The View from My Section – A Father’s Perspective

“You can’t go home again.” ~ Thomas Wolfe

A Salute to Fieldale

My cousin was telling a story that took place in a small mill town where he and my closest family grew up. The town was straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. This tiny custom-made community called Fieldale in Southern Virginia had its own barbershop, salon, grocery store, diner, ice cream and soda shop, drug store, doctor and dentist office, policeman, two community swimming pools, tennis courts, baseball field, park, schools, two churches and even its own inn. The landmark and center of the town was the YMCA, or the “Y” as we called it. Now, you may be thinking this doesn’t sound so small if it has all these places in it. But, if we’re just talking about the main township area and the core mill homes, it’s not much bigger than the typical subdivisions in Forsyth County, and not even as big as the larger ones. So, you can see why this place had a unique appeal. “The Andy Griffith Show” first aired in the 1960s, and it could have just as easily been inspired by Fieldale, Virginia as much as the actual Mount Airy, North Carolina. It even had its own version of Barney Fife.

The story got me thinking back momentarily about life with hitchhikers, leaving doors unlocked, playing in the woods unattended, walking to school and spending most of our free time outdoors. How different the world is now; better in many ways, insofar as comfort goes, but not so good in others. It’s amazing how much things change in a lifetime, “any lifetime.” In other words, people ages 6-10 years apart live in completely different eras in history. 

For instance, in Fieldale, my family bore witness to at least three different eras of life this small town evolved through. The first was at the height of its heyday, when the homes were owned by mill workers who worked at Fieldcrest Mills, which was literally just three streets over. When you think of mill towns, it usually brings to mind a bleak, lifeless community dependent on the factory. Conversely, Fieldale shattered this cliché. 

In the first era, my oldest sister and brother went to Fieldale High. My sister was a cheerleader, and my brother played on the varsity basketball team. My uncle was employed by the school and was also the team coach. They played all their games in, you guessed it, the “Y,” a large, three-story structure that included the gym and locker rooms on the ground floor, a front desk, lounge area, pool tables and ping-pong tables on the second floor as well as steps to a third-floor balcony with seating overlooking the basketball court below. The outside entrance was a giant front porch off the second floor and what seemed like about 50 narrow steps leading sharply upwards to the front door from the sidewalk below. This was where all the action happened – sports, dances and parties for special occasions, and was particularly important as a hangout for young people, both inside and, especially, out. This era included everything you’d expect straight out of the movie Grease, minus the talented singing of course. 

Next was my cousin’s era (also mine). In this era, the high school was now a middle school, and the Y’s court was used mainly for recreation league games, the occasional dances and just a few less holiday parties. The pool and the parking lot, however, were just as popular as they once were for hanging out. All the services were still intact and operating as usual. Fewer new residents worked at the mill by now; they worked in the schools and businesses in the nearby areas. The young people, however, still got their career started by working at the mill which was thriving. 

The town was a great place to grow up. All the amenities a youth of that time needed or wanted were just a few steps down the sidewalk. Everyone lived near each other, went to school together, played, celebrated and grew up together. Bonds were tight. High schoolers were separated now into two different schools, about 10 miles apart, making rivalries fierce. However, when the game was over, they knew they would all be hanging out at the local McDonald’s, or of course, the “Y,” so they’d once again be close friends.

Today, the pools still operate in the summer, but many of the stores, diners and other amenities have long since closed. The middle/high school is now an apartment complex. As for the “Y,” it had become badly worn and in desperate need of repair. Fortunately, thanks to the Fieldale Heritage Revitalization Project and a generous $1 million Community Development Block Grant from Virginia in November 2022, the heart and soul of the community thrives once more.

Though it’s not the same as it once was, and newcomers will likely see an aged, lackluster, mill town – the old-timers will always remember it as one of the best places ever to call home

Musical selection of the month: “Never Grow Up (Taylor’s Version)” by Taylor Swift

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