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Going Places: Southwest Virginia Museum worth the trip to Big Stone Gap

August 31st, 2012 1:14 pm by Marsha Salley

Going Places: Southwest Virginia Museum worth the trip to Big Stone Gap

The Southwest Virginia Museum Historical State Park is both historically significant and architecturally appealing for adults as well as children.

"I need a mountain to rest my eyes against," wrote Lee Smith, the popular author from Southwest Virginia.


That quote from Smith’s "Fair and Tender Ladies" was very present with me on the drive from Kingsport down Hwy. 23 north to Big Stone Gap, Va., recently. As I traveled the 40-plus miles to the Southwest Virginia Museum, I was reminded of how imposing and awe-inspiring our Appalachian Mountains are. Every mile closer to my destination, the grander the scenery became. It is the middle of August - an August that followed the hottest July on record - and most of the country is experiencing a pitiless drought. But there is no evidence of drought here where every shade of green is on vivid display.


The drive is pleasant and invites travelers to pull over and enjoy a picnic or to take some photos of the family with the panorama of the Appalachian Mountains as a backdrop. Natural Tunnel State Park is right on Hwy. 23N near Duffield, and would be a great addition to the family outing as well. Being alone I do neither but drive straight to the small museum on First Street in Big Stone.


The Southwest Virginia Museum is a mansion, built by Rufus Ayers in the 1880s. Ayers was the Virginia attorney general during this time. He and others thought that Big Stone Gap could become the "Pittsburgh of the South" because of its iron ore and coal deposits. Rufus was instrumental in helping develop the coal and iron ore industry in Southwest Virginia and bringing the railroads to this area. He was a man of some financial means as evidenced by his mansion.


The exterior of the museum is made of sandstone and limestone, quarried locally and hand-chiseled. The house is imposing with its basement and three floors, and a stone fence surrounds the property with wrought-iron gates at the entrance. It


Upon entering the house, it is not the ballroom that first draws your attention, but the grand Queen Anne staircase and all the interior woodwork, which is native red oak. Docents tell me the oak for the staircase, which is made of one entire piece of wood, had to be soaked in local creeks to make it pliable enough to install. The house was purchased in 1929 by C. Bascom Slemp. A native of Lee County, Slemp served many years in Congress and later became the private secretary to President Calvin Coolidge.


Acquired by the state in 1946 and established as an official museum in 1948, each floor of the home reflects a time in Southwest Virginia. The first floor houses exhibits from the 1870s, when the area enjoyed tremendous growth from the mining industry and the railroad expansion. There are tools and implements displayed, and even a doctor


The Southwest Virginia Museum Historical State Park is both historically significant and architecturally appealing for adults as well as children. The museum can accommodate groups of all kinds and the basement is available for rentals. Any residents or visitors would find it a worthwhile and enjoyable day to spend at this fascinating and charming site. After Labor Day, it is open Tuesday through Thursday from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. For information, contact http://www.swvamuseum.org/ or call 276-523-1322.


Going Places is a monthly feature profiling local attractions, sites and excursions in and around the Tri-Cities area. Watch for it on the fourth Sunday of each month. Share photos and stories from all the places you and your family are going in Sunday Scrapbook at sundayscrapbook@timesnews.net.




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