Seeing a play under the stars is one of the true joys of summer! There are many open-air venues across the country, but what a treat for us to find out that Virginia’s premier outdoor theater is right here in the mountains of Southwest Virginia! In fact, the Commonwealth of Virginia designated “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” as the state’s official outdoor drama in 1994. An alluring cultural summer experience awaits you in Big Stone Gap, Virginia! The outdoor drama is in its fifty-sixth season, making it one of the longest running outdoor dramas in the United States. This is true “community theater” at its best! All the actors and musicians are volunteers, not to mention the entire crew it takes to put on such a production.
The creation of “The Trail” as it has become known began right here in “The Gap” with the novel “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” by John Fox Jr. in 1908. The book became a best seller in both this country and aboard. The author and his entire family were living in Big Stone Gap at the time and the fame of the Lonesome Pine has been part of the community ever since. The culture of the outside world and the Appalachian Mountains is joined in this story of romance and the influences brought by those trying to profit from the natural riches found in the mountains. Both cultures were rich in a variety of ways, but the joining of two different worlds is never an easy process. John Fox Jr. was comfortable in both worlds! His novel used “mountain dialect” that the rest of the country had never heard. The clashes of bringing law and order and education to the mountains is also depicted. John Fox Jr. was one of the first volunteer law enforcement known as a “police force of gentlemen” in “The Gap”. As on all wild western frontiers, locals were used to settling their own disputes in ways that seemed less than civilized in bigger cities. Such is the growing pains of all of the United States and this is another of those stories. We are not going to divulge the entire plot but we know you will enjoy the music and acting ability of the actors in this play. Some of them are seasoned veterans in various roles and their dedication should be commended as well as their continued efforts to bring new actors on every year! It’s a tradition steeped in the love of mountain culture, music and love of community.
We had the opportunity to speak with Jim Wardell, the General Manager for “The Trail” this season. Jim has lived and taught music in Wise County for over 30 years. His musical skills have brought together a wonderful cast for this season. He hopes to develop a marketing plan that can help them build a stronger future with more corporate sponsors and other uses for the playhouse in off season. The 2019 season for “The Trail” runs from June 28 – August 24 on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The music before show begins at 7pm and the show starts at 8pm. Tickets can be purchased at the Trail of the Lonesome Pine website.
Big Stone Gap has other local attractions to offer before you go to see the outdoor drama so be sure to begin your journey with a stop at the Big Stone Gap Visitors Center when you hit town. We did and were greeted by Denver “Sug” Hall and Uncle Buck Brown, his dog! There could be no better Ambassadors for a town! This is the kind of person and his friendly side-kick that everyone would like to meet when they come to a new town. We were furnished with maps and information with the zeal of someone who loves where he lives! Just tell Sug what you are interested in and he’ll point you in the right direction.
Our next stop was at the Southwest Virginia Museum Historical Park in Big Stone Gap. Starting here is the perfect way for every visitor to learn about the culture and history of Southwest Virginia. From colonial days and early settlers through the coal era right up to today’s local artists, they cover it all! Leave yourself enough time to explore all this museum has to offer.
Another special highlight after touring the museum was the Friday lunch on the lawn with music provided. While sitting under gorgeous shade trees we were entertained by a local group called The Poplar Hill Reunion Band. We learned later that many of the musicians were also in the outdoor drama that evening. The community spirit touches many aspects in this town. For information about the Summer Music on the Lawn Series call 276-523-1322.
The Interstate 101 Passenger Car is also on the park grounds. Built in 1870 for the Georgia and South Carolina Railroad, this car was acquired by the Interstate Railroad in 1916 and used until 1959, when it was retired. A successful community-based fundraising effort resulted in the car being restored. It is going to be used as an exhibit for the Southwestern Virginia Historical Museum in the future. It sits in a perfect location surrounded by mountains. A railfans dream!
We were able to also tour John Fox Jr.’s Home & Museum. This house was built in 1888 and as the Fox family began moving from Kentucky to Big Stone Gap to join John Jr. many additions were made. As a registered Virginia Historic Landmark, the present museum is filled with family memorabilia and original furnishings from the turn of the twentieth century. The last living Fox family member donated the home to The Blue Fox Guild (named after the Fox Family farm). They support the museum with funds primarily from luncheons and dinners in the museum that are prepared and served by the ladies of the guild themselves. After visiting we would love to be able to attend one of these events. We are sure the southern genteel atmosphere would be an amazing experience. We only need 20 friends to join us to make it happen! You can contact Kate Boyer (276-523-2019) regarding scheduling. Tours are also offered upon request to anyone visiting Big Stone Gap. At the present time the museum is not open on a regular basis but volunteers live close by and you can give Paxton Allyger (276-393-3336) a call to make it happen!
