Mountain Made: Virginia Blue Ridge

Mountain Made: Virginia Blue Ridge

In this corner of southwestern Virginia, tradition exists happily alongside thriving contemporary artisan communities.
Roanoke, Virginia

Originally a railroad town, Roanoke, Virginia, has reinvented itself in recent years. Today the city touts its hiking and biking – some of the country’s best – and its burgeoning craft scene.

Creative Dog Media, Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge

Nestled in the verdant valley between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains, Roanoke, Virginia, might be best toured by motorcycle. Allow yourself the luxury of exploring the roads that twist up and down the lush mountains before making your way downtown. Once you arrive, stay awhile to get to know the people who call this city of 100,000 home.

Though the hiking, biking, and other outdoor activities might be what lures you to the area, it’s Roanoke’s charming artisans who will make you want to linger.

Ask contractor Robert Kulp and former yacht captain Mike Whiteside how they founded their thriving business, Black Dog Salvage, and you’ll get an amusingly candid answer.

It all started when a historic Roanoke home was facing demolition. The duo hated to see its beauty lost forever, so they went in and saved all the architectural elements they could. They didn’t have much of a plan beyond that.

“We had a forklift; I had some equipment,” Kulp says.

“I had a truck,” Whiteside chimes in.

“He had a dog,” Kulp adds. “What else do you need?”

“That’s an architectural salvage starter kit,” Whiteside jokes.

“Mike had a lease on a warehouse nearby,” Kulp continues, “so we moved the stuff into that warehouse, turned an old vinyl sign around, and painted ‘salvage’ on it. That was our business plan.”

Not many business owners succeed with such an improvised plan, but Whiteside and Kulp have made it work ever since they hung that first sign back in 1999. Now the Black Dog warehouse, workshop, and gift shop occupy about 40,000 square feet just outside of downtown Roanoke. There, the duo sell what they call “raw architectural salvage” such as beams, stained glass, and fireplace mantels they gather from across the US, as well as imaginatively upcycled pieces that their team makes on-site: Doors turn into tables, wine barrels become sinks, and stair balusters frame daybeds.

There’s also the signature line of paint their team helped develop to cover pretty much any material, including glass, metal, wood, and ceramic. They sell funky work by local printmakers, potters, and creative upcyclers. And then, of course, there’s Salvage Dawgs, their TV show on the DIY network, which documents their escapades.

It’s a lot of business to run, but Kulp and Whiteside have made it a family affair. Whiteside’s son, Tay, has been helping out at Black Dog since he was 12; now 24, he joins them on the small screen, helping to rescue treasures from properties at the 11th hour, and serves as the custom fabrication engineer back at the shop. The rest of the crew, such as salvager Grayson Goldsmith and custom design center production manager Jeff Ellis, may not be family by blood, but they are a vital part of the close-knit team.

It’s an adventurous gig that grew out of Kulp and Whiteside’s desire to preserve as much of Roanoke’s architectural beauty as possible. But without the television show, now in its ninth season, things would probably be a little different. “The bottom line is, we’re running a large salvage and retail operation,” Kulp explains. “It takes a lot of organization, management, time, paperwork, compliance. The best part about our business is that Mike and I still have to go out in the field to salvage houses because there’s a television show. Otherwise, we might not be able to get to do that. It would be all office, all the time.”

Even if that were so, the Black Dog founders are lucky enough to have the Blue Ridge mountains to play in once the workday is done.

Head north of Roanoke into the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests and you’ll find yourself in the heart of the Appalachians. There, heritage craftsman Kevin Riddle works on his great-grandfather's land in the same workshop his father built, plus another he constructed, making wooden pitchforks, ox yokes, and furniture – as well as copper pans, washtubs, and apple butter kettles – all using traditional Appalachian techniques. He’s spent more than 20 years learning his skills from books and a network of 75- to 80-year-old craftsmen living nearby – “the old guys,” he affectionately calls them – who specialize in different trades. As much as he can, he’s been writing it all down for posterity. “I’ll get on the phone for an hour and ask [a neighbor], ‘Well, how do you do this? How do you do that?’ Because I know it’s going to be lost. I’m just trying to absorb as much as I can and make notes,” Riddle says.

