There are less than a dozen historical sites in the country solely dedicated to a First Lady, and I was excited to visit the one in my own state of Virginia recently. The Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Museum in Wytheville is a wonderful place to learn about a powerful and ground-breaking First Lady.
Edith Bolling was born in 1872 in Wytheville, a small mountain town in southwest Virginia, to a family with a history dating back to Pocahontas. Her father was a judge and moved the family to Wytheville after the Civil War. He and Edith’s mother had 11 children (Edith was #7), and the house was always filled with various relatives, including her grandmother.
Edith’s sister married and moved to Washington, DC, and while visiting her, Edith met her future husband, Norman Galt of the famed Galt jewelry store. They had one child who died after its birth in 1903, and then in 1908, Norman died, leaving Edith a young and wealthy widow. She ran the jewelry store herself and became well-known in Washington, DC for her progressive actions, including being the first woman to own and operate an automobile in the city!
In 1915, Edith was introduced to President Woodrow Wilson, who had recently lost his first wife. Within a year, they married, and the country was on the road to participation in World War I. Edith threw herself into support for the war effort, including installing sheep on the White House lawn. The wool from the sheep sold at auction for over $100,000 to aid the Red Cross. She was the first First Lady to travel to Europe during her tenure, introducing international diplomacy to a First Lady’s job description. She also served as the first honorary President of the Girl Scouts.
After the war, Edith traveled with Wilson as he worked on ratifying the League of Nations covenant. When he suffered a stroke in 1919, Edith took on the role of “stewardship of the presidency,” deciding what business could be brought before the President to protect his health. How much she influenced his ultimate decisions is debated among historians to this day.
She lived well past Wilson’s death in 1924, even attending the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. She last visited Wytheville the year before her death when she dedicated stained glass windows in her childhood church. At the time, her birthplace was a diner, and she visited its rooms one last time. She died in December of 1961 and is buried in Washington’s National Cathedral beside her husband. While her husband’s legacy is controversial, Edith was a powerful and intelligent woman who found her strength in trying times throughout her life.
Her childhood home is now the Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Museum on Main Street in quaint downtown Wytheville. Located along a major highway intersection, this town is a great stop on any road trip through the area.
The museum is currently only open on Thursdays and Fridays, but contact its founder for additional tours outside of these days. I was so glad they were able to accommodate my trip through Wytheville on a Saturday, which just happened to be the day after Edith’s 149th birthday!
The museum encompasses one large room with many items original to Edith and the Bolling family, including the family cradle and Bible and the announcement of Edith and President Wilson’s marriage from the White House. There is a short ten minute video you can watch to learn all about Edith’s storied life. I loved a quote from the movie (found in Edith’s memoir) – “I have lived a lifetime of brilliance and heartbreak.”
After the movie, the tour of the birthplace will begin. It’s upstairs, above the museum, and has not been restored as of yet but there are several interpretive historical markers and authentic period pieces in each room, along with your guide’s descriptions. I like seeing the rooms as they are now, it lends an authentic quality to it.
You’ll see several rooms, including the room where Edith was born. In her last visit to Wytheville in 1960, she confirmed that this was the correct room.
There’s her father’s study where you’ll hear about his special bond with his children.
My favorite room was the back porch, mainly because there is a picture of Edith and her family sitting in this very spot. Her grandmother kept 26 canaries on this porch!
The parlor and adjacent rooms also played an important role in Wytheville’s history during the polio epidemic.
I just loved this picture of Edith as a child – note the quote above it from her aunt! Be sure to ask your guide how the museum acquired the photo – it’s a doozy of a story!
Before you leave, be sure to wander around the museum and visit the gift shop!
The town of Wytheville itself makes for a great experience. The museum’s founder also renovated the hotel across the street, and it’s a must-see! The historic hotel from the 1920s is now called the Bolling Wilson Hotel and is themed around Edith’s love for canaries, orchids, and bourbon! Wander in its lobby and eat at its fabulous restaurant (named Graze for Edith’s White House sheep!). There’s also a picturesque rooftop bar where you can view the stunning mountains looming over downtown.
Don’t miss the Daniel Boone Trail marker and the Spanish-American War memorial in front of the hotel.
The Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Museum should be on your list for visiting while traveling through the Wytheville area. Make a lunch stop at one of the town’s great restaurants and learn more about this trailblazing First Lady!
- Cost: Free (donations welcomed)
- Recommended: ages 10 and up
- Tour time: 1 hour
- Gift shop located in museum
- Transportation: Wytheville is located at the intersection of I-77 and I-81. Parking is plentiful on Main Street and at the hotel.
- Dining options: Graze on Main is the amazing restaurant at the Bolling Wilson Hotel – be sure to check out its peach cobbler! It’s only open for dinner so if you’re there during lunch, check out Moon Dog Brick Oven for excellent pizzas and subs. Or the famous Skeeter’s hot dog restaurant!
- Hotel options: When in Wytheville, you have to stay at the Bolling Wilson Hotel, right across the street from the museum.
- Nearby attractions include: Historic Downtown Walking Tour, Big Pencil landmark (see photo below), Edith Bolling Wilson mural, Wolf Creek Indian Museum and Village, and Fort Chiswell Animal Park. Check out the town’s tourism site for more information!
- Other Wilson Presidential sites: Presidential Library and Museum (Staunton, VA), President Wilson House (Washington, DC), Boyhood home (Augusta, GA), and Family home (Columbia, SC)
Books to Read:
All Amazon links are affiliate links. You can also visit my Presidential/First Lady book list at Bookshop.org, which supports independent bookstores and creators.
- 14 and up:
- Untold Power: The Fascinating Rise and Complex Legacy of First Lady Edith Wilson
- Madam President: The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson
- Ellen and Edith: Woodrow Wilson’s First Ladies
- Edith Bolling Wilson Revealed (sold through the museum’s website)
- The President’s Wife (releasing in August of 2023)
- 10 and up:
- 6 and up:
- How the Sheep Helped Win the War – co-written by the museum’s founder!