Abingdon was founded in 1778 but the surrounding hills of southwestern Virginia would remain frontier for many years to come. Before so-called civilization arrived the area was called Wolf Hills, supposedly named by Daniel Boone after his hunting dogs were attacked by a pack of predatory lupines. The first encroachment on the wilderness here was a fort constructed by Joseph Black to give settlers refuge from attacks by the Cherokee.
When Washington County was formed in 1778 the site of Black’s Fort was designated the county seat. On 120 acres donated from landowner Thomas Walker’s tract the town was laid out. By 1793 Abingdon, perhaps named for the ancestral home of Martha Washington, was the distribution point for all mail that made its way into southwestern Virginia.
In the early 1800s the western outpost produced well more than its share of historical figures who would impact Virginia. There was John Cambpell who would serve as Secretary of the Treasury under Andrew Jackson, Joseph E. Johnston, who would become one of the leading generals of the Confederacy and three Virginia governors: WyndhamRobertson (1836-37), David Campbell (1837-41) and John Buchanan Floyd (1849-52).
The Virginia & Tennessee Railroad rolled into town in 1856, providing a link to the markets of eastern Virginia and Abingdon developed into a center for the shipping of tobacco and the construction of wagons. The Civil War came to Abingdon on December 14, 1864 when General George Stoneman marched 10,000 Federal troops through town burning the train depot and the wagon-shops and storehouses for Confederate supplies but otherwise left the town intact.
The result today is a 20-block Historic Districtpeppered with outstanding examples of Federal architecture, including a handful constructed in the 1700s. Our explorations will begin at a structure that did not survive the Civil War, but not because of the hostilities between North and South - it was a personal thing...
Washington County Courthouse
189 East Main Street
This is the fourth courthouse to serve Washington County from this site. It was completed in 1868 to replace its predecessor that was burned during the Civil War in 1864. General George Stoneman’s Union troops had marched out of town on December 14, 1864 sparing the courthouse but Captain James Wyatt of the 13th Tennessee Cavalry lingered behind. Wyatt had been raised in Abingdon, piling up several scrapes with the law and he harbored enough resentment that he set fire to the courthouse. The blaze roused Confederate troops in town and Wyatt was hunted down and killed in the vicinity of Church and Water streets. The courthouse incorporated the then popular Italianate style with its square tower and cornice with the classical Greek Doric columns fronting the entrance. In 1919 a Tiffany stained-glass window was installed above that entranceway to honor Washington County soldiers who served in World War I.
IN THE SMALL SQUARE BESIDE THE COURTHOUSE IS...
Court Square on Main Street
Abingdon’s memorial to the Confederate soldiers of Washington County was sculpted by Frederick William Sievers in 1907. Sievers would go on to become the famed designer of the “Virginia Monument” on the field at Gettysburg and many other notable statues but this was the 35-year old’s first important commission. The 20-foot high monument depicts a soldier”just as he appeared in his last fight at Appomattox - advancing, gun in hand, with a determined fearless cast of mien.” It was officially dedicated on June 3, 1908 - the centennial of the birth of Confederate President Jefferson Davis - and sited in the center of the intersection of Main and Court streets. It was moved to its present location in the 1930s with the soldier facing south, as is the wont of most Confederate monuments.
WALK OVER TO THE INTERSECTION WITH COURT STREET AND TURN LEFT.
108 Court Street NE
William King was one of the parade of Scotch and Irish who flowed out of Pennsylvania into the Shenandoah after the American Revolution. He arrived in 1791, peddling goods to other settlers, a line of endeavor that led to a string of wooden stores. But his real money came from the saltworks he established in Saltville. King showed off his wealth and means in 1803 by constructing Abingdon’s first brick house here. He called it “Grace Hill.” King would later endow the private Abingdon Male Academy with $10,000 and the school was renamed in his honor.
WALK BACK TO MAIN STREET AND TURN LEFT.
225 East Main Street
This three-story building was built in the 1840s by Robert Preston, the resident cashier of the Abingdon Bank. Preston and his family lived in one part of the building and the bank, counting room and vault were also located here. Elements of the Victorian and earlier Greek Revival styles can be detected in the brickwork, plaster lintels over the windows, cornice and entrance. The bank was shuttered at the end of the Civil War and the building carried on as a residence only.
William H. Pitts House
247 East Main Street
This Greek Revival house with parapet walls on either end was constructed in 1854 by Adam Hickman in 1854. The symmetrical five-bay form with a recessed central entrance was a familiar one in Abingdon. The brick house was constructed on a foundation of limestone blocks and is the only house in town sheathed in stucco. Hickman sold the house in 1858 to William Pitts, a physician who moved from Richmond. Pitts was one of five surgeons who tended to wounded soldiers at Abingdon’s Confederate hospital during the Civil War.
CROSS THE STREET AND TURN RIGHT TO WALK BACK UP MAIN STREET ON THE OPPOSITE SIDE.
222 East Main Street
This is the oldest building in Abingdon, and one of the oldest in western Virginia, was constructed in 1779 as a stagecoach stop, inn and tavern. The first post office on the western slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains operated here in the east end of the building and the original mail slot can still be seen. Henry Clay stopped here and so did Andrew Jackson. During the Civil War the building was pressed into duty as a hospital. In its 23 decades of existence other uses have been as a bank, bakery, general store, cabinet shop, barber shop and others and is operating today as an eatery once again.
208 East Main Street
This was Dunn’s Hotel when John Dunn had this brick building constructed in 1849. It continued as a guest house under the name Virginia House. The building would be converted into one of the town’s most important Civil War hospitals.
