I just spent a few days with friends in my favorite type of place – a town full of history. The town is Abingdon, VA, and more specifically, I’ll be telling about the inn where we stayed, the Martha Washington. The central part of the inn was built in 1832 as a residence for General Francis Preston and his family. Much of the original structure is intact, including the family’s parlors, and a lovely oval staircase.
The house was sold in 1858 to the Methodist church, which was in the process of establishing a school of higher learning for girls which was to be named for Martha Washington. The school actually opened in 1860. Over the years the building was enlarged and new wings were added on either side.
All the sources I’ve found call the school Martha Washington College, though, especially in the early years, it was really more of a finishing school. A girl could attend for two years if she had graduated from high school, or for four years if she had completed two years of high school. By the 1920s the school was in effect, a junior college.
There are a lot of legends and ghost stories surrounding the school, including tragic love stories involving students and Civil War soldiers. I also found a lot of differing information concerning dates. This is a topic in search of a good researcher!
What made the stay at the Martha Washington so interesting to me was the presence of many photographs and other memorabilia concerning the school that lined the walls of the main floor of the inn. Most of it was from around 1895 to 1932, when the Great Depression forced the school to close.
Many of the photos from the Teens and Twenties show the girls in sports uniforms. Here’s part of the basketball team from 1924.
And here are some basketball players from a few years later.
Students were properly attired for golf in 1924.
Many of the photos showed the girls wearing middy blouses, that most schoolgirl of all garments.
The inn really has taken great pains to remember the heritage of the old building. Each guest room is identified with a different vintage photo of the school and its students. One of the parlors is named for First Lady Edith Wilson, who was a student at Martha Washington for a very short time.
After the college closed in 1932 (some sources say 1931) the building stood empty for a few years. But fortunately for Abingdon, a new enterprise opened across the street – the Barter Theatre. In 1933, young (and out of work) actor Robert Porterfield got the idea to open a theatre and let people pay their admissions with either 40 cents or an equivalent amount of food.
The theatre was an immediate success, and that created a need for a hotel. The Martha Washington opened as an inn in 1935.
In 1948 Abingdon was the “Second healthiest town in America.” I would love to know which town was number one!