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Near the Historic Crab Orchard Museum, on the Virginia scenic byway known as the Trail of the Lonesome Pine, the original two-lane U.S. Rts. 19 & 460 intersects at Frog Level with U.S. 16.
Also two-lane, U.S. Rt. 16 takes you through beautiful Thompson Valley and then up and down three mountains past Tannersville to Marion, Virginia. On the map, it seems the shortest way to get from Tazewell to Interstate 81, but the 28-mile drive takes at least an hour.
Here at this crossroad, there are only a few homes within view. Mainly, you see a one-story simple white frame country store that until recently also had gasoline pumps. Its official name is Frog Level Service Station, T. E. Bowling, Jr., Prop.
But this is no typical country service station or store!
Instead, it IS downtown Frog Level, Va., a regular gathering place where local stories of all kinds, not all of them necessarily true, have originated.
It is a nonpartisan town, for in its store’s windows it always displays the posters of the opposing candidates for national, state, and local office, just as soon as someone delivers them.
It is the headquarters of the Frog Level Yacht Club, and sells sweatshirts and T-shirts to prove it. Behind the store, the land drops sharply to a creek basin that is nowadays often dry, sometimes flooded.
Until it removed its gasoline pumps, Frog Level store was the only place in Virginia where one could obtain gasoline and also go indoors to enjoy a glass of cold beer on tap on premises. Only take-out bottled and canned beers are allowed at gasoline stations elsewhere in the Old Dominion. It is still the only place in Virginia able to serve beer without also providing meals. In fact, the store no longer sells canned food.
In the evenings, particularly on weekends, Frog Level draws young local business and professional people together for fellowship and frivolity. Often, they even have out of town guests with them once in awhile.
When entertaining guests from overseas, Tazewell's Rotary Club finds a few of its members willing to take them there on Friday nights. It’s been host to visitors from Russia, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Korea, Australia, and many other faraway places.
During the day, mostly, it is a place for some of the older folk to sit around coffee and tell stories.
In good weather, on Saturday afternoons there is often a group of musicians picking away on their strings, playing whatever music comes to mind. Sometimes, one of the County's excellent barbeque chefs will come by, asking the folks gathered around to sample his latest recipe for barbeque sauce on freshly cooked pork.
To understand the origin of the name "Frog Level," first it is important to know that the west fork of Plum Creek runs its course nearby. It is a small waterway named because of the wild plum trees that grow along its banks. Often, nowadays, it is dry.
Then it is necessary to know that a popular schoolteacher and a writer-storyteller with extraordinary humor lived for years just across the street from "downtown" Frog Level. His name was Jack Witten, often called the professor. He wrote stories of the folks who lived in the Frog Level area for the local weekly paper, and many have recently been printed in a book published by his widow, Mary.
Jack Witten recalls that it was spring, 1933 when he and a friend were fishing on the west fork of Plum Creek. After catching a bounty of red eyes, they started to amble home. But a dense fog arose, a yard tall, covering the entire bottom of the hollow.
"The little frogs I call 'jeeps,' and now and then a big bull frog, which then inhabited the old creek, would give voice," Witten wrote. "I said to Sam, 'We could well call this Frog Level.'"
Not long after, Witten began his column in the weekly paper and called it "Frog Level News."
Because he told stories of the places and folks in the Frog Level area, it became a popular feature of the newspaper, the locally owned Clinch Valley News.
Now the newspaper is merged with the Richlands News-Press, and owned by Media General, Inc. of Richmond. Neither of the two papers reflect the lifestyle and culture that makes Frog Level, Tazewell County, and Southwestern Virginia such an interesting region. (In fact, Frog Level is rarely mentioned unless an accident occurs near the store.)
Frog Level began to take on its identity in the years that ensued Witten's fishing experience in the creek bottom.
In 1975, an official State sign was placed at the approach to this intersection with the legend FROG LEVEL.
Frog Level has been written up by travel writers and folklorists and the walls of the store contain some of these clippings. A local entrepreneur invested in Frog Level Yacht Club t-shirts and sweatshirts, and they seem to sell quite well.
Perhaps the next step is to have the place designated a state and national landmark. It’s not clear what kind of history has been made there, but Frog Level is certainly unique in Virginia. If it were a registered landmark, would folks still feel comfortable there of a Saturday afternoon?
A Native American rarity in the eastern United States
Down through the centuries, before written alphabets were in use, people found ways to communicate with one another. The Egyptians had their hieroglyphics and some cultures had Runic depictions — drawings that resembled what their artists wanted to communicate. Even today, the alphabets used in some cultures resemble pictures — notably those in the Orient. Folk art being sold in Mongolia, for example, bears some drawings almost identical to the Paintlick figures.
Petroglyphs are commonly found in onetime Indian territories in the western United States. Sometimes these are etchings in rock, and other times, they are painted. Most often, historians say, these permanent depictions had religious significance. Some found in West Virginia are believed to be of Celtic origin, rather than Indian.
In Tazewell County, in 1886, an explorer-scientist came across the Paint Lick petroglyphs about nine miles southwest of the Town of Tazewell. Their existence was reported by the Smithsonian in an 1888 annual report. They are the only such historical documents known to exist in Virginia, and one of the few east of the Mississippi River. Some in West Virginia are now thought to be of Celtic, not Indian, origin.
Wolves, deer, elk, eagles, humans, and other symbols are painted on the side of a cliff looking to the west-southwest. No one has yet been able to decipher them.
However, there is speculation that they were intended to convey a military message to traveling Indians. Cherokees living in the county were under constant attack from Shawnees from the Ohio River region.
The Paint Lick petroglyphs are on privately owned land and it has been the owner’s practice to restrict public access to them.
One, Maiden Spring Creek, appears to originate from within a cave. It is in the Cove community, a region of rolling hills and valleys that served as the setting for the 50th anniversary Lassie film series. The Cove contains several farm homes from the 18th and 19th centuries, some of which are still in the hands of their original families.
Near the Cove is a crossroads called Liberty, where at one time there was a well known resort community. It was almost all washed away in a 1901 flood. A few historic buildings remain, however.
In Tazewell County where the Clinch River has its origins, it is a meandering stream with sandy banks for much of its journey to the southwest. As it prepares to leave the County near Richlands, it becomes wider and flows more swiftly. At some places along its course to the Tennessee River, it is raging and dangerous, the source of floods and damage to bridges and roads.
In the Wardell community, at the western edge of the county, Scottish Highland cattle are now being raised and their healthful meat may be purchased at the Wardell Store, a 19th century "country store" that also serves light meals. The most popular are the sandwiches of the locally cured Wardell Ham. Wardell Hams are available on order, and are popular during the holidays. The Wardell Store is also called the Highland Bull Pub, and was a setting in the 50th anniversary version of the Lassie motion picture series.
The lengthy Abbs Valley, in the northern region of the county, is notable for its place in the county's horse breeding history. It is named for Absalom Looney, the first known frontiersman to use the county as a base for hunting and trapping. Here, the Moore family raised horses to be sold to Kentuckians who were developing their immense farms in the Lexington and Louisville areas. Some of the finest early race horses were bred in Abbs Valley. The Moore family, an early settler of the county, was annihilated by raiding Shawnees and their first home was burned. Two young members of the family were captured and taken to Michigan to serve as slaves to the Shawnees. They later made their way back to Abbs Valley and resumed farming.
Early 20th century mining camp towns are no longer bustling. Amonate, Bishop, and Jewell Ridge are among them, and provide an interesting view of company towns built by the mining corporations. All three are being considered for designation as National Historic Landmark Districts.