Quirky, inspiring, and sometimes tragic…Smyth County is home to some fascinating historical sites, from pre-history to the modern industrial age.
We’ve put together a driving tour of Smyth County’s top historic attractions, perfect for families or history buffs alike. Genealogists will want to make the Smyth County Historical Society & Museum their first stop. Located in downtown Marion, VA, the museum houses local artifacts from the county’s pre-colonial past up through the 20th century. Volunteers offer a wealth of knowledge for researchers interested in their family’s Smyth County roots.
And where should you stay while you’re exploring Smyth County’s history? The only option for true history lovers is The General Francis Marion Hotel, a fully-restored 1927 beauty that is listed on the National Register for Historic Places.
Marion, Virginia and the birthplace of Mountain Dew
Start your history tour at the front door of the Smyth County Museum. At your feet, you’ll find one of 26 historic markers, set into the brick sidewalks of the Marion historic district. Learn about the Marion origins of the soft drink Mountain Dew.
Originally created as a chaser for hard liquor, the world famous yellow-green beverage owes its existence to Mr. Bill Jones of the Tip Corporation, Marion. Although other cities claim a stake in the soda’s beginnings, it was in Marion where Jones carefully tinkered with the formula, creating the caffeinated, carbonated lemon-lime flavor we know today, which he then sold to PepsiCo in the 1960s.
Stroll the downtown district and take a self-guided tour of the other historical markers.
The Lincoln Theatre, Southwest Virginia’s original “movie palace”
Charles C. Lincoln, Sr. was the wealthiest man in Marion, Virginia in the 1920s. After completion of The Lincoln Hotel (currently the General Francis Marion Hotel), Lincoln set his sights on bringing motion pictures to Marion. After returning from a business trip to Atlantic City, New Jersey, his mission was to replicate a grand movie palace that had captured his attention during his journey.
Lincoln sought the services of New York’s Novelty Art Studios to design the interior of the theatre, which was meant to evoke the feeling of walking into an ancient Mayan temple. Elaborate bas relief glyphs were designed to adorn the walls and proscenium, with hand-painted murals depicting scenes from American history, created by local artist Lola Poston. Sadly, “C.C.” Lincoln died of pneumonia on December 23, 1928, at the age of 63, and would never see the completion of his marvelous theatre. After much anticipation, The Lincoln Theatre officially opened on July 1, 1929, with Close Harmony starring Buddy Rogers and Nancy Carroll.
In recent decades, passionate citizens raised money to fully restore the theatre to its 1920s glory, and reinvented the building as a performing arts venue, offering live music, film festivals and other events. The theatre is home to the beloved music program Song of the Mountains, broadcast internationally on PBS affiliates.
See a performance schedule at thelincoln.org, or call the box office to inquire about a guided tour.
Sallie’s Crying Tree and the African-American stories of Smyth County
An official Virginia historical marker relays the story of Sarah Elizabeth “Sallie” Adams (1841-1913), a young girl of about five when she, her mother, and other family members were sold at a slave auction at the Smyth County Courthouse. The results left the enslaved Sallie alone and a “body servant” to the sickly wife of Marion resident Thomas Thurman. Over the years, Sallie would express her grief by crying next to a white oak tree in the Thurman yard and “sometimes hug the tree and tell it about her burdens and sorrows.” The community named the oak “The Crying Tree.”
Find other historical markers at Mount Pleasant Methodist Church in Marion, and at Carnegie High School, the historically black high school where Katherine Johnson, who later made crucial contributions to the U.S. space program at NASA, taught for several years.
For even more important historical sites, read our blog post on Black History in Smyth County.
The Settlers Museum of Southwest Virginia, Atkins
The Settlers Museum of Southwest Virginia is a 67 acre open-air museum that tells the story of the people who settled in the mountains of Virginia and how its unique culture was developed. The Migration Story of the people who came to these mountains in the mid-1700s is a tale of two groups, the Scotch-Irish and the Germans, who carved their farms from the wilderness and formed the mountain culture. The farm, with its restored farmhouse and nine preserved outbuildings, and the 1894 schoolhouse provide a wonderful example of rural life in the late 19th century.
The grounds of the Settlers Museum are open year-round. Check the website for Visitor Center Hours, which may be affected by covid.
