For over 200 years, Abingdon has been the cultural, political, and sometimes the economic center of the entire region, and that history draws people to Abingdon. One weekend of the Festival is devoted to showcasing the Revolutionary War era and the other to the Civil War.
The Muster Grounds in west Abingdon is the site where Washington County settlers (Overmountain Men) gathered and began a march over the mountains to South Carolina where the British were soundly defeated at the Battle of Kings Mountain. Some historians are now seeing that battle as the turning point of the Revolutionary War, so Abingdon takes great pride in having been central to that effort. Another annual activity during the Festival is a living history demonstration of life in the “Backcountry” during the Revolutionary period, where settlements and forts were far apart and surviving took considerable skill and hardiness. A Colonial Trade Faire, which has vendors selling newly made items based on historical artifacts, is held during the Festival as well.
There were no major Civil War battles in this region, especially compared to eastern and northern Virginia, but the salt works at Saltville (part of the town is in Smyth County and part in Washington County) were essential to the Confederate cause. Their security created various skirmishes and two significant battles. On the first weekend, reenactors recreate battles between the Union and Confederate forces and demonstrate weaponry and battle skills for the audiences.
Abingdon has the best-preserved Colonial, Federalist, and Victorian structures in the region—and is one of the loveliest small towns in America. Fifty years ago the town council created a historic district in the downtown area, which forbids buildings from being torn down or structures to be modernized without oversight from an Architectural Review Board. Lectures on local history, tours of the backstage of the Barter Theatre, walking tours of the town, and historic homes tours have long been a part of the Festival. Any place with a long (and sometimes violent) history has ghosts and legends that get passed down through the centuries. Ghost tours and cemetery tours are always a part of the Festival as well.
The Virginia Creeper Trail, which was once a railroad bed, is a reminder that Washington County in the early decades of the 20th century provided more lumber to build the cities of the Northeast than any other county in the nation. There is a display of photographs in the visitors’ center at the trailhead which reflects the history of that lumber industry.
Finally, the Antiques Market is one of the foundational events for the festival, and its success is derived from an interest in history. Strong interest in preserving relics of the 18th, 19th, and now 20th centuries bring several thousand people to browse through the largest antiques market in the region.
For over 200 years, Abingdon has been the cultural, political, and sometimes the economic center of the entire region with a rich history that draws people from throughout the region to Abingdon. – Ben Jennings
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