A Rail Line Runs Through It
Tuesday January 12, 2016
This is the third in a series of posts about Garden Day 2016 sites, the history behind them and the glimpses into the future that they offer.
Ida Ruth Hollandsworth and Clifford Morris Carter of Bassett had an important mission in Martinsville on Nov. 9, 1933. What they didn’t have was a car.
So, the two boarded a Norfolk and Western train at the Bassett Depot. It took them the 10 miles they needed to go. They got off in Martinsville, went to the home of Broad Street Christian Church’s minister, and got married.
Around that time, a total of six passenger trains on the line between Roanoke and Winston-Salem stopped in Bassett. Three trains headed south on most any given day, and three went north. People used the trains to travel back and forth between towns along the line. Area residents recall their mothers putting them on the train in Martinsville to visit cousins and friends in Bassett or boarding in Bassett to go visiting in Martinsville. People from Bassett also went to Martinsville to shop, to conduct business and, in the case of the Carters, to get married.
Bassett’s depot was more than just a jumping-on and jumping-off point. It was a freight station and an important link for business and industry. The depot also housed the town’s first telegraph office. The telegraph office functioned as a nerve center of sorts. There, people could communicate with and get news from the outer world.
The railway line and its depot helped make the town of Bassett. The “Punkin’ Vine” line opened in 1892. The Bassett family is said by some to have given right of way through their land where the family owned and operated a sawmill. The sawmill cut lumber that was used to make a number of things, including furniture. After cutting, wood for furniture was shipped out to manufacturers elsewhere. In 1902, J.D. Bassett, C.C. Bassett, Samuel Bassett and Reed L. Stone launched a furniture manufacturing company of their own. The rail line helped make the venture viable. The company, Bassett Furniture, could ship its goods from southwestern Virginia to customers around the country and eventually, to shipyards for export around the world. The business would go on to become, at one point during the 20th century, the largest manufacturer of wooden furniture in the world.
The original wooden train depot had been built in 1917. After it burned around 1922, the present day brick structure replaced it.
Businesses grew up around the depot. One, the Riverside Hotel, stood just across the tracks. The hotel provided rooms to business travelers and others and sold bag meals to train passengers.
Beyond the usual business and passenger traffic, the little station served some notable personages. One was then General and soon-to-be-President Dwight D. Eisenhower. His campaign train rolled into town in 1952. Mary Elizabeth Bassett Morten recalls seeing Eisenhower and his wife Mamie waving from the back platform of the train.
As president, Eisenhower championed the creation of the nation’s highway system. The country’s road system would continue to branch out and more people would buy cars. Travel by automobile eventually eclipsed other transportation modes. Passenger rail service to Bassett ended in 1961.
These days, the depot serves a new purpose. It has become a community gathering spot. Seasonal farmer’s markets, musical events and other activities take place there.
A major economic shift during the latter half of the 20th century changed Bassett itself, as it did many factory towns across the country. A significant part of the manufacturing process for a number of industries, including furniture, was outsourced to low cost-of-labor countries. The furniture companies in Bassett maintained their headquarters, finishing and distribution operations locally and, in some cases, domestic manufacturing continues.
Nowadays, more than 60 percent of Bassett Furniture’s sales come from furniture made in Bassett, Martinsville and in Newton, N.C. The company recently launched its Bench Made line of products featuring furniture that is custom-made with solid wood that comes from sustainable forests in the U.S.
Efforts are underway to reinvigorate the town of Bassett along with three towns in a 15-mile stretch along the Smith River. All of which are communities that had depended on furniture and textile manufacturing. Efforts to reinvigorate grew from a collaborative process facilitated by the Harvest Foundation and supported by Community Development Block Grant funding, as well as by business and industry. The result is the Smith River Small Towns Collaborative.
Members of the collaborative -- residents, government officials, planning and community development organizations, and those involved in protecting the river basin birthed a shared vision for transformation of Bassett and three of its neighbors: Stanleytown, Fieldale and Koehler.
The collaborative’s plan focuses on the Smith, considered one of the top rivers in the country for trout fishing. The plan calls for enhancing amenities and resources for those who come to fish its waters and/or to explore its environs.
The collaborative identified "pearls" along the river -- historical sites, landmarks, points of interest and similar assets, said Jeb Bassett. Bassett is one of the collaborative’s co-chairmen as well as Senior Vice President of the wood division at Bassett Furniture.
The collaborative brainstormed ideas for improvements. The group zeroed in on a select few for the project’s first phase. One goal will be to grow towns’ curb appeal. Another will be to increase outdoor activity offerings and the resources to support them, along with other amenities for visitors.
The first phase centers on enhancing the town centers in Bassett and Fieldale. Enhancements include creating architectural signage and adding streetlights, sidewalks, benches and banners for a look that is unique to each community, yet complementary to one another. The plan also calls for façade improvements to existing buildings.
As the Henry County trail system grows, Bassett said walking and bike trails would eventually connect the town squares. Bassett’s centerpiece would be a landscaped town square with public space for meeting and relaxation.
And the anchor for Bassett’s town square? The Historic Bassett Train Depot.
Note: This year’s Martinsville-Henry County Garden Day tour centers on Bassett, and the train depot will be one of the tour stops. The depot will be the locus for exhibits, which include one about the railroad and its history in the town.
What: “Bassett, Pioneering the Future,” Martinsville-Henry County Garden Day 2016
When: April 27, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Where: Historic J.D. Bassett Event Center/EMI, tour headquarters, 3289 Riverside Drive
Who: Garden Study Club and The Martinsville Garden Club, hosts
Tickets: $20 per person. On tour day, buy at any site or at tour headquarters. Advance tickets at www.vagardenweek.org. Available locally March 30 – April 24 at Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce, Martinsville-Henry County Visitor’s Center, Piedmont Arts Association and the Patrick County Chamber of Commerce. Ticketholders may enter Fairy Stone State Park free on tour day.
Lunch: Historic J.D. Bassett Event Center/EMI dining room, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; $12 per person. Reservations required by April 25. Contact Eliza Severt, 276-632-2447, email@example.com, or Lynne Beeler, 276-638-1030, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Getting around: The tour will offer shuttle service. Two tour sites, the Haley house and Hamlet Vineyards, may be accessed only by shuttle. Shuttles will also go to Fairy Stone State Park. Shuttles will be available at Pocahontas Bassett Baptist Church, 120 Bassett Heights Road.
More info: Contact Lizz Stanley, tour chairman, 276-252-3009, or Cindy Edgerton, tour co-chairman, 276-732-2784. Reach either by email at email@example.com.
Sources: The Harvest Foundation; Bassett Historical Center; The Norfolk and Western Historical Society; Kenny Kirkman, Bassett Heritage Notes, September 2004 Bassett Heritage Festival; “Moving to Bassett: Mama’s Diary,” by Avis Turner, Laurel Hill Publishing, 2014*; Tom Perry; the Martinsville Bulletin, “Bassett Furniture hosts retailers for conference,” June 3, 2015; and Norfolk Southern Careers on facebook.
*Available for purchase at the Martinsville-Henry County Visitor Center.
Photos and photo credits
1—Bassett town old street scene courtesy of Bassett Historical Center
2—Train at Bassett Furniture courtesy of Bassett Historical Center
3—President Dwight D. Eisenhower courtesy of the Executive Office of the President of the United States
4—Bench Made courtesy of Lizz Stanley
5—Smith River courtesy of Lizz Stanley
6—Bassett Town Green courtesy of Hill Studio, Kalback Design Studio and the Harvest Foundation