Virginia Ghost Town
Mouth of Wilson, Grayson County, Virginia
My first motorcycle trip down the Blue Ridge Parkway in 2004 planted the seed for my future move down to Charlottesville, VA a year later. I had a series of revelations in the course of that first trip. Some involved profound human interactions I had, and some were based on various observations at a time when my eyes were wide open to this new part of the country. It’s funny how a new place will excite my senses, and equally saddening how that freshness wears off after becoming acclimated to it. On this first trip to Virginia I saw a quote from Marcel Proust on a coffee mug in a gift shop window in Lexington, VA: The only real voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new landscapes, but in developing new eyes with which to perceive them”. Proust had it right, as far as I can see, and I’m inspired ceaselessly to adhere to his maxim.
One of the more moving sights on this first ride through southwestern Virginia was a town named “Mouth of Wilson”, at the North Carolina border, at the junction of routes 58 and 16. This town looks like many other timeworn places I’ve seen and photographed, but this one stands apart because it’s commercial center appeared to be completely abandoned. I’ve seen many towns in many parts of this country that had a period of prosperity reflected in the town’s architecture, but that progress had left behind. Once formidable buildings are slowly sinking into disrepair, some too far gone to realistically bring back for any current usage. Some of these places were on back roads where traffic had long ceased to flow. But this place, Mouth of Wilson, was right at the “T” intersection of two busy roads- route 58 that runs east west along the border of Virginia and North Carolina, and route 16 that runs south to North Carolina. This is still a rural area, but there was an intermittent flow of traffic on both roads while I spent an hour or so there.
Former Halsey Farm Service Store, looking northeast on route 58, Mouth of Wilson, VA
There were the usual types of rural vernacular buildings dating from the 19th and 20th centuries: mill buildings, general store, post office, gas station and auto repair shop, a few houses, and misc. commercial buildings. All were in reasonably good condition, and all shared one glaring characteristic- they were abandoned. Even the newest building, the ubiquitous, bland, brick Post Office building was silent and empty. And there wasn’t a soul in sight, anywhere. It reminded me of an early Twilight Zone episode of a man wandering down a dirt road into a town kind of like this one, with no people anywhere to be seen. Cigarettes are burning in ashtrays on diner counters, radios play, faucets drip, and there is no one.
Looking southeast from route 58 down route 16, Mouth of Wilson, VA
Looking east across unidentified structure towards old woolen mill, Mouth of Wilson, VA
Looking west on route 58 from junction of route 16, Mouth of Wilson, VA. Old water tower to left, unidentifed house on right
Looking South down route 16 from route 58, Mouth of Wilson, Virginia. Woolen mill to left, old water tower to right
Looking south down route 16, Mouth of Wilson, VA. Abandoned woolen mill to left
Looking southeast from route 16, Mouth of Wilson, VA. Remains of woolen mill
Looking North on route 16 toward route 58, Mouth of WIlson, VA.
Looking north on route 16, Mouth of Wilson, VA.
Looking northeast to route 58, Mouth of WIlson, VA. Abandoned Fields Manufacturing Company Store in center, emptly Fields house to right
Looking South across route 58 down route 16, Mouth of Wilson, VA. Post Office to left, Fields Company Store in center, Halsey Farm Service Store to right
Looking south from route 58, Mouth of Wilson, VA. Former Post Office center, Fields House to left, Fields Company Store to right
Looking south from route 58, Mouth of Wilson, VA. Post Office to left, Fields Company Store to right
Looking South from route 58, Mouth of Wilson, VA. Post office to left, woolen mill in background, Fields Company Store to right
Looking west along route 58, Mouth of Wilson, VA. Post Office to left, Fields Company Store in center, Halsey Farm Service Store to right
Looking northwest along route 58, Mouth of Wilson, VA. Fields Company Store to left, Halsey Farm Service Store to right
Looking north past Halsey Farm Servcie Store, Mouth of Wilson, VA
Looking north past corner of Halsey Farm Service Store, Mouth of Wilson, VA
Looking east down route 58, leaving Mouth of Wilson, VA
I wandered around this place shooting photos, getting bolder about walking up to and around behind buildings, and no one appeared to ask me what I was doing, or tell me to get lost. I was the only one there. I spent an hour or so shooting, and then packed up and headed east on route 58. I couldn’t shake the image of the place or the terrible feeling of emptiness that it left me with. About 10 miles down the road I found the probable culprit- a huge Walmart store with a parking lot filled with cars. Adjacent to the Walmart were the usual grim collection of soulless commercial structures that, had I been blindfolded and dropped here, I wouldn’t have been able to differentiate from anywhere else in America.
These photos and the trip that brought me to Mouth of Wilson were taken in May of 2004, and it wasn’t until a few days ago that I came upon a book titled “Lost Communities of Virginia” by Terri Fisher and Kirsten Sparenborg, published by Albemarle Books, 2011, ISBN 978-0-9742707-3-9. There is a chapter on Mouth of Wilson, which is in Grayson County. There is some history of the town in this book and a description of some of the buildings, but no real analysis of how or why the town (or this part of it anyway) was allowed to die. It probably not much more complicated that the example I see repeated over and over in Virginia- a once beautiful old farmhouse in a terrible state of disrepair with a single wide trailer sitting beside it where the occupants now live. There’s not even enough respect to bury the dead and raze the house that is now beyond repair. The little town of Mouth of Wilson had some charm, but clearly no will or interest in preserving any of that. It was cheaper for the townsfolk to let it fall apart and head on over to Walmart. It’s been ten years since I was last in Mouth of Wilson, and I am curious to see what its current status is. I’ll keep you posted…