By Bob Heafner © 1983-2012
Issue: October, 1983
The little town of Stuart, Virginia is located 16 miles east of the Blue Ridge Parkway on Highway 58, in the county of Patrick. Stuart has a population of 1,131 and covers a total of 0.61 square miles. It is one of the most picturesque little communities in the Heart of the Blue Ridge.
There’s lots of bits and pieces of information that I could tell about Stuart but they would be statistics such as you would find about any city or town. The things I’d like to tell you about Stuart, Virginia are the things that are often taken for granted by the residents and overlooked by tourists.
Of all the impressions this tiny town has given me, none stand out in my mind like the first Christmas as a resident. I had moved to Stuart from North Carolina and the holiday season found me alone except for the few new friends I had made in recent months. My mood was despondent, being so far away from family and loved ones at Christmas time. It seemed that my mood was getting steadily worse until about a week before Christmas. Then a miracle happened and my first Christmas in the Heart of the Blue Ridge became one of my best ever.
My office was located in the Hooker Building, across US 58 from the courthouse and on the day my spirits lifted, I had put on my heavy coat and stepped out onto the sidewalk in front of the office. There was a nip in the December air and an occasional snowflake could be seen floating to rest. When I first opened the door to step outside, the notes of Christmas Carols were ringing from the Stuart Baptist Church chimes. As I looked down across Main Street, I could see people with packages under their arms and smiles on their faces. Every store front was decorated for the Holidays and the air was filled with Christmas warmth. Rather than heading to my apartment in the Virginian Motel, I decided to walk down Main Street. It had been one of those years for me when I just couldn’t get into the Christmas mood, but as I walked down the sidewalk, past the courthouse and its statue of General J.E.B. Stuart, I found myself starting to smile. The sounds of the carols from the church chimes were being carried all over town and everyone who passed smiled and greeted me with, “Merry Christmas.”
I window shopped down Main Street, occasionally entering a shop to browse and everywhere I went there were smiles and friendly people. By the time my stroll had taken me the short length of Stuart’s Main Street and back to my apartment, I felt the spirit of Christmas more than any other time in my life. Here, in this small town, I found an old fashioned Christmas. But more than an old fashioned Christmas, I found an old fashioned place. A place where shop keepers and the residents of the community and satisfied customers are a way of life. Many of the businesses are 2nd, 3rd, or even 4th generation operated. Clark Brothers is a prime example, in that it is still owned and operated by the same family and it’s been here in the same location since 1885. Alexander’s Foods is another example, since it is a second generation family owned store.
Once a train known as “The Dick and Willie” ran into Stuart and the first quarter of this century brought wagons pulled by oxen, horse or mule hauling wagon loads of chestnuts, tannin bark or other farm items into Stuart to be shipped all over the country. A campground offered a place for mountain folk to bed down for the night and livery stable offered shelter for the teams used to pull the wagons. There was a hotel were weary travelers arriving from Floyd or Meadows of Dan or one of the other small communities throughout this area could rest for the night.
There are two sections of Stuart today; “Uptown” and “Downtown”. Uptown is the area around the courthouse and US 58. Downtown is the old section near Clark Brothers, were commerce was centered in the years gone by.
The old bank building next door to Clark Brothers is still used as a branch of the First National Bank of Stuart. It was first opened in 1921. There is a sense of history and simpler times in Stuart even today. As the county seat of Patrick County, Virginia, it remains as a living testament to what small towns all over America once were. Quiet and pretty, with its tree lined residential areas and friendly people.
For me, Stuart is a nostalgic place, reminding me of my home in Hickory, North Carolina, when I was growing up in the 1950’s. Today when I drive through Hickory, there are shopping centers everywhere and now the businesses are chains with corporate headquarters located in some distant city. The personality that I feel was lost by my old home town seems somehow to have been transferred to the community here in the Heart of the Blue Ridge. Stuart, with its locally owned stores and personal service is one of a dying breed of American cities and towns. It seems progress is always based on bigger is best so the little shops lose out to the large corporate giants. It’s a shame because once the loss is felt it’s almost always too late to reverse. Neighbors in this part feel a commitment to each other and when the neighbor down the street runs the grocery store, he knows that to be successful in this community he must give his neighbors and friends the best possible service. Sure, small businesses have a hard time competing with large chains but what price can be put on such a haven in today’s modern world? It’s worth a few pennies more to know that your children can experience the friendly feeling of window shopping on Main Street in their home town.
I guess I’m hopelessly sentimental about old fashioned places but I’m not apologizing because I love this place. A place with not one stop light in the entire county and with a beautiful old courthouse on Main Street where a statue of a Confederate Soldier keeps watch over the harmony of its surroundings. There is a peace in Stuart that’s not found in other cities as often as it used to be and I cherish each moment for what it is to me: A childhood hometown that I lost to progress, I have found here, in the Heart of the Blue Ridge.
The railroad’s been gone for years and progress is coming to Stuart at last in the form of its first shopping center and a new government office building. I would be worried about losing our small locally owned shops to progress if it were happening anywhere else, but here the people are loyal to their neighbors and hopefully Stuart will always be a haven of escape from the fast paced modern world; a place where a lonesome stranger can walk the streets before Christmas and be flooded with the spirit of “Christmas among friends.”
EDITORS NOTE: When I first visited Stuart in the early 1970’s, I was a grown woman in my 30’s. I opened the door to “Reed’s 5 cents to $1.00 Store” and like a wave, the sensation of being there before hit me. Every sight, sound and smell was exactly like the “Five and Dime” store I knew from my childhood. I was six years old again, clutching a handful of pennies, trying to decide how I was going to spend them. The perfume counter was in the exact same place and the brands were familiar. The candy counter was there too with the ever favorite, chocolate covered peanuts, waiting to be weighed and put into a small white bag when purchased.
I walked through every aisle, taking it all in and enjoying everything from the long forgotten smell of flannel backed oilcloth, sold by the yard for table cloths to the sight of Blue Willow Dinnerware arranged on the back shelves. Here you could still purchase a white ladies handkerchief with lace edging (My mother received more than one of those in my youth for a present from me. When I was a child, it was one of the few things that could fit my budget at present giving time!)
It was such an overwhelming similarity to the store I knew and loved as a child that I had to ask questions. I then found that Mr. Porter in Kernersville, North Carolina, where I grew up, once owned the store in Kernersville and the one in Stuart. The store in Kernersville has been closed and other shops have taken its space for many years but now Reed’s, even though its under different management, is still operating in much the same way.
As I stood there looking all around me, I spotted a little girl probably about six or seven, looking over the toy shelves in much the same way I used to. I smiled and a lump came to my throat that it could still be the same. I know what those toy counters meant to me as a child and it was clear, they still did to another generation. Nothing will ever replace the memories of childhood and a toy counter at the local “5 & 10.”