Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

September 30, 2012

Good things from the valley in Burke’s Garden

BURKE’S GARDEN, Va. — Saturday morning was moist in Tazewell County, Va., but the sprinkle of rain didn’t stop hundreds of people from turning out to enjoy a day in a garden of earthly delights known as “God’s Thumbprint,” Burke’s Garden, Va.

Packs of vehicles numbering 6 to 12 in follow-the-leader formation twisted up and down the mountain on Route 623 from Gratton, Va., to the highest valley in Virginia. Cars with Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina license plates appeared to know where they were headed, but at least one driver of a car registered in Florida, stopped in the middle of a heavily-traveled road to drink in the beauty that is Burke’s Garden.

“Have you ever seen anything like this before?” Randolph Thompson said as he prepared to carry an old photograph into the community center. “It’s a herd of turkeys that they were driving to the railhead in Wytheville, Va.”

The photo showed several hundred domestic turkeys penned in a long corral. Thompson, 83, said that the photo probably dates back to the 1930s or ‘40s, but he remembered similar scenes, just like visitors on Saturday will remember fields where llamas grazed and where camels stood, apparently impervious to the light mist of early morning rain.

“I’m the fifth generation of my family that lived in the Valley,” Thompson said. “The Tazewell County Fair was held right here years ago. There was a race-way where they raced horses,” he said pointing in the direction of a level stretch about a quarter-mile long. “there was a sign up there that had the word, ‘S-O-C-I-E-T-E’ on it,” he said, spelling out the word. “That’s how it was.”

While he is an absolute newcomer by Burke’s Garden standards, Mike Bell served as chair of the fall festival committee this year. “We bought some property here in 2000, and we moved here in 2007,” Bell, who retired from Target Stores said. While he isn’t from the area, his wife Donna and her family are from Tazewell County. “That’s how we knew about this festival.”

Bell said that he and committee members worked to put forward the historic nature of Burke’s Garden. With about a dozen young members of the Tazewell, Va., based Suzuki Strings of Appalachia playing violins in the background, he said that bringing traditional music to the festival as well as a frontier camp with living historians explaining the area’s past help visitors get a feel for the past.

“There are Native American settlements here that date back 10,000 years, and there was a Native American settlement here in the 1600s,” Bell said. “James Burke was living here, and worked as a guide for James Patterson when he surveyed the area.” Bell said that Burke led the surveying party in a survey of a 20,000 to 30,000 acre tract of land in exchange for the 400 acres in Burke’s Garden. “He didn’t receive the land though,” he said.

Cindy Nicholson, also of the festival committee, was excited to show the history on display in the community center. “We were able to bring the actual Varmint here this year,” she said of a stuffed western coyote that preyed on sheep farmers in the garden. The Varmint killed 410 sheep before the community brought a professional hunter to Burke’s Garden to kill the animal.

According to Nicholson, the hunter dispatched the animal on Feb. 22, 1953, and its funeral attracted a huge crowd of people. “The Varmint is back in Burke’s Garden on loan from the Historic Crab Orchard Museum, courtesy of Charlotte Whited,” Nicholson said.

Nicholson said that more than 60 vendors participated in the 2012 festival. Venues throughout the valley were packed with people and the normally quiet scenic byway was jammed with traffic. Good things came from the valley on Saturday.

— Contact Bill Archer at

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