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Tuesday March 22, 2016

This is not your grandmother’s Garden Day tour.

The Martinsville-Henry County Garden Day Tour 2016, April 27, is as much about a town and a way of life as it is about houses and gardens. The tour offers a panorama of life in Bassett, a little town that became an industrial giant during the 20th century. Fundamental economic shifts have since wrought profound changes, so work is underway to transform the town for the 21st century.

Garden Day in Bassett takes place as part of the Garden Club of Virginia’s signature Historic Garden Week. Historic Garden Week is the country’s oldest statewide house-and-garden tour event. Thirty tours will take place during an eight-day period, drawing more than 25,000 visitors to Virginia. Many come from around the state, others come from across the country, and some from other countries.

“Historic Garden Week has raised millions of dollars to keep Virginia beautiful,” said Jeanette Cadwallender, president of the Garden Club of Virginia. The GCV uses tour proceeds to fund restoration of significant gardens and landscapes open to the public. Landscape restorations range from the grounds of Mount Vernon to the grounds of the Historic Henry County Courthouse. 

“Historic Garden Week showcases not only history, gardens and architecturally significant buildings, but also the dynamic people who are growing opportunities for a 21st-century Bassett,” said Lizz Stanley, chairman of Martinsville-Henry County Garden Day 2016. 

Opening doors in Bassett

To be sure, the Bassett Garden Day tour offers entrée into houses and gardens. It showcases the Haley home, a 1930-1938 Classical Revival-style house built by one of the founders of Bassett Furniture Co., Reed L. Stone. Surrounded by mature trees and gardens, the house sits on nearly 3 acres overlooking the town. Unusual features in the house include a curving stair, six working fireplaces and fabric wallcovering with piping in the dining room. The property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The tour also offers access to a small brick factory home, one of those built during the early 20th century to house the workers on whose shoulders rested the fortunes and future of the furniture company and the area. During the late 1920s, the houses rented for sums of $6 or $7 a month, with rent and utilities deducted from workers’ pay.

The tour’s other stops reflect Bassett’s unique sense of place. It was home to what was once the largest manufacturer of wooden furniture in the world and its kindred companies, while remaining a small town with a sense of connection. 

More tour sites:

  • The Historic J.D. Bassett Event Center/EMI, a red-brick, Georgian Revival-style structure with interior gardens, a property listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was built as a high school to educate the children of factory workers and executives alike. It has been adapted for reuse by its current owner, EMI, for its secure information management solutions business. EMI has also created the event center so the community can make use of the building’s capacious spaces, such as its auditorium and dining facilities. The center is where Garden Day luncheon will be served. Patrick Henry Community College culinary arts students under the tutelage of Chef Bob (Robert Koester) will whip up dishes adapted from the Bassett Garden Club’s 1950 and 1959
  • The Bassett Post Office, a 1938 red-brick building typical of post office buildings of its era. What’s not so typical can be found inside. On the wall just above the door to the postmaster’s office is the fresco “Manufacture of Furniture.” A true fresco, it was painted in wet plaster by artist Walter Carnelli. His artwork has been exhibited in the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The fresco in Bassett has both artistic and historic significance. It was created on commission from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts, part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The fresco is one of the roughly 1,200 artworks commissioned for use in public buildings around the country. A number have been lost due to changes made to the buildings or by having been painted over, perhaps the result of lack of awareness of a work’s value.
  • The Bassett Historical Center, which has been called the best little library in Virginia. Its roots reach back to a Garden Club tea at a time when ladies wore hats and white gloves. The ladies decided to found a public library. The papers and materials that later grew into the historical center’s collection were housed originally in a filing cabinet in the library basement. The center’s present-day trove comprises 10,000 family files, 3,000 local history files, and 16,000 genealogy books, plus nearly 1,000 files from a special collection. The collection includes artifacts, many of which are on display. The center has gotten inquiries, many concerning genealogy, from around the country and from 13 other countries. The center also honors the past outside its walls, with memorial trees.
  • Bassett Furniture Design Studio, the “think tank” for Bassett Furniture, the company that put Bassett on the map. This site offers a behind-the-scenes look at how the company develops its signature look for display of its products. The center offers a blank canvas, so to speak. It has the same showroom lighting, flooring and wall color as its retail spaces. In this prototype showroom, designers create cohesive arrangements that marry Bassett’s wooden furniture, upholstered furniture and accents, from lamps to art. The result, which Bassett terms a pad, is a room setting, such as a living room or dining room setting. Every item used has the Bassett Furniture name on it. After tweaking a pad to get the look just right, photos are made so the pad can be replicated in Bassett’s retail store showrooms around the country. Photos also go into promotional material and onto the company’s website. And next door, tour-takers can visit the HGTV design studio, dedicated to the presentation and development of Bassett HGTV licensed products.
  • Hamlet Vineyards, where wine tastings will be offered in the old barn at Eltham Manor, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The red gambrel-roofed barn, built by Millard Mason, once housed the animals and machinery needed for the large garden that supplied produce for the dining table at Eltham, home of one of Bassett Furniture’s chairmen. These days, a significant portion of the barn has been repurposed as the vineyard’s tasting room. Before the vineyard on Eltham’s rolling hills, the present day-owners, the Hamlets, had ties to textiles and car racing, other industries considered iconic of the area history. Hamlet Vineyards’ Rosé won a silver medal last year in a Sonoma, California, competition. For an inside look at wine and the art of what goes into its making, viticulture expert John Ayers of Patrick Henry Community College will speak at 11 a.m. and at 1:30 p.m.
  • Fairy Stone State Park, just outside Bassett on the way to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Fairy Stone is the largest of the six original state parks, which opened in 1936. The park and its lake were created by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a work relief program that provided employment during the Great Depression while conserving public resources around the country. The Garden Club of Virginia championed founding of the Virginia State Parks. 
  • The Historic Bassett Train Depot, a 1923 Colonial Revival-style train station that now houses the Henry County Furniture Museum. The depot was integral to creation of a true town of Bassett. It made it possible to ship furniture out to other states and, eventually, to ports for sale in other countries. Residents used the trains to travel back and forth to Martinsville and beyond. In 1952, a most notable passenger came through: then-Gen. and later-President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his wife Mamie, who waved to people from his campaign train.

