The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

Old Union School - Backroads Tour

By Bob Heafner © 1983-2011

Issue: June 1983

keith home_11905 newlyweds entering their new home for the first time. Trees in right foreground are native American chestnut.

This month our BACKROADS column will begin between Mileposts 171 and 172 on the Blue Ridge Parkway at a point located approximately 4.6 miles north of Mabry Mill and 6.2 miles north of the junction of US 58 Business and the Blue Ridge Parkway, at Meadows of Dan, Virginia. It is approximately 7 miles south of the junction of US Route 8 and the Blue Ridge Parkway, at Tuggle’s Gap, 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.

 Our trip will take a little over an hour and will cover a total of 19.2 miles. There are many beautiful wildflowers and birds to be seen along the way and I suggest you bring the appropriate field books to identify and heighten your enjoyment of both.

keith home 2House above as it looks today [1983]. Notice how the spruce tree has grown.00.0 (0.0) We are traveling north on the Blue Ridge Parkway, from Meadows of Dan, towards Roanoke, and will turn left off the Blue Ridge Parkway onto State Road 726 [Black Ridge Road], which is paved.

Immediately after leaving the Parkway, approximately 100 feet on our right, State Road 605 turns right. Turn onto 605 and watch for wildflowers along the way. There are trilliums, wild geraniums, may apples, and a wide variety of other wildflowers for us to enjoy.

01.2 (1.2) If we look to our right the tall mountain in the distance is Rocky Knob and you can see the Blue Ridge Parkway winding along its side.

02.1 (0.9) Here a 10 foot high bank borders the left side of the road. There’s a rail fence along the top of it. Look closely if you travel this BACKROADS in the early part of June. There will probably be lady slipper’s blooming here. When we came by they were not yet in bloom. There’s Soloman’s Seal here also.

02.4 (0.3) State Road 605 goes straight and State Road 720 turns to the right. Bear to the right on 720.

02.6 (0.2) There is a beautiful farm on our right. A farm like farms on the mountain used to be, with high rolling meadows; rail fencing with cross fencing and cattle dotting the hillside. This is one of the most picturesque farms that I know of in this part of the country.

03.1 (0.5) The old homeplace on the left once belonged to the Hancock family. If you look in the woods just past it, you can still see the signs of the old apple orchard scattered through the woods.

03.4 (0.3) The old building on the right was once an old schoolhouse. The creek you are crossing just in front of it will be Howell’s Creek, which should be excellent fishing for native trout.

03.8 (0.4) Here pavement begins.

03.9 (0.1) Almost immediately after you reach the pavement, turn left onto state road 724, which is unpaved.

05.1 (1.2) You will just have passed a green frame house. There is a driveway turning to the left over an old bridge. This leads to the entrance of the copper mines. Do not turn, this is private property.

05.2 (0.1) Here is a sharp curve which bears around to the right. You will see signs on the left of an old rail fence. If you look down through the woods about a hundred feet, you can see a rock pile almost hidden by Rhododendron, this is the top of the old furnace stack which we described in our May issue as well as the article in this issue.

06.5 (1.3) Several houses are along the road at this spot and on the left, there is a pasture, barn and a flock of sheep. The day we came by, there was one really small black one which was as cute as it could be.

06.8 (0.3) At this stop sign, we turn right onto state road 726, which is paved.

07.2 (0.4) The church on the right is the old Dillon’s Chapel Presbyterian Church, founded in 1860. The old building just past it used to be known in this community as the Kemper School.

union schoolOld Union School in foreground and Union Church on right in background. Buffalo Mountain is on the left horizon.08.1 (0.9) Turn left on state road 804, which is paved.

09.1 (1.0) A ford and an old foot bridge cross the river to a farm on our right. Along this section of the road there are Rhododendrons by the thousands.

11.0 (1.9) Look across the meadow to the right and you will see an old fence made out of rock. The walls are about 3 1/2 feet high and probably a foot to two feet thick. One can only imagine the back breaking work that went into building this rock wall. This is one of the most beautiful valleys in this part of the Blue Ridge. It is a little known area filled with all the charm and beauty the Blue Ridge has to offer.

11.5 (0.5) Look to your left. You can see huge piles of rocks dotting the mountain side meadow, along with chestnut rails stored in stacks resembling teepees.

12.7 (1.2) At this stop sign we will turn left onto state road 727.

13.1 (0.4) Daddy Rabbit’s campground is on our left.

13.3 (0.2) A beautiful view of Buffalo Mountain is directly ahead.

14.2 (0.9) This building beside the road was once the old Union School. It has been here for as long as most folks in these parts can remember. It burned in the 1930’s but it was rebuilt and school was held here for several years afterward. Look at the front cover to see how the old house behind the school appeared in 1905. In that year John William Keith bought the house and 79 acres for $2,500.00. He married Naomah Weddle on October 15, 1905 and the photo on the front cover shows them about to enter for the first time as man and wife. Mr. Keith worked in West Virginia for a railroad company in order to pay for the farm. He was killed on the property when he fell off a wagon loaded with hay. His son, Dewey J. Keith, still owns and farms this property.

15.1 (0.9) The church on our right just past the school is the old Union Church of Brethren. Services are still held here on alternating Sundays. At the stop sign, just past the church, we turn left onto state road 799. Burk’s Fork Creek will be paralleling the road.

15.9 (0.8) Turn left onto state road 805, which is a gravel road.

16.4 (0.5) Pull over, cut your motor off, roll down your windows and listen to the sounds of a little stream cascading over the rocks in the Rhododendron thicket on your left. You can’t see the stream, but doesn’t it sound beautiful?

16.8 (0.4) Rolling pastures line both sides of the road. On the left is a horse farm where you will see fields full of mares and their colts.

17.8 (1.0) At this stop sign, we will turn right on state road 726.

19.2 (1.4) At this stop sign, we are back to our point of beginning at the intersection of the Blue Ridge Parkway and State Road 726.

I hope you have enjoyed this BACKROADS as much as we have.