In the pastoral St. John’s Lutheran Church cemetery amidst trees and meadow is the tombstone of one Frederick Bittle Kegley. It reads “Farmer, Historian, Teacher.” This epitaph neatly summarizes the life of the man who birthed the collections in the Kegley Library.
Born in a log cabin near Queen’s Knob in Wythe County, Virginia on 7 July 1877, Kegley was the product of generations of Southwest Virginia families. His entire family valued education and all eight children of Stephen Alexander Kegley and his wife Sarah Umberger Kegley attended college. F. B. Kegley, known to family as “Bittle,” attended Roanoke College, graduating in 1900 and eventually earning a master’s degree. After a stint of teaching at Wytheville High School, he returned to the small Lutheran college in Salem to teach English, history, Latin, and math for three years. Awarded a scholarship in 1905, Kegley matriculated into doctoral work in history and social science at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. This academic pursuit was short-lived, however, as upon the death of his father he returned home to manage the farm.
Kegley not only farmed his family’s land but also served as the agricultural extension agent, a position that took him on jaunts throughout Southwest Virginia. He met his wife, Fannie Withers in Abingdon, Virginia while working there; they married in 1914. The couple settled at Rose Hill Farm and, although they had no children, entertained countless nephews and nieces on this picturesque farm that still remains in the family today.
Kegley grew up with a keen interest in the history and genealogy of Southwest Virginia. He collected books and periodicals, manuscripts, and other materials. He roamed the countryside photographing barns, houses, farms, cemeteries, and landscapes. He commissioned mapmaker J. R. Hildebrand and artist Elizabeth Waller Wilkins to prepare illustrated maps that documented the settlement of the Mountain Empire. Additionally, he edited the quarterly magazine Mountain Empire for Southwest Virginia, Inc. in an effort to publicize the rich history and culture of his home. Kegley also supervised white collar workers in the Works Progress Administration project in Southwest Virginia; as well he served on numerous boards of historical societies and state agencies.
Kegley’s masterpiece was his comprehensive study of the Roanoke County and Botetourt County frontier circa 1740-1780 entitled Kegley’s Virginia Frontier. His emphasis on letting the records speak for themselves has helped generations of family researchers and historians understand the early settlers of this region. His method of consulting land records and vital records, then preparing maps of early neighborhoods, and finally visiting old home sites and farms proved invaluable. His co-worker, Mary B. Kegley, continued this legacy with her Early Adventurers on the Western Waters series.
Upon his death on 4 May 1968, F. B. Kegley willed his research collection to Wytheville Community College with a desire to make these valuable records available to researchers far and near interested in the history of his beloved homeland.
For more information on F. B. Kegley please see the article written by his nephew, George Kegley, in Wythe County Historical Review, July 1985.