First Lady Visits Whitetop
By Mack Sturgill
Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the recently elected Democratic president, came to Southwest Virginia on Aug. 12, 1933 to attend the Whitetop Folk Festival and to visit the mountainous section of Washington County where her father, Elliott Roosevelt, had lived for a while at the end of the last century, and to meet his friends and hear their reminiscences of him.
The Whitetop Folk Festival, co-founded by Mrs. John P. Buchanan of Marion, and John Blakemore of Abingdon in 1931, attracted many distinguished visitors for almost a decade, but the most famous, the most publicized, the most photographed visitor was, without doubt, Eleanor Roosevelt, who attended the festival 60 years ago this August.
Beginning in June, local and regional newspapers published articles about Mrs. Roosevelt’s tentative visit to the area. A report appeared in early August confirming her attendance at the Whitetop Folk Festival and announced that she would be accompanied by her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the recently elected president of the United States. That report turned out to be false, as the president was scheduled to attend the dedication of the Shenandoah National Park in Eastern Virginia that weekend.
Mrs. Roosevelt had originally planned to motor from the White House to Whitetop, but she and her aide, Mrs. Malvina Thompson Scheider, and a friend, Miss Nancy Cook, traveled in a special car on Norfolk Western train No. 41 to Southwest Virginia. Accompanied by a group of women press representatives, the First Lady left Union Station in Washington on Friday night and arrived at Roanoke at 5:40 a.m. the next day. At that early hour, a few people had gathered at the depot, hoping to catch sight of the First Lady. They didn’t.
A crowd had gathered at East Radford to cheer Mrs. Roosevelt, who did not appear to receive their welcome. Large crowds gathered at Pulaski, and the First Lady left her breakfast to greet a crowd at Wytheville, home town of another Democratic president’s wife, where she accepted a huge bouquet of dahlias and a corsage from Mr. and Mr. Homer K. Bowen, which she promptly pinned on her dark blue dress. “So glad to see you,” she said to the applauding public. At Rural Retreat, highest point on her train trip, she waved to the townsfolk who had gathered on the station platform to greet her.
“Why didn’t you bring the president?” a man asked when the train stopped in Marion. Mrs. Roosevelt, standing on a platform between two cars, laughingly replied, “Oh, he’s busy looking over a conservation camp. You see, I have a special reason for coming down here. My father used to live in Abingdon.” Then interrupting herself, upon seeing a stray dog near the train, she said, “Do, somebody, take this puppy dog so he won’t get run over. I’m always worried about dogs.”
Someone in the crowd asked, “How long since you have been on Whitetop?”
“Never,” she answered. “Some day I hope to get a chance to motor through this country. It’s so beautiful.”
Although it was not mentioned during this visit, “Young Nell” Roosevelt had spent some time in the area when her father, Elliot Roosevelt, resided there. According to reliable sources, she recognized Emory Widner, who knew her when they were children in Washington County.
The train arrived in Abingdon at 10 a.m. Hundreds, if not thousands, of cheering natives and numerous visitors greeted Southwest Virginia’s special guest of honor. Mayor R. B. Hagy welcomed her as the daughter of “that beloved fellow-citizen and prince of good will, Elliott Roosevelt.”
Mrs. Roosevelt was driven from Abingdon to Whitetop Mountain by Sheriff K.S. Boardwine. Mrs. Bessie Watson, an old friend of her father’s, and John Blakemore, manager of the festival, accompanied her in an open convertible automobile. The buildings in Abingdon were decorated with flags and bunting and a band led the procession along Main Street, where crowds lined the sidewalks hoping to catch a glimpse of the President’s Lady.
Police cars led the motorcade over the narrow dirt road through Holston Valley, Damascus and Konnarock. On this nostalgic trip, Mrs. Roosevelt was thrilled by the mountain scenery along the worst possible roads in the area, which she had chosen because her father often road horseback from Abingdon to Whitetop along these same trails.
Twice the car in which the First lady traveled up the second tallest mountain in Virginia got so hot it stalled and had to be watered along the route.
“We’ll walk it; it’s only five miles more,” offered Mrs. Roosevelt, but she was not allowed to continue on foot. Upon her arrival on the mountain, her car did not stop at the site of the music festival but went straight to the top of the peak, where she enjoyed the spectacular panoramic view of the distant mountains and valleys spread out below the mile-high mountain. Nearby was the site of some buildings where her father had worked years before. And she nimbly descended the rocky path to a spring where her father had quenched his thirst 40 years before.
Mrs. Roosevelt received a vociferous welcome when she arrived at the Whitetop Folk Festival, which was being held for the third year on land on which her father used to hunt. More than 10,000 people had gathered there to greet her, to enjoy the scenery, and the entertainment.
