As a history destination Wytheville may not have the name recognition of Jamestown, Williamsburg, or Richmond, but don’t tell residents they have no history. They have plenty of it. So much, in fact, that this town of 8,265 needs four town-supported history museums, a (new) full-time museum director, and two independent museums to tell its story.
“Wytheville has an incredibly rich and varied heritage,” said Frances Emerson, who retired as museum director in 2022 after 28 years. That history stretches from westward migration and early settlement, preserved in the form of long rifles, stills and cabins, to the polio epidemic of 1950, represented by an iron lung.
“Fincastle Resolutions, which were before the Declaration of Independence, that was done here [in Wythe County],” Emerson said. “Natural resources were a big reason people were here —iron, lead, zinc. That led to Civil War skirmishes where the Federal troops were trying to come in and knock out the supply of lead to the Confederacy.”
In November, Grant Gerlich was hired to replace Emerson. The new museum director comes from Texas Tech, where he was the community engagement manager for the Office of Outreach and Engagement.
Like a pioneer traveling the Great Wagon Road, Gerlich, 61, took a winding path before arriving in Wytheville. The Long Island native has studied or worked in business, economics and library science in addition to museum management.
Gerlich graduated from VCU with a degree in economics. He was living in Pittsburgh, managing a linen company, when he and his wife, Bella, were watching the History Channel. They heard the voice of an old acquaintance from Richmond who was now running the Museum of the Confederacy. “And he’s on TV, and I’m like, ‘Damn, I should have done that.'”
Gerlich enrolled at Duquesne University, in Pittsburgh, earning a master’s degree in museum studies, then became curator of collections at Pittsburgh’s Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum.
Bella is a Ph.D. librarian, and the Gerlichs moved a lot for their careers. In Texas, they were far from family. Grant Gerlich was familiar with Southwest Virginia from having visited the area when he worked in North Carolina.
“This position opened up in February of last year, and I looked at it and I’m like, ‘I could probably do this. Yeah, I know I could.’ And then it popped up again in July. And I’m like, ‘You know, they’re still looking. Let me apply for this.'”
Grant has a brother in Lynchburg. Bella is staying at Texas Tech for now, where she is a librarian, but Grant says she plans to eventually join him.
Wythe County was formed in 1789 and named for George Wythe, a judge and signer of the Declaration. The town was called Evansham from 1792 and renamed Wytheville in 1839. In its early days the crossroads saw many hopeful young families passing through on the road west.
The rock that anchors the museums is the Haller-Gibboney Rock House, built in 1823. It served as the home of Dr. John Haller and his descendents for 140 years. The museum is undergoing a $350,000 stabilization project. Gerlich hopes to have it reopened to the public by Christmas.
A short walk down Tazewell Street is the Thomas J. Boyd Museum, which houses a collection of artifacts ranging from the antebellum era to the polio epidemic.
The Homestead is a 10-acre interpretative site depicting rural life from the late 1700s to the mid-20th century, anchored by the Jackson house, which is undergoing renovation and will reopen “hopefully in the spring,” Gerlich said.
The house will become a decorative arts museum. “Wythe County has been the home to many amazing craftsmen: furniture makers, gunsmiths, silversmiths, clothing makers, leather workers, wagon and buggy makers, tinsmiths, artists, basket makers and anything else needed in the frontier,” Terry Beamer, president of the Wythe County Historical Society, wrote in an email.
Other buildings on the Homestead site include an original 19th century smoke house for smoking meat, and a log cabin built by Henry Umbarger in 1803 on his farm south of Wytheville. It was moved to the Homestead in 1998 and reconstructed by Umbarger descendents. (The name is spelled Umbarger on the accompanying plaque, although Gerlich said the correct spelling is Umberger.)
A short walk from cabin, but a century removed, is the Great Lakes to Florida Highway Museum, a former Texaco and Esso gas station built in 1926 that recreates the early days of motoring, when the Great Lakes to Florida Highway (U.S. 21) was the main route from Ohio to Florida.
The highway museum and other buildings on the Homestead property are open by appointment only. Of the town museums, only the Boyd keeps regular hours, due to renovation projects and staffing limitations. The museum department has three full time employees and a handful of part-timers, Gerlich said. The employees also handle outreach programs to the schools. Figuring out how to staff the museums is one of the challenges facing the new director. “We’re working on it, and I think we’ll be able to address it,” he said.
The “2021-2022 Adopted Budget for Web” found at wytheville.org lists the proposed budget for Museums/Heritage Preservation as $293,195, for the Museum Heritage Education Program at $108,320, and the Homestead Museum as $84,025, for a total of $485,540.
In 2022, onsite museum attendance, including general visitors and school groups, was 3,615, and 4,480 students were served with educational programs brought to the classroom.
Students try their hands at needlepoint, tin punching, weaving and scherenschnitte, crafts practiced by settlers in the 1700s and 1800s. Scherenschnitte is the traditional German art of paper cutting. “So many of the children that you work with, their ancestors have been here for a long time,” said museum educator Betty Billingsley. “One little girl came in this morning and said she had ancestors from Germany.”
“The museum employees and volunteers are passionate about sharing with our youth historical events and agriculture to name a few,” Mayor Beth Taylor wrote in an email. “This team not only does outreach in the town of Wytheville and Wythe County but many other surrounding counties here in southwest Virginia, and for that I am proud.”
Rosa Lee Jude, director of the Wytheville Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, credited the town’s wealth of museums to efforts by many government officials, private citizens and property owners, singling out the work of Emerson, the former museum director. “I think that’s one of the reasons why there has been the growth of most of these museums owned by the town of Wytheville. So that has been her legacy.”
“When I came,” Emerson said, “I was the only person [on museum staff], and town council said, ‘We want you to open up the museums, build on our local history, work with tourism. And let’s see where we can go with it.’
“Each year, they would say ‘What do you need?’ And we would find ways to raise money. So there was a lot of grant writing, planning, fundraising that had to happen for us to have this many resources.”
Not all the museums in Wytheville are town-owned. The Wytheville Training School Cultural Center is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that houses the African American Heritage Museum. Built in 1883 for African American children, it was in operation until 1952.
The 501(c)(3) nonprofit Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Foundation and Museum tells the story of the Wytheville native who became Woodrow Wilson’s second wife, and assumed a major role in directing his affairs after the president suffered a stroke in 1919.
The entry point for the town-owned museums is the Boyd Museum on Tazewell Street. From there visitors can ask about appointments to visit the Homestead and the Great Lakes to Florida Highway museum.
Travel has always loomed large in Wythe County.
“We go back to being on the Great Road and travel routes for westward migration,” Emerson said. At Fort Chiswell, “people would stop and get resupplied, rest and then go forward through the Cumberland Gap.”
The museum department would like to draw in modern day travelers off I-81, and also increase awareness of the town’s rich history among residents. “A lot of local people are not aware that we have all these museums and resources,” Gerlich said. “You know, it’s sort of like hiding in plain sight.”
The Boyd Museum, 295 Tazewell St., is open Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 10 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $8. For more information see https://museums.wytheville.org/museums.