Skeeter's Hot Dogs & The Secret President

Sep 23, 2013

Skeeter’s World Famous Hot Dogs have been a Wytheville staple for nearly ninety years. But Skeeter Dogs aren’t all that make the brick building on Wytheville’s East Main Street a historic landmark. It’s also home to the Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace and Museum.

When Farron Smith and her husband Bill bought the store that sells Skeeter’s World Famous Hot Dogs, they got a bonus - the birthplace and childhood home of First Lady Edith Bolling Wilson.

"We loved to go to Skeeter’s and the business was available to buy. And along with Skeeter’s. the hot dog restaurant, came the building. And we had always respected it’s history and we said someday when our children were grown saving and restoring Mrs. Wilson’s birthplace would be our way of giving back to our community," said Smith.

Edith Bolling Wilson wasn’t a typical First Lady. A well-to-do widow who drove herself around Washington in her electric car before she married the widowed Woodrow Wilson, some say Edith Wilson was our first female president - even if her term was short and unofficial. Her husband the president suffered a stroke in Oct. 1919. Six months passed before he met with his cabinet. During that time, Edith Wilson decided who talked to the president, decided which papers and problems he saw and relayed the president’s decisions to the world outside his bedroom. Some call her our secret president.

"She writes in her memoir, in her autobiography, that she was advised by the president’s physicians to protect him from Congress and the public. She says that she made no decision that affected the country but she served as a gatekeeper as to what information was most important for his attention and who should be able to see him. We may never really know what her role was when the president suffered a stroke. It’s still debated, books are still written about it today."

Edith Bolling was born October 15, 1872, on the second floor of a house she shared with 10 siblings, her parents, her grandmother - as many as twenty Bollings lived in the house at a time - not counting Grandmother Bolling’s twenty canaries. The Edith Bolling museum downstairs has a room full of artifacts, but the nearly empty rooms where the Bollings lived echo when visitors walk through.

"We were advised by a historian that whatever we were thinking it would take ten times the times and ten times the money than we could in our wildest dreams imagine. We just hoep that we can live long enough to see this building saved and protected as it should be. It’s in poor shape today. We had to literally bring in dumpsters and shovel the bird debris. So it’s come a long ways, but we have a long ways to go," said Smith.

Bolling’s father rented the ground floor to businesses when the family lived upstairs. Over the years the building has held a boarding house, a bank and a chiropractor who came to try to help polio victims in the 1950s. Smith had a dance studio there for more than a decade. When Edith Bolling Wilson last visited, in 1961, it was restaurant. After eating downstairs, she would go up into her family’s old home and sit on the back porch that looks off toward Lick Mountain.

"Preservation Virginia has recently named us to their most endangered historic site list. It gives us publicity and gives us media attention that the museum needs to survive."

The museum may get some more attention soon. C-SPAN filmed there for a series called “First Ladies: Influence and Image.”

The C-SPAN segment featuring Edith Bolling Wilson is scheduled for 9 p.m., Monday, September 23.