With a history dating to pre-Colonial times, two renowned universities that welcome students from across the world, and generations of talented locals, Montgomery County boasts an eclectic line-up of arts and cultural attractions. The opportunities for exploring can be downright overwhelming, so here are some of the most iconic spots that continue to attract and inspire our visitors and locals alike.
Moss Art Center
Virginia Tech’s Moss Arts Center (MAC) is a thriving community of art and inspiration, where visitors have meaningful experiences enjoying arts of the highest caliber in all its forms. In addition to hosting exhibitions and performances from globally and locally celebrated artists, the MAC treats visitors to hands-on experiences, workshops with visiting artists, lectures and symposia, master classes, community celebrations and more. Inside of the MAC is The Cube, a one-of-a-kind black box theater used for research, performances and visual art.
The Lyric Theatre
Fan of the big screen and its history? The Lyric Theatre, originally opened in 1930 and the focus of major restorations throughout the years, is famous for being one of Virginia’s first cinemas to show sound pictures. Adorned with original 1930s tapestries, replica lanterns and the fully restored lobby and auditorium, today the Lyric Theatre is a hub for movies, concerts and performances.
The Lyric Theatre is also home to some of the best popcorn in Montgomery County, so grab a bag and enjoy (we like it better with extra butter). As you’re eating, take some time to observe the blend of Art Deco and Spanish Colonial Revival architectural design from Roanoke architect Louis Phillipe Smithey, as well as the famed comedy and tragedy masks on the Lyric’s façade. The masks are replicas of the originals, which mysteriously disappeared sometime during the 1980s.
Montgomery Museum of Art and History
The Montgomery Museum of Art & History is located in Christiansburg on East Main Street. The museum is dedicated to collecting, preserving, and interpreting the history of Montgomery County, Virginia and the region as well as promoting art by regional artists. As the region’s steward of art and history, the museum takes great pride in inspiring and educating through cultural programming. Additionally, the institution facilitates important community conversations by offering a forum for dialogue across differences and brings the community together using art and history.
If you’re feeling the groove, the air is filled with the sound of music on Friday nights during the summer months with weekly performances at Henderson Lawn, an expansive green space between Virginia Tech’s campus and Downtown Blacksburg. Local musicians as well as performances from Virginia Tech’s School of Performing Art treat visitors to a variety of musical genres that get the feet tapping and the soul racing. Henderson Lawn is also the site of the annual Summer Arts Festival sponsored by Virginia Tech and the Town of Blacksburg.
After the sun sets, treat the family to a classic movie-watching experience at Starlite Drive-In. The theater has been entertaining locals since 1953 with new and favorite films of the past, like Grease, ET as well as concert performances from some of the country’s most well-known musicians. And if searching for unique pieces of Americana is your thing, the drive-in is the site of a local flea market every Saturday in the summer months.
A Family’s Mountain Adventure
Spring in southwest Virginia is quickly becoming my favorite time of year here in the New River Valley! It is a time when buds burst forth with tender green leaves and redbud trees appear as pops of colorful sprays in a natural bouquet. My husband and I, “Pops” to the grandkids, recently set out on the first camping trip of the season. Visiting all Virginia State Parks has long been on our bucket list. We spent a long weekend in Claytor Lake State Park in Dublin, Virginia which is easily accessed from I-81 via Exit 101. The park offers a wide variety of activities including swimming, fishing, boating, camping, cabins, and nature and history programs. This park, as with most of the state parks, has kids’ programs offering fun guidance on how to identify natural elements along hiking trails of which there are several varying from easy to moderate. This will be the perfect weekend for exploring what to do with the grandkids this summer.
Once our campsite was set, Zelda the family dog and I walked down to the visitor’s center at the historic Howe house to sign up for a dog hike the next morning. I made mental notes along the way of playgrounds, an accessible fishing pier and bike rentals. The next trip would include two more passengers who are not as tall as Pops and not as furry as Zelda. I simply could not wait to convert these trip ideas to reality with the grandkids! The next trip with them would include:
A burger! The last thing I want to do after setting up camp is to cook. Yes, we are glampers! We’ll venture out on the first night for a Buffalo Burger at Buffalo and More located 20 minutes from the park in Riner, Virginia. Do you ever wonder why hamburgers don’t taste like they did when you were a kid? These do! The owners of Buffalo and More own their herd which is raised only a few miles down the road from the restaurant. Buffalo is a lean and healthy meat. As they say, you are what you eat!
The smell of bacon will fill the air on the first morning. The sleepy heads will roll out of bed and immediately begin asking to go swimming. First things first. Pops and I feed the kiddos and the beagle. The kids and I walk to the beach through a dense pine thicket with a well-maintained trail. Spring has brought forth all sorts of plants and wildlife to see and talk about. Better have answers ready for lots of “whats” and “whys” from the kiddos.
The kids are tuckered out that evening. The hammocks under the shade trees are very inviting for a quick lounge. A regional store, Walkabout Outfitters, is a great place to find outdoor gear. The closest location to the park is in Blacksburg, VA which is 30 minutes away. Maybe an urban exploration for another day. It is almost time to start the grill and the campfire. A fire is welcomed as the warm temperatures of the day give way to cool spring nights. The hoot owls can be heard clearly among the chorus of spring peepers. Although TV and WiFi is available, not one electronic device is being used at this moment. How could they compete with Pops tales told around the campfire?
