'The Trail of the Lonesome Pine' outing leads to jury duty, family history, new memories

J. H. Osborne • Aug 10, 2016 at 8:34 AM

Twice in my life now, I’ve served on a jury. And it happened just a few months apart.

I served as an alternate on a Sullivan County grand jury, here in my home county.

And then, just months later — a year ago this month —  I was summoned to serve on a jury in Big Stone Gap, Va., where my sister and I had driven our mother for just the day to celebrate Mom’s birthday.

The surprise of me serving as a juror in a murder trial just added to the fun we had. It was Mom’s first visit to Big Stone in many years. The town did not play a frequent role in her childhood, which was spent on the far side of neighboring Lee County, Va. — but it played a starring one that has kept it close to her heart to this day: it is where her parents, Null and Pearl (Johnson) Wallen first met.

Big Stone Gap has long been known as the birthplace of a famed love story, which first came to widespread attention in 1908.

That’s the year noted local author John Fox Jr.’s novel “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” was published. Early last month, “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” — the official outdoor drama of the commonwealth of Virginia, based on Fox’s novel — opened for its 53rd consecutive season,which runs through Sept. 3.

And, of course, more recently Adriana Trigiani’s novel “Big Stone Gap” and the film version of it brought new attention to both the town and the outdoor drama, an important part of the love story’s plot.

That’s why we decided a drive to Big Stone would be a good adventure for Mom’s birthday last year. For several year’s she’d talked about going to see “the drama.” She’d never been. The release of the film version of Trigiani’s “Big Stone Gap” re-piqued Mom’s interest in visiting the town and seeing “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine.”

As we drove up (our diversion for the trip being a stop at the Hob-Nob), Mom talked about how she had since childhood thought fondly of Big Stone Gap because it was the scene of the love story that brought her to be. Neither of her parents was from Big Stone. In fact, both spent their earliest years in southern Lee County. Both lost a parent very early in life: grandmother Pearl’s father died, after which she lived for a time with her Willis (maternal) grandparents; grandfather Null’s mother died before he was 2 years old, and while still a boy he began working for various farmers throughout the community — doing what he could to earn what he could and aiming to buy his own farm someday.

Mother does not know exactly when their chance encounter in Big Stone occurred or how the courtship progressed or for how long. She is the youngest of the 10 children of Pearl and Null. She has only one living sibling, her sister Mary Ruth (Roller), who long ago moved to Indianapolis. They talk a lot by phone. Our family history, as is often unfortunately the case, has largely followed the oral tradition. Stories are told, not so much written. If the next generation doesn’t take an interest soon enough, details can become murky or forgotten. What Mom can remember of the story of her parents’ first meeting is this:

My grandmother Pearl had been living in town with her maternal Aunt Min (Minnie Willis Giles), going to school, aiming to finish her education to the level required to become a teacher herself. My grandfather Null had taken a job “working for the railroad” on a construction project. One day, as he and his work buddies ate from their lunch buckets, a group of pretty girls passed nearby.

Pointing out Pearl as the prettiest girl he’d ever seen, Null declared to his coworkers, “I’m going to marry that girl.”

And all but he laughed. And laughed. And laughed. Out of his league, they basically proclaimed.

But he proved them wrong. My grandmother did finish her schooling. But ultimately she accepted my grandfather’s marriage proposal — ending her teaching career before it got started (back then, female teachers were not allowed to be married). They started their married life back in the area of Lee County from which they both originally came. Their first child was born in a rented house. But by the time the second came along, Popie (as we called him) had reached his goal of farm ownership. The rest of the children, right down to my mother, Wanda, were born there. The farm is in the Flower Gap community, so close to the Tennessee state line that in Mom’s early childhood it had a postal address of “Kyles Ford, Tenn.”

