The Majesty of Burke's Garden

The Beauty of Tazewell County

By Helen Barranger, Contributing Editor, Blue Ridge Country


It's easy to see why no one would sell land to George Washington Vanderbilt back in 1880 when he was looking for a spot to build the mansion he would call Biltmore. For Burke's Garden--Tazewell County's crown jewel--is so uniquely beautiful that the good-sense families who own it knew full well there was no alternative but to pass the land along to their children. And Tazewell County as a whole has a great deal of the same flavor. It's built on loyalty, tradition, common sense.

Money doesn't always talk. Sometimes it doesn't even whisper. George Washington Vanderbilt learned that in the 1880s when he tried to buy land for his mansion in Burke's Garden, Tazewell County, Va. The people of Burke's Garden knew a good thing, too, and nobody would sell him an acre, according to well-known local legend.

"He tried hard to buy it," says Burke's Garden resident and "mayor" Jim Hoge, who remembers his Grandmother Moss telling how Vanderbilt stayed in the Moss home. "In those days to acquire land in Burke's Garden one either had to heir it or marry it and Vanderbilt had done neither." So Vanderbilt put the 255-room Biltmore in Asheville, N.C., his second choice.

The strange geologic formation that is Burke's Garden has always fascinated visitors. Seven miles east of the town of Tazewell, travelers leave Rt. 61 for a straight-up stretch that comes out to Rt. 623 on top. Beginning and ending at Gose's Mill Pond, this designated Virginia By-Way is the Garden's only paved road. (One filling station, so check your gauge before you go.)

From the air, or from the Appalachian Trail which overlooks it for a time, Burke's Garden could be a volcano crater or an ancient lakebed. Indeed, millions of years ago it did lie beneath an ocean, for most of the rocks are of marine origin, say authorities Jim and Louise Hoge. However, the drip of water on limestone ultimately formed the 20,000-acre bowl.

Native Americans knew it for at least 10,000 years as a hunting/fishing paradise, as it was for early settlers and so is today. Modern visitors describe it many ways--The Tranquility Bowl of Heaven from Hubbub, a look into the promised land. Said German visitor Renate Sorenson: "Seasons come and go, many dangers take place in the world, but this land stays safe, like in the hollow of God's hand."

The name Burke's Garden began as sort of a joke. James Burk(e) was a chain carrier on Colonel James Patton's 17__ [sp?] survey crew. The following year Burke found that peelings he had dug into the rich soil by a campfire had grown into a "fine crop of potatoes."

Jim and Louise Hoge live in a house their grandfather built in 1880, using a quarter of a million bricks. From their front porch a panorama of extremely fertile flat green farmland ringed by distant mountains is lovely beyond description. Tazewell County is one of the few places in the country where fine indigenous bluegrass can "finish" cattle without using corn for final fattening. Prior to World War I, farmers raised "export steers"--big 1,500 pound animals they drove to Baltimore, renting pasture along the way, for shipment on the ho___ [sp?] to England.

In 1915, some 1,500 people lived in Burke's Garden. "Life was easy," said Hoge. "Things were going along good." Even so, farmers and their families managed carefully, wasting nothing. Hoge remembers being chided by grandparents "who were normally very easy on their grandchildren" for tossing into a fireplace an apple core that could have fed chickens or hogs.

Today's Garden population is about 260, plus a handful of summer folk. Many small farms have sold out to bigger ones. Some young people leave. So what does the future hold for this National and Virginia Rural Historical District community? The land could be broken up into farmettes, Hoge says, or perhaps bought up by big corporations.

"The coal fields affect the sale of Burke's Garden land more than anything else." Recently three Amish families bought land. Excellent farmers, with a pre-World War II lifestyle, they have built a school for the 23 children among them.

The last Saturday in September (the 25th in '93), Burke's Garden Community Association sponsors a Fall Festival. To avoid concentration of visitors and vehicles, activities take place at 20-some individual homes and farms. For sale are quilts and other mountain crafts, canned and baked goods, hams, Burke's maple sugar, honey, molasses, apple butter, vegetables, pumpkins, cider, popcorn, homemade foods to lunch on, pony and wagon rides for children. Information: The Burke's Garden Community Association, General Delivery, Burke's Garden, Va. 24608.

In 1992, Pauletta and Joe Van Dyke opened the James Burke Inn Bed and Breakfast. Rates and reservations: P.O. Box 462, Burke's Garden, Va. 24608. 703/472-2114.

Burke's Garden, however, is only a part of this region by contrasts. Tazewell County has coal mines, rich rolling farmlands, historic small towns, mountains and high wide hidden valleys (average elevation 2,381), and year-round festivals of all kinds. A succession of pioneers followed Thomas Witten, the county's first permanent settler (1770). "You'd be surprised at how many people come here looking for roots," says Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Debra Wilson.

Visitors to Tazewell County meet friendly, helpful people who offer hospitality so warm that recent visitors from Scotland's Aberdeen College said adjectives failed them in trying to describe it.

Tazewell Countians have a sense of place, a love of heritage, binding loyalties, strong work and religious ethics--qualities lost in some parts of our country. Attend a festival to see it firsthand.

It you've never participated in a cake walk or had a historic tour in an antique auto (mine was a bright red 1931 Ford Phaeton Touring Car), mark your calendar for the Cedar Bluff Heritage Festival--this year on Saturday, September 18, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. It's an old-timey small town family festival at its best--crafts, costumes, fun, food, fellowship. (Info: Cedar Bluff Town Hall, P.O. Drawer 287, Cedar Bluff, Va. 26409)

Situation at the confluence of Clinch River and Indian Creek on the Old Kentucky Turnpike, Cedar Bluff's prosperous economy was driven for more than 100 years by two mills. One of these--Goodwin's--turned out patterned woolen coverlets today sought by collectors.

"Cedar Bluff has a beautiful town government, so responsive to the people," says health care official Joe Serreno. "Beauty first drew me here. The I found out that the people are so friendly and trusting here--that's what endeared me to this area."

Cattle farmer Will Adams: "I've traveled around the world and I've never seen a place I'd want to leave Tazewell County to go to. Why leave, when you already live in the most beautiful place in the world?"

Serreno and Adams summed it up in a nutshell. Visit Tazewell County and see for yourself why nobody would sell land to George W. Vanderbilt.

For help in designing a tour tailored to group or individual time and interests, contact Debra Wilson, Executive Director, the Tazewell Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center, Box 6, Tazewell Mall, Tazewell, Va. 24651. 703/988-5091.

Source: "The Majesty of Burke's Garden, The Beauty of Tazewell County," by Helen Barranger, Contributing Editor, Blue Ridge Country Magazine, May/June 1993, pp. 43-49.
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