It’s definitely a question for a “come here” who might, if she lives at Smith Mountain Lake, find that Wirtz is her mailing address. This same newcomer might become confused, though, as a search for a Wirtz post office leads instead to the area known as Burnt Chimney, near the intersection of Virginia 122 and 116.
So where is Wirtz?
A GPS search leads down Wirtz Road (Virginia 697), where, just off the railroad tracks, one can spy a small green “Wirtz” sign, but the only other sign of any community is the large building that houses the business called Gary’s Antiques.
“Wirtz has spread a lot over the last few years,” said Linda Webb, a lifelong resident of the area. “It used to be very, very contained, but now it’s a long way, almost to the lake.” *
Webb recalled growing up in the area along Wirtz Road, surrounded by family, including grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.
“We were farmers, of course,” she said. “We would raise hay and oats and wheat … we raised everything we ate, had cows, chickens and pigs. We canned everything, we even canned the meat.”
She added, “I can remember when there were very few houses on this road. I can remember the road when it was a dirt road, before it was paved.”
A trip to the Franklin County Historical Society in Rocky Mount yielded more clues. Committed to collecting, preserving and sharing history, the society offers extensive genealogical resources, a wealth of information on the history of the county and an opportunity to speak with Doris Eames, a historian and a Franklin County native.
At one time there was more to the town of Wirtz. “Do you recall the underpass under the railroad?” Eames asked. “The store and the post office were right there, that building that’s still sitting there.”
In fact, the post office and the railroad combined to create the Wirtz community. In the late 1800s, the Norfolk & Western Railway was building its route from Roanoke to Rocky Mount, and Samuel Wertz (1841 – 1928), a Confederate veteran and owner of a lot of the land in the area, offered shelter to the men who were working near his property.
In his honor, the railroad officials named the local train station after him. However, they misspelled his name, and the area is known as Wirtz to this day. A drive on Wirtz Road in the direction of Rocky Mount leads underneath the railroad bridge embellished with the Norfolk & Western emblem.
According to information at the historical society, three tomato canneries operated near Wirtz at one time, and the village included a post office and a store. Eames noted that a few reminders of the village still stand.
Across Rock Lily Road at Gary’s Antiques is where the train station once stood. “You can see steps if you look closely when you’re in his parking lot,” Eames said. The train stopped there, and a lot of folks that lived in that area worked for the railroad.”
Eames also recalled that her mother had worked in the tomato canning factory that had occupied the Gary’s Antiques building in the mid-1930s. Following World War II, she described how younger people began moving from farming and into local manufacturing. In particular, Eames’ father worked for U.S. Steel in Roanoke. Many local men worked at the Vinton Weaving Mill while several local women worked at Kenrose Sewing Factory, Eames recalled.
“There was a work bus that came through every morning,” she said. “Dad would drive up, he and a neighbor, and they’d get on the bus every day. And the bus would go into Roanoke and drop the Kenrose ladies first.”
Earl Holley, who has lived most of his life in Wirtz, also described the influence of manufacturing in Franklin County and Roanoke, as well as the impact of its decline. People worked in factories in Rocky Mount, he said. “Furniture, windows, and there were several sewing plants in Rocky Mount and Franklin County … but they’ve all since shut down.”
Even with the decrease in manufacturing and farming, the growth of traffic in the area around Wirtz is notable, as Wirtz Road is a popular shortcut from the lake to destinations closer to Roanoke.
Growing up, Holley said, “My brother and I would ride bicycles on [Wirtz Road] to Route 122, and never think twice about it.” However, he added, “You couldn’t pay me to get on a bicycle to get on this road now!”
The increase in traffic happened in the mid-1960s as Smith Mountain Lake began to attract newcomers to the area, but Holley noted that the growth has not been confined to the lake itself. “A lot of what used to be wooded area and farmland, I guess the next generation didn’t want to farm it, so they sold it,” he said. “Contractors came in, divided it into lots. The entire county’s getting more crowded.”
A drive along Wirtz Road still offers beautiful vistas and a convenient route to Boones Mill and Roanoke. But even a newcomer can appreciate how this busy road and old community are, to many people, so much more: it is home.