Trips close to home: Marion, Va.,
called ‘America’s coolest hometown’
By Clayton Hensley, Special to the News Sentinel
Every Saturday night, thousands of people in East Tennessee and across the country tune in to "Song of the Mountains" on PBS. The showcase of old time Americana and bluegrass music originates from a historic theater along Main Street in Marion, Va.
The Lincoln is one of only a handful of Art Deco Mayan Revival theaters still operating in the United States. It opened in 1929 as a movie theater and then closed twice in the 1970s. In 2004 the Lincoln reopened following a $1.8 million renovation.
This Main Street Marion treasure blends art inspired from an ancient culture with the history of the state of Virginia. This is probably the only place to see Mayan figures and artwork surrounding larger-than-life portraits of Daniel Boone and Gen. Robert E. Lee. The juxtaposition of the artwork provides the perfect setting for performances as well as lessons in history. The historic murals were originally painted at a cost of $50 each, but it took $20,000 each to restore them.
Behind the stage is a wall made of dark bricks, a sharp contrast to the multiple shades of gold throughout the theater. Because there is an alley on the other side of the wall, the stage can't be expanded, and it is more suited to musical acts than theatrical productions. From the stage you can look into the rows of the balcony. Looking closely, you will notice a wall dividing the last couple of rows from the rest. During the renovations, the division was left as a reminder of the era of segregated seating.
The Lincoln Theater's neighbor, the General Francis Marion Inn, provides guests with a mix of elegance and history while they spend the night. The Speakeasy Gastropub inside the hotel serves up creations like Fried Green Tomato BLTs and Sweet Tea Chicken. It's just one place to grab a bite to eat before a show at the Lincoln. Wolf's BBQ, Macado's (a regional chain) and the Wooden Pickle are all part of an expanding menu of options in this small Virginia town. You can even lift your spirits with a visit to the Appalachian Mountain Spirits Mercantile & Stillhouse Store on Main Street. In the back, visitors of legal drinking age can sample the company's award-winning Virginia Sweetwater Moonshine and War Horn Whisky.
While there are many dining options downtown, folks heading out on U.S. 11 will find a real taste of Marion tradition. The Dip Dog stand opened in 1957. A few years later, Interstate 81 was finished and traffic by the stand dropped dramatically. However, the unique version of corn dogs served there remained a local favorite, and the Dip Dog stand is still going strong. In addition to its spin on the corn dog, this greasy spoon offers mouth-watering onion rings and a wide variety of items you would come to expect from a drive-in restaurant.
Marion is also home to a drive-in movie theater. The Park Place Drive-in shows first run movies and offers guests rounds of mini-golf. You can also immerse yourself in art, antiques and local crafts at the Herb House on Pendleton Street.
The crowning jewel of the area lies just a few miles out of town on state Highway 16. Just before the road winds its way through the mountains, the sparkling waters of the lake at Hungry Mother State Park come into view. A white sandy beach stretches out along the shores of the lake. In the summer months, thousands of people head to this "beach" to enjoy the cool waters of this mountain lake. Fishermen and kayakers also come to the park, which offers a wide variety of outdoor recreation and plenty of amazing views.
The name for the park comes from the legend of Molly Marley, an early settler in the region who was taken by Native Americans who ravaged the frontier settlements. Marley was said to have escaped with her child. After collapsing, Molly's child apparently wandered down the mountain looking for help, only being able to tell the people he found the words "Hungry Mother."
Today, the mountain where the legend unfolded is called Molly's Knob. The hike to the top can be a grueling one but offers the reward of a stunning view of the rugged landscape surrounding the park. Just beyond the state park is one of the most popular stretches of road for motorcycle riders. Called "The Back of the Dragon," this 32-mile stretch of road boasts 260 curves and elevations up to 3,500 feet.
Stepping back in time is easy to do in this part of Southwest Virginia. In fact, one town boasts that it has been preserving history for more than 10,000 years. Coming into the town of Saltville from I-81, there is an overlook along Highway 107. The town of about 2,000 stretches along the valley floor where the Saltville River flowed for thousands of years. Eventually, the river backed up, creating a lake and later a marshy area that provided perfect conditions for preserving plant and animal remains. Remnants of the lake and marsh are still clearly visible from the overlook.
