From Rocky Mount, I headed into Floyd County, Virginia to Apple Ridge Farm, a former dairy farm with 250 apple trees. The farm was purchased by John R.F. Lewis and incorporated as a non-profit in 1978 as an education and retreat center for inner city youths. Lewis, a black educator, has transformed the farm into a national treasure that has helped 70,000 children over the last 40 years. The rustic design of the buildings, many of them wooden, has the look of an old Scout camp. There’s the massive Spangler Pavilion, usually rented out for weddings, a “real” swimming pool (the deep end is ten feet), and a high tech classroom for the kids that is powered by solar panels and a wind turbine.
Located deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains, one first notices the turkey vultures circling in the sky. These graceful birds glide high and low in search of fresh carcasses below. The surrounding forests are inhabited by small bears (not dangerous, I was told), an occasional (but very rare) black mountain lion, foxes, and plenty of deer. It was hunting season when I arrived at the Farm, so when I was shown my Apple Ridge Caboose B & B Car, I was informed that if I wanted to hike in the woods I should wear orange if I didn’t follow the proscribed trails surrounding the three Caboose “apartments,” (all former Norfolk-Richmond caboose cars). Hiking outside the marked margins meant that you risked encountering hunters and bears.
I was assigned Caboose #3, a red caboose recently refurbished to accommodate overnight guests. “Cute” doesn’t begin to describe this cozy space with a miniature refrigerator, microwave, coffee bar, Futon sofa, a doll house sized dining room table and a large bathroom with an easy- to- work shower. The Caboose apartments are situated on a section of railroad track and are located up a hill that is slightly apart from the rest of the Farm. There are no TV’s in the Cabooses so I was glad I brought along books. The mini-refrigerator was adequately stocked with muffins, yogurt, juice, a diet Coke, bagels and a number of complimentary quiche dishes provided by Igne, Apple Farm’s Director, who gave me a tour of the encampment when I first arrived.
The staff of Apple Farm introduced me to the dog Copper, possibly the friendliest dog in the Northern Hemisphere. This handsome copper colored Lab obviously comes from good stock.
“Don’t be surprised if you wake up in the morning and find Copper sleeping outside your Caboose. Don’t worry, he won’t go inside. He respects boundaries,” I was told. I’m not one of those people who do somersaults every time they meet a nice dog (no face licking, please), but it didn’t take me long to like Copper, who would run up to me from out of nowhere, tail wagging, intelligent eyes alert, as if we were old friends. Copper followed me on my first day at the Farm, obediently stopping and waiting while I checked a text or made a quick call.
Hang around a good dog long enough and you’re soon talking to them as if they were human. I told Copper that I wasn’t going to be hanging at the Farm that day but that I’d be heading into the town of Floyd in the rental car. There were several things I had to check out in Floyd, such as the Floyd Country Store, a store called The Republic of Floyd and a couple restaurants. Of course, the best way to get to know a new place is by walking around and mixing with the general population.
In last week’s Free Press piece on Rocky Mount, I recounted how a young woman named Autumn from The Early Inn told me how she thought that Floyd was ‘heaven on earth.’ I’m always curious to see what other people mean when they compare a city or town to ‘heaven.’ Floyd is ten miles away from the Farm; to get there you have to drive on winding rural roads that take you into the heart of the Blue Ridge countryside. I was afraid of getting lost the way I got lost years ago in a rental car in the mountains of Austria when I nearly took a wrong turn and wound up in Czechoslovakia. I didn’t get lost, as it turns out, but made my way into Floyd, amazed to find it similar looking to any small town near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. No matter where you travel in the United States these days, all the small, remote towns seem to have the same generic look.
Driving into the center of Floyd, the town’s uniqueness come to light; in some ways it reminded me of parts of Denver, Colorado in the 1970s. Parking is easy in Floyd and the drivers are polite as they seem to be in the entire Blue Mountain region: no honking, no road rage, no muffler noise pollution, and certainly no ATVs or dirt bikes.
In the 1970s and 80s, Floyd attracted back-to-the-land types, hippies and Whole Earth Catalog devotees interested in organic farming, herbal remedies, hand crafted jewelry, pottery, and good coffee. Politically, the residents are fiercely independent and not party-line establishment people. The town voted overwhelmingly for Bernie Sanders over Joe Biden in the Virginia Democratic primary. In 2016, 66% of Blue Ridge Mountain voters voted for Donald Trump. Previously, Republicans in the area were Ron Paul supporters. Ninety six percent of Floyd residents are white; 2 percent black.
In 1861, the town of Floyd was divided on the issue of secession with some residents opting to remain loyal to the United States, but after the secession vote on May 23, 1861, the vast majority of Floyd residents embraced the new Confederate government —as John F. Kennedy would say—“with vigor.”
The Floyd Country Store is well known for its Friday Night Jamboree where you can listen (and sometimes dance) to Gospel, old-time bluegrass bands and traditional Appalachian music. During the warmer months a number of bands play on the streets outside the Floyd store. The multi-purpose store is also a restaurant, a café, a country music store and a music school. American roots music—fiddle and banjo dance tunes-- can also be found on the so called Crooked Road (Franklin County) with multiple music events featured nightly at many different venues.
Walking around Floyd, one is made aware that the town’s counter cultural legacy has been commercialized to some degree. (Much to my surprise and delight, I spotted a small Confederate War memorial that the Cancel Culture people hadn’t managed to destroy. ) To experience Old Time Floyd or the authentic old town before the town got popular, you have to visit in the mornings when the old timers or long term inhabitants are out on the streets in force playing banjos or engaged in flat dancing.
This is what I learned after conversing with two construction workers at the Apple Farm. Both men were working on a small community house for the B & B Cabooses when I stopped by and introduced myself. I had just parked the car near my #3 red Caboose when I heard hammering and sawing inside the unfinished house. One of the men introduced himself and told me right away that he and his co-worker were Jehovah’s Witnesses and native Virginians. I mentioned that I had just been to Floyd and they asked me what I thought of it. I said I liked it and that it reminded me of Boulder, Colorado, another former hippie town that, once it was “discovered,” became an expensive and elite town.
“People outside the state are attracted to Floyd because it is so beautiful, but once they get here they start complaining that the town doesn’t have the amenities that their home town had, and then they try to reshape Floyd into their old hometown,” the contractor said. “To see the real Floyd, you have to go in the morning. The summer and autumn around here are great. Floydfest, the big music festival in July, attracts thousands of people from all over the world. Floydfest is what drew me to the Floyd area in the first place….”
My conversation with the contractor occurred on my last night at Apple Farm. In the meantime, I had to deal with a dire weather report that had 50 mph-plus winds due to sweep into the Farm area. It so happened that the deadly tornados that had so devastated Kentucky had occurred the day before.
Before the high winds and rains moved into the area, I asked the men if my Caboose would remain stable should the worst happen.
“You’re in a fortress,” the contractor said.
That proved to be true.
In the morning, Copper ran up to Caboose #3 to say his good-byes. By that time the sun was out and the skies were clear.
Apple Ridge Farm
9230 Pine Forest Rd NE, Copper Hill, VA 24079