One of the main reasons GEICO and its famous gecko chose Bristol for a national commercial was for its uniqueness. Running the length of its iconic State Street are brass markers, inscribed with “Tennessee” and “Virginia” on either side. Needless to say, this is a popular photo op for visitors who like to stand in the middle of the street with one foot in each state, just as GEICO’s gecko did in the commercial.
In Bristol’s downtown district you can follow the path of country music’s pioneers along State Street, the site of the first recordings of early country music. In 1927, Ralph Peer of the Victor Recording Company came to Bristol with the goal of recording the region’s best musicians. Answering the call for artists were the likes of Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family and the Stoneman Family. The recordings that resulted from these sessions became known as the “Big Bang of Country Music” and led to the official designation of Bristol Tennessee/Virginia by the U.S. Congress as the Birthplace of Country Music in 1998.
The Birthplace of Country Music Museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, is also located in historic downtown and tells the story of the 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings, explores how evolving sound technology shaped their success, and highlights how this rich musical heritage lives on in today’s music. Through text and artifacts, multiple theater experiences, and interactive displays – along with a variety of educational programs, music performances, and community events – the exciting story of these recording sessions and their far-reaching influence comes alive. Rotating exhibitions from guest curators and other institutions, including the Smithsonian, are featured throughout the year in the Special Exhibits Gallery. The museum also houses a research collection including an extensive digital archive.
You can take a Historic Walking Tour in Downtown Bristol of the heritage and history of the Twin Cities where you can tour the historic Train Station, pause in front of the Country Music Mural, admire the 1931 art-deco Paramount Theatre, see the brass markers dividing State Street, look for the historic Bristol sign, which also marks the exact boundary between Virginia and Tennessee and visit Mountain Music Museum. Brochures to help guide you along this historic walking tour can be picked up at the Bristol Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Bristol Visitor Center, or viewed online at www.DiscoverBristol.org. Stroll at your own pace and enjoy lunch in one of the quaint and locally-owned downtown restaurants or cafes followed by browsing through the several specialty stores and antique shops.
The Bristol Sign is also another State Street icon of State Street. More than a century ago, in 1910, the Bristol Gas and Electric Company wanted to do something for Bristol so they donated an electric sign to the community. The Bristol Sign, however, was first erected on top of the Interstate Hardware Company building near the railroad tracks off of State Street, originally sporting the somewhat peculiar slogan, “PUSH! THAT’S BRISTOL!”.
Five years later in 1915, the owners of the hardware company asked that the sign, which was extremely heavy, be moved due to possible damage to their building. The Bristol Sign was moved to its current location, rising 25 feet over the line dividing the states of Virginia and Tennessee, on State Street. At the time it was considered to be one of the largest signs in the country. The Bristol Sign is now maintained by the City of Bristol Tennessee and City of Bristol Virginia and is the source of a tremendous sense of pride throughout the Bristol community.
Throughout the early years the sign was the center of praise and on occasion a good laugh. From time to time some of the lights would go out and the sign would spell “PU__! THAT’S BRISTOL!” or “__SH THAT’S BRISTOL!” In 1921 the Bristol Advertising Club offered a contest for the best new slogan for the sign. The winning slogan was “A GOOD PLACE TO LIVE”. The second most popular suggestion was “THE BEST PLACE TO LIVE”. The club chose the first because they felt it was “modest in claim, and truthful in statement.”
In 1988 the sign, which boasts approximately 1,330 bulbs, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
So, is it Tenniginia or Virginessee? Like the GEICO Gecko, you can discover what makes Bristol unique for yourself. Just remember when it comes to Bristol, Who Says You Can’t Be in Two Places at Once?