The Inspirational Women of Wytheville, Virginia
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Driving along Interstate 81 through southern Virginia you may notice a sign for Wytheville. Exiting the highway, you’ll find an array of ordinary eateries and gas stations. Venture beyond those into the heart of Wytheville and you’ll soon discover that nothing in this charming town is ordinary.
For starters, there’s an eye-catching giant yellow pencil protruding from the Wytheville Office Supply Store – in case you needed a hint at what’s inside. Just down the street The Paint Store joins the oversized advertising theme with a giant can of paint for its sign.
Across the street sits Skeeter’s World-Famous Hot Dogs where “skeeter dogs” have remained a Wytheville tradition since 1925. As you slide onto a counter stool to order your first skeeter dog, you may not realize you are sitting beneath the birthplace and childhood home of a United States First Lady. Edith Bolling Wilson – the second wife of President Woodrow Wilson – was born in the room above Skeeter’s.
The Edith Bolling Wilson Story
Today the Bolling Building houses the Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Foundation museum and tells the story of the often overlooked yet vitally important role she played in the White House during World War I. The museum is one of only eight historic sites in the country dedicated to the interpretation of a First Lady.
The Bolling family moved to Wytheville after losing the family plantation in the Civil War. It was in their modest home above the space that Skeeter’s now occupies that William and Sally Bolling welcomed their seventh child, Edith. A direct decedent of Pocahontas, Edith’s other notable ancestors included Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jefferson. Despite the fame of her ancestors, no one was more surprised than her when she became the 35th First Lady of the United States.
Edith grew up in a large family in modest circumstances. Her Grandmother Bolling lived with the family and Edith became her companion and caretaker. Grandmother Bolling taught Edith how to read, write and sew. As a young woman she attended Martha Washington School. But her education was cut short as Edith had three younger brothers who needed an education, and boys were the priority in those days.
Despite not completing her education, Edith was a formidable woman. She traveled to Europe often and spent considerable time visiting her sister who moved to Washington DC with her husband. It was there that she met her first husband, Norman Galt – the owner of the local Galt Jewelers. Edith moved to Washington DC when she married in 1896, but married life was brief with Norman dying in 1908. At his passing Edith was left with an active business that she either had to maintain or liquidate. She had no experience running a business. Wisely, she enlisted the help of the shop manager and kept the business alive.
When President Woodrow Wilson’s first wife died, his cousin Helen Bones moved into the White House to assist with hosting. Edith was asked to befriend Miss Bones and it was that friendship that led to her meeting President Wilson in a White House hallway. Not long afterwards, their courtship began.
Often cited as one of the most influential, historically significant women of the 20th century, Edith Bolling Wilson also experienced frequent criticism. Some thought she was taking the President away from his presidential duties at the height of World War I. But Edith pledged her loyalty to President Woodrow Wilson and as his new wife, she became his confidant. She helped decode war messages and assisted him with naming hundreds of Navy ships.
She also set an example for the country during the war wearing thrift clothing, observing food rationing and minimizing White House entertainment functions. In a controversial move, she brought a small flock of sheep to graze on the White House lawn to replace the groundkeepers who had been sent to fight in the war. Over the years she sold the wool from the sheep raising nearly $100,000 which was donated to the American Red Cross.
When President Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke in September of 1919 during his second term in office, there were no succession laws established. For 17 months, Edith assumed the “stewardship of the presidency,” as she referred to it, until Wilson’s second term ended.
Edith Bolling Wilson traveled with her husband to Europe for the International Peace Conference after the war and in doing so she was the only First Lady to be involved in international diplomacy at that time. She was also the first honorary president of the Girl Scouts starting a tradition for future First Ladies.
After President Wilson’s death in 1924 , Edith spent the remainder of her life promoting his legacy and his vision for world peace. The Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Foundation Museum shares the story of her inspirational life – it’s a must see in Wytheville.
More Inspirational Women in Wytheville
From enthusiastic preservers of history to women-owned businesses, the women of Wytheville continue to inspire. While you’re in town, why not visit some of these incredible ladies?
Chairwoman Patricia Austin, Wytheville Training School Cultural Center
Established in 2000, the Wytheville Training School Cultural Center preserves the historical artifacts are stories of the Wytheville Training School. The school was constructed in 1883 for African American children and was in operation until 1952. Chairwoman Patricia Austin grew up in Wytheville and volunteers her time to WTSCC to ensure the stories and memorabilia that tell the history of African American education in Wythe County live on through the Heritage Museum exhibits and special events held at WTSCC.
A true inspiration, Patricia experienced firsthand the transition from segregation to integration and vividly remembers what it was like to be one of the first middle school children to ride the bus to the formerly all-white school. She arrived in tears. Thankfully, the kindness of her teacher and two girls who approached her at recess and said they would play with her helped her adjust to the sea of unfamiliar faces. Her passion for keeping these incredibly important stories alive is palpable.
Laura Abbey, Laurel Creek Pottery
Born in Appalachia, Laura Abbey moved away for several years raising her three children in New Jersey. Like many women, her life changed after the kids grew up and she decided to try a few new things. For one, she hiked the Appalachian Trail solo. During that extensive hike, she made the decision to join the Peace Corps where she spent two years bringing economic development techniques to communities in Namibia. Now she has returned to her roots and settled in Wytheville where she shares her knowledge of ceramics and her passion for fostering community growth. Stop by and browse the beautiful artisan creations by Laura and other local artists. Or schedule a class to learn how to create your own artisan masterpieces!
Teresa Campbell, Petals Wine Bar
A Wytheville native, Teresa first opened Petals as a florist shop in 2010. Shortly after opening, Petals expanded into a gift and bottle shop providing Downtown Wytheville with colorful flowers, quality wine and craft beers. Expanding further, this entrepreneurial lady created Petals Wine Bar – a casual welcoming location to enjoy a delicious lunch, have a drink with friends and learn about wines. You might also be inclined to pick up a bouquet to brighten up your stay while visiting Wytheville.
Darlene Lang, Ghetti’s Café
To the delight of Wytheville residents, Darlene Lang added an eatery to the town line up that features New York bagels flown in daily from New York City. She’s not from New York. She moved to Wytheville 22 years ago from Virginia Beach and is a Virginia native. But as she put it, “No, I’m not from New York, I just really like a good bagel.”
For the lunch crowd, Darlene offers a build your own pasta menu. Among the local favorites is the “Wythe Fill” a handmade fillable pasta pocket. Ingenious!
Heather Kime, Big Walker Lookout
Known as Virginia’s oldest privately-owned scenic attraction, Big Walker Lookout is home to a 100-foot observation tower boasting view of five states on a clear day. But this family-owned business offers much more. The onsite Big Walker Country Store hosts regional musicians and artisans every weekend from May to October.
As her parents age, Heather and her brother work to keep the family tradition alive. And she’ll be more than happy to serve you a scoop of their hand-dipped Virginia Homestead Creamery Super Premium Ice Cream!
Cover: Downtown Wytheville. Photo: Terri Marshall
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Based in New York City, Terri Marshall is an award-winning writer covering cultural travel, multi-generational travel, food, drink, road trips, cars and characters. From hanging out with penguins in Antarctica to fishing for piranhas in Peru, Terri’s always up for an adventure. Publication credits include TravelSquire, Private Clubs, TravelingMom, International Living, Google, RoamRight, and AroundWellington. Connect with Terri and see more of her work and radio appearances at www.trippingwithterri.com.