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Southwest Virginia

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Southwest Virginia occupies a vast territory west of the Piedmont and south of the Shenandoah Valley and for much of its recorded history has been the heart of Virginia's backcountry—a frontier-like landscape of rugged mountains, spring-fed streams, dense forests, and isolated settlements. The nation's eastern Continental Divide, defined by watersheds leading east to the Atlantic and southwest to the Gulf of Mexico, passes through the region. Permanent habitation of the area by European Americans began by the mid-eighteenth century after Ulster-born speculator James Patton and his partners in the Wood's River Company acquired a grant of one hundred thousand acres, selected from lands on the waters of the Clinch, Holston, and New rivers. Tracts were sold to German, Scots-Irish, and English settlers from Pennsylvania, the Valley of Virginia, and eastern Virginia. Although this early settlement was temporarily interrupted by the French and Indian wars of the 1760s and the Revolutionary War in the 1770s, settlement resumed and grew during the last two decades of the eighteenth century.

With some notable exceptions along the bottomlands of major waterways, much of the region's land is mountainous and with poor soils. It was not suitable for large-scale agricultural plantations such as those developed in the Piedmont, nor for highly productive smaller farms like those in the Shenandoah Valley. Diversified farming—corn, wheat, beans, and fruit crops—for local consumption was the most common agricultural venture. Some farmers raised high-value crops such as hemp and flax or livestock such as cattle, hogs, and sheep that could be driven on the hoof to market. Not until the mid-nineteenth century, when the Virginia and Tennessee (V&T) Railroad introduced quick and reliable transportation to the region, were a large number of farm and plantation operators able to undertake large-scale market-oriented production. Specialized agricultural buildings such as dairies, smokehouses, bank barns, granaries, and corncribs proliferated during this era.

For those able to exploit the region's natural resources, the land offered great potential for wealth. Transportation, from rivers to turnpikes, railroads, and, eventually, to paved highways, spurred the establishment and growth of communities. By the early nineteenth century, the preeminent settlement type was the small town located at a crossroads or stretched along a turnpike. The Cumberland Gap Road, one of the most important east-west thoroughfares in early American history, passed through the region. Linking this westward migration route to county seats, spring resorts, and small-scale industries were a slew of local and regional turnpikes that developed during the antebellum period. Taverns and ordinaries, livery stables, repair shops, churches, general merchandise stores, mills, and distilleries were typical components of these service-oriented communities.

The most typical house form in the region in the first half of the nineteenth century was the one- or two-room dwelling, usually of log or timber-frame construction, rectangular in form, and commonly with an attic reached by a ladder or steep enclosed stair. But as early as the 1790s, wealthier families in rural and small-town settings were building large hall-parlor and center-passage houses of brick, stone, log, or frame. Architectural styles were, conservatively, often a decade or more after their use in more fashion-conscious eastern centers. The region's oldest surviving courthouses adopted the Federal style, deemed suitable to the grave and noble nature of the business undertaken by local governing bodies. The region's most prevalent architectural mode during most of the nineteenth century was Greek Revival and in some rural areas survived in slightly modified form into the early twentieth century. In the mid-nineteenth century, the picturesque version of Gothic Revival was sometimes employed for houses and railroad depots. Unlike more cosmopolitan areas of Virginia to the east, the Italian Villa never really took hold.

The Civil War had minimal physical impact in the region, although small skirmishes and battles took their toll on depot towns, bridges, and iron furnaces—all of which were vital links in the Confederate supply system. Industrial and civic development began to pick up in the early 1870s, when the coal fields of Virginia and West Virginia were accessed by Northern financiers and Southern speculators.

The last quarter of the nineteenth century also saw progressive reforms in public education leading to the establishment and funding of community schools for black and white children at the grade school level and to Normal Schools as in Radford (MO26), as well as full-fledged colleges and universities. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (commonly known as Virginia Tech; MO17) was established and partially financed with the federal Morrill land grant program during this period. Nearby, Freedmen's Bureau agent Charles S. Schaeffer developed the Christiansburg Industrial Institute (MO6) in the late 1860s, which under his leadership—and in the 1890s that of Booker T. Washington—provided technical, academic, and religious training courses for black students in the region.

