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Visiting the Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Museum in Wytheville, VA

Learn about visiting the only museum in the country dedicated to a First Lady's birthplace.

By Jason Barnette | Travel writer and photographer with 15+ years of road tripping experience

This post may contain affiliate links. Read my Affiliate Disclosure here.

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Edith Bolling Wilson is sometimes referred to as America’s first female president. The headstrong First Lady was historically significant and deeply controversial, forever changing the role of First Ladies. And her story started in a small rural town in Southwest Virginia.

Wytheville is the only town in America named after Virginia lawyer and signer of the Declaration of Independence, George Wythe. Ironically, he never visited the town. But you should.

The Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Museum is the only museum in the country preserving the birthplace of a First Lady. And when you visit the museum, I know precisely where you should stay and the one meal everyone must have in the small town.

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Who was Edith Bolling Wilson?

The Bollings were a prominent family tracing their roots to the first settlers to arrive in the Virginia Colony. Before the Civil War, William Bolling owned a large plantation operated by enslaved people. After releasing the enslaved, he struggled to pay his tax bills and was forced to sell the family plantation – a familiar story in the years after the Civil War.

The family moved into a two-story brick building in Wytheville, Virginia. Bolling began a new career as a lawyer and eventually became the circuit court judge. In 1872, Edith Bolling, the seventh child of William and Sarah Bolling, was born.

Did You Know | The first time I visited the Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Museum, my jaw dropped. Edith Bolling’s genealogy was displayed on a wall, and I realized she was my 3rd cousin, 6x removed. My 8th great-grandmother was her 2nd great-grandmother, Mary Curd.

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In 1896, Edith married Norman Galt, a prominent jeweler in Washington, D.C. When Galt unexpectedly died in 1908, Edith was left with a lucrative jewelry business, a house in the nation’s capital, and the freedom to travel.

In March 1915, the widow Edith Bolling Galt was introduced to a widower, President Woodrow Wilson, whose wife had died a year earlier. By the end of the year, the two were married at Edith’s home in Washington, D.C.

Edith Bolling Wilson is the only First Lady born in the southern Appalachian Mountains.

As First Lady, she was the first to visit Europe, making the trip twice with the president. She elevated the role of First Lady on the international stage, lending political power to the role. Her most controversial time began in 1919 after the president suffered a paralyzing stroke. Edith took over several executive duties and acted as her husband’s steward, determining what information and people made it to his bedside.

Read More | How to Visit the 39 Presidential Gravesites in the U.S.

After leaving office, Woodrow and Edith Wilson lived in a mansion on S Street in Washington, D.C. Woodrow died in 1924, and Edith died in 1961. They are the only presidential couple interred at the National Cathedral.

In 1963, the Woodrow Wilson House opened the historic site for public tours.

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Museum’s History

The Bolling Building was built in the 1840s as two buildings. The two-story building had commercial spaces on the first floor and dwellings on the second. The buildings share a single parapet taller than the gabled roof. A row of shutters near the parapet’s top creates the illusion of a third floor.

The commercial space served several businesses throughout the 1900s. The upstairs apartment was reconfigured and renovated time and again.

In 1989, Bill and Farron Smith bought the Bolling Building. The couple wanted to preserve the First Lady’s birthplace. After years of planning and renovating, the Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Museum opened in 2008.

It’s the only historic site preserving a First Lady’s birthplace in the country and one of only eight historic sites dedicated to a First Lady.

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Visiting the Museum

The first floor of the Bolling Building includes Skeeter’s World Famous Hot Dogs (more on that later), The Grind Coffee Shop, and the museum. The museum’s collection includes hundreds of documents and artifacts belonging to Edith Bolling Wilson. The artifacts are displayed in exhibits around the one-room museum.

The exhibits include items like the Wilson family Bible, a signature stamp, and letters written by Edith Bolling Wilson. One curious item was a vibrant red wooden chair – this was Edith’s childhood chair! A ten-minute orientation film introduces visitors to Edith’s childhood in Wytheville and life as First Lady.

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The museum offers guided tours of the Bolling Family home. The upstairs dwelling is unrestored, offering an intriguing but sad look at the historic space. It’s interesting to see the original wallpaper and hardwood floors, knowing this is precisely how it looked when the last person lived there.

But the upstairs dwelling is in bad condition. I saw exposed inner walls, a walled-up fireplace, and peeling paint. It doesn’t do the First Lady justice, but it’s not from a lack of trying from the museum.

Accessibility | Unfortunately, the second-floor birthplace home is not accessible.

Maintaining and renovating an 1840s building is not cheap or easy. I hope the museum can secure funding soon to preserve this unique and valuable historic site. It would be wonderful to see the dwelling restored to its 1870s appearance when Edith Bolling was born.

Admission | Free
Address | 145 East Main Street, Wytheville, VA 24382
Phone | 276-223-3484
Website | www.edithbollingwilson.org

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Things to Know Before You Go

I know you’re ready to pack a bag and hit the road to visit this incredible historic site. But before you go, there are a few things you need to know.

  • There is no admission fee to visit the museum or tour the birthplace home
  • However, they do accept donations – I recommend $10 per person, a comparable price for touring other such birthplaces
  • Angled parking along Main Street makes it convenient to park in front of the museum
  • Parking in Wytheville is free
  • Plan to spend at least an hour, but you may be there for two hours if you take the guided tour of the birthplace home

Although the historic birthplace home and museum are the main attractions, I recommend everyone visit Skeeter’s World Famous Hot Dogs for lunch.

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In 1925, E.N. Umberger opened a general store in a different building on Main Street. In the 1940s, he moved the store to its current location in the corner of the Bolling Building. With the move came a change to the business – he began selling hot dogs.

E.N. Umberger, Jr.’s mother affectionally called him Skeeter. After a few years of running the family store, the locals began calling it Skeeter’s and the delicious food Skeeter Dogs. Eventually, the general store was closed, and the hot dogs became the primary service.

The first time I visited Skeeter’s, I ordered two hot dogs. The secret to the incredibly savory hot dogs is the steamed buns. The buns were so soft they melted in my mouth. Traditionally, the hot dogs are topped with homemade chili and cheese.

I captured a few photos and posted them on my Facebook page, tagging the restaurant. One day, I received a message from Farron Smith – the current owner. She was ashamed of the photo! She explained that the hot dogs were sloppy and should have been served on a plate. She invited me to return to Wytheville, have two more complimentary Skeeter Dogs adequately prepared, and capture more photos.

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How to use this map | Click the icon in the top-left corner to open the Map Legend, then click on any of the legend items to display more information. If you have a Google account, click the (very faint) star at the end of the map’s name to save this map to your account, then access the map from your smartphone during your trip.

Getting to the Museum

Wytheville is conveniently located at the intersection of Interstates 81 and 77, providing easy access from West Virginia, Northern Virginia, Northeast Tennessee, and Charlotte.

Three interstate exits lead to downtown Wytheville. But, regardless of which direction you’re traveling, I recommend taking Exit 73 on the north side of town. Drive along U.S. Highway 11 past Wytheville Community College and the Log House 1776 restaurant. You’ll get a great view of the town from this direction.

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Where to Stay

In 2014, the Bolling Wilson Hotel opened across the street from the Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Museum. The four-story boutique hotel features 30 guest rooms, Graze on Main restaurant, and a rooftop bar with spectacular views of the Appalachian Mountains.

Read my review of the Bolling Wilson Hotel or plan your stay now at Booking.com or Expedia.com

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Do you have a question about travel or road trips? Are you a CVB or DMO interested in working with me? I typically respond to emails within 24 hours. Quicker if you include a good riddle.
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