206 East Main Street
This mid-block Federal-style brick building was constructed in 1850 by John S. Preston for his daughter Margaret. Preston was born in 1809 at “Salt Works,” a sprawling estate owned by a prominent military family near Abingdon. Preston had studied law at the University of Virginia and Harvard College before his 20th birthday and was in practice in Abingdon by 1830. That year he married Caroline Hampton, a daughter of South Carolina’s wealthiest planter, Wade Hampton and moved to Columbia, South Carolina where he became of the most strident voices in support of secession.
County Office Building
174 East Main Street
This limestone Neoclassical presence on Courthouse Hill came courtesy of a bank in the 1920s but has been doing government duty since 1947. The 8-ton vault inside is still operational.
170 East Main Street
The Star Museum is exactly what you would think it would be - a repository for Hollywood memorabilia. The building houses the personal collection, thousands of items strong, of Robert Weisfeld. The three-story brick building housed the Abingdon Virginian, the newspaper operated by his family from 1841-2006. After the paper, which Weisfeld edited after spending 16 years pursuing an acting career in New York City, put out its final edition he opened the museum stuffed with glamour-tinged curiosities.
Sinking Spring Presbyterian Church
136 East Main Street
This is the fifth meetinghouse for the congregation whose roots extend back into the 1700s. It is the third to occupy this site, dating to the 1830s when a break-away group established a new Presbyterian church here, leaving the church that would become Barter Theater. The two factions re-united on April 9, 1865, the day that Robert E. Lee was surrendering the Army of Northern Virginia. The current Gothic-flavored sanctuary was dedicated on December 21, 1890.
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
124 East Main Street
The Episcopalians organized in Abingdon in 1846, meeting in a frame church building marked by an open belfry. After 78 years the frame church burned to its ground. Its replacement, an English-style stone church, appeared in 1925 and has recently passed the original in length of service.
Martha Washington Inn
150 West Main Street
The Martha Washington Inn was built in 1832 as an elegant residence for General Francis Preston and Sarah Buchanan Preston and their nine children. In 1858 the Preston estate was purchased for $21,000 (at a time when a good wage was $1 a day) to be converted into an upscale college for young women. Named for Martha Washington, the college grounds were shortly transformed into training barracks for the Washington Mounted Rifles and the building converted into a hospital ward. Martha Washington College continued to educate women until the Great Depression when declining enrollment forced it to close in 1932. In 1935, The Martha Washington Inn opened as a luxury hotel in 1935 becoming a favored destination for the rich and famous. Among those who signed the guestbook at the Martha: Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lady Bird Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Elizabeth Taylor.
CROSS THE STREET AND TURN RIGHT TO WALK BACK DOWN MAIN STREET ON THE OPPOSITE SIDE.
127 West Main Street
This building began life as the Sinking Spring Presbyterian Church in 1832. Title passed to the Sons of Temperance after the Methodists departed and in 1890 the building was transferred to the town to be used as a town hall, fire hall and performance hall. The Barter Theatre opened here in 1933 and was designated the State Theatre of Virginia in 1946. It was the “barter” theater because owner Robert Porterfield allowed patrons to exchange vegetables and produce in lieu of the 40-cent ticket price. Barter has a reputation as a theatre where many famous actors first performed before they went on to achieve fame and fortune. Today, Barter is one of the last year-round professional resident repertory theatres remaining in the United States.; its best known alumni include: Gregory Peck, Patricia Neal, Ernest Borgnine, Hume Cronyn, Ned Beatty, Gary Collins, David Birney, and Larry Linville.
Abingdon United Methodist Church
101 East Main Street
Circuit riding preachers ministered to Abingdon’s first Methodists in congregants’ homes as early as 1783. They did not get their own church until a small frame meeting house was built in 1822 over on Court Street. It was followed by a brick replacement in 1848 and on August 9, 1883 the cornerstone for this Gothic-influenced brick church.
Valentine Baugh House
129 East Main Street
The core of this house was a log structure built in 1798. It was added onto in 1807 when Valentine Baugh - surveyor, postmaster, publisher of the Abingdon Democrat - purchased the house. Only two of Valentine’s daughters, Minnie and Ethel, lived to adulthood, but neither of them married. Local legend tells that both their spirits still reside in the privately owned residence.
133 East Main Street
This house was constructed for Reverend Phillip Rohr in 1845. The symmetrical structure sports fine Flemish bond brickwork of alternating headers and stretchers and a splendid Greek Revival entrance presentation.
Preston Law Office
159 East Main Street
Francis Preston, whose father William was a compatriot of George Washington in the surveying of western Virginia, was born in 1765 and studied law at the College of William & Mary. Preston veered towards politics rather than law and was elected to the Third and Fourth Congresses of the United States from 1793 to 1797. He declined re-nomination and settled in Abingdon to practice law. About the time this law office was constructed in 1815 Preston caught the political bug again and began a stint in the Virginia State Senate. In 1820 he became Brigadier-General of the Virginia Militia.
Andrew Russell House
165 East Main Street
The western portion of this building was constructed in 1792 and was used in the Civil War as the headquarters of the Confederate Military Department of Southwest Virginia. The east wing that projects towards the street was an 1870s addition.
James White House
171 East Main Street
This building began life as the brick home of James and Elizabeth White in 1819. A store and office were added in 1828. The house suffered damage when the courthouse at the other end of the block was burned during the Civil War in 1864. In the post-war restoration the Federal-style structure picked up the Italianate cornice. This was the boyhood home of Robert Sayers Sheffey, where he was reared by an aunt when his mother died. A flamboyant circuit-riding preacher, Sheffey became legendary for his big-hearted generosity to people and animals alike, earning the nickname St. Francis of the Wilderness.”
WALK A FEW MORE STEPS TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT.