Salem, Richfield’s history intertwined, Burke tells crowd

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PHOTO BY MEG HIBBERT
Salem resident Christine Young looks over an early map of Salem’s first
subdivisions during Alex Burke’s lunch talk at Richfield on Aug. 15 on the history
of Salem and Richfield Living. To her left is Salem resident Pat Cox.

From a Native American town, to a tavern town, then a college town, and later a sports capital – Salem’s evolution was detailed in a luncheon talk at Richfield Living on Aug. 19.

Alex Burke, who is assistant director of the Salem Museum, gave his illustrated talk on Aug. 15 to residents and guests at the second of three summer lunch talks presented by Richfield Living and the Salem Museum. Burke led 40 residents and guests from the community in the Alleghany Room at The Oaks at Richfield Living through Salem’s earliest days, starting with the 1400s big expansion of the Native American population in the Roanoke Valley. Totero Town was a Tutelo Native American village in the Salem area. The mixing of Native Americans and Europeans was proven when artifacts, including a gun trigger, were unearthed when the Mower Complex was constructed, Burke pointed out. In the 1750s Scot Irish settlers arrived, followed by Germans. Salem’s most famous son, Andrew Lewis, received a land grant of over 600 acres in the 1760s. He called his estate Richfield. Today’s Richfield Living – although not near Lewis’ property close to the Salem Civic Center – was named to honor that bit of history. Burke passed around a map showing the first subdivision, platted by William Simpson, with lots 17 and 18 sold to Suzanna Cole in 1802. Charlotte’s Web Antiques is there now. “Salem was known as a tavern town, with five taverns and three churches,”he pointed out. The first brick home built in 1821 is Preston Place, now the White Oak Tea Tavern. At the lunch talk, a door prize was drawn for lunch at the tea tavern. Salem’s hopes for development in the 1800s were based on ship’s – and at least one boat trip was documented from the Atlantic all the way to Salem. Later came the hope of the railroad for Norfolk Western railroad headquarters for Salem, which went to Big Lick – Roanoke – instead. Richfield started in 1934 when nurse Jane Morgan Harris helped a mother giving birth in an abandoned gas station, and wanted something better for health care for women who could not afford much. Roanoke County gave an old dilapidated house for a care facility. That farmhouse on the Richfield grounds is now gone, but photographs remain. The cost was $5 for two weeks of care. Still, because it was in the middle of the Great Depression, some could not afford that, Burke said, and Harris arranged for patients to pay with produce and eggs. The chapel at Richfield is named for Harris. Roanoke County took over the future Richfield, which first was called Mercy House and then McVitty House, and Carrie Breckenridge Holiday; another nurse organized canning drives such as 250 gallons of apple butter to feed residents. The first building of today’s Richfield was the nursing home, now Recovery and Care Center, in 1971. It was expanded in 1979. Richfield Living has added more than five group residential living buildings, individual cottages, The Rehab Center and more since then, with expansion plans on the drawing board. Burke also detailed other well-known Salem landmarks, including Lakeside Amusement Park and the Shooting Star roller coaster “which the flood of 1985 pretty much destroyed.” A 47-square-foot model of the much-loved roller coaster is displayed at the Salem Museum, “and every year in July the Salem Fair pays tribute to that early entertainment,” Burke said. He summarized Salem’s part in the Civil War, World War I and World War II,and the end of segregation. In 1968 “Salem took a risky gamble by forming an independent city” from Roanoke County. Then came Salem’s new identity, as a sports capital, and four state Salem High School football championships, state basketball and state wrestling championships. Audience members mainly came for their interest in history and to know more about Richfield Living as a possible future residence, some said. Many, like Salem resident Pat Cox, said they attended because of their love of history. “I love these talks,” said Cox. “They are always very informative, and there’s an excellent lunch.” The next free luncheon talk will be Wednesday, Sept. 19, when Burke will present a history of the Salem Historical Society. RSVP should be made to Scotti Hartman at 540-302- 2826.