The South's Most Creative Small Towns

Stacey Van Berkel and (center) Lissa Gotwals
by Donovan Webster, Pableaux Johnson, J. Wes Yoder, Nic Brown, John Kessler and Ronald Coleman - April/May 2011

These ten small towns are bustling with big ideas and big fun

>Click to see photos of these creative small town

Best Performing Arts Town: Abingdon, Virginia

Tucked deep in southwest Virginia’s Blue Ridge Highlands sits mellow and friendly Abingdon, founded in 1778. When you think of picturesque rural Virginia, it’s a place like Abingdon that comes to mind: antique wood-frame houses, old trees shading brick sidewalks, history in spades. But Abingdon has something you won’t find in most small towns: a nationally acclaimed performing arts stage.

Construction of the Barter Theatre began at the start of the Great Depression, and it was completed in 1933 by returned local actor Robert Porterfield. It is the United States’ longest-running professional Equity theater. Fitting with the soul of the town, somehow, even during the travails of the Depression, the theater prospered. In the early years, at Porterfield’s direction, cash-poor local farmers wanting a night’s entertainment could barter farm goods for seats. Back then, it was said that sometimes four out of five members in any given audience had paid for a forty-cent seat with veggies, milk, eggs, or livestock.

Over time, it’s hosted a steady stream of distinguished alumni, including regional daughter Patricia Neal, Gregory Peck, Frances Fisher (of Titanic fame), Hume Cronyn, Ned Beatty, and Ernest Borgnine. Today it has two stages and a full-time acting company, and the torrent of shows still moves right along, drawing nearly 200,000 people to this peaceful mountain enclave.

What’s Going On
With a year-round schedule, there’s always something to see at the Barter. Upcoming shows range from Broadway-style productions like Disney’s Beauty and the Beast to the more experimental Circumference of a Squirrel. In late July, the theater hosts the Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights, giving up-and-coming writers a chance to show their stuff.

Creativity in town doesn’t stop at the stage footlights. Holston Mountain Artisans houses work from 133 artists making and selling everything from hammer dulcimers to quilts. Each summer, the Virginia Highlands Festival (July 23 to August 7 this year) brings in an endless-seeming number of stalls selling handmade goods, as well as more (and more) antiques, while live Celtic and bluegrass music drifts on the air. You can sample art of another sort just southeast of town at Abingdon Vineyard and Winery, which crafts wine for top local restaurants.

For a taste of outdoor beauty, head to the Virginia Creeper Trail, which winds some thirty miles through deep and rich wilderness, over steel trestle bridges, and past remote rhododendron-lined streams. Later, retire to Abingdon’s Tavern Restaurant, among the oldest buildings west of the Blue Ridge (try the peppercorn-
encrusted duck in port-wine sauce). Or, for something a little less formal, hit the historic Pop Ellis Soda Shoppe & Grill, where Barack Obama stopped off for a scoop during a campaign swing.

While there is plenty of good lodging in the neighborhood, you can’t beat the enormous Georgian-style Martha Washington Hotel & Spa. The inn dates to 1832 and stands ready with rich Oriental carpets, warm hospitality, and a glass-roofed and glass-walled swimming pool that—like all of Abingdon—leaves you standing there smiling as you take it all in.

Town Boosters
Keeping the Barter alive and vibrant is its artistic director, Richard Rose, who has overseen the theater for nineteen years. In addition to directing several productions each year, he’s helped it through a major renovation and nearly quadrupled its annual attendance. In the spirit of the theater’s genesis, those who can’t pay still aren’t turned away. “Just recently, we’ve taken honey and cakes,” Rose says. “We never refuse barter. We want as many people as possible to enjoy the theater.”
After more than a decade in New York, playwright Catherine Bush was lured to the Barter as its playwright in residence. Even after life in the Big Apple, she’s found plenty to love about Abingdon. The best part? “I still don’t own a car. It’s a town where you can  actually walk everywhere.”

The Runner-Up: Lewisburg, West Virginia
Far removed from the bright lights of the big city, Lewisburg is a hub for drama, dance, and music, all within about a five-block radius. The Greenbrier Valley Theatre draws actors from across the country and puts on nearly two hundred shows a year. Just a couple of blocks down Washington Street is the Lewis Theatre, home to the Trillium Performing Arts Collective. And to top it off, there’s Carnegie Hall, one of four still in existence, where you can catch musicians from around the world on the main stage, along with a free outdoor summer concert series.