So a friend of mine in Roanoke, a former journalist named Dan Smith, recently compiled and published online his list of the most famous people from Roanoke. It got me thinking; who are the most famous people from my hometown, Christiansburg?
He was able to find 100 people that he felt qualified. I hoped to find 10. Here’s what I came up with.
Keep in mind that by “famous,” I’ve used the dictionary definition, “known about or by many people.” For this exercise, I’m including only folks who were born and raised or devoted significant segments of their career in Christiansburg. There are lots of people in the history of the community who have contributed either from a civic, educational, or commercial standpoint, but are not necessarily well known beyond the immediate area. So they aren’t on my list.
The names I’ll present are from Wikipedia, from responses I got to a Facebook post I launched on a site called “Remember in Christiansburg,” and from my own knowledge.
White folks arrived in what they would name Virginia in 1607, and sometime in the late 1600, a Dutch priest, Friar Hans arrived, giving the community its first name of Hans Meadow. Christiansburg as a town was established on Nov. 10, 1792, by an act passed by the Virginia General Assembly at the site of a concentration of hotels and taverns along the Wilderness Road, which is now US-11, along the great Valley of Virginia from Winchester to Bristol. It was named for Colonel William Christian, an early settler and one of the fist justices of Fincastle County from which Montgomery County was formed.
So our first famous Christiansburgers (Note: a “demonym” is a name used to denote an inhabitant of a particular place. What else would you call someone from Christiansburg than a Christiansburger?) were Friar Hans, who lent Christiansburg its original name, “Hans Meadow,” and William Christian, after whom the town is named. Since Christian lived here, I’m mentioning but not counting him.
Frontiersmen Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett were both residents, as was William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
So that’s four.
More recently, brothers Henry King and Louis King made their name in Hollywood, directing and acting in early films. Seven of Henry’s films were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Louis began acting in 1919 and had roles in many westerns where he specialized as a character actor, mostly playing villains.
Civil leaders include Robert Craig, a U.S. Congressman after whom Craig County was named, and Archer Allen Phlegar, a Virginia State Senator and Supreme Court justice.
In the art world, Virginia poet laureate Ruby Altizer Roberts for many years lived in a stately white home on East Roanoke Street.
Now we have ten. But there’s more!
In sports, Christiansburg is big in people who make cars go fast, including NASCAR drivers Jabe Thomas and his son Ronnie Thomas and Matt Hagan, a drag racer. To my knowledge, Christiansburg has never produced a single professional baseball, football, or basketball player.
So that’s my lucky thirteen famous Christiansburgers. Honorable mention, I’ll grant to, in no particular order:
- James Moye, a Broadway Actor
- Robert Chafin, an opera singer who performed for decades on the great stages of Europe (full disclosure; he’s a friend of mine)
- Earl Palmer, grocer and photographer who was the mayor of Cambria for 10 years until it was annexed by Christiansburg
- Mansoor Ijaz, a UVA, M.I.T. and Harvard educated venture financier and media commentator
- Captain Charles Schaeffer, who founded Christiansburg Institute for Negro children and for whom the Schaeffer Memorial Baptist Church is named.
- Nannie Hairston, civil rights pioneer
Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the infamous Virginia Wardlaw, Mary Snead, and Caroline Martin, the so-called “Black Sisters,” who received that moniker because by legend, they wandered the town in the late 1800s, especially the Sunset Cemetery, in the dark hours wearing all black clothing. The sisters ran the Christiansburg Female Academy, located at the site of the former Christiansburg High School (where, incidentally, I graduated in 1972) and then the Christiansburg Middle School on College Street. The women were associated with a number of nefarious stories, including murder and arson. Virginia Wardlaw is buried in the Sunset Cemetery, which according to some is still haunted.
So there you have it – Michael’s list of famous people from Christiansburg. Obviously, this is entirely subjective and open to discussion and re-evaluation. Who have I left out that would be on your list?
Michael Abraham is a businessman and author. He was raised in Christiansburg and lives in Blacksburg.