This weekend, crowds will descend upon the town of Chilhowie as the community hosts the 66th Apple Festival. The first festival was held on the grounds of the Old Chilhowie High School on Oct. 2, 1953. Each year, participants reflect on the significant role the apple has played in boosting the local economy. According to this year’s festival program, “Chilhowie was the second largest apple producing center in Virginia, for which the Bonham Brothers and Duncan Orchards were the producers.”
Each year, the festival offers an opportunity to reflect on Chilhowie’s rich history. While researching, I discovered three sources that provided valuable information about the beginnings of Chilhowie -- long before it was home to the Apple Festival. The book, “Heritage of Smyth County, Virginia: 1832-1997,” “The Chilhowie Newsletter-October 1999,” and a Feb. 23, 1982, article in the Smyth County News offer significant insight.
“The area around Chilhowie was settled in the late 18th century and was originally known as ‘Town House,’ after the two-story log structure James Patton built for use as living quarters and fort. Town House was the first house built west of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“The railroad was built in 1856, after which the community’s name was changed to Greever’s Switch. This wide gauge was changed to standard gauge from Norfolk to Bristol around 1900. A gold watch was offered to the foreman who could get his section changed first. Joe Barker was the foreman for this section. When the community heard of the offer of the watch, they determined to help. Farmers, merchants, doctors and shop keepers all came to help. It was changed in a day and Barker won the watch. Bob Greever was the first station agent.
“Sometime after 1856, the settlement changed its name to Greever’s Switch. In 1858, Liberty Academy was built to serve as a community school. During 1879, Minter Jackson built a pottery shop. In 1882, Major Michael Tate built the steam mill. In 1888 or 1889, George Palmer and Major Tate decided the community needed to again change its name. Going through the proper procedures, the name was changed to Chilhowie. This was done in recognition of the Chilhowie Indians who had befriended the early settlers. The name means ‘Home (or Valley) of Many Deer.’”
“In 1890, George Palmer built the Virginia Paving and Sewer Pipe Company, or Chihowie Brick.”
“In the early 1900’s, the businesses making up Chilhowie faced the railroad tracks. Located in the ‘brick block’ (as that section was called because most buildings were made of brick) was John Henegar’s grocery, Dr. Ben Sanders’ drug store, W.H. Copenhaver’s hardware and Jim Morris’ furniture store and undertaker parlor. It is said that some of the men in the town enjoyed getting drunk and going upstairs at Morris’ and crawling in the coffins.”
“A fire in 1909 destroyed the buildings of these and other businesses. Replacement buildings were erected with their backs to the railroad and fronts facing other new buildings across what is now Chilhowie’s East Main Street.”
“Chilhowie was incorporated in 1913. James D. Tate was the first Mayor. The first Council was composed of Q.A. Eller, A.C. Beattie, J.W. Henegar, F.B. Rector, S.A. Cole, and Dr. George A. Wright.”
“A.C. Beattie, son of Robert Beattie, clerk of Smyth County, served Chilhowie as mayor for 26 years. He first took office in a small building next to the Christian Church and later moved his headquarters to the town hall. He was elected mayor in 1924 and served until October 15, 1950, when he died. His son, Robert, succeeded him as mayor.”
“In 1921, Chilhowie’s Post Office moved to the building which was later occupied by The Art Place. Sanders Drug Store became Greever’s Drugs. The Chilhowie National Bank building was rebuilt in 1915. The Vance Company building was built in 1926. The W.H. Copenhaver Hardware building was rebuilt around 1909 or 1910, and beginning in 1934, was occupied by Piggly Wiggly Grocery. The N&W Railroad depot was built in 1856 and torn down in 1986.”
“Chilhowie is a resilient and dynamic town—a town that started out as a two-story cabin and fort in the wilderness and, in the span of less than 100 years, became a thriving center of commerce.”
“It had long been established as a stopover point for travelers on the stage road. It had a natural ford (just downstream from the present-day bridge) to make crossing the valley’s largest stream easy. After the railroad was built, business just naturally came to Chilhowie.”
After the brick plant closed, the site was occupied by a livestock yard where farmers transported livestock to and from their farms and the market.
“A considerable amount of Chilhowie’s economy revolved around the apple industry, which produced some of the finest apples in Virginia (or anywhere else, for that matter) and from which grew our Apple Festival. The festival is a fitting celebration of the efforts of hardworking men and women from all walks of life. The results of their visions, not only of those who sought to grow apples, but of all who built and worked tirelessly in other businesses, have made Chilhowie a town which has withstood fire and flood and is proceeding with grace, under the guidance of persons with the same vision and pride as the original founders.”
If you have photos, videos or other items related to the history of Chilhowie that you would like to preserve and share with others, I may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.