The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

Franklin County, Virginia - Backroads Tour

By Bob Heafner © 1984-2012

Issue: January 1984

"From Shooting Creek to 5 Mile Mountain"

backroad 1St. Johns in the Mountains Episcopal Mission, mile 8.9.What makes an area good? Is it friendly people with warm open smiles or the history which has merged the souls of the people with the character of the land or the land itself, with its serene natural beauty?

Any of these features would make a place special but an area with all three has surely been blessed. As we follow our BACKROADS tour of Franklin County, Virginia this month, we will pass through such an area. Franklin County is known as, “The Land Between The Lakes,” because it borders Philpott Reservoir and Smith Mountain Lake. From high mountain vistas to sailing on clear mountain lakes, Franklin is truly a mountain paradise; a place where the past is revered and the present is a monument to its pioneer beginnings.

Our tour will begin at the intersection of State Road 860 (Shooting Creek Road) and the Blue Ridge Parkway between Parkway Milepost markers 159 and 160. This intersection is approximately 18 miles north on the Blue Ridge Parkway from Meadows of Dan and approximately 38.1 miles south of Roanoke, Virginia.

BACKROADS tours always make a complete loop back to the point where we started. The underlined numbers at the beginning of each paragraph indicate the total number of miles we've traveled from our point of beginning. The numbers in parenthesis ( ) indicate the distance from the last point of interest that we passed.

backroad 4St. John’s in the Mountain Episcopal Mission School. The two story home behind it was the mission home residence of the staff and faculty, mile 8.9.Our entire tour will cover 42.5 miles and will take at least two unhurried hours. I’d recommend at least half a day and more if you have time. There’s lots to see and enjoy.

00.0 (0.0) Traveling north on the Blue Ridge Parkway from Meadows of Dan, Virginia, we will turn right off of the Parkway between Milepost 160 and 159 onto state road 860, the Shooting Creek Road.

02.5 (2.5) The small stream on our right is Shooting Creek. It will be parallel to the road for the next several miles and will steadily grow larger and louder as we head down the mountain. This small stream and its spring branch tributaries have supplied many a still with fresh mountain water. In years gone by, the product of those stills gained the reputation of being some of the “best corn liquor ever made.” An elderly friend of mine confirmed this by saying, “It was worth walking to get.” I respect his opinion. In this issue of The Mountain Laurel is a story, “The Pioneers,” which is an excerpt from the book, Walnut Knob, by Max S. Thomas. This book contains much information about this area and we found it thoroughly enjoyable.

03.7 (1.2) Here we enter Franklin County and leave Floyd County, Virginia.

backroad 2The Blue Ridge Institute of Ferrum College, Ferrum, Virginia, mile 17.806.6 (2.9) At this stop sign, we will turn left onto Virginia Route 40 and head towards Ferrum and Rocky Mount, Virginia.

08.9 (2.3) On our right at this point, there will be an old abandoned two story rock building. (See photo accompanying this article). This was once St. John’s in the Mountain Episcopal Mission School. The two story home behind it was the mission home residence of the staff and faculty. The house was completed around 1914 and the rock school was in use prior to 1927. The school once had as many as 125 students and offered up to two years high school curriculum. Weaving and quilting were taught along with other crafts and mountain families were encouraged to establish cottage industries of the various trades.

Their wares were marketed through the church in places as far away as New York. A portion of the proceeds were applied to sustaining the mission and the balance provided cash money to the mountain economy by way of the local crafters.

The school was closed in 1936 but the mission remained until the retirement, in 1950, of Mrs. Ora Harrison. The St. John’s Church was combined with St. Peter’s (will be mentioned later in this article) in 1961. To see St. John’s in the mountains today, one can only imagine how it must have appeared during the first quarter of this century. There were pupils of all ages and a staff complete with a doctor or nurse and there was activity - activity that aided the community it served. The closing was brought about when the county and state began taking an improved role in education. With improved public schools coming onto the scene, the need for church mission schools was eliminated. However, throughout the mountains, church schools such as St. John’s in the mountains provided help where and when it was needed during the first part of this century. Dedicated people such as the Reverend William T. Roberts, who assumed responsibility of St. John’s in 1914, and Mrs. Ora Harrison, who retired in 1950, along with countless others, have fulfilled a need in mountain communities for many years.

backroad 3St. Peters Episcopal Church, at mile 27.7, is a breathtaking place of beauty.09.6 (0.7) Here on our left is an old steel bridge and the Endicott, Virginia voting precinct building. For more about Endicott, read “The Pioneers” by Max S. Thomas, in this issue.

