GRUNDY — Over heaping platters of food spiced with the flavors of her homeland, Dr. Quamrun Masuda ticked off the places she and her family have lived since leaving her birthplace, Bangladesh: Saudi Arabia, England, Canada, Miami, Salt Lake City and Amarillo, Texas.
For the past half-dozen years, they have lived in Buchanan County, deep in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, where Masuda is assistant professor and vice chairwoman of the department of pharmaceutical sciences at the Appalachian College of Pharmacy and her husband Rahman is administrative assistant for the faculty. They live along a narrow road behind the college in a house tucked into a wooded mountainside on 7 acres.
“All vertical,” Masuda said with a smile.
And they love it. At first, Masuda was apprehensive about the reception they might receive in such an out-of-the-way place, but that uneasiness is long gone.
“We are really treated very nicely,” she said. “We are very happy here.”
Masuda and her family are part of the changing face of Buchanan, but the evolving community countenance is more than a mere demographic shift. This is a place that in the past 20 years has brought in colleges — in addition to pharmacy, the Appalachian School of Law and the developing Appalachian College of Optometry — to help offset downturns in the coal industry, where mountains have been dynamited for mining and roads, and an entire town, Grundy, the county seat, was moved to accommodate a volatile river.
The old downtown was constructed at the junction of the Levisa Fork River and Slate Creek, which might have been convenient but in retrospect seems ill-advised.
The Levisa generally appeared genial enough — except when it flowed black with coal dust, recalled author and Grundy native Lee Smith.
However, the river periodically flooded the town with devastating results — most notably in 1957 and 1977 — and cast a pall and doubt on the future of Grundy.
“That ‘77 flood … I was here during that,” said Debbie Raines, a longtime English teacher at Grundy High School. “It was awful. It was beyond anything you could imagine.”
That flood left three dead with millions of dollars in damages. In the ensuing years, it was impossible for building owners in the affected area to make any improvements because of their location in a flood plain.
Ultimately, a dramatic plan was conceived to bulldoze much of Grundy’s downtown and rebuild the heart of its commercial district on higher, drier ground across the river in an area that was cleared by blasting away part of a mountain and relocating railroad tracks.
A Walmart store was lured to anchor Grundy’s new town center, which includes specialty stores, places to eat and dental and law offices. Future development could include a hotel.
Students at Grundy High, who barely remember the old part of town, said they appreciate being able to shop for clothes or visit GameStop at the new town center without having to drive two or three towns away.
“It used to be you’d go over to Richlands and every time you’d go shopping, you’d run into 20 people from Grundy,” said Dylan Campbell, a rising senior. “Now you go over there, and you don’t really see that because more people are shopping locally.”
However, the long construction process has worn on the town, and drastic change can be painful. The town lost population between 2000 and 2010 — from 1,100 to 1,010, reflecting the county’s drop from 27,000 to 24,000 during the same period.
In his office across the river from Walmart, Buchanan Sheriff Ray Foster said, “I miss the old town myself.”
“It’s been hard,” he said. “I’ve lived here all my life.”
Though he appreciates the possibilities presented with the road improvements, flood protection and the coming of Walmart
and potentially other businesses, he just hopes the whole thing “is not a day late and a dollar short. They should have been doing this 20 years before [the project started].”
Though Lee Smith hasn’t lived in Grundy for years, she has been touched by the changes in town, and has mixed feelings about it all. Her father operated the town’s dime store, one of the downtown buildings razed during the project.
“The whole thing is so complicated,” said Smith. “I know if my father were alive, he’d want anything that was good for Grundy.
“You have to hope it’s going to really be good.”