The history and drama of Abingdon, Va.

08/21/2013  | 
Experiential Learning

The Town of Abingdon is home to the most famous stage in Virginia, the Barter Theatre. Barter was founded on the idea that live theatre is important to the cultural life of the community. So important, in fact, that when it opened its doors in the midst of the Great Depression, patrons could buy tickets with produce or livestock. Eight Decades later, this heritage is celebrated with at least two performances a year when patrons can barter for their tickets with donations of canned goods for a local food bank.

From its humble beginnings, Barter eventually became well-known in theatrical circles for its commitment to high-quality productions. Rising stars such as Gregory Peck, Ernest Borgnine, Patricia Neal, Hume Cronyn, and Kevin Spacey have graced Barter Theatre’s stage. The rich history of Barter Theatre is reflected in the beautiful Gilliam Stage, with its classic proscenium stage and opulent furnishings, plus newly renovated lobby.

Barter Theatre’s footprint has expanded over the years. Across the street from the main building is Barter Stage II, which offers a more intimate setting. With a thrust stage and seating for 167, the action is up close and personal. The theatre has a deep commitment to new works and Appalachian stories, as well as programs for students, helping guarantee a vibrant future for regional theatre.

As it celebrates its 80th birthday, Barter Theatre is still the epicenter of Abingdon’s cultural life, which also features live music, world-class museums, galleries and a wide variety of working artist’s studios.

Today, the drama in Abingdon plays out on a stage with talented actors. But for hundreds of years, great events and fascinating characters have left an indelible mark on this unique community. For example, if Daniel Boone had his way Abingdon would be forever remembered as Wolf Hills. From the Native American Great Warriors Path, legends of wolves and Daniel Boone to frontier fort attacks, the oldest English-speaking settlement west of the Blue Ridge is full of history.

Around the time Daniel Boone roamed these woods, early settlers traveled through the region on The Great Road, also known as The Wilderness Road, a migration route for those crossing the mountains to reach the new American frontier. These settlers faced tremendous hardship and harrowing experiences including battles with Native Americans.

The Town of Abingdon was established by Act of the General Assembly in Virginia in 1778. Two short years later, Abingdon played a role in helping the young nation gain its independence. Patriots from Virginia gathered at the Muster Grounds to begin a 220 mile march to Kings Mountain, South Carolina. The ensuing battle was a turning point in the Revolutionary War. The Abingdon Muster Grounds have been meticulously preserved and today serve as the northern trail head of the congressionally authorized Over mountain Victory National Historic Trail.

Abingdon is a picturesque ideal Blue Ridge Mountain town. Its historic downtown district, complete with lots of unique shops, restaurants and inns draw visitors from all over the east coast. But outdoor enthusiasts love that the mountains offer so many ways to play and they’re just minutes from downtown.

The Virginia Creeper Trail owes its unusual name to the way locals referred to the old steam engines laboring up mountain grades with heavy loads of lumber or iron ore. In every other way, the Virginia Creeper Trail is a delightful way to spend a day in the beautiful mountains. The 34 mile scenic trail is filled with charm, history, scenery and a few surprises.

The multi-purpose trail runs along railroad right-of-way that dates back to the 1880s. Today, it is widely considered one of the finest rails-to-trails examples in the east. The trail is used by walkers, runners, horseback riders and lots of bikers. In Abingdon, the western terminus of the trail, access couldn’t be any simpler. It’s hard to miss the restored locomotive on display at the trail head right in the middle of town.

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