13.9 (4.3) This small community is known as Cross Roads. Cross Roads Market is the large building on the right.

17.6 (3.7) Ferrum Elementary School is on our right.

17.8 (0.2) At this point, Ferrum College is on our left and the Blue Ridge Institute’s Blue Ridge Farm Museum is on our right. The farm museum depicts a circa 1800 German farm, complete with home and out buildings, authentic in every detail including the period dress of the interpreters and the breed of farm animals. The atmosphere of the place takes you back to a time before electricity and highways when settlers chopped their way through a wilderness to claim their dream. As you walk among the buildings, it’s as if one can feel the independence of the proud German settlers who came to these mountains in search of a home - A place where they could raise their families and their crops in peace with freedom. The Farm Museum is more than a exhibit, it’s a journey back in time to a period when self-reliance and faith were the mark of a family. Soon a 1900 farm will be completed and it will illustrate the impact of a hundred years on the lifestyle of the mountain farm family. The Blue Ridge Farm Museum, if I may paraphrase my elderly friend, is worth walking to get to. Each Fall the Blue Ridge Folklife Festival is held here. It often attracts crowds of up to 30,000 people. The festival is a celebration of mountain heritage which anyone would enjoy. For further information on this and other Blue Ridge Institute’s activities, you may visit The Blue Ridge Institute.

18.1 (0.3) State Road 602 turns left here. We will come back shortly and turn here but for now, we will proceed a little further on Rt. 40.

18.7 (0.6) On our right is St. James United Methodist Church. It was erected in 1896. Services are now held in the Ferrum Chapel on the college campus. The Ferrum Craft House is on our right, just beyond St. James Church. In front of the Craft House is a parking lot where we can park. We turn left into this parking lot from Rt. 40. This serves as parking space for visitors to the Ferrum Craft House, which is operated by the college and the Blue Ridge Institute. A path leads from the parking area to the Blue Ridge Institute, where you may browse through the museum exhibits Monday through Friday, 8:30 to 4:30. The Ferrum Craft House offers a wide selection of craft items and supplies plus each Monday and Tuesday from 10:00 till 1:00, quilting exhibitions are conducted.  The Craft House is open Monday through Saturday, 9:00 till 5:00.

When you are ready to proceed on the tour, head back toward the Farm Museum and state road 602. As we double back on Rt. 40 toward the college, you will see a large part of Ferrum, Virginia. For a detailed look at the history of this picturesque mountain community, read the article entitled, “History of Ferrum” by Edith M. Sigmon and Dr. Frank B. Hurt in this issue of The Mountain Laurel. This story is an excerpt from the book, “The Sigmon’s and Their Kin” by Mrs. Sigmon.

19.3 (0.6) Here we turn right off of Rt. 40 onto State Road 602 (Ferrum Mountain Road). The college campus will be on our left. Ferrum College was founded in 1913 by the Methodist Church as the Ferrum Training School. Over the years it has evolved into one of Virginia’s, as well as the South’s, leading fully accredited four year colleges. It has played a major roll in the preservation of the culture, heritage, artifacts and traditions of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Now, through the Blue Ridge Institute, Ferrum College is carrying on a tradition it began not long after the turn of the century to collect and preserve for future generations those things which have made life special in the Heart of the Blue Ridge.

19.8 (0.5) Adams Athletic Field is on our right.

23.9 (4.1) At this point, state road 640 intersects with state road 602 but if you will pause here and look to your right, you will see a beautiful old colonial brick home on top of a hill overlooking the rich bottom land along the Pigg River. This estate is known as Bleak Hill and its construction dates to the early 1800’s. This property has remained in the same family since the 1700’s.

