.

The FCoHS is housed in a 1925 home, beautifully preserved. They do not allow photographs inside without arranging it ahead of time, so I cannot show you the wonders that I saw today, but if you check out their website, you can see some for yourself.

Flags are rolled up for rainy days

One does not simply roll around the museum on the second floor of the FCoHS. I was escorted by Ruth, who explained to me that she was also a newcomer to Franklin County, having lived here a mere 25 years ( in contrast, her husband’s family has been here for generations). The Society’s museum packs into its spaces an immense collection of artifacts, clothing, military (including Confederate) uniforms and memorabilia, and documents. Ancient church organs, land grant documents from the 1700s, and reminders of the tobacco industry that had enriched Virginia compete for attention, and it’s worth a look around and behind everything, because every object may well hide another.

Ruth explained that the “tobacco room” and the moonshine exhibits were being moved to the annex in the back of the building, which is not open to the public yet. I was able to capture it from the outside, though; it’s the sight that greets you as barrel up the driveway to the parking lot behind the FCoHS office.

The museum absolutely does its job, reflecting a devotion to the people who have lived in Franklin County since before the Europeans settled it. This visit reinforced for me that I still have a lot to learn about the place.