The craftsman makes everything by hand, down to the curved dowels that brace the tines of his pitchforks. His tools are hand-me-downs and items hunted down at junk stores, machines he’s tinkered with and fixed up. Riddle can trace his roots back to the 1700s, when his family moved to the Appalachians. He says people had to be self-sufficient back then, and that independence shapes Appalachian life to this day. “See, we do everything for ourselves,” he explains. “I can count on one hand the times that there’s been any kind of outside contractor or person here doing anything. That’s just part of the Appalachian culture. We do everything for ourselves.”

That includes gathering wood from his property for his wares; he keeps pieces “green” (soft) in a pond out back. (Though he doesn’t always use wood from his property, he does use all local lumber.) It’s a lot of work, but for Riddle, it’s a lot of fun, too. “I have never made a great amount of money, but this is what I like,” he says.

A student of history as well as craft, Riddle highlights Appalachian cultural heritage in the demonstrations of traditional copper and woodworking techniques he offers. The craftsman loves sharing his knowledge with others but finds that people unaccustomed to handwork don’t always understand some basics, such as how long the process can take. “People will call me up and say, ‘Oh, I want some of this authentic, handmade stuff, but I want it overnight. Can you ship it tomorrow?’

“Uh, no,” he says, laughing. “You just give me the specifications today. I’ll have to go out and find the tree first.”

If You Go

Downtown Roanoke

The best view of downtown Roanoke is atop Mill Mountain, where the neon Roanoke Star, which stands more than 88 feet, shines on the valley below. After taking in the vista, adventurous craft enthusiasts can mountain-bike their way down to Black Dog Salvage, home of Roanoke’s other stars, the team of TV’s Salvage Dawgs. Plan to spend a few hours in the sprawling warehouse and gift shop filled with architectural salvage items and offbeat upcycled wares. From there, head a few minutes west to downtown. The Taubman Museum of Art, with its Randall Stout-designed roofline inspired by the Blue Ridge Mountains, hosts an array of exhibitions, including “Farther,” a show of metal sculpture by renowned artist Paul Villinski. Nearby, Calhoun & Kipp boutique sells glass, metal, and wood art by local, national, and international makers. Find sculpture and furniture by John Wilson at Wilson Hughes Gallery, which he runs with wife Suzun Hughes, a painter and photographer. Smokers will enjoy the selection of hand-rolled cigars at Milan Tobacconists, founded in 1912, but even if you’re tobacco-free, you can browse the pipes, from ornate Meerschaums to corn cob pipes with cartoon characters. Close by, artist Betty Branch has been creating sculpture for more than 30 years. Her warehouse gallery features her work, as well as art by local makers, including her children; it is open by appointment daily.

White Lightning Artisan Trail

Take in the area’s beauty and the fine craftsmanship its makers are known for along its mountain roads. The White Lightning Artisan Trail, named after the homemade corn whiskey the region is notorious for, offers a delightful sampling of some of the region’s best craft studios and galleries. Some, such as CM Handwovens, run by Carolyn Moore, are in the artist’s home and can be visited by appointment. Others, such as Toft Cottage Weavery, where Patricia Rushmore hosts classes and uses a 200-year-old barn loom to weave historical patterns in rugs, scarves, and other textiles, are located in studio galleries nestled in quaint towns. A number of new spaces are opening up, too. Inkular Gallery stands out, thanks to the bright school bus covered in murals parked outside. The farmhouse-turned-gallery hosts events and sells work by emerging local and regional artists, including kids.

More Day Trips

Head south of Roanoke to visit the alpacas of Pacabella Farm. The working farm has a shop that sells clothing, toys, and spa goods, many of the latter produced on-site. Stop at Boone’s Country Store along the way for baked goods, honey, and local eggs, as well as handmade items such as quilts and baby gear. A half-hour southeast is the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum, where you can see what life was like on a farmstead in 1800; exhibitions and archives offer insight into regional folkways. Heading northeast, Rocky Mount is a small historic town brimming with craft. There, 30-year-old glassworker Carolyn Rogers runs Hot Taffy Glass. Her shop and studio offer glassblowing, flameworking, and kiln fusing classes, along with an assortment of affordable wares and jewelry. Just down the street, the Artisan Center Along the Crooked Road features a little bit of everything: pottery, leather goods, jewelry, glass, books, antiques, and food. Wood Grains American Furniture sells heirloom wood furniture made by Ohio Amish and local craftsmen. If you’re planning a trip north of Roanoke, email Appalachian craftsman Kevin Riddle. The woodworker and coppersmith offers demonstrations of traditional Appalachian crafts interspersed with lessons on Appalachian history and culture. His wares are also for sale – just be sure to plan ahead so he has the time to make them.