24.5 (0.6) Here the road forks and state road 602 turns right, across a small bridge and the left fork, which didn’t have a road sign when we were by, is state road 640. We will bear left on state road 640 which is unpaved just beyond this intersection.

25.6 (1.1) Here state road 751 turns left but we continue on state road 640. There are beautiful farm lands and a small lake on our left as we proceed.

27.1 (1.5) Pavement begins here at the intersection of state road 640 and 750. We will proceed straight ahead on state road 640.

27.7 (0.6) As you approach this point in our tour, you’ll probably gasp at the beauty of this picturesque rock church and its surroundings. Saint Peters Episcopal Church was built of native stone in 1921. It overlooks a small green valley nestled tight against the base of the Blue Ridge. Down the road from St. Peters is the Phoebe Needles Center, a beautiful two story rock building situated in a grove of tall trees. Once it was the Phoebe Needles School. Built in 1917, it was operated as an Episcopal Mission School until 1943. Now it serves as the Phoebe Needles Center, a Episcopal diocese conference center.

Phoebe Needles was the daughter of a past president of the Norfolk and Western railroad. She died before reaching the age of ten and her father, as a memorial to her, donated the majority of the land and money needed to build the center. The beautiful old two story home adjoining the center was built in 1911. It served as the mission home until the mission was closed in 1957. Now it is home to Mr. and Mrs. Richard Rusgrove. The school and mission provided much the same services to its community as St. Johns in the mountains did. It is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. The valley with its meadows and evergreens provide the perfect background for the native stone buildings. It’s the kind of place that makes you want to park your car and get out and walk around.

W. Melvin Maxey, associate professor of religion at Ferrum College, is the Rector of St. Peters Episcopal Church. His wife, Mrs. Ester Maxey, was my source for most of the information about St. Johns in the Mountains and St. Peters. Mrs. Maxey has written a soon to be published account of St. Johns, St. Peters and The Phoebe Needles Center. After talking with her, we’re anxiously looking forward to reading her publication. Future articles in The Mountain Laurel will keep you informed of where and when it may be purchased.

Services are conducted each Sunday at St. Peters by Rev. Maxey and visitors are invited. Church services begin at 10:00 AM and are followed by Sunday School at 11:00 AM. The church doors are always open and if you wish to enter when passing by, you may feel free to do so. Visitors are welcome anytime to visit St. Peters or The Phoebe Needles Center.

27.8 (0.1) At this stop sign, we are directly across the road from The Phoebe Needles Center. Here we will turn right onto state road 640. State road 640 and state road 748 will run together for a short way but we will remain on state road 640. The road to the crest of the Blue Ridge is known as “Five Mile Mountain.”

28.6 (0.8) Here we come to a stop sign where we will turn left and continue on state road 640.

32.3 (3.7) Here we leave Franklin County and enter Floyd County.

32.5 (0.2) This beautiful old home on the right belongs to Dr. David Landers and his wife Susan Icove. Dr. Landers is an emergency physician in Radford, Virginia. Ms. Icove operates a pottery studio in the old store building adjacent to the house. Her work is not on sale here but may be seen at the Piedmont Craftsmen Gallery in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and at the Center in the Square in Roanoke, Virginia. It is also at the American Hand on “M” street in the Georgetown section of Washington, DC.

The home was built in 1880 and the store shortly thereafter. Once it was a primary trading center for this area. It was known as the O.A. Huff General Store and once served as the switchboard station for local telephone users. Once a stagecoach traveled this road regularly and it has been said that this old store was once a stagecoach depot. This, however, is questioned by some local residents. In any case, this is a beautiful old mountain home and store building and it’s wonderful that someone owns it who views its historic charm as worthy of restoring and preserving.

33.8 (1.3) At this stop sign, we will turn left onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. We are rejoining the Parkway between milepost 150 and 151 and are heading south, back to our point of beginning.

37.6 (3.8) Smart View Picnic Area is on our left.

42.5 (4.9) We are back to our point of beginning at the intersection of the Shooting Creek Road (State Road 860) and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

We hope you have enjoyed this tour as much as we have.