Most area residents are familiar with the Martha Washington Inn, located near Barter Theatre in downtown Abingdon, Virginia. General Francis Preston, hero of the War of 1812, had the building constructed in 1832 for his family of nine children. Over the years, it served as a women’s college, a Civil War hospital and barracks and as an inn for actors and guests of Barter Theatre.
The general built the brick residence at a cost of $15,000. It remained in the Preston family until 1858, when it was sold for $21,000 to the founders of Martha Washington College.
The school offered the following curricula: bookkeeping, shorthand, typewriting; English, history, expression, French, German, fine and industrial arts, home economics, mathematics, science; Latin and Spanish music for piano, pipe organ, violin and voice. Graduation from the standard 4-year high school admitted a student to the junior class, making graduation possible in two years. Completion of two high school years admitted them to the Freshman Class.
During the Civil War, the college served as a training ground for Confederate soldiers, known as the “Washington Mounted Rifles.” The building became affectingly known as “The Martha.” The college, devoted entirely to women, operated for 70 years until finally falling victim to the Great Depression.
In 1935 after passing through various hands, the Martha Washington Inn opened. It has operated ever since in the capacity of a hotel. In 1984, the United Group, an investment group of businessmen, purchased the inn and financed an 8 million dollar renovation. Eleven years later, the property was admitted to the Camberley Collection of historic places. Today, the inn is known as Martha Washington Hotel and Spa.
The architectural integrity of the Martha was preserved from the beginning. The original living room of the Preston family became the main lobby of the inn. One of the original items owned by the family was the Dutch-baroque grandfather clock, which stood over nine feet tall. This beautiful clock, which was shipped from England by one of the Preston daughters, took its rightful place in the East Parlor of the inn.
Some of the famous guests who lodged at the inn included Eleanor Roosevelt, President Harry Truman, Lady Bird Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Elizabeth Taylor. The hotel has also played host to actors performing at the Barter Theatre, which is across the street from the inn.
I located four advertisements promoting the long vanished school in some old newspapers dated from 1900 to 1911. For brevity, I have paraphrased the comments.
July 12, 1900: Martha Washington College is the oldest female college in Southwest Virginia and has made a glorious record in the education of the daughters of our immediate section and of the South. Last year was one of the most successful it has ever enjoyed, boasting the largest number of boarding pupils in its history.
August 24, 1905: Martha Washington College and Sullins College, located respectively in Abingdon, Virginia and Bristol, Tennessee are 15 miles apart and are under the same management through courses in literature, music, art and elocution. The facilities have steam heat, electric lights and bathrooms on all floors with hot and cold water.
July 13, 1906: The Martha Washington College campus is on the Norfolk and Western Railway, being located 290 miles southwest of Richmond, 93 miles from Roanoke and 14 miles from Bristol.
August 20, 1911: The college opens September 13, 1911. For 50 years, this college has stood in the forefront of the colleges of the South with an ideal climate, altitude at 2,175 feet, delightful home life and a health record unsurpassed.
A drive by the Inn today reveals a facility as beautiful as it was then.