Before there was a valley and before there was the northern tributary of a river, before there were springs and bottomlands, there was the sea. What is now the ridge and valley geologic province, was once covered by a vast inland sea, its levels rising and falling over the millennia. The plant and animal matter that came to inhabit the sea laid down a bed of organic material that would eventually become a bed of limestone. As continental plates shifted, joining, and splintering and joining and splintering, the sea drained away and great uplifts, folds, of land appeared. These folds of land were thousands of feet high, but through millennia of rain and washing away, they smoothed and rounded. In a span of time that we cannot now fathom, these great folds of clay and loam and rock became the mountains and hollows and ridges we know.
Over time, what is now described as the North Fork of the Holston River evolved in a limestone valley between Walker Mountain and Brushy mountains in what is now known as Bland County, near the community of Sharon Springs. From where it rises at an elevation of approximately 2,800 feet, the North Fork now flows 138 miles to its convergence with the South Fork of the Holston. From source to confluence, the North Fork follows this limestone valley, wide in some parts, narrow in others, always working to take it to the sea. Flowing to its level, this stream has carved, scooped, from the base of Clinch Mountain, a series of patches of broad open land. To the north of the river, each of these broad bottomlands is wedged at the base of Clinch Mountain. Mendota is located in one of these limestone bottomlands, on the northern, upriver, side of a bend of the river, at an elevation of approximately 1,350 feet. The community sits at the mouth of a broad hollow, formed by the erosion of what we now know as Clinch Mountain. Traveling in the direction of the North Fork’s flow, following Virginia Route 802 (Mendota Road), in front of the community is the North Fork of the Holston. To the south is a long, wooded ridge, which rises to an elevation of approximately 1,800 feet, sitting between Mendota and the North Fork as it flows toward the community from the northeast. Behind the community, to the north-northwest, at an elevation of 3,005 feet, is Clinch Mountain.
Since before the last ice age, the limestone valley in which Mendota is located has been the site of migrations of large game, drawn to the salt licks and mineral deposits some forty miles upstream. Because of the abundance of game, and the profusion of water, the first indigenous dwellers understood this as a rich hunting and gathering territory. When patterns of settlement and agriculture developed among the indigenous peoples, the limestone-rich, humus-laden soil of the bottomlands offered numerous sites for agricultural-hunting villages. These same resources were appealing to and drew Anglo-Europeans to the limestone valley. On the banks of the North Fork some 40 miles north-north-east, taking advantage of the rich deposits of salt and minerals, since the mid-eighteenth century a chemical and salt works refinery industry prevailed. In the later part of the nineteenth century, this industrial operation diversified and expanded, producing a variety of chemicals for industrial and domestic uses. The byproducts of these processes were, among other things, sodium chloride, calcium chloride, and various insoluble solids, including but not limited to mercury. These pollutants were disposed of in the North Fork; they remain in the water.
During industrialization, to take advantage of the agricultural production and timber resources a railroad was completed between Bristol and Hiltons, with Mendota serving as an important stop on the short line. The rail line was discontinued in the middle years of the twentieth century.
Without or without the railroad, Mendota served as a thriving agricultural community with stores offering general merchandise to local trade.
A public school served the community for many years. Before the 1960s, that school was constituted or grades one through 12. After the consolidation of high schools in Washington County, the school served elementary grades. The school was closed in the 1980s. The building stands and is used as a branch location of the Washington County Public Library and the Mendota Community Center.
From the 1990s through the early 2000s, there was a federally qualified community health center operating in the community. With the withdrawal of the lead agency on that initiative, the health center came under the sponsorship of Wellmont Health System. The health center closed in 2017 but recently reopened under the auspices of the Health Wagon.
Both historically and in the present, the traditional values of work, family, and place that define nearly every community in Washington County, Southwest Virginia, and the larger Appalachian region have been as foundationally important to Mendota as the limestone beds on which it is built and Clinch Mountain that rises above it.
Many families live on land that has been in their families for generations. There are others who are new to the area. In both groups, there are younger individuals and families who are interested in and committed to keeping the land active and being good stewards of it. Farming is of great interest to these people, though the economics of agriculture and family make sole dependence on farming a difficult enterprise. Elder members of the community desire to preserve the land and its beauty, trying to find ways to be good stewards of the land for Mendota’s next generations.
Mendota is a short distance from the home places of the Carter family, who are linked with the earliest recordings of traditional music and what would become country music. Many of A. P. Carter’s songs that he transcribed, sang, and recorded, came from the area around Mendota. There is in the area a strong community of accomplished, old-time musicians. These musicians form many jam sessions, some regular and weekly, others impromptu.
The local area is known for its traditional craft artisans. Additionally, the place abounds with people who in daily and routine ways keep alive the traditional arts and skills of gardening, farming, and Southwest Virginia cooking.
The Mendota Community Center and the local branch of the Washington County Public Library are focal points. At its Mendota Branch, the Washington County Public Library offers a range of programming for young people and for elders. Community meetings, meals, celebrations, and other events are held in the Mendota Center, which boasts a full auditorium, well-equipped kitchen, and plenty of smaller rooms that at one were classrooms. The Mendota Community Center also serves as a museum and repository of the place’s history and stories of the people of Mendota. Where it stands in the center of the community, not far from the North Fork, the building itself is an ark of memory, representing to many persons Mendota’s past and its future.
More recently, Mendota has been the site of increased interest in outdoor recreation. Much of this is centered on the North Fork of the Holston. Though the North Fork is still polluted with mercury and other insoluble solids, it is safe for recreational use and for catch-and-release fishing.
The Mendota Fire Tower, at an elevation of 2,995 feet on Clinch Mountain, offers spectacular views of the Southwestern Virginia region. The fire tower itself is accessible by Virginia Route 602 and then a short hike. Where it is built is the divide between the Holston watershed and the Clinch watershed. The Clinch River is celebrated as being one of the most ecologically diverse rivers in the United States. The fire tower is widely popular with hikers as a destination and turn-around point. The location is also renowned among ornithologists for the many varieties of birds that pass through the place on their seasonal migratory routes as well as those that remain throughout the year.