Sunday, April 3, 2011

Marion: a VA Mainstreet Community

A monument to Confederate Soldiers stands on the grounds of the stately Smyth County Courthouse in Marion, VA.

(pop. 6,500)
is one of the towns to receive designation as an official Virginia Main Street Community and National Main Street Community. These designations stem from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which developed and coordinated programs to help communities revitalize their downtown and neighborhood business districts.

First named Royal Oak (a cemetery and a Presbyterian Church maintain that name), Marion is the county seat of Smyth County in the highlands of southwest Virginia, near the tri-state borders of Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia. Marion is named after South Carolina’s Revolutionary War hero General Francis Marion, known as the “Swamp Fox.” Virginia’s Route 11, which runs through the center of downtown, follows the course of the old Wilderness Road, which started out as a buffalo trail.

Marion was incorporated in 1832, and the Norfolk and Western Railroad arrived in 1856. In 1864 the town (pop. 500) saw cavalry action during the Civil War; the area around Marion was strategic militarily because of the nearby salt works, iron forge and lead mines.

In 1873 Marion College opened its doors as a Lutheran college for women. Since its closing in 1967, the campus has operated as the Blue Ridge Job Corps, a national no-cost education and career technical training program. The Marion campus, which caters mostly to women, has consistently been rated the top school of the more than 120 campuses of the national Job Corps program, which educates and trains at risk students. The photograph captures a 2009 commencement ceremony on the lawn in front of the main building of the former Marion College, which was associated with the Lutheran Church.

Several significant Marion buildings date from the early part of the twentieth century, notably a train depot (1905) built by the Norfolk and Western Railroad; note its distinctive bracket eave support system illustrated above. A classical revival courthouse designed by Frank Milburn was erected in 1905 (photo at top of post), and the General Francis Marion Hotel (1927) and the Lincoln Theatre (1929) catered to tourists traveling along the modernized Route 11. These two structures have their own post (click on their entries in the sidebar at right). A clutch of Art Deco and Art Moderne structures survives, mostly in varying states of decay. The downtown Marion Historic District is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Southwestern Lunatic Asylum opened in Marion in 1887 in a massive brick complex that featured a central spire (vintage postcard above). Harvey Black (1827-1888), a native of Blacksburg and grandson of town founder John Black, was the institution’s first superintendent. During the Civil War Harvey Black served as regimental surgeon for the Stonewall Brigade, and he assisted with the amputation of Stonewall Jackson's arm on May 3, 1863. Prior to his arrival in Marion, Black had been Superintendent of the Eastern Lunatic Asylum in Williamsburg and served in the Virginia House of Delegates. The asylum’s facilities were enlarged in 1908, 1930 and 1935, when the name was changed to Southwestern State Hospital. By 1964 the institution’s staff numbered more than 500 people. In 1986, demolition of the original complex commenced, and construction of the modern Southwestern Virginia Mental Health Institute began.

Song of the Mountains, an award winning bluegrass concert showcase, has aired on PBS television stations nationwide during the last five years, attracting an audience of 50 million viewers. It is performed and recorded live at the recently restored Lincoln Theatre in Marion. However, Tim White, who hosts the program and is instrumental in its production, relates that the continuation of the show is in jeopardy, due to a precipitous drop in underwriting support.

The town serves as the gateway to nearby Hungry Mother State Park, the Jefferson National Forest, the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, and the Appalachian Trail, which runs just south of the town. Marion is a short distance from the Blue Ridge Parkway and neighboring states West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina. The photograph shows a footbridge over the 100-acre lake in Hungry Mother State Park, which opened in 1936. Historical footnote: The park was constructed as a project of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a national public work relief program for unemployed, unmarried men ages 18–25. The CCC, a part of Roosevelt’s New Deal,  provided unskilled manual labor jobs related to the conservation and development of natural resources in rural lands owned by federal, state and local governments. The program was designed to provide employment for young men in relief families who had difficulty finding jobs during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Short story author Sherwood Anderson lived in the Marion area part time for the last fifteen years of his life. His most enduring work is the short story collection Winesburg, Ohio (1919) Writers he influenced include Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck and Salinger. Anderson bought and edited two local newspapers (The Marion Democrat and Smyth County News) and was buried in Marion’s Round Hill Cemetery in 1941. This photograph dates from 1937.

At the age of eighteen, baseball Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, drafted by the New York Mets in 1965, was assigned to the Marion Mets, a minor league team in the Appalachian League. He went on to become a baseball pitching legend and is now owner of the Texas Rangers. But his career started in Marion. Click the image of his Hall of Fame plaque to enlarge.

West of downtown Marion on Rt. 11 (Lee Highway), the Dip Dog stand has been serving its signature dip dogs (battered hot dogs deep fried then slathered with mustard), burgers and famous onion rings for over 50 years. The ice cream creations, shakes and frozen custard draw much repeat business. Tip: the servers at Dip Dog get a little touchy if customers refer to their Dip Dogs as "corn dogs." They will remind you that these are not corn dogs (the batter does not contain corn meal), rather a 50-year-old original on-site creation.
Open 9:00a to 10:00p daily.

Yahoo! Mountain Dew! Marion is known as the birthplace of the soft drink Mountain Dew, a yellow-green soft drink characterized by low carbonation coupled with high sugar and high caffeine content. Although first marketed during the 1940s in Knoxville, TN, as an unsuccessful lemon-lime flavored whiskey mixer, the original drink’s dormant trademark and bottle design were handed over as part of an investment in Tip Corporation, a soft drink flavor concentrate manufacturer based in Marion. The recipe was changed drastically by William H. "Bill" Jones, who experimented from 1959 to 1962 to create the recipe for what is now "Mountain Dew." As owner of the Tip Corporation at 517 North Main Street, Jones concocted formulas with various flavors and routinely offered his family and Marion residents samples of his latest efforts, until he perfected the formula used today. He eventually sold Tip Corp. (and with it, "Mountain Dew") to Pepsico in 1964.  The 1960s era vintage bottle above shows the hillbilly art depicting a yokel firing a shotgun (click to enlarge). Marion hosted a Mountain Dew Festival for over 50 years.

In other weirdly related soft drink trivia, Dr. Charles Taylor Pepper, for whom the soft drink was named, is buried in Mountain View Cemetery in nearby Rural Retreat, VA (at the halfway point between Marion and Wytheville). If this sort of thing yanks your chain, go pay your respects. Take I-81 exit 60, south on Hwy 90/Main St. through town, then turn right onto Mountain View Ave. In the cemetery, start at the flag and go around the U-shaped drive. Near the big "Pepper" headstone on your left is a four-sided stone column, and his marker is on that column. Those readers old enough to remember these old bottles likely wonder what the numbers 10-2-4 mean. Those were the hours of the day (10:00a, 2:00p and 4:00p), when there is a natural drop in energy, so the soft drink manufacturer proposed drinking three 10-oz. servings a day to maintain one's energy level. Glad you asked.

And last, but not least, Marion's signature water storage tanks adjacent to I-81 never fail to provoke comment.