Over the past century, the United States has gone through a massive societal shift. While only 3 percent of the nation’s landmass is considered urban, the percentage of Americans living in rural areas has dropped from 40 percent in 1900 to about 18 percent today. That remarkable change and its ripple effects are the focus of a Smithsonian traveling exhibition opening next month at the Reynolds Homestead’s Creative Arts Center in Stuart, Virginia.
From Dec. 4 to Jan. 9, “Crossroads: Change in Rural America” will showcase how rural small towns continue to creatively focus on new opportunities for growth and development. The exhibition is part of the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street program.
The Reynolds Homestead, part of Outreach and International Affairs, serves as a Virginia Tech community outreach center, providing educational and cultural programs in Patrick County and surrounding communities. Director Julie Walters Steele said the exhibition’s themes of rural identity, community, land, perseverance, and managing change provide a jumping-off point for further discussions.
Patrick County, located about 70 miles south of Blacksburg, has seen agriculture, manufacturing, and service jobs come and go over the years. While farming once reigned as the top industry, textiles and manufacturing later dominated the county’s economy.
“‘Crossroads’ sets the stage to engage the community in thinking about not only the past, but also the future,” Walters Steele said. “To help encourage conversations about what makes our community unique, we have worked with local organizations to develop exhibitions and public programs to complement the Smithsonian exhibition.”
The Reynolds Homestead partnered with the Patrick County Chamber of Commerce and several community organizations to include a variety of activities, including hikes, music, photography, and film.
An original companion exhibit will be offered around the corner from the main exhibit. “The Tiny House Project: Welcome to the Neighborhood” will showcase a display of tiny wooden houses decorated by local residents to represent what home and community mean to them. The houses will then be arranged into a neighborhood in front of mirrored shelving.
Local artist Lora Mahaffey, whose Calliope: Circus of the Arts in Stuart will host the display, led the creation through a series of free workshops.
“The exhibit conveys that we are all part of a larger neighborhood with the same concerns, sense of pride, and love of place,” Mahaffey said. “The houses — all made by community members from many different walks of life — create a sense of a bonded community. No matter what our other views may be, we are working together in this place and time to build a quality of life for our families and ourselves.”
The Reynolds Homestead will also partner with the Patrick County Historical Society and Museum to create a display of historical photos at the homestead’s Community Engagement Center in Critz.
Meanwhile, photos from Patrick County Extension over the years will also be on display, and Virginia Cooperative Extension will celebrate the importance of food in unifying the community with a collection of family recipes.
Several hikes will take a closer look at what has been lost. Fairy Stone State Park will host a hike focusing on Fayerdale, an iron mining town that now sits beneath Philpott Lake. Meanwhile, the Dan River Basin Association will lead a hike along the Rock Castle Gorge where participants can learn about the community that once existed there, and Blue Ridge Heritage will hold a presentation and hike on the disappearance of the American chestnut tree.
For film lovers, the 1981 documentary “Up and Down These Roads: A Rural County in Transition” will be presented at the Star Theatre in Stuart. In a follow-up event, a panel will discuss the 40 years of change since the documentary was made.
“Small towns work hard to innovate, find new ways to grow, and take advantage of the assets that make our region unique,” Walters Steele said. “We can learn so much from listening to these stories of resilience from our own community as well as other small towns across America.”
For a full list of activities and schedule, visit the exhibition’s website.