“The Trail” is performed in the June Tolliver Playhouse in Big Stone Gap. June Tolliver is the main fictional female character in this outdoor drama that was adapted from John Fox Jr’s book locally by Earl Hobson Smith and Clara Lou Kelly in 1964. Clara Lou Kelly was the first President of the Lonesome Pine Arts & Crafts Inc which was instrumental in the building of the playhouse and the purchase of Jerome Duff’s home next door. Fox’s character, June Tolliver, was loosely based on a young lady who came to “The Gap” to get an education named Elizabeth Morris and stayed in Jerome Duff’s boarding house. Today this house is known as the June Tolliver House. It is worth a stop to check out local memorabilia before heading to the play. This too, is completely run by volunteers of the Lonesome Pine Arts & Crafts organization and at this time is only open from around 3pm to 8pm on Thurs, Friday and Saturday when the outdoor drama is performed.
One should not come to this charming town without visiting the Harry W. Meador Coal Museum! We stopped in to find out more about the coal fields in SWVA where we were met by Freddie Elkins. He is so much more than a caretaker for the museum. Freddie spent over 30 years working in the coal mines and he is a true storyteller. He made all the artifacts and activities in a mine actually come to life. He spent over two hours with us and the time flew by. He made us feel the pride he took in his years of working the coalfields. Coal mining has been part of Wise County since the 1800s and is another side of mountain culture that everyone should learn more about to understand this region. It is a true gem and worth your time!
Inside of the Harry W. Meador Jr. Coal Museum
Caretaker & Interpreter & Storyteller Extraordinaire - Freddie Elkins
This little town has a history of producing famous writers and we urge you to also check out Adriana Trigiani, a New York Times best-selling author of 18 books, including the Big Stone Gap series. She was born in Big Stone Gap and is an award-winning playwright, television writer/producer and filmmaker. Adriana wrote and directed the film adaptation of her novel Big Stone Gap which was filmed entirely here in Big Stone Gap. You can check out a map of movie locations at the Big Stone Gap Visitors Center which was also used in the movie as the local diner, called “Carmine’s”, using the sign on their visitor’s center is a unique tribute.
We also learned that one of those movie locations used as the Mutual Drug Store (314 Wood Ave) is soon to become a new restaurant called “Curklin’s”. The owners, Wayne and Tracey Jordan, say it will be American casual and will include a bar area with 12 cocktail tables. The opening date is not definite but they are hoping for the end of September 2019. Next season he hopes to be offering drinks and/or dinner before the outdoor drama begins. This complete package will be a treat for visitors to town.
Another new addition this year will be the Big Stone Gap General Store & Café which will be located in the old newspaper building known as The Post. We visited with the new owners, Penny & Brian Jeffery, while they were hard at work with restorations. The front of the building will offer space for local artists and artisans with a general store feel. There will also be a café with a coal-fired pizza oven. What an authentic touch in this community. There will be space large enough for wedding receptions and other events as well. A stage is being built and live music will be performed. The new owners will be making their home in Big Stone Gap after re-locating from the Raleigh NC area. Brian grew up in this town and they look forward to investing in the community. Inside they found a stone block dated “1890” and they have plans to incorporate many of the historical items they inherited when purchasing an old newspaper business in their décor. This is definitely going to be a great addition to small town life and tourists alike.
Before each performance of “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” the guests are treated to an hour of music from local performers. The night we attended Tyler Hughes was the opening act. He plays a mixture of old-time and country music. Tyler studied music at East Tennessee State University in their bluegrass program. Tyler is a millennial who has found a way to stay in his hometown and continue his music career at the same time. He is the perfect example of why the Crooked Road roots are so strong in this area. We want to mention also that Tyler is on the Big Stone Gap Town Council. We talked to him after the show and found him to be the perfect example of tradition and change. A wonderful combination that will be a definite benefit to the community!
Southwest Virginia is a place so rich in scenic mountain views! Begin your journey into Big Stone Gap by stopping at the Powell Valley Overlook, just off of Highway 23N. (Photo Above) Southwest Virginia adventures abound with historic sites, music, art and cultural experiences. You might just wind up feeling like we do that you are finally “back home”.