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Southwest Virginia Museum Historical State Park ~ Big Stone Gap, VA

Continuing our tour of the history of the Appalachian Mountains, we visited the Southwest Virginia Museum Historical State Park in Big Stone Gap, VA. This is a great place to learn about the colorful history of Appalachian history, blended with the huge part that Big Stone Gap contributed to the history of the coal mines.

The Southwest Virginia Museum is located high atop Poplar Hill, with mountains all around. We visited in late winter, before the grounds broke forth into spring growth. It is in a lovely park like setting, even in the cool of winter.

Housed in a stately Victorian mansion, originally built by Rufus Ayers, a lawyer who speculated in coal mining, railroads and banking. He helped Big Stone Gap become "the Pittsburgh of the South." It took over 7 years to build the home, from 1888-1895. Native red oak was milled locally, and hand carved throughout the home. Local limestone graces the outside.The house itself is a stunning example of Victorian architecture. 

Unlike most house museums, it is not filled with original furnishings, but with exhibits. Over 2500 artifacts are in their collection, rotating through displays, so there is much to see. You will see displays on the history of coal mining, tools used to build the house, items from the Victorian age and childrens toys. Appalachian history is covered with tools commonly used in the mountains, quilts, some furniture, a collection spanning from the late 1700's to the 1900's. There is even a still for making corn whiskey!

The best part of the Southwest Virginia Museum was the guide with "a story to tell."She was phenomenal,taking us through each of the 3 levels of the house, explaining the history of the house, it's owners, Big Stone Gap, life after after the Civil War, Southwest Virginia and the what coal did to the area both good and bad. I won't spoil the excellent narration - you will enjoy it!

We are studying Ancient History in this year (we homeschool) and we were delighted to find a display from antiquity. C. Bascom Slemp, the Congressman then private secretary to President Calvin Coolidge, owned the house. He traveled the world bringing back many treasures that are housed in the musuem. Most impressive was the small display of vases and pottery from the holy land of Palestine. A few Greek pieces in the familiar orange with black figures painted on, as well as some South American pieces from antiquity. It was a little strange to round a corner and run smack into a small collection from antiquity, in the midst of the Southwest Virginia Museum in the heart of Appalachia, but it was a delight nonetheless!


The Southwest Virginia Museum maintains a full calender of special events throughout the year. They host a quilt show each spring. Various community events fill their schedule. Each Christmas, they have over 80 trees decorated throughout the house.

The staff was warm, friendly and more than willing to answer any questions you have. T

LivingHistorySites.com found the Southwest Virginia Museum to be an absolute jewel waiting to be discovered in the coal country of Appalachia. A great place to explore the history coal mining in Virginia along with the history of Wise county. Just a few blocks from the Harry W. Meador Jr. Coal Museum, so be sure to visit both, and eat at Mosby's Restaurant up in Wise, and tell them that Living History Sites sent you!

Southwest Virginia Museum

10 West First St N

Big Stone Gap, VA 24219


Hours vary - especially in the winter, so be sure to check the website and call first!

March 2006—Memorial Day

Tuesday through Thursday

10:00 a.m.—4:00 p.m.
Friday— 9:00 a.m.—4:00 p.m.
Saturday—10:00 a.m.—5:00 p.m.
Sunday—1:00 p.m.—5:00 p.m.

Memorial Day—Labor Day

10:00 a.m.—4:00 p.m.
Friday—9:00 a.m.—4:00 p.m.
Saturday—10:00 a.m.—5:00 p.m.
Sunday—1:00 p.m.—5:00 p.m.

Labor Day — December 31
Same as March 1—Memorial Day

Closed during the months of January and February,
Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.