WYTHEVILLE – Farron Smith made her last restaurant hot dog earlier this month, and she gets a little teary talking about it.
On March 9, Smith and her husband, Bill, who have owned Skeeter’s World Famous Hot Dogs on Main Street for 30 years, shut the door until they can find a buyer for the landmark business.
“It’s sad,” Farron said. “And happy.”
“Mixed emotions, yeah,” Bill said. “We’re working at this, and we’re not going to let it go away.”
The couple had been thinking about selling before now, but when the manager who had run Skeeter’s for several years took ill, “it was a good transition point,” Bill said.
They’ve had several potential buyers contact them.
“People are interested for so many different reasons,” Farron said. “But one thing they all have in common is they don’t want Skeeter’s to ever change – and they want it to be here for the next 94 years.”
Praying for a win
It began in 1925 when E.N. Umberger opened his namesake store in Wytheville where he sold groceries, garden seeds and penny candy.
“Hot dogs were just a sideline then,” Bill said. They sold for a nickel in the ’20s, and eventually, they became the focus.
When E.N. Jr. — nicknamed Skeeter by his mother — took over, the hot dogs became “Skeeterdogs,” and the restaurant went from The E.N. Umberger Store to “Skeeter’s.”
Most locals have a Skeeterdog story or two.
Ann Harrison has been a customer for 45 years. She used to run Wythe County Office Machines just around the corner from Skeeter’s.
“Our girls, they worked at the business in the afternoons after school, and their payday most of the time was a hot dog,” Harrison said. “So they kept a running ticket; we paid it every 30 days.”
Anna Bush met Harrison about 45 years ago at the Wytheville Newcomers Club. They’ve been friends ever since.
“We love our town,” Bush said.
“And we love Skeeter’s!” Harrison chimed in. “It’s just everybody goes to Skeeter’s.”
You’d walk by at lunchtime, she said and “all the stools was taken up with businessmen, and they all ate Skeeterdogs.”
“Everybody, from construction workers, factory workers,” Bush appended.
“Preachers,” Harrison added.
“Lawyers,” according to Bush.
“Everybody, anybody,” Harrison concluded.
The Smiths were two Pulaski County kids who left for college at the University of Tennessee and came to Wytheville in 1975. Bill said he was the “assistant to the assistant to the president” at Wytheville Community College when his boss took him to lunch at the iconic wiener restaurant.
As he was walking in, Bill stopped dead at the door in respect of all the men with their heads down as if in prayer. They were praying — for a win. Turns out they were marking their betting cards, which went to a bookie in Bluefield. Bill said he filled out his own card and had a Skeeterdog. No word on his winnings.
He didn’t know it then, but his family would make their own history at Skeeter’s.
‘My first stop’
Farron, who chose a college business degree over dance on her dad’s advice, couldn’t find a business job in Wytheville when she got there. So, she started one: a dance school two doors down from Skeeter’s.
It was a success, eventually growing from six students to 225 and supporting the Smiths while Bill learned how to be a property developer. In 1989, they went from renters to owners.
“The day we sold the dance business, we bought Skeeter’s – and the building,” Farron said.
A pre-Civil War structure and the birthplace of former first lady Edith Bolling Wilson, the building houses a handful of storefronts.
In 2008, the Smiths opened a museum dedicated to Mrs. Wilson in the same spot as the old dance school. They also bought the inn across the street and renovated it. Today it operates as the Bolling Wilson Hotel.
For 13 years, the Smiths operated Skeeter’s. Once a week, Farron would trek to Salem, back her Oldsmobile station wagon (the “land yacht,” Bill calls it) up to the loading dock of Valleydale Foods and take on board up to 3,500 frozen hot dogs and the chili to smother them.
Today Gwaltney makes the iconic red hot dog that remains the specialty.
The secret, according to Farron, is that soft, steamed bun with the red wiener and chili. Order it with “the works,” and you get slaw and cheese piled on top.
These days, it will set you back about $2.
People travel for a Skeeterdog. In fact, Bill said, he added “World Famous” to the name based on the guest book they used to keep.
“People from all over the world would find their way through Wytheville,” Bill said. “Somehow they would find this place.”
Famous people, too.
U.S. Sen. Mark Warner is a big fan, and his signed photo has pride of place behind the cash register.
So does a photo of Ethel Kennedy. Mrs. Kennedy was visiting the museum, but called ahead to say she’d be late because she wanted to stop for a Skeeterdog.
The closure has left some people a little disappointed.
James Whalen traveled to Wytheville from Bell Air, Maryland, on a recent Friday to visit his in-laws.
“This was going to be my first stop, something to eat,” Whalen said. “As soon as you’ve had one, you’ll want to keep coming back. This is where I stop every time I’m here. I get three with chili and cheese, and then I’m on my way.”
His mother-in-law, Lori Shoemaker said she’s lived in Wytheville for about 15 years. She was surprised to find Skeeter’s closed.
“I like coming in because of the building, the history and the stories,” Shoemaker said.
The Smiths said they hope to sell the business quickly to someone who values its legacy and has the passion to keep it going.