By Bob Heafner © 1984-2012
Issue: March, 1984
Our tour this month will begin at the intersection of US Route 89 and the Blue Ridge Parkway. This intersection is located between Parkway Milepost 215 and 216, approximately 16 miles south on the Blue Ridge Parkway from Fancy Gap, Virginia and 2 miles north of Cumberland Knob. From beginning to end, our tour will cover 53.6 miles and requires a minimum of two hours, but I recommend at least a half a day.
BACKROADS tours always make a complete loop back to the point where we started. The underlined numbers at the beginning of each paragraph indicate the total number of miles we've traveled from our point of beginning. The numbers in parenthesis ( ) indicate the distance from the last point of interest that we passed.
00.0 (0.0) Driving south on the Blue Ridge Parkway from Fancy Gap, Virginia, we will turn right off the Blue Ridge Parkway onto the exit ramp leading to US Route 89.
00.1 (0.1) Here we are at the Blue Ridge Parkway exit ramp stop sign and we will turn right toward Galax, Virginia on US Route 89.
06.5 (6.4) In the hollow on our right is Felt’s Park. This is the sight of the annual Galax Old Time Fiddlers Convention. Each August this event attracts participants and spectators from all over the world. Day and night for four days, bluegrass music reigns over Galax. If you enjoy good old down home picking and grinning, then Galax, Virginia is the place for you.
06.7 (0.2) This is downtown Galax. The population of Galax is 6,512.
07.2 (0.5) The old church building on our left is the home of Rooftop Crafts of Virginia. Rooftop Crafts is a community action program and it offers one of the areas widest selections of mountain crafts made by mountain craftspeople.
07.5 (0.3) Route 89 dead ends at this stop light and we will turn left on US 58 and leave Galax, heading toward Independence, Virginia.
16.1 (8.6) On our right is a beautiful view of the New River. This is one of the world’s oldest and most beautiful rivers. It offers excellent boating, canoeing and fishing.
21.2 (5.1) We are entering the city limits of Independence, Virginia (population 1,076). Independence is the county seat of Grayson County. Grayson County is an outdoor lover’s paradise offering Grayson Highlands State Park and Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. Mount Rogers, at 5,729 feet elevation is the highest peak in Virginia.
24.4 (3.2) Here, on our right, is the focal point of this months BACKROADS tour; the old Grayson County Courthouse.
Designed by Washington, DC architect, Frank P. Milburn, and completed in 1908, this is one Virginia’s most distinctive architectural landmarks. The bricks were brought from Maysville, Kentucky to Fries, Virginia, by train then on to Independence by oxcart. The original cost is believed to have been less than $30,000.00.
The Commonwealth of Virginia Historic Landmark Commission has placed the Grayson County Courthouse on the Virginia Landmarks Register and nominated it to the National Register of Historic Places. The purpose of the Virginia Landmarks Register is to include “the buildings, structures, and sights which are of a statewide or national significance.”
One look at this majestic old building and one can see why it deserves this honor. It was built at a time when pride of craftsmanship was the norm rather than the exception. The mortar joints between the bricks, for instance, are only one quarter of an inch thick. The ceilings are pressed tin and the building has been described as resembling “a portly, dignified, Victorian lady, wearing a rakish bonnet.”
At this moment, the fate of this old building hangs by a thread. In 1981, a new courthouse was built in Independence and now the county board of supervisors are split two to two on whether or not to tear the old one down, a tie breaker was recently appointed, but his sentiments seem to be in favor of demolition. In talking with the residents of Grayson County, it would appear that the vast majority are in favor of saving the old building but against a rise in taxes to do so. This is understandable and currently, a local group called PATCH (People And The Court House) is working toward this end. They are currently seeking donations to stabilize any further exterior deterioration. They then plan to rehabilitate the interior and convert it for future use as need and funds become available.
According to Jonathan Vinzie, a local attorney, “a serious and thorough” effort is underway by PATCH to save the centerpiece of Grayson County. He is the chairman of the PATCH movement and believes that the old building, “represents an era that is irreplaceable and significant” in Virginia’s, as well as Grayson County’s history.
