In the Alleghany Highlands area of the Virginia Mountains Region, off I-64 and along the Jackson River, Jeff Stern describes the spirited rebirth of Clifton Forge: “I’ve never seen a community this size do so much so well.”
The town — where Stern is executive director of the reopened Historic Masonic Theatre — boasts a population under 5,000, but has reinvented itself after the downsizing of local industry and the railroad. Local supporters, especially the Alleghany Foundation, get big credit for repurposing an 1892 lumber mill, 1920s hardware store, grocery supplier, and tire plant.
The architectural treasure at the heart of the new community vision is the three-story, 445-seat, 1905 Historic Masonic Theatre, Virginia’s oldest continuously operating theater when it closed temporarily in 1987.
After a $6.9 million painstaking renovation, the storied Masonic has launched a full schedule of performances. Its top floor (once the meeting hall for the Masonic Order) is a rental venue for conferences, reunions, and weddings. The building’s lower area stages smaller performances, and shows from April through October take place in the amphitheater part of the complex.
Stern, who had a long history of theater work before taking his present position, said, “These people don’t think small.”
The 64-year-old Alleghany Highlands Arts Council has always thought big, bringing in world-class performers in a wide variety of genres, ranging from violinist Daniel Heifetz, the Berlin Chamber Orchestra, and the Royal Shakespeare Company to country/rock artist Charlie Daniels and actor Ed Asner.
Crossing adjacent streets, I visited the town’s two other mainstays of the arts scene — the Clifton Forge School of the Arts and the Alleghany Highlands Arts and Crafts Center.
The two-story school — the dream of three Clifton Forge women — continues to expand its offerings in music and art. Opportunities abound for hands-on learning in areas as diverse as stained glass, blacksmithing, and knitting. After enjoying the gallery’s large exhibit of Henrietta Crandall’s paintings, I purchased a fine needlework piece and art supplies in the school’s shop.
Moving on to the 33-year-old Alleghany Highlands Arts and Crafts Center, I discovered it to be a downtown retail linchpin and exhibition space with an impressive range of local artists’ works.
“Some of our exhibits offer comfort and feel familiar,” said Nancy Newhard-Farrar, the center’s executive director. “Some are more adventurous and push the limits. There’s room for both.”
It proved to be a great place to satisfy my 2017 gift shopping, with locally made jewelry, ceramics, and paintings.
Upcoming festivals showcase the arts
The free sixth annual Alleghany Highlands Heritage Day and C&O Railway Festival is scheduled for June 3, 10:00am–5:00pm.
Town-wide venues will celebrate heritage with continuous live music and arts and crafts. The event includes more than 80 artisan demonstrations and displays ranging from hooked rugs, fiber arts, and vintage quilts to pottery, woodworking, glassmaking, blacksmithing, and apple butter- and soap-making.
A dozen food vendors will offer Celtic, German, Native American, English, African-American, and other types of cuisine. Children’s activities, including miniature train rides at the C&O Railway Heritage Center, run throughout the day. The C&O center also features old rail cars and rail history exhibits, and a gift shop you won’t want to miss.
The Cork and Pork Festival in nearby Covington, June 23–24 — the same weekend as the Jackson River Scenic Trail Marathon — also features arts and crafts displays and demonstrations.
Also in Covington, you’ll find arts and crafts at the 39th annual Streetscene on Aug. 12. And, you can enjoy the “LOVEwork” piece anytime at Humpback Bridge, a one-of-a-kind covered bridge and National Historic Landmark.
Insider tip: For a free, 45-minute tour of the Historic Masonic Theatre, register online at
Make time for dinner at Cat & Owl, a10-minute drive to Low Moor; there, I met folks who drove an hour for the great steak and seafood. And, during a Penny’s Diner’s breakfast, I felt like a welcome visitor as I chatted with a conductor and engineer for CSX Transportation’s “mountain rail line” that passes through Clifton Forge.
For more information:
Alleghany Highlands Tourism: visitalleghanyhighlands.com