The Smyth County Octagon House
In 1856, Abijah Thomas was the foremost industrialist of Smyth County. When he decided to build a new home to reflect his status in the community, he bucked the architectural trends of the antebellum south, and commissioned an 8-sided brick mansion now known as The Octagon House. Why an octagon? He may have been inspired by architect Orson Fowler, who proposed that octagonal homes would be inexpensive, give excellent views from all sides and allow for better ventilation. Or as one other theory suggests, perhaps he just wanted to stand out from the crowd.
Today, visitors can tour the grounds, and read interpretive markers about the building’s history, and the Foundation’s plans for future rehabilitation.
The Konnarock Training School, now Blue Ridge Discovery Center
Built for the Women’s Missionary Society of the United Lutheran Church in America, the Konnarock Training School served as a private boarding school for girls and a public day school for children of underprivileged mountain families. The school’s curriculum focused on the cultural, spiritual, and social development of local students until the school closed in 1958. The school, and adjoining medical clinic, are clad in unique bark shingles from the now-extinct American Chestnut.
The Konnarock Training School will now educate a new generation of young people, as the headquarters for the Blue Ridge Discovery Center, scheduled to open summer 2022.
The H.L. Bonham House and Visitor Center, Chilhowie
The H. L. Bonham House in the town of Chilhowie, Smyth County, was completed in 1911 as the home of Hezekiah Love Bonham, a regionally prominent farmer and businessman who pioneered innovations in the cultivation, processing, and sale of apples in southwest Virginia. Designed in the Colonial Revival style by C. B. Kearfott, Jr., the Bonham House features classical detailing and retains all interior wood finishes and decorative mantels. In the adjacent town of Chilhowie, Bonham built the only cold storage facility for apple grading and packaging between Roanoke and Bristol.
Now the official Smyth County Visitor Center, the Bonham House is open for visitors. Tour the exquisitely preserved rooms, and explore exhibits on the history of the Bonham Family and Smyth County.
Salt Park and “The Salt Capital of the Confederacy”
Learn about the fascinating role that salt played in the history of our country with a visit to Saltville, Virginia. From prehistoric mammals drawn to the salt licks, to early industrial development, and a major strategic focus of the Civil War, salt was at the center of this town’s history.
Salt played such a crucial role in the Civil War that two battles were fought in Saltville. Union forces attempted to destroy the salt works, in an effort to starve the Confederate Army. Simply put, before refrigeration, salt was the only way to preserve meat on a large scale, to feed a hungry army.
Visit the Salt Park to learn more about the salt making process, and view a brine pump, two replica cabins, and a reconstructed salt furnace with the original, antebellum evaporating pans.
Museum of the Middle Appalachians, Saltville
For a deeper dive into the history of Saltville and the region, pay a visit to the Museum of the Middle Appalachians. Learn how geology has influenced the area’s history for millions of years. See the full-size replicas of ice age mammals that roamed the region over 15,000 years ago. View a display of Woodland Indian artifacts that includes an extensive collection of bead work and tools. In the Salt Theater see five video programs about the role of the Salt Works in the Civil War and the two battles fought at “The Salt Capital of the Confederacy”. Learn about Saltville’s industrial history, where the American chemical industry began, and life in the company town that developed around it. Study a unique eco-system of a salt-water marsh located 400 miles from an ocean.
Hungry Mother State Park and Roosevelt’s New Deal
Hungry Mother State Park is one of the region’s most popular destinations for outdoor fun, but it’s also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
John D. and Mildred Lincoln donated 1,881 acres to the state for the establishment of a state park in Smyth County on Hungry Mother Creek in 1933. Later that year the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) began construction of Hungry Mother and five other state parks. Roads, trails, picnic areas, cabins, a restaurant, a bathhouse, a dam and a sanitation system were all built by the 600 CCC men at the park between 1933 and 1941. On June 15, 1936, the six-park Virginia State Park System was officially dedicated with public opening ceremonies at Hungry Mother State Park in Smyth County. More than 5,000 turned out to see the park as Governor George Peery and State Park Director Robert Burson officiated.
Learn more about the history of the park’s construction at the Discovery Center on Park Blvd, or stay in one of the original 1930s cabins, still available to rent today. We recommend booking early, as this popular park fills up quickly!