One of my earliest and fondest childhood memories is sitting by the fireplace in my grandparents’ farmhouse, watching my grandmother’s skilled fingers creating what would become an heirloom patchwork quilt. This may explain why I so enjoy visiting the Johnson Farm.
The Johnson Farm, located at the Peaks of Otter, is one of the most fun excursions your family can take along the Blue Ridge Parkway. In addition to a nice walk through a mixed-hardwood forest of the Southern Appalachian Mountains, the outing provides insight into the culture and history of the area in which we live, and lets your kids experience the games and lives of the children of yesteryear.
The 2.1-mile circuit trail begins at the visitor center and passes through a meadow with views of the rocky summit of Flat Top, the Peaks of Otter’s highest point, before coming to the farm complex. Interpretive ranger Tony Meyer told me the farm was occupied from 1854 to the early 1940s and has been restored by the park service as to how it would have appeared in the 1930s. She also explained that the rambling two-story farmhouse started out as a four-room log cabin, and that the garden maintained by the park service contains the varieties of tobacco, corn, other vegetables and spices used by the Johnson family.
Here’s where the fun part comes in. Depending on the season and which interpreter is on duty when you visit, you may be invited to plant, weed or harvest the garden. Or you may learn how to carve a gourd and work a cider press. The kids can play a game of lawn darts – fashioned out of a corn cob and real turkey feathers and not molded plastic – make a corn husk doll, or roll a wooden barrel stave hoop. It’s here that you can also learn the origin of a phrase you have probably heard all of your life: “Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite!”
On special occasions, usually on a national holiday such as Labor Day, period-dressed interpreters and volunteers may let you join in stirring a huge pot of simmering apple butter, cook something on the wood-burning kitchen stove or learn how residents of the farm worked at the Hotel Mons located close to where the present-day Peaks of Otter Lodge is situated. There is often a group of musicians providing the lively sounds of old-time string-band music.
Interpreters are usually on duty daily from late May into late October. Call 540-586-4496 to determine if someone will be there when you visit – and be sure to ask them to let you add a few of your own stitches to one of the patchwork quilts that are always being created inside the farmhouse.
Drive I-81 north from Roanoke, take Exit 162, follow U.S. 11 into Buchanan, bear right onto VA 43 and follow it to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Travel northward on the parkway and turn left into the visitor center parking area in 4.9 miles. (Or for the scenic route, take the parkway north from its crossing of U.S. 460 east of Roanoke.)