Rain moved in on this last full day. No problem! The Wonder Universe: A Children’s Museum. This well thought out venue has hands-on exhibits and learning opportunities through play. It is located in the Uptown Christiansburg Mall. This is the perfect place to bring the kiddos in a rainy or sunny day!
Montgomery County’s History Highlights
With Virginia’s Jamestown Settlement – the nation’s first – just to the east, you might expect that Montgomery County boasts a rich history dating back to the country’s earliest years. You would be correct. In the mid-1650s, Abraham Wood was the first European-American to explore the New River Valley and the area that would later become Montgomery County.
To discuss all that happened in the region since then is far too much to cover in this brief article, so here are five significant events in the history of Montgomery County to get you started on your journey through the past of the New River Valley. Go to Town!
Mary Draper Ingles
In 1755, Mary Draper Ingles and her family embraced relatively peaceful days on their Draper’s Meadow homestead, what is now present-day Blacksburg. Although the French and Indian War raged throughout the American frontier, the Draper’s Meadow community lived in somewhat harmony with the Native Americans who frequently passed through the region.
However, that all changed one day in July when many members of the settlement were killed and Mary, along with her family, were captured by the Shawnee and taken hundreds of miles into the wilderness.
Mary somehow mustered tremendous strength and courage and escaped her captors. Alone in the wilderness, Mary trekked through Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia with her only guide being memory and significant waterways before ultimately returning home to the New River Valley.
Today, Montgomery County visitors can trace her footsteps by visiting the nearby Mary Draper Ingles Trail, a collection of sights and experiences throughout the region that honor Mary’s courageous journey.
Sisters in Black
One of the more notable tales in the history of Montgomery County is that of the Sisters in Black. The abridged version of the story goes that Martha Wardlaw inherited what had been a prestigious local school, Montgomery Female College, from her ailing sister and relocated to Christiansburg with her other sisters and family members to tend to the school.
The sisters dressed in all black, often scaring the students as other bizarre events began to unfold. The sisters’ nephew, John Snead – who had a sizable insurance policy – first fell off a train travelling from his home in Tennessee to Christiansburg. Later, as if the train incident weren’t enough, John nearly drowned after falling into a cistern. But just weeks later, John died in a bizarre fire as his room was ablaze, and his bedclothes soaked in kerosene.
The sisters were never charged for their suspected crime. Well, not in Virginia anyway.
Christiansburg Industrial Institute
Established in 1866, Christiansburg Industrial Institute was the first southwestern Virginia high school to educate formerly enslaved peoples. For 100 years, the Institute served African Americans across the state of Virginia.
Today, Christiansburg Institute honors the Institute’s 100-year legacy of African American education and empowerment through storytelling, community outreach and education, and historic preservation. The Edgar A. Long building is the last remaining structure from the original 185-acre Christiansburg Institute campus, and is currently under renovation to include a multi-platform museum exhibit showcasing Christiansburg Institute’s material and cultural history, and African American history throughout the South.
Additionally, Christiansburg Institute has revived the ECHO newspaper, originally published by the students of the Institute’s print shop, to serve as its own official newsletter. The online newsletter can be viewed on Christiansburg Institute’s website.
A local folk artist from the 1800s who is revered for his sketches and paintings that visually captured everyday events throughout history, Lewis Miller is one of the most noteworthy artists associated with the New River Valley. Miller was first recognized by historians for his depictions of everyday life and insight into local culture and customs. However, the art community later began to celebrate Miller’s work as well.
Visitors can observe many of his works with a stop at the Montgomery Museum of Art and History in Christiansburg. In addition to Lewis’ works, the museum features exhibits detailing the history of Christiansburg. The museum also is home to an extensive library of historic books, newspapers and photos that all help to tell the story of the New River Valley.
The Preston Family and Virginia Tech
Perhaps no greater family has made a more significant impact on the New River Valley than the Prestons, given their association with the establishment of Virginia Tech.
The Preston and Olin Institute, a Methodist academy for boys, was established in 1851 in Blacksburg. The Institute was named after Stephen Olin, a minister and former president of Randolph-Macon College, and Colonel William Ballard Preston, a well-known Montgomery County businessman, farmer and politician. Later in 1872, the Institute was financially struggling and was subsequently purchased by the Virginia General Assembly under the Morrill Act of 1862. The same year, the Commonwealth acquired 250 acres of land from the adjacent Solitude Farm from Robert Taylor Preston, son of Virginia Governor James Patton Preston.
With this swath of land, including the house and several buildings that sat upon it, the Commonwealth formed the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College, now known as Virginia Tech, and the first student enrolled on October 1, 1872.
Today, visitors can visit the original Preston family home – now a museum house – at Historic Smithfield, just outside the Virginia Tech campus. If you would like to learn more about the rich history of Montgomery County and the New River Valley, check out Virginia’s Montgomery County published by the Montgomery Museum of Art and History – a 700-page collection of essays, photos and insights dedicated to the region’s past. Or Go to Town! and explore Montgomery County history first-hand with a visit to the New River Valley.