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Posted on: April 28, 2017

River District tobacco mural ‘a great reminder of the history of this area’

A mural highlighting Danville’s tobacco history was dedicated in the River District on Friday morning.


The 20-by-30-foot Tobacco Heritage Mural was painted in December on the side of 308 Craghead St. that faces Patton Street and is visible from the River District’s busiest intersection at Main and Craghead streets.


Community leaders, city officials and those active in historic preservation attended the dedication held in front of the mural painted by artist Wes Hardin, who also painted the transportation and Wreck of the Old 97 murals in the River District.


“This gift makes our city a better place in which to live,” Danville Mayor John Gilstrap said during the dedication. “This gift educates, inspires creativity, beautifies and promotes interest in our community.”


The mural is the third commissioned by the River District Association, which raised $20,000 over several years for the artwork.


Jerry Amburn, River District Association board member and chairman of its mural committee, said the group has worked to implement the mural program to showcase the city’s heritage through historic public art.


JTI Leaf Services and others donated money and contributed to the project.


Preservation Virginia Field Representative Sonja Ingram praised the rendering of the tobacco barn image in the mural and connected it to Preservation Virginia’s tobacco barns preservation project, which will have repaired more than 60 barns in the Dan River Region by the end of 2018. JTI has been funding the project.


William Gentry Jr., whose father William Gentry Sr. is depicted in the mural as a tobacco auctioneer, owns the building at 308 Craghead St. and gave the association permission to use the side of the structure for the project. The building houses Gentry Lofts and offices that face Craghead Street.


JTI President Steve Daniels called the mural “a great reminder of the history of this area.”


The mural includes a flue-cured tobacco barn at the top, a man in a bateau transporting tobacco and a tobacco auction featuring William Gentry Sr. as the auctioneer.


“I appreciate my Dad letting me put his face up here,” William Gentry Jr. said.


The tobacco industry has changed over the years and the auction system no longer exists, but U.S. tobacco – especially tobacco from the region including Danville and Southside Virginia – is the best-flavored tobacco in the world, Daniels said.


“Tobacco put Danville on the map, and it served as an economic catalyst for our city,” Gilstrap said.


Billy Yeargin Jr., a tobacco historian, pointed to tobacco’s role in Virginia since the early 17th century, when John Rolfe introduced it as a commercial crop.


Ernecia Coles, executive director of the River District Association, said the mural is something people can connect with.


“We’re hoping this will be part of people’s visits downtown,” Coles said.


The association’s next mural will honor Wendell Scott, the Danville native who became the first African-American NASCAR racecar driver.


John Crane reports for the Danville Register & Bee. Contact him at jcrane@registerbee.com or (434) 791-7987.


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