Parallel Cities: A Promise for the Future

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

One good opportunity deserves another and I have certainly been privileged to experience two grand history tours recently.

I took a walking tour of Main Street in Danville, Virginia. Danville, population a little over 42,000 and an independent city under Virginia law, sits on the Dan River.

It all seemed so familiar to me as I looked at the tobacco and textile warehouses, with an historic train depot serving what used to be a major railroad hub. On Main Street were Victorian and antebellum homes built by the tobacco barons, many of which are in various states of rehabilitation and restoration.

The architecture is very similar to homes in Poplar Bluff’s on Park, Cherry, Vine, Cynthia, Kinzer, and, of course, Main which survived the 1927 tornado.

I felt at home immediately.

There were so many similarities to Poplar Bluff. While Danville’s growth and industry were tobacco and textiles, ours were lumber and lumber products from the swamps and hills, the Dalton adding machine factory, brick and tile kilns, and the tremendous growth of railroads and later agriculture.

Danville’s tours began at the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History. Originally, it was a private residence (Sutherlin Home), and then the public library in the early 20th century through the 1970s. In fact, this is where Jefferson Davis spent his last night as president of the Confederacy. There was a focus on Main Street, one on the riverfront, and another on the professional class African-American families’ homes. The latter I would equate to our Garfield Historic District. Part of the tour included entry into a private home. The owner of which, Paul Liepe, has done a near-complete restoration, and calls his family stewards of the home. He stated, “We have been blessed and we can give back to Danville.”

My tour guide, Joyce Wilburn, was knowledgeable and exuded her love of the community and its commitment to maintaining the town’s history, alongside its need for modern growth and economic development.

For Danville, this has been particularly important since 2008. At this time there was the financial fallout of banks and investments but additionally for tobacco states, the tobacco settlements and loss of sales in tobacco markets.

Danville made a commitment much earlier, beginning in 1974, to support its historic roots, and in making this commitment, set the stage for its historic districts to become a part of economic recovery. This is not to say, it is any easier, or that they have all the resources they need to keep it moving forward, but they have the momentum maintaining their community.

Sir Isaac Newton had much to say about momentum, “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.”

This brings me back to Poplar Bluff. Our museums and historic sites, with a downtown, and many historic homes with architectural significance are much like Danville’s.

Ours is crying to be exploited and recognized for the gems that they are. Events such as the Poplar Bluff Museum’s Night at the Museum, the many art exhibits at the Margaret Harwell Art Museum, our historic train depots, the Rodgers Theatre, Wheatley School, Rattler’s Grocery, Claudia House and our churches are significant for our future. The Magical History Tour highlighted these aspects of our community.

We need to become the objects in motion and continue to support all we have to offer. There are many volunteers who make this possible and more are needed. Contact your museums, the depots, the library, historic sites — ask how you can make a commitment to preserve and grow our community and make it a destination for living, business, and culture.

Note: Danville’s public library got its start with the support of the Wednesday Afternoon Literary Club, much like Poplar Bluff’s started with the Poplar Bluff Bay View Reading Club in 1916. The Catholic Church is Sacred Heart. Forty years ago, I applied for a library reference position at Danville. I love coincidences.


Sue Crites Szostak has been the director of the Poplar Bluff Municipal Library since 2013. She got her first library card at the Poplar Bluff library and did her internship there as well. She has worked in libraries for 43 years. Contact her at: szostak@poplarbluff.org

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