Club marks year city became “Magic”

Frances Stebbins

Until I attended the May Centennial celebration of the founding of the Wednesday History Club, I didn’t know how important 1917 was in the place Roanoke would occupy in Virginia.

The club, currently made up of about a dozen women, nearly all of retirement age, is one of the oldest on-going groups of its kind in the city, I’ve been a member for 13 of its 100 years and enjoyed the “high tea” celebration its members held at Hotel Roanoke.

Now most local citizens understand Salem is at least 80 years officially older than its larger neighbor to the east.  It was a small courthouse town of beauty and culture   enhanced by the Lutheran-affiliated Roanoke College well before the hamlet with the descriptive name of Big Lick (for a place where animals could find the nutrient of salt) was of any importance.

Salem, along with Fincastle, loves its history and its Colonial Indian fighter son Andrew Lewis. Today a little of the rivalry that existed for decades between what some saw as the cultured and mellowed town and the upstart born of the 19th Century railroad boom has cooled a bit.  When, around 40 years ago, the General Assembly made it less easy for cities to annex parts of counties—even obliterate them—Salem’s fear of losing its identity eased. I personally enjoy its well-run government as do more than 20,000 others.

So, this is about Roanoke, which dates officially from 1882 when two major railroads crossed eight miles to the east and from nearly nothing the city grew by the mid-20th Century to the third largest in Virginia, clearly the gateway to 150 miles of mountains to the west.

At the Wednesday History Club’s celebration, the Rev. Nelson Harris was the speaker. A native of the Southwest quadrant of the city, Harris early became an admired figure. I first met him when, still in his 20s, he twice served as president of the-then influential Roanoke Valley Ministers Conference, for he had been called as pastor of his home congregation, Virginia Heights Baptist. He’s still there although the name has been undated to make it more generic, as is the style today. From his clergy leadership in the 1990s Harris moved into politics and served as Mayor of Roanoke.

Today in mid-life he’s known especially for his love of Roanoke history and has researched many small segments of it with resulting books.

He brought this background to the women of the history club by concentrating on the one year that America entered World War I. It became a pivotal year for the young city as the pastor-historian related in a 45-minute address.

“In 1917 Roanoke grew up,” he said. He cited these events as giving the rough railroad town with a significant foreign-born population its status as a major factor in Virginia economy, religion, communications and urban administration.

  • An early use of the city manager form of government replacing the mayor controlling all operations.
  • The opening of the American Viscose Corporation, a sprawling rayon factory which almost overnight opened hilly Southeast to development with many churches, parks and schools resulting. Later, 5000 people worked at the plant with its modern cafeteria and health services. It also hired many women which the railroad did not.
  • The city’s antiquated horse-drawn fire equipment was replaced with wheels. Two stations were consolidated.
  • The Norfolk & Western Railway doubled its operations when the war effort resulted in the federal government taking it over.
  • And although the desirable neighborhoods of Raleigh Court, Wasena, Grandin Court and Oakwood were not yet part of the city, their beginnings as suburbs date from this period. Over in Rugby, Belmont and West End land was cheap. Several church buildings, including Christ Episcopal, Melrose Baptist and Belmont United Methodist, date from this period.

Henry Street with its Dumas Theater was the center of black culture.

There was still plenty left to be done, the speaker noted.  In the Norwich slum neighborhood down the hill from mansions children did dangerous work in factories instead of being in school. He has written about that.


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