The first thing Patrick Davis and Amy Rinker noticed after the long drive from Washington, D.C., to St. Paul, Va., on Interstate 81 was the crisp air. The second was how friendly the locals were — and how genuine the conversations they had in just their first walk around town were. The third was something more internal: we could make a life here.
The couple are avid outdoorspeople who looked for years for the right rural location to move. They initially looked around their home in Washington, D.C., but the close-by congestion and high home prices kept them from purchasing in that region. Then, last year they saw an ad for a property in Southwest Virginia. The more research they did on the locality, the more they fell in love with the lifestyle it provided. They would have opportunities to hike and fish and live in the woods next door to a small community more concerned with their neighbor’s health and safety than what someone did or how to get ahead. It took just the one visit for them to decide to purchase the property. They hope to move in this spring.
Davis and Rinker are just one example of a growing trend in Southside and Southwest Virginia— people are moving in. And they’re able to because their jobs are mobile. This was already beginning before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the country in 2020, but early migration data shows that the trend is speeding up.
This reverse exodus has been happening for some time. Demographers at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service started noticing a trend toward rural Virginia in-migration before the pandemic took hold, in 2019, stating in a report that cities, rather than rural areas, were expecting larger out-migrations. They also noted that raw Census numbers might be misleading, because in areas where deaths outnumber births — notably, rural areas — the migration trend might not be immediately noticed.
One source that can illustrate this is the Internal Revenue Service’s annual migration data, documenting how many people have moved, based on where they filed their income tax. The most recent data, released May 2022, covers migration through 2020. And though many of these localities are still losing population, as the 2020 census count shows, this IRS data shows that while their populations may have been declining, the number of people moving in was increasing — it was only because deaths outnumbered births that they lost population. So, while most counties (73%) saw more people die than were born, most counties (65%) also saw more people moving in than moving out.
Davis owns his own insurance brokerage and does consulting, all of which can be accomplished remotely with internet access and a post office. Rinker works in childcare, which is harder to make remote, but she’s confident they can make the move work. She also has family in Lynchburg, making the transition to this region easier.
Their kids are in college, and in 2017, the empty nesters realized the pace of Washington, D.C., was just too fast for them. The pandemic simply fueled their desire to move. So far, they’ve been using a travel trailer to stay on property but are getting full utilities out there in the spring. Then, they plan to start construction on an environmentally friendly cabin, “like a treehouse in the woods,” Rinker said.
The small-town feel helped, too. Whether the couple stopped by the post office, the Western Front Hotel for breakfast, local institution Fat Boys BBQ, or Sugar Hill Brewing, they felt the people they met were interested in them “as people” and rooting for their success moving.
Davis said the one issue moving to a rural community was that concern about being accepted.
“We’re not from there, and as an African American, I didn’t know how if I’d be welcomed.”
But he said getting to know people, including lawyer Frank Kilgore who brokered the land deal for them, eased those fears.
“And I didn’t know about Appalachia’s history of diversity — it’s really one of its best-kept secrets. We met people, and the conversations felt good. It solidified for us that this is definitely the place to be.”
The specific property, too, sold them. It has acres of mature forests with well-maintained trails. It’s actually Kilgore’s homeplace, though the house is no longer standing.
Kilgore explained that he’s from a little community outside of town St. Paul called Honey Branch, and that, “my family came hereabouts in 1770.”
He’s seen the area decline, but other than attending forest ranger technical school in Florida for a spell in the 1970s, he’s never considered living somewhere else. As a local lawyer, he handles real estate transactions, but has a wide area of practice, from criminal cases to civil suits and personal injury.
“For decades we have had mass outmigration, first when automation laid off 30 percent of hand-loading coal miners in the ’50s and ’60s, then [when] surface mining, which was cheap,” came there too. It’s been a steady decline in employment ever since, he said, with cheaper forms of energy coming online and the realization of health conditions that coal mining created for workers and the surrounding communities.
So, the influx of people came as an initial surprise, and it’s an entirely new phenomenon, he said. Anecdotally, he’s been seeing people aged mid-30s through 60 move in, “so far, not a lot of young remote workers in the coalfields, mostly people fed up with big dangerous cities, high taxes and bad weather…They are looking for four seasons, a friendly culture, affordable land, lots of outdoor recreation and good schools, for starters, and the lack of hurricanes, raging forest fires and gangs and riots seem to help.”
He said the biggest myth about this area is that it is exclusive. Instead, it has a long history of inclusion — “bringing in immigrants, sharecroppers to live in small communities and the miners working side by side in dangerous conditions and coalfield politicians supporting women to gain the right to vote and run for office way before most of the ‘woke’ areas did it. It is not the stereotype most people think of.”
He thinks the in-migration will continue, in no small part due to Appalachia’s resiliency to climate change. While many towns there are prone to flooding because of poor planning by the coal companies who built them, he said there is real opportunity in establishing new housing on hillsides and ridgetops.
His observation that urban residents are going rural is a shared one. A Pew Research Center study, released in late 2021, showed that home availability and satisfaction with communities led the reasons for moving to more remote locales. About half of U.S. adults, 49 percent, said the availability of affordable housing is a major problem where they live, up 10 percentage points from 2018. And about a third of U.S. adults, 34 percent, said they would want to move to a different community if they could, and those in urban areas are particularly likely to say this. Rural respondents seemed content with their surroundings, but some 43 percent of urban dwellers say they would like to move.
‘I found everything I wanted, and for cheaper, here’
About an hour north of St. Paul stands Grundy and the home of Lisa Agosti, Hemlock Hill Farm. She moved onto the farm a year ago this November with her partner, John, and two children, who are now in high school and college in the area. The move was the fulfillment of a lifelong homesteading dream that took on urgency during the pandemic. That time of isolation brought the family closer together. While cooking and spending quiet time around one another, she realized what they were missing. Then when her community was recovering, she said she thought, “No, I want this pace all the time.”
