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.

Adventures in Gatorland

Featuring a guest post today with a good roadside America tale!

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By Elyse Gerstenecker

Florida is well-known for its wacky attractions, roadside architecture, and, let’s face it, unusual citizenry. This, along with live oak trees hanging with Spanish moss, bungalow and Mediterranean houses, and abundant orange groves are all situated under the umbrella known as “Old Florida.” If you have read a Carl Hiaasen novel, you probably understand what I mean. I now live in Central Florida, which is a mecca for lovers of Old Florida. I have created a long list of places to visit and hope to provide entertaining posts for Preservation in Pink’s followers who are interested in Florida beyond the beaten Disney path, although Disney World often serves as a catalyst for wackiness.

On a recent Saturday morning, I woke up with a desire to seek out some roadside architecture. I picked up my Roadside Florida book in search of a basic guideline to follow, and, when my boyfriend A woke up, I informed him that the day’s plan was simply to drive east on US Route 92. The early portion of our day was spent exploring antique stores and other shops in Lake Alfred and the recently revitalized downtown area of Kissimmee. For those planning a Disney trip, I highly recommend visiting Kissimmee for a Main Street experience. After we saw signs for Gatorland, one of the places on our “Old Florida Must-See List,” we decided on our destination.

From the brochures and old-school wooden signage, A and I expected the usual roadside attraction – cheesy and a bit run-down. Instead, we stumbled upon a wonder that attracts quite a number of visitors, is very well-maintained, and operates both as a theme park and an alligator, crocodile, and bird preserve. Future visitors, be warned: the admission price is not terribly cheap, and the place draws quite a crowd of families. This being a theme park that centers on man-eating creatures, I would highly recommend families with little bitty ones avoid it to save themselves (and others, like yours truly) the anxiety.

The Gatorland mouth. Photo courtesy of Elyse Gerstenecker.

Gatorland opened in 1949 under the ownership of Owen Godwin, whose family still owns the park. Godwin had operated a small alligator sideshow out of the backyard of his home south of Sebring, Florida in the 1930s, and his wife sold gator products out of their kitchen. Godwin then decided to achieve his dream of creating a park showcasing native Florida wildlife and purchased a borrow pit for an alligator-themed park off of Routes 17 and 92, which were then the highest-traveled roads in the state.

When the park opened as the Florida Wildlife Institute, it featured snakes and alligators, and local Seminole Native Americans lived on the property and wrestled alligators for entertainment. Godwin changed the name to Snake Village and Alligator Farm in the 1950s, and then to Gatorland in 1954. During this time, Godwin began traveling with a 13-foot alligator named Cannibal Jake to northern states to drum up tourism. Business boomed with the growing tourism industry in the 1950s, and Godwin traveled on safaris to attain more creatures for his farm. The famous concrete open-jawed alligator head outside the park entrance was designed by Godwin’s son, Frank, and placed in 1962. Frank Godwin later took over after his father’s death in 1975. Since the 1970s, the park has greatly expanded, but it has also joined forces with the University of Florida to perform research and breed alligators, which were on the national endangered species list from 1967 until 1987.

When A and I visited, we toured ponds and “marshes” FULL of alligators, some so enormous it was frightening. There was a bit of a crowd when we entered, all watching Gatorland’s famous Gator Jumping Show, in which entertainers send out whole chickens on lines for the alligators to jump up and snap off. Visitors walked around with hot dogs in hand, purchased to toss to the alligators for a snack. There were several exhibits about the snakes of Florida and other kinds of wildlife, as well as a sheltered exhibit that featured Louisiana’s albino alligators. I was thrilled to see a flock of flamingos.

A and I strolled through the park’s Swamp Walk, attended the Gator Wrestling show, and, for a fee, had our pictures taken sitting on an alligator and holding its mouth (taped shut by a trainer). Sadly, we did not purchase the photos. We finished our day by walking around the park and seeing all of the saltwater crocodiles. One of my favorite features of the park’s various alligator and crocodile exhibits were the signs telling some of the more outrageous stories associated with some of the creatures – an alligator captured in Tampa after eating several people’s dogs, an alligator kept in a New York City school basement, and an albino alligator so nasty that even the trainers are frightened of it.

Not kidding. Those birds are rather daring. Photo courtesy of Elyse Gerstenecker.

Gatorland has clearly adapted as ideas about entertainment have evolved. The park not only features a petting zoo and miniature train but also now has Gator Gully, a miniaturized water park for little ones to play. This spring, Gatorland opened its Screamin’ Gator Zip Line, a series of zip lines in which visitors in harnesses can zoom high across the alligator marshes. A promptly pronounced it awesome; I personally thought it insane. I can see that, through this evolution, the park has kept to Owen Godwin’s original idea and spirit, combining growing exhibits about Florida’s wildlife and natural landscape with outrageous shows and other forms of entertainment. It is, after all, a Florida theme park, and one that has managed to survive and thrive.