Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Rural Retreat, VA

Attending the Rural Retreat-Wythe County Community Fair was our primary goal today. Rural Retreat is about 10 miles southwest of Wytheville via the more scenic Route 11. Gates opened at 5:00, but I like to arrive in new towns a couple hours earlier to drive around the town to look for interesting scenes to photograph.

One home appeared to be more stately than others in the area. The owner was trimming the hedges, but I was discrete in photographing her home.

Kate was waiting in the truck parked by the old train station while I walked around the center of town, camera in hand. As I approached the depot, three cars pulled up and five men quickly left the cars. Nothing unusual until I noticed they were all headed toward me at a rather brisk pace.

Thoughts raced through my mind. Had someone called the authorities about some suspicious guy taking photographs of homes? I had parked in an empty lot by the depot, but had I parked in a restricted space?

Yes, I had wanted to become involved in the activities of a community, but as an observer not as the center of attention.

No marked cars, no uniforms, no weapons, and one expensive camera. Maybe there was some hope.

"I'm Ray Matney, the Town Manager," said the fast-approaching leader. The town's top official--was this a good sign or a bad one? "You here taking pictures of the town depot?" (Is the correct answer "yes" or "no"?)

"Well, . . . I was going to . . . ," I started.

"We're here with some folks from the Herald doing a story on the depot," said Ray, sounding pleased that I was taking an interest in the old depot. Now Kate had seen this whole mini-drama unfolding. In addition to seeing the arrival of the cars and hurried exits from the cars, she had heard someone say, "There's a guy taking photographs of the depot. This is a great photo opportunity."

So, after an hour of telling me about the town's history and asking me how I happened to be here from Pennsylvania, I asked these men if I could take their photograph for my blog. From left to right, Tim Litz (a city official), Bill Hall (a marketing consultant), Tim Matney (Town Manager), and Joe Tennis (reporter from the Herald and author of Southwest Virginia Crossroads) kindly agreed to pose for this shot.

Then I was invited to take photos of the depot while the photographer from the Bristol (VA/TN) Herald Courier took a photograph of me and asked for the spelling of my name. The photo to the right was taken to avoid the For Sale sign, but I had to include the art work on the dark portion of the wall. You can be sure I'll be buying copies of the Herald for the next few days.

In that hour of conversation, I learned that Rural Retreat was the home of Dr. Pepper--yes, there was a real Dr. Pepper. He owned the pharmacy opposite the rail depot. It had burned down about 30 years ago, I believe, and there is just a vacant lot there now. It seems that an assistant to Dr. Charles Pepper left Rural Retreat, moved to Waco, Texas, and patented the formula for a soda that would be given the name "Dr. Pepper" in honor of the pharmacist. Guess who made the money? It wasn't the good pharmacist.

I then learned that the soda Mountain Dew was developed in the town "down the road apiece." Also, Stephen Austin was born in nearby Austinville, VA and that Edith Wilson was born in Wytheville (but you already knew that).

Well, after a quick burger at Joe's Country Kitchen, we drove off to the County Fair. We were interested only in the entertainers that were appearing. The Appalachian Hoedowners, a group of 25 cloggers began the evening's entertainment. Clogging is a traditional Appalachian style of dancing in which the dancers wear shoes with metal covering the entire heel and a large portion of the toe.

The highlight of the evening was the performance by Wayne Henderson and Friends. Now, saying that Wayne is a local fellow is like the folks of Asbury Park, NJ saying the Bruce Springsteen is just a local boy. He is the most famous luthier (maker of string instruments) on the Crooked Road and has a 7-year waiting list for one of his guitars. (He plays no favorites with celebrities; it took Eric Clapton 10 years to get one of Wayne's guitars.) In 1995, he received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts for his guitar making, the highest award for craftsmanship. With all the accolades, he is a very soft-spoken, funny, fellow. Wayne was joined by Jim Lloyd (left) on banjo and Herb Key (right) on bass. Jim had just won first place in the individual banjo competition at the Elk Creek Old-Time and Bluegrass Band Convention last week.

They played "Freight Train," which was composed by Elizabeth Cotten at age 11. She played left-handed with the guitar upside down. I found this fascinating.

What a day!

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