“I think she really was the first female president of the United States,” my husband, Chris said. I agreed. We had just visited the Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Museum, just one of the many intriguing things to do in Wytheville, Virginia, a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwest Virginia.
We also learned how to grow lavender, gorged ourselves on comfort food in a giant maze of a log cabin, relaxed with a glass of wine and charcuterie board at a local vineyard and saw a gospel show in a German-style dinner theater where our server was also the guitar player.
Here were our favorite things to do in Wytheville, Virginia.
Please see the related stories from other stops on our Virginia road trip.
Learn the history of our “secret president” and the “summer without children”
It’s a demanding role with no official definition. Our country’s first ladies have all put their own spin on the unelected, unpaid job during their term. But perhaps none was as powerful as Edith Bolling Wilson, the second wife of Woodrow Wilson, who was born and grew up in downtown Wytheville.
To preserve the legacy of this fascinating lady, Bill and Farron Smith founded the Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Museum in 2005, one of only eight museums devoted to a First Lady.
The downstairs contains artifacts and exhibitions about Edith, while the upstairs contains the apartment where she lived with her family. It’s in the process of being restored but you can listen to an audio tour about the life of the family.
The best part of visiting the museum is the portrayal of Edith by a local retired schoolteacher, Betsy Ely. “Edith” tells her story with charm and candor and we learned more about how Edith was wielding power behind the scenes in 1919 after her husband had a second stroke, leaving him partially paralyzed.
She claimed to be merely a “steward,” however she took over many of his duties and screened what matters he would attend to. That led many to call her our country’s first female president. She is beloved in this town and there is even a 100-foot mural depicting her life.
We learned about a sad era in the history of Wytheville at the Thomas J. Boyd Museum, named for the man considered the father of Wytheville. In addition to other local history, the museum covers the 1950 polio epidemic when this small town had the worst per capita outbreak in the country, leading people to keep their children inside that summer.
Relax with a picnic lunch at a gorgeous winery
My favorite way to recharge after busy days of touring and sightseeing is to relax at a winery, glass in hand, with a beautiful view.
We did just that at West Wind Winery Farm & Vineyard, a fourth-generation winery where we tasted some delicious wines while enjoying a picnic lunch by Boundless Boards, a locally owned company that specializes in assembling beautiful, portable charcuterie boards.
General Manager Jason Manley is the nephew of the owners Paul and Brenda Hric. He poured several delicious wines and told us a bit about the property where they grow 3,000 vines on five acres, producing from 1200 to 1500 cases of wine a year.
You know the saying, “He’s the kind of guy you like to have a beer with?” Well, Jason is the kind of guy you want pouring wine with you and chatting the afternoon away. He told us the vineyard typically hosts concerts and dinners on the property during the year.
In addition to loving the wines, I also loved the items for sale in the gift shop, which went way beyond the usual cute dish towels and wine-associated items in many vineyard gift shops. I bought a puzzle of the map of Virginia, a melamine serving tray and a few bottles of wine.
Stay in an historic hotel
We stayed directly across the street from the Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Museum in the Bolling Wilson Hotel. The hotel was built in 1927 as the George Wythe Hotel and you could book a single room for $1.50 and a double for $2.50.
While the hotel maintains its historic exterior, the 30 guest rooms are modern. Our favorite feature was the rooftop lounge with fantastic views of downtown and the mountains.
The hotel’s restaurant, Graze on Main, is named for Edith’s use of sheep to keep the grass short at the White House. While she had her critics for the practice, born of the frugality she experienced growing up, during the time the sheep were in residence they sold the sheep’s’ wool, raising almost $100,000 for the American Red Cross.
Other places to stay include the Trinkle Mansion Bed & Breakfast and several chain hotels.
Attend a dinner theater
I love dinner theaters. What’s better than enjoying dinner and a show without changing venues? We were delighted to attend a gospel show at Wohlfahrt House Dinner Theatre, a German-style theater that produces an array of musicals and serves guests a four-course dinner.
We took our seats at the table with a great view of the stage and were soon chowing down on a cheese appetizer, salad and heaping portions of roast beef and sides served by our accommodating server.
The show started and we thought the guitar player looked familiar. Indeed, it was the same person who just minutes earlier had been topping off our drinks as our server. The show was fun and we enjoyed blueberry cobbler served at intermission.
During a trip to the lobby Chris ended up meeting the artistic director, whose name is George Bailey, which seems fitting for someone who produces uplifting musicals. It is a wonderful life, isn’t it?
