What was daily life like for 18th century settlers moving west? With a promise of a new life in unchartered territory they traveled often by foot or horse hundreds of miles carrying heavy packs of their few belongings on early westward trails. Originally blazed by Daniel Boone in 1775, the Wilderness Trail brought over 200,000 settlers from the east into what is now Kentucky starting from the Long Island of the Holston River in now Kingsport, Tennessee. It took them through 200 acres of wilderness in Virginia on to the Cumberland Gap. With hardships along the way, the settlers worked to make most everything they used to provide for their basic needs of food, clothing and shelter. Fast forward more than 200 years and the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail Association, Inc., formed in 1995 to preserve the trail as an integral part of America’s first westward expansion. The association had a goal to establish a museum and living history center about the trail and the life of the many settlers who traveled west upon it.
In December 2018, they realized that dream when the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail Interpretive Center opened in Duffield, Virginia, at 371 Technology Trail Lane at Kane Gap, the only remaining undeveloped portion of the Wilderness Trail in Virginia.
The Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail Interpretive Center, a satellite location of Natural Tunnel State Park, houses a museum where a small theatre shows an informative historical film starring local people portraying settlers on the trail.
“The layout of the museum takes you on a trail that follows the same people portrayed in the film along the trail through Moccasin Gap, Kane Gap, White Rocks, and Cumberland Gap, so you get to experience the journey along with them,” says Rachel Blevins, chief ranger of visitor experience at Natural Tunnel State Park.
The museum features wonderful tactile interactive exhibits which include a typical Wilderness Trail camp scene, simulated fire-starting activity along with a historical clothing exhibit where visitors can dress the part of early settlers. More exhibits will be added by the exhibits committee of the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail Interpretive Center Foundation.
“One of the goals of the museum is to make sure Native American and African American cultures are also respectfully and accurately portrayed at the center,” says Gretchen Cope, conference and special events manager at Natural Tunnel State Park. “We have a partnership with members of the Warriors of Anikituhwa of Cherokee, North Carolina. Two of their members are featured in the film speaking the traditional Cherokee language.”
Besides the museum, there is a library and resource center overseen by the foundation’s library committee. A gift shop has items – some locally made – and souvenirs for sale and there is a large conference room available to rent (for a fee) for various events. The site also features a living history demonstration area where visitors can watch as volunteers present living history demonstrations like kids’ militia activities, outdoor cooking, candle and salt making, and more.
Just in time for Christmas shopping, the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail Interpretive Center will highlight even more locally made, historically accurate items for sale at its first special event: “Trades from the Trail Holiday Market” on Saturday, Nov. 9, from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Vendors will sell items related to the 18th century American trail life including woven table runners, gloves and other textiles by Margaret Crouch. Candles and soap made at the Blockhouse at Natural Tunnel State Park will also be available, along with hand-made journals, powder horns and small containers made from animal horns by Randy Rauch, period jewelry and many more affordable and unique Christmas gifts. “It is important to show skills and trades to appreciate the work of talented craftsmen and to bridge past to present by sharing their skills,” Blevins said.
“Trades from the Trail Holiday Market” is a free family-friendly event and will have fun kids’ activities like games and crafts like making rag dolls, corn shuck dolls and pomades. Cookies, soda bread and other goods baked from historic 18th century recipes will be for sale with all proceeds going to the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail Interpretive Center Foundation.
The center is open Fridays through Mondays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the offseason (which began Nov. 1). The rest of the year, the center is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., daily. Field trips may be scheduled in advance by emailing Blevins at Rachel.Blevins@dcr.virginia.gov or by calling (276) 940-1643. To learn more about the center, the association and the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail or to volunteer, email Cope at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail Interpretative Center Fdn on Facebook.