Virginia’s earliest history saw the colony grow unlike other British and European colonies. The setup was quite sparse with no cities and at best a few small towns along major river outlets. In time, settlers began pushing westward into the Piedmont and mountainous regions. With such moves came new opportunities and ways of life. Through it all, Virginians continued to build smaller town centers along new roads. One such town was Abingdon, which slowly sprang into life along the Great Wagon Road extending southward into Tennessee.
During the mid to late 18th Century men like Daniel Boone and William Byrd III explored the region, before settlers under Thomas Walker began building homes along the Road. Because of unrest between settlers and the nearby Cherokee tribe the English built Black’s Fort, which saw some action during Lord Dunmore’s War, as well as the American War for Independence. After the latter war the settlement around Black’s Fort became known as Abingdon – so named perhaps due to a connection to Martha Washington’s home town Abingdon-on-Thames.
The Settlement continued to grow around a strong community of Scots-Irish immigrants, who built a marked local identity in their adopted Appalachian homeland. Though small population growth steadily increased during the 19th and 20th Centuries, Abingdon never lost her identity. One of the surest ways to witness Abingdon’s charm is visiting her historic district, which, in a nod to the Martha Washington tradition, includes places like the Martha Washington Inn – the former Martha Washington College.
Across the street from the college-turned-inn is the locally and internationally renowned Barter Theatre, or as it is officially known, State Theatre of Virginia. The Theatre moved into an old Presbyterian church during the Great Depression’s darkest days. Work was hard to find for anyone, which meant that little money could be spared for actors trying to ply their trade.
It was during this time that 5th generation Scottish descendant Robert Porterfield from nearby Wythe County embarked upon an acting career and returned to Southwestern Virginia. He worked hard to discover a way to help struggling actors, and founded the Barter Theatre in the process.
Since Porterfield’s original founding of the Theatre, only 3 others have served as the Producing Artistic Director, with Katy Brown being the current office holder. She’s the first woman to hold the position and the perfect person to discuss the Theatre’s history. She joins me to illustrate the Barter as well as offer a glimpse into Abingdon’s charming community.
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BARTER THEATRE LINKS:
All photography used on this site is owned and copyrighted by the author unless otherwise noted. All images for this episode are used with permission from the Barter Theatre, and can be found on their Facebook Page.
Music used for this episode – Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers,”Carry Me Back to Old Virginia” available on Apple Music, and selections from “The Appalachian Spring Suite” by Aaron Copeland, performed by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein also available on Apple Music.