Dine on comfort food at a huge, mazelike log cabin
You could never call someone and say, “Meet me at Log House 1776 for dinner without specifying exactly where. I’ve never seen such a rambling maze of rooms – stretching on and on, with cozy nooks everywhere. Go outside in the garden and there’s more enchanting small spaces to relax and dine.
There’s often a long wait here, but no worries. Take the time to stroll through the gardens or visit the gift shops, packed with unique items.
There’s one in the main dining area and a second in a renovated log cabin that was added in 2013 and houses a huge array of artsy items that really caught Chris’s attention. He went back the next day and bought three things.
He also met the owner, James Green, who purchased the items for the shop so they chatted about his art. James said his goal was to showcase local artists and create his own as well.
But back to the food. We sat on the second floor and indulged in fried corn fritters, trout and fish and chips, served with good old southern side dishes. Other menu items include burgers, steaks, chicken dishes and Virginia country ham.
Other dining options in Wytheville include 7 Dogs Brew Pub, a casual place with live music and craft beers, and Seven Sisters Brewery, where you can also enjoy craft beer, live music and grab food from a food truck.
Stroll around town on the Wytheville’s Historic Walking Tour
I like doing walking tours so I can learn about history and burn a few calories at the same time. (I’m talking to you, fried corn fritters.) I’m used to getting a one sheet piece of paper, or maybe a small brochure to follow.
But Wytheville does it up big. Wytheville’s Historic Walking Tour brochure is a whopping 64-pages long with an easy-to-read map and descriptions of every stop. We enjoyed seeing the historic homes and offices while viewing the historic photos in the brochure.
We also learned more about the big pencil we had noticed on the top of Wytheville Office Supply, the product of an unsuccessful campaign in the 1950s by the store owner to have the businesses along Main Street advertise with a large object relating to their business. The other store owners may not have followed suit, but the 30-foot pencil remains.
Grab breakfast, produce at the weekly farmers market
The Wytheville Farmers Market is held year-round, every Saturday from May to October and the second and fourth Saturdays from November to April. Several vendors sold items like fresh produce, honey and breads.
We enjoyed quiche and grilled cheese from the popular Log Cabin Bakery stand.
Learn to grow lavender, visit the butterfly house at a lavender farm
“Abuse and neglect, that’s what lavender needs,” Ellen Reynolds told us. And she would know. She’s the owner of Beagle Ridge Herb Farm, a delightful place where you can stroll through gardens, walk on the 4½ miles of nature trails and stroll through a butterfly house.
We had told her we didn’t think we could grow lavender in Georgia. “You can grow lavender anywhere,” she said. “You just have to have the right type then treat it with abuse and neglect.” Which coincidentally, are my two methods of taking care of plants.
Chris wanted to grow lavender at our lake property in North Carolina and loaded up our car with some lavender plants that he now knew how to plant. But the abuse and neglect portion of caretaking didn’t start until the lavender got in the ground. Before then we had several more stops on our Virginia road trip, which required making sure the lavender didn’t get fried in the car or get too dry. But that was his job.
We also bought some lavender-based products, my favorite, which she makes onsite with the exception of the soap. She and her husband own 210 acres, but just one is planted in lavender. Ellen also teaches lavender academies for people wanting to open their own lavender farms.
Enjoy the outdoors at the New River Trail State Park
You can horseback ride, bicycle or walk along the 57-mile linear New River Trail State Park that runs along the New River for 39 miles. Or go fishing, canoeing and kayaking.
If we’d had more time this would be one of our favorite things to do in Wytheville. It’s the kind of place we could happily spend an entire day. There are also three campgrounds in the park if you want to stay longer.
Feed the animals at Fort Chiswell Animal Park
A lot of people aren’t really into seeing animals in captivity, but if you are, head to Fort Chiswell Animal Park where you can feed and pet animals at the Petting Zoo before boarding a school bus to tour the property where you’ll see animals from six continents.
Riders are warned to secure their belongings as Puff the Camel and Cheeto the Giraffe have been known to pilfer items.
Climb the stairs, see five states from Big Walker Lookout
Our one disappointment from our trip is that we didn’t make it to Big Walker Lookout. On the morning we were set to go it was so foggy we couldn’t even see the museum across the street.
It seemed sad to go to a lookout where you can see five states when it’s clear and not be able to even one. But on our next trip we’ll head there, climb to the top of the 100-foot tower and hope for the best.
You can also find a country store, bike and motorcycle trails and live music on the weekends from May to October.