Extra! Extra!

On Garden Day, the depot will take on a role as the tour’s exhibit and event space.

Author Beth Macy will sign copies from 3 to 5 p.m. of her bestseller, “Factory Man.” Called the book by some locals, “Factory Man” tells the tale of the area furniture industry and its people and, thus, tells something of Bassett’s story.

Area author Tom Perry, who has written 40 books about the wider area’s history, including a number about Bassett, will sign copies of his books from 10 to 11:30 a.m. and from 2:30 to 7 p.m. at the Depot, then from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. during luncheon at the Historic J.D. Bassett Event Center/EMI. Perry’s Laurel Hill Publishing company has brought to print other works about local history by other area authors.

Former State Sen. Roscoe Reynolds will speak at 2 p.m. about the Bassett Furnituremakers, the town’s semi-pro baseball team where Phil Rizzuto got his start. At 3 p.m. another former area legislator, former Del. Ward Armstrong, will speak about railroad history. One exhibit, Smith River Outfitters, will highlight the Smith River, with Brian Williams speaking at 11 a.m.

Visitors to the depot can also view art at the Artisan Trail Exhibit and buy plants, thanks to the green thumbs of Magna Vista High School’s horticultural students. Everything Outdoors will have for sale plants that bloom with a special flower, the flame creeper azalea, this year’s Historic Garden Week flower.

And to raise spirits, from 4 to 7 p.m., it’s Wine & ‘Shine. Tour-takers can sample area wines and moonshine. Although the Garden Day tour officially ends at 6 p.m., visitors can stay on to enjoy the tasting until 7 p.m.

The Bassett tour clearly has its roots in the past. An exhibit at the depot, 15 Magical Miles, speaks to what residents and area leaders envision for its future.

Bassett, 21st century

The goal is to reinvigorate Bassett and three of its neighbors along the Smith River. The migration of many manufacturing jobs overseas to cheaper labor markets left towns like Bassett facing the task of reinventing themselves. Stakeholders in the towns’ future participated in a collaborative process facilitated by the Harvest Foundation and supported by Community Development Block Grant funding, as well as by business and industry, the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corporation and the Chamber of Commerce.

The result: the Smith River Small Towns Collaborative.

The collaborative’s plan focuses on the Smith, considered one of the top trout-fishing rivers in the country. The plan calls for enhancing area amenities and resources for those who come to fish its waters and/or to explore its environs.

One goal will be to grow towns’ curb appeal. The town center of Bassett will get a makeover during the first phase. Enhancements include creating architectural signage and adding streetlights, sidewalks, benches and banners. The plan calls for façade improvements to existing buildings.

The plan for Bassett’s centerpiece: a landscaped town square with public space for meeting and relaxation. And the anchor for Bassett’s town square: the Historic Bassett Train Depot.

Those who come to fish the waters of the Smith, to hike a growing network of trails along the riverbanks and in nearby hills, to partake of area cuisine and spirits, and to participate in cultural events including at a music venue, will be able to do so against a backdrop of history.


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 25 at Bassett Historical Center, 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, ehsevert@aol.com, or Lynne Beeler, 276-638-1030, ldcb@comcast.net.

Getting around: Park and catch a shuttle at Pocahontas Bassett Baptist Church, 120 Bassett Heights Road. Although parking will be available at most sites, it will be limited. Two sites, Hamlet Vineyards and the Haley House, will be accessible only by shuttle. Shuttles will also go to Fairy Stone State Park.

Sponsors/Supporters: American National Bank, Bassett Furniture Industries, Bassett Mirror Co., Stifel Nicolaus, Stanleytown Health & Rehabilitation Center, Kiwanis Club of Bassett, Everything Outdoors LLC, Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce and Tacoma Inc., Ace Hardware/Dan and Beth Cahill, Clarke and Jim Beckner, Cunningham Tire of Bassett/David Cunningham, Virginia Museum of Natural History, Norris Funeral Services Inc., Rives S. Brown/Beverly Coleman, and Kings Grant.

More info: Contact Lizz Stanley, tour chairman, 276-252-3009, or Cindy Edgerton, tour co-chairman, 276-732-2784. Reach either by email at martinsville@vagardenweek.org

Tags: Art, Artisan Trails, Bassett Furniture, Bassett, Virginia, Entertainment, Hamlet Vineyards, Henry County, History, Insider's Tips, Local Business, Martinsville, Outdoor Recreation, River, Smith River, Smith River Artisan Trail , ,