The Southwest Virginia Museum is unique in the state park system.
It doesn’t have cabins or campsites, but does rent out a garden-themed cottage with three bedrooms.
It doesn’t have hiking trails, but does have a permanent outdoor exhibit called the Southwest Virginia Walk of Fame, which showcases the region’s heritage.
But when it comes to items on display, this 12,000-square-foot Victorian mansion built in the 1890s on the edge of Big Stone Gap easily surpasses other state parks. It has an extensive and ever-changing array of history-themed exhibits and a museum collection of more than 25,000 historical items, artifacts and pieces from around the world.
Included in that collection is an exquisite, all-wood 1870 train car once used as a hunting lodge for company executives in a coal camp. It later served for several decades as the visitor center of Big Stone Gap.
Aaron Davis, park manager of the Southwest Virginia Museum Historic State Park, said the stories told in the stone mansion focus on the exploration and development of Southwest Virginia from the pioneer era of the 1700s to the mining “boom and bust” days of the late 1800s.
“We use the home and its collection to tell the stories of the experiences different groups had here during those times,” said Davis, who grew up in Big Stone Gap. “They range from the people who lived here and had money to travel the world to the laborers who worked in the main industries in the region: coal and agriculture.”
That charge means that exhibits in the mansion, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, can range from fine china once owned by British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli to photo collections depicting life in nearby coal camps.
Davis said the lion’s share of the museum’s collection came with the house, bequeathed to the state in 1946 by C. Bascom Slemp, secretary to President Calvin Coolidge. The house had been built in the 1880s by Rufus Ayers, a Virginia attorney general. It was dedicated by the state in 1948.
“Through the years that the state has operated it, we’ve also received items donated by the families of people who lived and worked in the region,” said Davis.
As an example, there is an artifact museum staff will use to tell the story of immigration and Italian native Rome Daniel, who in the early 1900s became a stone mason.
“He actually helped build this home,” said Davis, noting the museum has learned more about his story, down to the boat that carried him to the U.S.
“We had this accordion that belonged to Daniel, and not long ago a relative of Daniel’s visited here,” said Davis. “As we talked, we were excited to hear her say she thought the family might have a recording of Daniel playing the accordion. We quickly let her know we’d love to have a copy of it.”
Sure enough, a few weeks later, a recording was delivered of him playing a collection of songs.
If you visit the museum this month, you won’t be able to see many of the exhibits because of a seasonal program that’s grown like wildfire.
It’s a display of more than 85 Christmas trees on the museum’s four floors that were created, decorated and delivered by a host of businesses, schools, community organizations and families in and around Big Stone Gap.
The event lasts until the end of the year and is called The Festival of Trees. It draws folks who don’t feel like it’s Christmas until they see it.
“They range from traditional trees and ornaments to trees with all kinds of special themes,” Davis said. “It’s a way to get into the spirit of Christmas by letting peoples’ creativity flourish.”
Davis said one of the things visitors like is that the museum tells the stories of people who were looking for a better life by coming to Southwest Virginia.
“It was coal that primarily drew them, rich and poor,” said Davis. “Big Stone Gap became a hub for those who made big money here, a hub of Victorian houses and urban society for people who had money and influence. And just beyond it were the camps where people worked to pull coal out of the ground.”
Because the museum is a part of the fabric of life in Big Stone Gap, it’s no surprise that the mansion itself played a part in the recent motion picture “Big Stone Gap,” written and directed by Adriana Trigiani, who grew up in the Gap.
“They filmed a scene here with Ashley Judd’s character decorating a tree here for the festival,” said Davis. “And the cast came in for several days to get help perfecting more authentic Big Stone Gap accents.”
Davis noted that the museum is always creating new exhibits and tweaking continuing displays, with themes in recent years including exhibits on currency, farm implements, firearms and portraits done by a WPA artist who worked in the region, James True.
The park manager said the train car will be the newest and most exciting addition when a bit of work is finished to get it ready to open to the public.
“It’s in Smithsonian condition, and we’ve worked with train enthusiasts who wanted to see it preserved—something that will happen here,” said Davis.