WYTHEVILLE, Va. – Heather Kime was not afraid of heights growing up.
From the time that she could walk, she’d spend her free time climbing her family’s 100-foot steel observation tower that sat at an elevation of 3,405 feet. Kime and her siblings had an entire mountainside to themselves where they would ride their bikes and wander around in the woods, which was a part of the Appalachian Trail at the time.
“It never occurred to me to be afraid of heights,” she said. “We would holler at mom, ‘Hey, can we climb the tower?’ And by the time she said yes, we were halfway up.”
The Big Walker Lookout and the Big Walker Country Store have been a part of Kime’s life for as long as she can remember. It was just something the family did, she explained.
When she and her siblings were old enough to work, they would help out at the Big Walker Country Store by dusting and cleaning floors, running the cash register and setting up merchandise.
For 75 years, the cherished tourist attraction in Wytheville has been a huge part of people’s lives as well, drawing thousands each year from around the world.
“We had a [world] map in here for several years and people could put a pin on where they came from and it got completely covered with pins. Just about every country that there is we saw people from,” explained Heather’s father, Ron Kime.
Now, the family business is managed by Heather, passed down to her from her 81-year-old father, Ron, who’s now retired; however, she jokes that she still drags him back there from time to time.
The lookout tower has been an integral part of the family for generations.
Kime’s grandfather, Stuart Kime, came up with the idea for the tower while he was working as a toolmaker and aircraft designer during World War II in Arkansas. While there, he came across the Mount Gaylor Lookout Tower and that was all it took.
He knew he wanted to create something similar.
In 1945, Stuart and his family moved to Wytheville, Virginia, where they’d live on the Big Walker Mountain. Just two years later, he established his very own mountain top attraction.
It was called the Big Walker Lookout, named after pioneer explorer Dr. Thomas Walker. With 200 steps leading to the top, on a perfectly clear day, viewers could make out Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina.
The tower has been soaring to new heights ever since.
This year, it celebrated its 75th anniversary and in October, the Town of Wytheville proclaimed Oct. 16 as ‘Big Walker Lookout Day.’ The attraction has also been recognized for its participation in tourism and efforts to advance the town and county.
“Some days we wonder how we made it and some days we look back and go, ‘Wow, this is what we’ve done,” Kime said.
But the Kime family didn’t get as far as they did without any challenges.
In Feb. 2003, the main building was destroyed by a fire. None of it was salvageable and the family had to rebuild the Country Store from scratch.
The family was devastated given that the original building was built by Stuart. With its wormy chestnut paneling and cathedral ceilings, Ron said it was one of the most beautiful buildings in the area. Heather added that it was at least a $500,000 building.
Both Heather and her father agreed that it was the community that helped push them through the difficult time.
“Just because you own your own business doesn’t mean it isn’t a struggle. There have been many days and many years that we struggled and wondered, ‘Okay, are we going to make it another year?’ But by the grace of God, we keep on going.”
Now, after having to rebuild the building from scratch, Kime said the business is even better than before. Just like the community has supported the Big Walker Lookout throughout the years, the business strives to do the same.
The store features handmade items and homemade treats from locals in Southwest Virginia. The store is also known for hosting local musicians and book signing events with local authors.
After all, the family’s favorite part of running the business is the people.
“Without the people, it’s nothing,” Heather said.