Today at the Museum of the Middle Appalachians in downtown Saltville, visitors get a chance to see what's been unearthed along with a detailed history of life in the valley. The prizes of the collection are a mastodon skeleton and a woolly mammoth skull and tusks. Both animals roamed the valley floor in the days when the Saltville River flowed. The water and the ground around it were filled with abundant amounts of salt, which attracted a wide variety of animals, and later those deposits of salt would help fuel an army and the industrial revolution.
During the Civil War, the salt deposits helped cement the town's status as the salt capital of the Confederacy. Later, the salt below the soil became a key ingredient the Olin Company's production of chemicals used to make fuel for the Air Force and the U.S. Space program. The Olin Company built homes, schools and stores for workers and Saltville became a company town, much like its coal country counterparts. Gypsum mining also became an important part of Saltville's economy. The mine was one of the deepest of its kind in the country. The mine and the chemical factory are both gone, but Saltville continues to use its historic assets to bring people into town.
While not as well known as its neighbor Abingdon, Marion and the surrounding area is filled with surprises. Marion recently received a top honor from a national marketing firm, which named it "America's Coolest Hometown." It's an image the town seems to be happy with adopting as Marion welcomes people not only to Main Street, but the surrounding area filled with more than 10,000 years of history.
36 Hours in Marion, Virginia
Posted By Jason Barnette on Friday, July 15, 2016
Courtesy Southeastern Traveler, United States, Virginia, Travel Stories, 36 Hours
Marion was once one of Virginia’s most underrated and overlooked small towns, but thanks to a boom in local entrepreneurs such as a moonshine distillery, renovations of a National Historic Landmark hotel and theatre, and rise of the local food scene, this Southwest Virginia town now boasts one of the best Main Streets for tourism in the region. With easy access from Interstate 81, the town sits on an intersection of popular mountain roads Highway 16 and Highway 11, each taking you on curvy tours of the mountains beyond. So what can you do with a weekend in this small country town?
1. Check-In at General Francis Marion Hotel | 7 PM
This cozy boutique hotel will give you a place to stay right on Main Street for this little weekend getaway. Built in the 1920’s for the motorists who took the long journey along Lee Highway between Charlottesville, Virginia and Knoxville, Tennessee, this hotel has been renovated and updated for the modern age while maintaining the original Colonial Revival style.
The hotel offers three floors each with twelve luxurious, spacious rooms. You can also take advantage of Main Street views from the outdoor terrace, relax and read a book in the comfortable lounge, or hop next door for food and drinks at a restaurant from the same owners as the hotel.
107 East Main Street Marion, VA | 276-783-4800 | www.gfmhotel.com/#about
2. Dinner at 27 Lions | 8 PM
Two things will jump out at you the moment you walk into this large restaurant: the brick over for cooking pizzas, and the 20’ wall filled with beer taps. A large board displays the current selection of craft beers from across the region, but you’ll also find a tap for Root Beer just in case. The wood fired pizzas are delicious, and at $15 for a 16” pie they’ll give any corporate chain a run for their money on quality vs. price.
There is plenty of seating for this small town, but if you come on a Tuesday night you might have to fight for your space. Tuesdays are popular as trivia nights with discounted foods, and will often be packed wall to wall. The friendly staff is always ready and able to help you get the food you need and the drinks you didn’t know you needed until you saw their selection.
111 E. Main Street, Marion, VA | 276-378-0844 | www.27lions.com/#about
The king-size bed inside the Executive Suite at the General Francis Marion Hotel, locally-owned and completely renovated in 2004, in Marion, VA on Wednesday, August 7, 2013. Copyright 2013 Jason Barnette
Spacious, comfortable rooms await you at the General Francis Marion Hotel.
3. Breakfast at Four Seasons | 8AM
Just a couple blocks down Main Street from the hotel is Four Seasons Catering and Bakery. This local business opens their doors at 5:30AM every morning to serve a big Southern breakfast menu. They have a large deck for enjoying a peaceful meal outdoors, setting the stage for the rest of your day.
The beach and diving boards on the lake at Hungry Mother State Park in Marion, VA on Saturday, June 1, 2013. Copyright 2013 Jason Barnette
The beach at Hungry Mother State Park is a popular summer attraction for Marion, especially a beach with a view like this!