An artist, she was living in New York when the pandemic hit. She had never even visited this area before and notions of mountains and open air always conjured up life in Oregon for her. But one day she found a listing on farmflip.com for almost six acres of unspoiled farmland with a 1906-built farmhouse, a barn, a henhouse and old growth trees.
“I found everything I wanted, and for cheaper, here,” she said.
Though she has started farming the land, she owns her own decorative painting business and does infrequently have to make the drive to New York. It’s not ideal, but she said she’s willing to deal with more than 10 hours of driving one-way to have this quality of life.
Like Davis and Rinker, she said her neighbors helped her with that decision. They’ve helped out when her truck needed fixing, and when the garden needs to be tilled. She said when it became clear her family was committed to the property for the long-haul, her relationships really began to flourish.
Now, she and John are working on renovating the house and transitioning to full-time farm work. They started a new company making aromatherapy and other farm-based products. Their chickens are taking up plenty of their time, and they have the spring planting mapped out: chard and tomatoes in the garden, the upper pasture all squash. Bees are coming in spring. It’s a diverse farm, she said, and she’s preparing for more canning in the coming year. During their first growing season, Agosti underestimated just how big the plants would get. She was used to gardening in an urban backyard with a depleted ecosystem. But her soil now had not seen pesticides for years and has benefited from years of seclusion to build a rich biome. There are even hard-to-find trees in her woods: a chestnut and multiple Paw-paws.
She said the move is worth it, but “Don’t try to change it. You can be a part of what’s here; it’s beautiful the way it is.”
The IRS data shows that people, like Agosti, are coming from neighboring localities or out-of-state. They don’t tend to migrate to rural Virginia from urban Virginia.
St. Paul is located in both Russell and Wise counties. Russell County had seen net out-migration for seven of the past nine years before showing net in-migration for 2020. Wise County, though, is reporting 10 straight years of net out-migration.
Russell is exemplifying this trend of overall loss, but net in-migration. Its population dropped 0.9 percent, about 200 people, between 2020 and 2021. But more people migrated in than out.
Buchanan County, Agosti’s home, is also on the minus side with 13 straight years of net out-migration. Kilgore’s anecdotal evidence says that may change.
‘It’s a great time to live in Southside’
Another uncanny source of migration data is the U.S. Postal Service. Realtors use USPS tabulations of change-of-address data to predict home selling trends. And the net domestic migration into Virginia was up in 2020.
“The largest number of in-migrants to Virginia came from the District of Columbia,” said a report by Virginia Realtors. “Tennessee, North Carolina, Texas, and West Virginia rounded out the top five states where new Virginia residents moved from.”
The District of Columbia, however, was also the top destination for out-migrants from Virginia, showing that most moves tend to be fairly local.
The same group also surveyed their members to find out whether COVID-19 had an impact on the housing market in Virginia and found that “most respondents said they believe there would be growing interest in rural areas and suburban communities.” In some rural areas, they found as much as a 15 percent jump in home sales between years.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond’s economists weighed in on migration trends this summer. Their study of demographic trends found that “at the county level, most counties that grew in the 2010-2020 period continued to grow in 2021, and most counties that declined continued to decline.”
However, there were several counties, particularly in North Carolina and Virginia, that grew in the past year after a 10-year decline “and many of those counties were rural.”
Nottoway County, in the commonwealth’s Southside, bears trend this out. A net loss of 114 in 2019 turned into a net gain of 18 in 2020 there.
One of those moving in was an artist, Julie Krake, who moved to Blackstone from California in 2021. Born and raised for a decade in Ghana, she’s lived all over. After returning to the U.S., they lived in Minnesota, where she went to school, married and raised her four kids. But she’s also lived a lot of years in California and New Jersey with some time spent in Georgia, Kansas, Missouri and Massachusetts.
She followed her parents to Southside, who followed her sister there. She wanted to be East Coast-based, near her youngest son, and spent time with her parents in the region.
“I had always thought Blackstone was the cutest town in the area,” she said. “I considered living closer to the city, but Blackstone was definitely the right choice for me… I have a nice home, space, quiet and privacy and I live in one of the nicest neighborhoods in town with incredible neighbors. I love that I get to share my life with my parents and be near family. And I have jumped in with both feet in this town, on [the] board for Chamber and newly elected president of Rotary.”
Krake was a project manager in fiber optics for 22 years and Blackstone has the internet and phone service she needs — but most of her time is taken up with her new business and community obligations. Krake opened “In Town Art Gallery,” which specializes in classes and events.
“I just feel that art reaches past all ages, races, religions and politics, and gives us an outlet to express our truths. I have drawn, played piano, and written stories since I was a little girl. Now I paint and make mosaics, along with writing, and playing and teaching piano.”
She started a Facebook page called “New In Town” to get to know the area when she moved. At first, people shared pictures of deer, local natural formations that have captivated imaginations for years and lots of plants. Then, as it grew, she met painters, musicians, steel sign makers, chocolatiers, creative bakers, woodworkers — and more painters. She saw a desire for these creative people to have a collective space.
Along with it, she started a monthly “Second Saturday Art Walk” along with other locals who wanted to “showcase their art and introduce people to [what] Blackstone has to offer.”
“Literally every day now I meet [longtime local] artists and newcomers to the area who are looking for ways to get involved. It’s a great time to live in Southside Virginia with so much opportunity and energy surrounding it.”
The IRS updates its migration data each spring. Next year’s numbers will reveal whether the trend is continuing.