There is a tiny map dot located alongside the New River in the Southwest Virginia county of Grayson — but only on really good maps!
With a population of 469 souls, Fries, Virginia, may not be the most famous locality in Appalachia and undoubtedly the vast majority of unsuspecting individuals whose fingers glide across this town’s printed name are guilty of mispronouncing it (it’s “Freeze”); however, for those who actually take the time to get to know this “New Appalachia” community, Fries is a very special place that packs a big punch.
Self-branded as the place you’ll “Come for a vacation and stay for a lifetime…” it’s easy to understand why visitors to this Virginia town may be tempted to extend their visit for a few extra decades.
As the old real estate adage goes, “Location, location, location” and Fries’ location could not be any better for someone who loves outdoor adventure — the town is literally built onto the side of a mountain overlooking the tranquil headwaters of the New River.
Built by wealthy North Carolina cotton mill owner Col. Francis Henry Fries, the town sprang up around a hydroelectric dam that powered a cotton mill and soon became a full-service company owned town. By 1901, the New River Train was extended to the mill site and in the following year Fries, Virginia, was officially incorporated.
In just a matter of months, around 300 houses, a post office, a church and a company commissary were wedged into the surrounding hillside.
With a Norfolk & Western railway spur known as the Cripple Creek Extension now linking the community to the main line, the cotton mill was ready for business and began operation in February 1903.
The mill would continue operation in the small community for the next 86 years until the factory was shuttered in the late-1980s leaving 1,700 individual without a job.
These were dark days for the community and many feared that the once thriving Virginia town would be reduced to a ghostly image of its former self.
Fortunately, for the town which employees only a part-time town manager, community leaders have invested decades seeking to reinvent the town — while at the same time returning to its roots.
“Fries has experienced the same difficulties as so many other towns in Southwest Virginia,” said Mayor Richard Farmer, who went on to stated, “We’ve been trying to go back and find out what we can do that will bring people in and allow us to connect with our heritage.”
The first move in this direction came in 1987 when the Commonwealth of Virginia acquired the abandoned 57-mile railway line of the Cripple Creek Extension as a donation from the Norfolk-Southern Corporation and attempted to do something exceptional: convert the former rail into a trail.
Volunteers worked feverishly, transforming the overgrown line into a linear “trail park”, the first of its kind in Virginia, and in May 1987, The New River Trail State Park opened.
The trail, which begins in Fries, has been expanded and now runs alongside the New River north, through the Virginia communities of Galax, Ivanhoe, Austinville, Draper and Pulaski.
In summer months, the town has become a haven for outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy kayaking, canoeing and fishing the New River, as well as birding, biking, horseback riding and camping along the New River Trail.
With the fog rising off the river in the early morning and Bald Eagles soaring in the afternoon sun, Fries is quickly becoming one of Appalachia’s most tranquil and photogenic destinations.
However, it is the music that has given this once struggling community its place on the big stage.
Beginning in the 1980s and continuing to the present, the community has been gathering together on Thursday evenings to enjoy informal bluegrass jam sessions where anyone with an instrument is welcomed to join in a circle to pick, grin and play pure Appalachian mountain music, while onlookers clog, dance or sit and enjoy the music you can feel in your chest… and best of all, it’s completely free of charge to the public!
When asked about the importance of bluegrass music to the community, local resident Karen Snyder, answered, “Bristol says they are the birthplace of country music — I hate to spoil their sayings, but country music started here in Fries…” and she may be right, some four years prior to the legendary “Bristol Sessions” which claim to be the starting point of recorded country music, Grayson County native and Fries millworker Henry Whitter was traveling to New York City to record Appalachian Country Music — making him the first truly country singer to record.
In his first session, he recorded nine songs, including “Wreck On the Southern Old 97” coupled with “Lonesome Road Blues”. The recording was released in January 1924 and saw great success, giving major record labels an incentive to record and promote country music.
While residents of Bristol and Fries debate who was first in country music, one thing that is not up for debate is the dedication this New River mountain community has for its music.
In the mid-1990s the old theater was completely renovated to become the site of the weekly jam sessions and the results speak for themselves.
“We have people attend our jams from all over the place, all the states as well as different countries, England, Australia, even Japan,” said Gene Adkins.
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