We love getting off the interstate highways and taking the two-lane roads whenever we can. As I have said many times before, a Denny’s or a chain hotel at an interstate exit in Kansas is no different than one in Michigan or California.
But the two-lane roads will take you to the real America. Small towns where you can sit in a diner on Main Street, where the waitress will call you honey or dear, and by the time you finish your lunch you will know who is cheating on who, who just bought a new pickup truck, and who’s out of work. You will meet friendly people, see things you never imagined, and learn a lot about history in these small town gems scattered from border to border and coast to coast.
One such gem we recently discovered is Clifton Forge, Virginia, nestled in the Alleghany Highlands near the West Virginia state line. Though the town was chartered in 1906, its rich history dates back to the earliest settlement of America. The land the town now occupies was originally part of a 1770 land grant to Robert Gallaspy by Lord Botetourt, the then Governor of Virginia. Over the years a settlement grew up along the Jackson River. A man named William Lyle Alexander owned a forge in the area, which he named “Clifton” in honor of his father’s estate in Lexington; and the settlement took on the name “Clifton Forge.”
The first passenger train arrived in Clifton Forge in 1857, and the community grew along with the railroad industry. During the heyday of railroads, Clifton Forge was a boom town, with some 2,000 people working at the big Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Railroad’s steam locomotive maintenance facility. The boom ended in the early 1950s when diesel locomotives became more common and the railroad opened a new facility in West Virginia.
Honoring this rich railroad heritage, Clifton Forge is the home of the Chesapeake and Ohio Historical Society. Here you will find the C&O Railway Heritage Center, which includes a railway museum, a visitor’s center that tells the story of the C&O Railroad and honors the memory and contribution of the working men who built the railroads that allowed our nation to grow and prosper.
Exhibits at the center include the 1896 freight depot, a replica signal tower for train watching, a 1922 Gadsby’s tavern dining car, restored C&O cabooses, a small gauge ride-on train, large scale locomotive models, and a 96-foot O-gauge model train layout.
While the railroad boom may have been ended, Clifton Forge didn’t go bust with the C&O’s departure. Today it continues to be a retail trading center and a home to artists and artisans who appreciate the natural beauty of the land and the beauty of the people who live there, along with affordable historic housing and an easy commute to urban centers.
Clifton Forge’s downtown area is a National Historic District, with 77 buildings in the central business district designated as having historic value. One of these is the beautiful Masonic Theatre. Designed in the Neo-Classical Revival style, the opera house was built in 1905 at a cost of about $40,000. The Masons held meetings on the third floor from 1906 to 1921. The theater, with seating for more than 500 people, hosted plays, vaudeville shows, silent and talking movies, community events, and political addresses. Many big-name celebrities of the era performed at the theater, including Hopalong Cassidy, Lash LaRue, Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers, Burl Ives, and the Count Basie Orchestra. The theater closed in 1987 and underwent a major restoration project from 2015 to 2016, bringing it back to its former beauty and full operation.
We spent some time at the Alleghany Highlands Arts & Crafts Center, admiring the work of local artists and craftspeople. Some of the work they do is amazing, everything from pottery to paintings to stained-glass, jewelry, needlework, baskets, and even self -published books.
Terry found this uniquely beautiful re-made over-shirt, and once she put it on, she couldn’t take it off, so it came home with us. Exhibits at the center change every 4 to 6 weeks, and they offer educational programs throughout the year, including short term workshops for the general public.
Just a couple of blocks away, we found the Clifton Forge School of the Arts, housed in another historic building along Smith Creek. The school offers classes and workshops in drawing, painting, quilting, woodworking, stained glass, pottery, sculpture, music instruction, and much more. Students of all ages are welcome, and customized art education and experiences are available.
Depending on when you visit, you might see someone making custom jewelry, someone else painting, or even a blacksmith at work.
While I appreciate music, I have no ability to play it at all and I admire those who do. I fell in love with this beautiful piano at the school. The grain of the wood was amazing. Music classes at the school include piano, violin, and cello. A bluegrass jam session is held on the third Friday of every month.
Clifton Forge is located just off of Interstate 64, at the junction of US Highways 60 and 220. It is 48 miles north of Roanoke, and 165 miles west of Richmond. It’s a wonderful little find and well worth your time to stop if you’re anywhere in the area.
If readers like stories of small town gems like this, let me know and I will occasionally post more in the blog.
Be sure to enter our latest Free Drawing. This week’s prize is an audiobook of Caddo Cold, the seventh book in my pal George Wier’s excellent Bill Travis mystery series. George is a prolific master storyteller, and if you have not read any of his books yet, you don’t know what you are missing! To enter, click on this Free Drawing link or the tab at the top of this page and enter your name (first and last) in the comments section at the bottom of that page (not this one). Only one entry per person per drawing please, and you must enter with your real name. To prevent spam or multiple entries, the names of cartoon or movie characters are not allowed. The winner will be drawn Sunday evening.
Thought For The Day – Dry erase boards are remarkable.