4. Hungry Mother State Park | 10AM
One of the more unusual names for a place, Hungry Mother State Park was one of the original six state parks opened in Virginia in 1936 (but this was the park that the governor attended for the grand opening ceremony). If you ask around town the locals will tell you the legend behind the name, but I won’t ruin the mystery now. You’re just going to have to go here and find out for yourself!
If you’re up for some outdoor recreation you could try hiking the Molly’s Knob Trail. It is a rigorous hike from the backside of the lake to the highest point in the park with a nice view of the surrounding mountains. If you want to try something a little easier, rent one of the paddleboats or kayaks and head out on the lake for a few hours. The easiest of all the options is to park at the restaurant and take a leisurely stroll on the Lake Trail Loop, returning to the gazebo on a small island on the lake.
But the park’s most famous attraction is the beach. This large, sandy beach gives the locals a place to swim, sunbathe, and relax during the summer months. A diving board floats on the surface just a hundred feet away, giving kids a chance to perfect their Olympic forms.
2854 Park Blvd., Marion, VA | 276-781-7400 | http://www.dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/hungry-mother#general_information | Admission: $3/vehicle on weekdays, $4/vehicle on weekends
5. Lunch at State Park Restaurant | 1 PM
Regardless of the activity you choose at the state park, you’re bound to be hungry by now. The restaurant inside the park has a good menu selection, and you can’t beat the views of the lake. It’s a peaceful place to grab a quick bite or delve into a bigger meal.
Once you’re done at the restaurant walk next door to visit the gift shop. If you haven’t already visited the gazebo, it is just a five-minute walk from the restaurant.
6. Shopping Downtown | 3PM
Downtown Marion has thrived in the last few years, adding new local businesses every year. The Main Street corridor is short, but features quite a few places to shop (and eat). If you return to the hotel (or park at the north end of the street if you chose someplace else to stay) you can enjoy a three-block shopping spree along the wide sidewalks.
Start with The Mercantile Store, home of Virginia Sweetwater Moonshine and War Horn Whisky. This was the first legal distillery to begin operation in Virginia in decades and has done nothing but grow and win awards since. In the back of the store you can sample some of the ‘shines at the beautiful wood bar, or you can just browse through the large collection of local arts and crafts. One or both of the owners are usually working at the Mercantile, and either will tell you the tale of how they got started with a warm smile on their face. At the very least be sure to leave with a bottle of the moonshine and a mixer for later consumption.
Sisters Café and Gifts is a great place for nick knacks, a large selection of wine, and a little snack. The charming indoor café is a comfortable place to relax for a few minutes. Take more than a few minutes to browse through the wares for sale because you’re sure to find something unique here.
Near the end of the corridor is Past Time Antiques Emporium, a large two-story building with individual booths inside for different people to sell their “trash”. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure has never been truer here: antique furniture, old machinery, Mason jars, unique crafts such as lamps and wall décor, you can find just about anything here. And it changes often as new tenants come and go, and old tenants bring more stuff for the sale. Be sure to visit the second floor for several rooms full of stuff you didn’t know you wanted until you saw it here!
The BBQ Platter along with the four sauces made fresh in-house, Lil' Kick, Red Hot, Sweet, and Carolina Red, at Wolfe's BBQ Restaurant & Catering on Main Street in Marion, VA on Tuesday, August 6, 2013. Copyright 2013 Jason Barnette
The spare ribs at Wolfe’s BBQ are just one of the reasons to visit this local restaurant. The house-made sauces, friendly atmosphere, and fantastic sides are other reasons.
7. Dinner Downtown | 5PM
One thing is for certain in Downtown Marion: you won’t go hungry from a lack of options. From small, hole-in-the-wall bars to large, two-story restaurants, this town has your appetite covered.
Macado’s, a franchise that started out as a restaurant for students in college towns and has grown to dozens of locations since, is the only slightly-bigger-than-locally-owned restaurant downtown. Located inside the old post office building on Main Street, the restaurant has a small bar area but a huge two-story dining area. The menu is large enough to give just about anybody at least one item they would enjoy.
The Wooden Pickle has become a popular local spot. The small, charming business features food a step above bar food that is delicious and filling, while also giving you more than a few options for something to wash it down with.
