Ruminations on a Small Town

By Elyse Gerstenecker

Now that I have departed Southwest Virginia for sunny Florida and have had time to reflect on my experience there, one of my greatest regrets is dismissing the small town of Glade Spring as an option for my home. When I first moved to the area, I largely focused on finding an apartment in Abingdon, the town where I worked, and preferably one in a historic building. On an early apartment-hunting trip to the area with my mother prior to starting my position, my soon-to-be co-worker suggested looking into Glade Spring, which is nearby. Not having had much success in Abingdon, we drove to the town, which my mother promptly pronounced “that shabby little town” (a descriptor that soon substituted for the town’s actual name). I am ashamed to admit it, but I wholeheartedly agreed. Little did I know that the town was on the verge of a major revitalization project and that I would soon become friends with many of those involved.

Glade Spring Town Square. Photo by Elyse Gerstenecker.

Glade Spring lies in the lower Valley of Virginia, along the most easily traversed path through the Appalachian Mountains. This area witnessed the migration of people south from cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia along the Great Wagon Road, a travel route that followed previous paths established by Native Americans, as well as the development of railroads along this same route. The town truly became established after the Virginia and Tennessee railroad built a depot in 1856, allowing passengers to travel to the area to see the springs and take advantage of what were thought to be its curative powers.

In 1918, the state road leading from Bristol to Roanoke and running near Glade Spring was connected to the state road from Roanoke to West Virginia, and this road became part of the enormous US Route 11 in 1926. US Route 11 ran from upstate New York (and continued in Canada) to New Orleans, Louisiana and was one of many US roads that served as popular routes for motoring tourists from the 1930s until the 1960s, when the interstate system was developed.

Again, because of the lack of available alternatives in this region, US Interstate 81 largely follows the path of US 11 in Southwest Virginia, but unlike US Route 11, bypasses many of the small towns of the region, albeit often very closely. For Glade Spring and other towns, the introduction of the interstate and concurrent closure of passenger rail service signaled the end of an era of tourism and the economy it supported. Much of Glade Spring has been in a state of downfall since the 1960s (and probably longer), thus my mother’s designation of “that shabby little town” was not entirely incorrect.

However, the dedication of a group of citizens, led by Project Glade, has transformed the central square of this small town into a business center. The group’s stated goal is to “promote for Glade Spring, VA sustainable development that relies on the town’s traditions and on the innovations as it engages a dedicated citizenry in the improvement of community life.” The evolution of the square was underway before I moved to Southwest Virginia but really began to show in the following years.

Coburn Creative, a graphic design group led by now mayor Lee Coburn, anchors the square with a thriving business centered on creativity. Salon on the Square, operated by Coburn’s partner Melissa Dickenson, is next door and showcases the creativity of the pair. You do not typically see hair salons this cool in small towns, let alone Southwest Virginia. The pair live with their daughter above their businesses, demonstrating their dedication to this town. Improvements such as new sidewalks and lighting began prior to my move in 2008. Surber & Sons, a hardware store/anything-you-could-possibly-think of store, was already established, as was the Carolina Furniture Company and the Arise Community Center. The largest improvement in the town square has been the new Glade Spring branch of the Washington County Public Library. The library formerly occupied a tiny church, but, with Project Glade taking up the cause, the WCPL system and Project Glade raised enough funds to renovate an old corner grocery store on the town square into a beautiful new library to serve the town’s residents, and it opened in early 2011.

Glade Spring Half Church. Photo by Elyse Gerstenecker.

Before my departure in February 2011, I enjoyed great food from the Town Square Diner, a new greasy-spoon style diner also located on the square. MADE, which opened in 2010, has presented Glade Spring with another great business opportunity. This small boutique showcases handmade items created by members of the Glade Spring community and surrounding areas, and the owners encourage crafters to come by and work on projects in-store. Building a town center based on creativity, if not an overall sense of quirkiness, highlights the community’s unique character and serves the basic needs of the town while attracting visiting types like me who delight in finding one-of-a-kind handmade jewelry and flower pins at MADE, browsing the shelves of Surber & Sons (a veritable cabinet of curiosities), buying local produce at the farmer’s market, or eating cheese fries while getting a haircut at a great salon.

With Emory & Henry College so close, I cannot help but think that these kinds of businesses will see patronization, with a little encouragement, from the local student population. The town now hosts Movie Nights and music concerts in the square. Plans are in the works for transforming a beautiful but decaying bank in the square into an artisan’s workshop (the craft culture in Southwest Virginia is hugely important) as well as addressing some issues of buildings that have become so decrepit that they are beyond repair. I am not unaware of the fact that Glade Spring has a long way to go, and that many more adventurous, creative entrepreneurs like Coburn and Dickenson are needed to make the town successful, even beyond the square, but this is a promising start. It is truly beautiful, as a historic preservationist, to see a community take on this type of challenge with this much dedication and enthusiasm. I now wish that I had the foresight back in 2008 to move to this town and become a participant in this wonderful, extraordinarily welcoming, and often hilariously quirky community.

Sadly, Glade Spring suffered a setback on April 28, 2011. The same weather system that generated the record-setting, massive tornado in Tuscaloosa, Alabama set off an F-1 tornado in Glade Spring directly along the path of Interstate 81, virtually destroying a truck stop and flinging trailers along the highway like toys, combusting houses into piles of rubble, heavily damaging many other homes and businesses, terminally damaging several historic buildings, and killing three people. The county’s request for FEMA funding for Glade Spring was denied, despite appeals, and fundraising efforts to help homeowners and businesses continue. While this community has not suffered the devastation of Tuscaloosa or Joplin, Missouri, it has also not received the publicity or awareness that these cities have. The town is also located in a traditionally poor area of our country. Those interested in supporting Glade Spring and Washington County’s recovery efforts can make donations to United Way of Russell and Washington Counties, through which all funds go directly toward the cause. For more information, please see http://www.rcwunitedway.org.

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