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The Virginia mountain town, birthplace of the wife of Woodrow Wilson, has done much to advance the identity of Edith Bolling Wilson as “America’s First Female President,” in recognition of her role after President Woodrow Wilson’s stroke in 1919, at age 62.
Wytheville, Virginia loooves Edith Bolling Wilson. They paint it on a wall, celebrate it on her birthday, and serve her own recipes in their finest restaurant. In some quarters, she’s just “Edith”—everybody knows her. This love could be steering a revival of Wytheville’s downtown, where the first lady of President Woodrow Wilson was born 145 years ago.
First came the Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Museum, then the grand Bolling Wilson Hotel complete with Edith-centric décor. A mural depicting her life in eight panels is going up on Main Street. And now the town is bricking and beautifying downtown to be worthy of its famous daughter and the visitors she attracts. Someone even suggested naming a street for her.
“ I’m tickled to death about what our town is doing to honor Mrs. Wilson. All of it is from the heart. We just love her and are so proud of her,” says longtime resident Mary Jane Wysor.
Betsy Ely knows better than most how much the Virginia town loves its native daughter. Ely portrays Wilson at teas, school tours, conferences, meetings, even birthday parties. The retired schoolteacher can’t go anywhere in this town of 8,000 without someone greeting her as “Mrs. Wilson” or “First Lady” or even, presumptuously, “Edith.”
“ Since I became Edith Bolling Wilson, I dress up more—even to run to Walmart,” Ely says. “I feel as though I should maintain a certain dignity out of respect for her.”
Her “husband,” Jim Gearhart, aka President Wilson, although less renowned in Wytheville than his wife, also feels the pressure of celebrity. “When you’re representing a president, you’re just a bit more formal, more conscious of yourself,” he says.
Historically minded Wytheville residents have always known Edith Bolling was born in a room over what is now Skeeter’s Famous Hot Dogs on Main Street. But it wasn’t until Farron Smith and her husband Bill bought the Bolling Building in 1989 and Farron began researching the first lady that someone took the responsibility of promoting Bolling Wilson’s legacy. On Oct. 15, 2008, Edith’s birthday, Farron Smith opened the Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Museum. The street-level gallery exhibits family items, such as the Bolling family Bible, family furniture, and Wilson’s prayer book. The most magical possession there is the first lady’s personal franking stamp. Her signature, with its loopy capitals so popular in the period, is almost childlike in its bold simplicity. You would expect the writer to be a very focused woman.
“Wytheville has something no other town along I-81 has,” Smith says. “We have the only birthplace museum of a first lady in Virginia. She was a strong, dedicated first lady, a great role model.”
The little museum has another distinction: it might be considered the only museum honoring a female U.S. president.
Yes, president. Edith Wilson has been called “America’s First Woman President” for her behind-the-scenes work after President Wilson suffered a stroke in 1919. At that point, Edith Wilson began receiving all presidential communications, issuing decisions, and speaking for President Wilson. It appears she took care of some problems on her own, delegated others, and found a way to share some with the president without unduly disturbing him. Although she never had political ambitions of her own, she was considered a potential Democratic vice presidential candidate in 1928, several years after her husband’s death.
One of the first items offered for sale in the museum gift shop was a t-shirt asking “Could a Woman Really Run this Country?” and answering it emphatically “Yes She Can.”
“Edith Bolling Wilson was a ‘new woman’ for her time,” Smith says. “Before her marriage to President Wilson, she ran her late first husband’s jewelry business and was the first Washington woman to drive herself to work in her own electric car. She became the first president’s wife to accompany her husband on diplomatic missions overseas.”
Ironically, the “Presidentress,” as some newspapers called her, hadn’t supported the campaign for female suffrage and had never completed college. The daughter of Judge William and Sallie Bolling, a prominent but not wealthy couple who rented out the first floor of their home to shops, Bolling Wilson studied music one year at finishing school. Then, at 17, she enrolled at Richmond’s Powell’s School for Girls for a year before her father deemed her sufficiently educated for a girl.