By the 1870s Italianate and Second Empire styles were gaining regional acceptance, particularly in urban centers. Even if they did not conform to one of these popular national styles, buildings did develop ornamental qualities distinctive of the period. Even some of the simplest and most isolated rural houses in the region exhibit elaborate ornament, although it is often confined to the exterior.

By the late 1880s, the region's proximity to coal and coke, combined with an expanding network of rail lines, created an explosion of new industries and an accompanying influx of people. Brought up short only by the Panic of 1893, this boom period in Southwest Virginia was characterized by local boosterism, rampant real estate speculation, and phenomenal growth in new urban centers that vied among each other for the title “Pittsburgh of the South.” Investment by railroad companies, defined initially by impressive multistory hotel buildings, led to development in Roanoke, Radford, Pulaski, and Bristol. Smaller railroad-served communities like Wytheville and Marion expanded with hotels and industrial parks. The boomtown of Pocahontas, although now a shadow of its former self, was by many standards the epicenter of coal and coke production in the region. Its ethnically diverse population reflected demographic shifts occurring in many of the region's urban areas.

As the economy progressed, the region's close business and financial connections to Philadelphia and New York City elevated architectural developments. High-style buildings designed in the 1880s and 1890s by such established architects as George T. Pearson and Frank Miles Day represent some of the region's finest buildings even today. More commonly, architecturally ambitious buildings in Southwest Virginia tended to be of the mail-order variety, whether they were houses built from plans published and sold by architects such as George F. Barber and Palliser, Palliser and Co., or prefabricated metal storefronts assembled with components ordered from manufacturers such as Mesker Brothers.

Many large-scale projects for colleges, governmental agencies, churches, and hospitals were undertaken in the period before and after World War I by a handful of firms typically working from Roanoke or Bristol. During the first half of the twentieth century, some of the more successful regional architects and firms included H. H. Huggins, Frye and Chesterman, Frye and Stone, Eubank and Caldwell, and Homer M. Miller. As the pace of development in the region increased, an ever-expanding slate of professionally trained architects and planners began undertaking projects in the region. Among them were Frank A. Rommel of Philadelphia, Richmond-based architect Charles M. Robinson, and the Richmond-based firm of Carneal, Johnston and Wright (William L. Carneal, J. Ambler Johnston, and O. Pendleton Wright). The majority of houses and commercial buildings in the region were erected by local building contractors or carpenters working from published plans and using stock materials. Early-twentieth-century commercial buildings were typically less exuberant in design than their nineteenth-century predecessors. The use of automobiles in the early twentieth century brought such new building types as tourist facilities and the limited-access landscaped drive known as the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Southwest Virginia weathered some of the privations of the Great Depression more easily thanks to the influx of federal funds for public works projects. Then World War II ushered in prosperity to the coal-producing areas, and industrial centers such as Radford were reinvigorated by military-industrial development. The Radford Ordnance Works in Montgomery and Pulaski counties employed thousands of workers, which led to population explosions in the nearest cities, and brought federally funded subdivisions and housing programs to the area. Postwar, productivity spilled into the private sector, and the desire for all things modern and more efficient struck much of the population.

From the second half of the twentieth century, this once-predominantly rural region with clusters of dense urban fabric was altered by suburban development patterns. Pedestrian-oriented downtowns were in many instances gradually supplanted by shopping malls, industrial and office parks, and big-box retailers that accommodated high-volume automobile traffic. Their parking lots eliminated open space including highly productive agricultural lands. This suburban sprawl is most noticeable in areas near the region's interstate corridors (I-81 and I-77) and urban centers such as Roanoke, Christiansburg, and Wytheville. But such towns as Abingdon and Pulaski, assisted by organizations such as the Virginia Main Street Program, have capitalized on their unique histories and well-preserved architecture to attract tourists, as do such buildings as the Exhibition Mine and Museum (TZ19) in Pocahontas and the City Market (RK25) in Roanoke. And new cultural centers have brought residents back to downtowns, notably in Roanoke.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Anne Carter Lee

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