James A. Carico is one of the two board of supervisors members who is in favor of demolishing the old courthouse. In his opinion, it detracts from the beauty of the new courthouse, which sits on a hill behind the old building. He also indicated that as an elected representative of county taxpayers, and a taxpayer himself, he did not want to impose higher tax burdens on county residents.
It would appear that Mr. Carico and PATCH agree on this. For this reason, the PATCH organization is soliciting private donations. Ironically, a $50,000 federal grant was awarded to the county to save the courthouse, but it required that matching funds be contributed by the county government, so it was turned down by the board of supervisors. The vote was two to two, with the deciding vote being cast by the court appointed tie breaker.
At this point the PATCH organization is attempting to gain permission from the county board of supervisors to save the building at no expense to the county government. They have widespread support from both in and out of Grayson County.
Europeans visiting this country are often amused that we consider such recent events, places and things historically important. But we are still a young nation and unless we preserve these symbols of our early growth, how will our descendants gauge and understand our nation’s growth?
Is it not important to save those things which are unique? This building is the only one of its kind in our state. It represents the optimism and faith of a little mountain community in its own, as well as the nation’s future. One cannot look at this old courthouse and not sense the pride the builders or the county residents took in their new courthouse, just after the turn of this century. It stands today as a testament to the determination and dedication of this county to grow and prosper. It would be an irreplaceable loss to our nation, our state and Grayson County if this beautiful old building were destroyed. Standing, it indicates to the world that mountain people take pride in their past and put faith in their future; demolished the message is not quite so clear.
The day I recorded the mileage for this BACKROADS tour, 85 year old, Coy O. Yeatts accompanied me. We parked at the curb in front of the old courthouse and Mr. Coy rolled his window down and stared silently at the old building, with its monument to Confederate Soldiers on the front lawn. Neither of us spoke as we studied the intricate details and craftsmanship. Finally, Mr. Coy turned to face me and with an obvious lump in his throat said, “They’re not going to tear that down, are they?”
“I hope not, Mr. Coy. I certainly hope not.”
[Update 2011 – The old Grayson County Courthouse was saved and we took pride in the fact that readers of The Mountain Laurel were very generous and the saving of this beautiful old courthouse was in part due to their generosity.]
We will turn left onto US 221 at the stop light in front of the courthouse. We will be heading toward Sparta, North Carolina. If you have time to explore on your own, we would recommend continuing on US 58 toward Mouth of Wilson, Virginia. This is a picturesque area, especially from Mouth of Wilson to Troutdale, on US 16.
26.2 (1.8) The New River is on our left and will parallel US 221 for a couple of miles.
26.7 (0.5) Here we enter North Carolina and leave Virginia.
30.2 (3.5) At this stop sign we will turn left onto US 21, continuing toward Sparta, North Carolina.
32.1 (1.9) Here we enter Sparta’s city limits. We will continue straight through downtown Sparta on US 21.
34.6 (2.5) The home of Dr. Grabow Pre-Smoked Pipes is on our right.
38.2 (3.6) Here on our left is a sign pointing the way toward GLADE Valley School and the old Glade Valley Store. We turn toward the school and store on state road 1444.
38.4 (0.2) Glade Valley School is on our left here and just beyond is the old Glade Valley Store, on the right. The Glade Valley Post Office is across from the store. The store offers crafts, gifts, food and the Willabarn Thrift Shop. All sales benefit the Glade Valley School. Since entering North Carolina, we have been traveling through Alleghany County. This is a beautiful area as we travel further, rolling farms and picturesque views will highlight every turn of the road.
44.7 (6.3) Glade Creek Elementary School is on our left.
50.3 (5.6) At this stop sign, we turn right onto Route 18.
51.9 (1.6) Here we turn left onto the entrance ramp leading to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
52.0 (0.1) At the entrance ramp stop sign, we turn left onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, heading north.
53.6 (1.6) We are back to our point of beginning at the intersection of US Route 89 and the Blue Ridge Parkway. I’m sure that you’ll agree that this excursion into Grayson County, Virginia and Alleghany County, North Carolina was worth the trip. If you take this tour in warm weather, be sure to take your swimsuit. The New River offers excellent swimming and recreational facilities.
We hope you have enjoyed this area as much as we have. You can order maps from the Virginia Department of Highways for maps of Grayson or other Virginia counties.