Today, Big Stone Gap doesn’t seem “a far piece” from my mother’s homeplace. But as she was growing up in the 1930s, it was. My grandmother got to go there along with other family and community members once a year: to attend the “singing convention.” The Tri-State Singing Convention takes place in Big Stone in June each year. (This was its 96th year. Mom just told me this part last night, only because I asked questions.) Each year my grandmother looked forward to the singing convention, for enjoyment of the gospel music and fellowship, of course — but also because it was her once-a-year chance to visit with Aunt Min. Mother’s Uncle Harmon Wallen, who lived not far from his half-brother Null, had a log truck. He’d take as many folks as he could haul, in the truck bed, to the singing convention each year. Mother (being the youngest) and my grandmother got to ride in the truck cab with Uncle Harmon and his wife, Aunt Lizzie. Once they arrived at the singing convention, as lunchtime approached, Mom and my grandmother would get a ride over to Aunt Min’s house. It was there, Mom said with a light in her eyes that clearly showed how she relished the memory, “that I first had iced tea!”

Over the years of my own parents’ married life and church activities, I can recall attending the singing convention at least once or twice and later of hearing them say they’d gone this or that year.

But Mom hadn’t been back to Big Stone in years and she’d never seen “the drama.”

So as Mom’s birthday approached last August, my sister Pamela drove up from Knoxville one day and we took care of that. And we loved every minute of it. A surprise highlight: a key scene is a courtroom trial — and the 12 jurors were selected at random from the audience. I was chosen and ordered to the stage. So I technically have appeared in the official outdoor drama of the commonwealth of Virginia.

If you haven’t been to “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” go. You still have time this year. And if you haven’t asked your older family members every question you can ever imagine wanting to know about your family — the details that make life interesting and sometimes provide a clearer understanding of what has made your family what it is today — ask them. Ask them as soon as you can. It’s easy to know when the outdoor drama’s season will draw to a close. There’s no guarantee how long you’ve got to ask those family questions.

The following is from the outdoor drama’s press releases:

Interwoven with beautiful and yet haunting folk music, the drama is performed live before a magnificent 72-foot panoramic painting of the valley known as Lonesome Cove and is the third longest continually running drama in the United States. It tells a tender love story of June Tolliver, a mountain girl with a beautiful voice, and Jack Hale, a handsome mining engineer from the East. The great boom of the industrial revolution in Southwest Virginia is depicted, when the discovery of coal and iron ore forced the proud mountain people to make drastic changes to their way of life. The story progresses to tell how a little mountain girl is changed through education and exposure to the world outside of her beloved mountains, and how the mountain cultural immersion changes the heart of the engineer. Told with the homespun wit and humor of these Appalachian mountain folk, the story is intermingled with stark tragedy, suspense, feuds, and the final acceptance of the inevitable destiny of all.

The 2016 director for the drama is Dr. Jill Stapleton Bergeron, a native of Yuma, Virginia. Jill is a previous June Tolliver who has gone on to develop an extensive theatre resume, including a previous four-year run as director of the “Trail” and a current University of Tennessee professor of communication studies.

To commemorate the recent passing of Mrs. Barbara Polly, the original June Tolliver for the first five seasons, as well as longtime producer of the drama and president of Lonesome Pine Arts & Crafts Inc., the managing entity of the drama, the 53rd season has been named the 2016 Barbara C. Polly Memorial Season. A special dedication will take place during the season in memory of Mrs. Polly, who gave so much of her time and devotion to her beloved drama and the community for nearly 53 years.

“The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” is performed each Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., with pre-show entertainment beginning at 7:15 p.m. Arrive early and visit the June Tolliver House and Folk Art Center museum next door or enjoy food provided on the adjacent Jerome Street by local food vendors.

Ticket prices are $18 for adults, $15 for seniors and active military, $10 for children 12 and under, free for children 5 and under. Groups of 10 or more can receive discounted tickets by calling the box office to make arrangements.

To make reservations or purchase tickets, please contact the amphitheater box office at (800) 362-0149, or visit www.TrailOfTheLonesomePine.com and select the “box office” link.