The mountain was alive with the sound of rustic music that August Saturday 60 years ago. Even as she ate fried chicken, Virginia ham and beaten biscuits in a cabin reserved for her, she was entertained by the sounds of “The Flop-Eared Mule,” played at the doorway by the Blevins Brothers, Frank and Ed, and Jack Reedy.
Muriel Douglas Dockery of Appalachia, a freckle-faced six-year-old “bear cat” on the mandolin, had received a special invitation to sing for the First Lady. He had been chosen a finalist on Friday in the ballad singing competition with his version of “Barbara Allen” which he probably sang for the president’s wife during lunch. These musicians also played “Happy Days Are Here Again,” which delighted Mrs. Roosevelt, who began marking time with the beat, delighting the numerous photographers present.
Mrs. Roosevelt’s gracious manner and spontaneous smile put the mountain musicians and the local people at ease, as she spoke with them during her few hours at “The Folk Festival Above the Clouds.” Of course, she did not hear the compliment paid her by an anonymous admirer, who said, “She’s the prettiest ugly woman I ever saw.”
But she did hear an unannounced woman, who managed to get to her through the crowd, say: “Mrs. Roosevelt, I am just a poor woman living up here in the mountains, but I want to have the honor of shaking the hand of the wife of the best president this United States has ever had.”
She spoke to mountain folk, folk musicians, distinguished scholars, authors, folklorists and professional musicians, as well as both white and Negro Civilian Conservation Corps volunteers from local camps.
In the recently erected pavilion, where contestants from Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee vied for prizes in ballad singing, instrumental music, hymn singing, and folk dancing, during a break Mrs. Roosevelt spoke briefly:
“To the people who live here I want to say a special word of gratitude,” she said. “They have given me the feeling that they remember affectionately my father, whom I adore.” She found the mountains glorious in the sunshine that had broken through the early morning fog on the mountain. Warmly, she praised the movement to preserve the lore that descends from generation to generation among mountain people such as the Whitetop Folk Festival. “The study of the folk songs and the early stories of a country are always interesting because they frequently reveal the background on which the customs of a country are built,” she said.
“Very frequently we find explanations for trends in customs and literature of today hidden in some old custom, ballad or legend of many years ago,” she commented. “One thing particularly with regard to the mountains songs is that they go back to our English ancestors. English folklore collectors visiting here have found verses to their ballads that had been lost in England Historically as well as aesthetically, these folk songs, stories and dances are of value. It is well to encourage a study of folk literature and customs,” she said.
After the completion of the final competitions held that morning, Mrs. Roosevelt graciously bestowed the prizes on performers who had won ribbons during the two-day competition.
Before lunch, Mrs. Roosevelt chatted with Jim and Jean Trigg, two of the “18 Trigg children,” whom her father loved. She met 78-year-old John Smith, black servant, who had waited on Mr. Roosevelt when he lived in two rooms at Mr. John Campbell’s house in Abingdon. The faithful former servant presented to Mrs. Roosevelt a delicate china cup and saucer which had belonged to her father.
Mountain folk presented Mrs. Roosevelt with hand-woven rugs, a candlewick spread, a cowhide rug, and baskets of wild flowers. She received two pastels by Mrs. W.W. Hurt of Marion, who had painted the Laurel Farmhouse which Elliot Roosevelt had often visited, and St. Paul’s Episcopal Chapel at Damascus, which he helped build, by donating $300, a morocco bound Bible, inscribed “In loving memory of my wife, Anne Hall Roosevelt,” and an organ dedicated to his daughter “Little Nell.” All these gifts unfortunately had disappeared when fire destroyed the chapel years before “Little Nell” passed through Damascus.
Only the most talented performers of ballads, folk dance, and the most expert instrumentalists took part in the special afternoon program arranged by Annabel Morris Buchanan for her guest, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, including local performers Horton Barker of Chilhowie, blind balladeer, who sang “The Farmer’s Curst Wife,” and Jack Reedy of Marion, who performed “Cluck Old Hen,” on the banjo.
When the sound of the fiddle, banjo and dulcimer had ceased, Mrs. Roosevelt lingered awhile that afternoon to talk with the musicians on the platform in the pavilion which C.B. Kearfott had designed for the festival. Then she made her way through the crowd of applauding admirers to the automobile which would take her back to Abingdon. “Some day, I want to motor through this beautiful country,” she said. “and I should like to ride horseback over the trails my father covered. The day has been lovely and I enjoyed it all so much!”
Her automobile, decked with flowers and gifts, wound its way down the dirt road.
After an eventful day on Whitetop Mountain, Mrs. Roosevelt left Abingdon at 7:27 p.m.
Although she promised to return to the Whitetop Folk Festival and Southwest Virginia, she never did. She did however, in 1934, invite Whitetop musicians Sailor Dad Hunt, Bill Wohlford, and Horton Barker to perform at the White House and she entertained Annabel Morris Buchanan at lunch that same year.