But the one place I would recommend above all others is the locally-owned Wolfe’s BBQ Restaurant and Catering. Brett and Jill Wolfe grew up in Marion and returned many years after graduating from the local high school with their own take on North Carolina BBQ. The large restaurant has plenty of seating, a friendly staff, and a large menu full of fantastic selections. To top it off they make their own sauces in-house, offer a few local craft beers, and frequently entertain with live music on the window-front stage.
The view from the second floor balcony seats at the Lincoln Theater in Marion, VA on Wednesday, August 7, 2013. Copyright 2013 Jason Barnette
Enjoy the beautiful decor at The Lincoln Theatre before, during, and after a performance.
8. Lincoln Theatre – Song of the Mountains | 7PM
The Lincoln Theatre is one of the most beautiful and unique theatres in the country. Featuring a flawlessly blended Art Deco Mayan Revival style, the theatre is a masterpiece to behold even without the entertainment. Located right on Main Street just a block from the General Francis Marion Hotel, this is a great place to end your night.
The theatre is most well known as the host of Song of the Mountains, a PBS television series filmed at the theatre featuring live performances of American Bluegrass and Old Time music. The series performs live once each month, so be sure to plan your getaway to coincide with one of the events (and buy your tickets early).
But even if you can’t plan the trip around one of the Song of the Mountains events, the Lincoln Theatre still offers plenty of other events throughout the month from live musical performances, plays, and occasionally a movie night. Be sure to check out their schedule here to help plan your trip.
117 East Main Street, Marion, VA | 276-783-6093 | http://www.thelincoln.org/ | Admission varies $5-$30
The famous dip dog with mustard on a plate of onion rings at the Dip Dog Stand in Marion, VA on Tuesday, August 6, 2013. Copyright 2013 Jason Barnette
Love it or hate it, you can’t knock it until you’ve tried it: a dip dog from the local icon Dip Dog Stand.
9. The Dip Dog Stand | 10AM
After checking out of the hotel there is really only one stop left to complete your visit to Marion, Virginia: The Dip Dog Stand. Located on Highway 11 a few miles outside town, it is right beside Interstate 81 to make a quick getaway after you grab a late breakfast/early lunch here.
Locals have been torn into two camps over Dip Dogs for years: they either love it or hate it. Both camps have reasons to back up their feelings, but I am solidly in the camp that suggests you don’t leave this town without a dip dog. But make no mistake about it: the dip dog is no more a corndog than the Hokie is a bird (trust me, it’s a Southwest Virginia thing).
What started out as a small, one-room stand on the side of the road has since grown to include an indoor seating area and gift shop. The small parking area is frequently packed with cars as people wait with their number in hand for the call on the loudspeaker to let them know their meal is ready. Everything here is cooked to order, including the big bag of greasy onion rings (there is no other size you can pick).
But don’t let the greasy onion rings scare you off from this iconic local eatery. The burgers are bigger and better than anything McWendy’s King can offer. The large menu can be customized any which way you can imagine, or you can just enjoy the burgers, sandwiches, sundaes, or shakes they have listed on the large board on the wall outside the lobby. Walk inside, place your order through the window with the friendly staff, take your number, then wait in your car until the number is called. It’s the tradition of many locals, including myself.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that Marion is my co-hometown (I grew up in nearby Sugar Grove). But this place will always remain special to me for more reasons than just childhood: it has become a fantastic place to visit for the shopping, eating, entertainment, outdoor adventures, and that Appalachian Mountains charm.
The Collins House Inn provides a more homey feel while visiting Marion. Located just up Main Street from the rest of downtown, you would still be within walking distance of food, shopping, and entertainment. They have five guest rooms to choose from inside an eco-friendly renovated home. 204 W. Main Street, Marion, VA | 276-781-0250 | http://www.collinshouseinn.com/ | $140 and up
Driving: Located on Interstate 81 in Southwest Virginia, Marion is an easy drive from just about anywhere. Just thirty miles south of Interstate 77, Marion is within a three hour drive of Charlottesville, Charlotte, Asheville, and Knoxville.
Flying: The nearest airport is Tri-Cities Regional Airport in Blountville, Tennessee. The airport is an hour drive from Marion.
Train: Although Marion’s train station still stands beside the tracks near the center of town, passenger rail service has long been abandoned here. Hopefully it will return some day to provide another way to see this country town.