Forget the Fast Lane in Smithfield

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Don't knock visits to small towns. The Historic District in Smithfield, VA, is on the National Historic Register, the town has 10 houses pre-dating the Revolutionary War, plus the nation's oldest surviving Gothic structure.

Photography by the authors

20th century American educator John Jensen once said, “The trouble with life in the fast lane is that you get to the other end in an awful hurry.”

You don’t feel hurried in Smithfield, VA. How could you? The population is only 8,000 and its two major streets, Main and South Church, barely total one mile.

But are there such places of interest? A visitor dragging in from Norfolk Airport through the somewhat uninspiring outer part of Smithfield’s 10 or so square miles might think not. But wait! It has a fabulous downtown. Its Historic District, is now listed on the National Historic Register and boasts, for starters, 15 houses that date to the 18th century — 10 of which pre-date the Revolutionary War.

If you’re interested in Smithfield history, there’s good news and not-so-good news. The good news is the Isle of Wight County Museum is right there at the junction of Main and Church; the not-so-good news is how complicated the details are of the persons, the families actually, who made this little town the Ham Capital of the World. Indeed in writing about one P. D. Gwaltney, Jr., the Daily Press referred to him as the man who “with ham made gravy for Smithfield.”

But it’s not that simple as you strain to sort out the different families who became big in small town Smithfield.

We had seen the nameplate Captain Mallory Todd on our bedroom door at the Smithfield Inn and asked the obvious simple question. And since this is a small town where everybody knows everybody, a short time later we are bending over the Captain’s grave in a remote field with local guide and historian, Albert P. Burckard, Jr., telling us the story.

Mallory Todd made the first recorded ham sale in Smithfield in 1779 but it was the Gwaltney mentioned by the Daily Press who turned small town ham into big time business. Todd’s grave contrasts with the Civil War memorial a few miles away that proclaims “They bravely fought, They bravely fell, They wore the gray, They wore it well.”

Sometimes visitors to America’s South sense the War Between the States is not yet over.

It’s still a confusing story at the Isle of Wight County Museum even as Jennifer Williams England, its historic resources manager, shows some exhibits to us. One that wasn’t exactly Smithsonian was the “World’s Oldest Ham.” It dates back to 1902 and was subsequently written about three times in “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.” Nearby in another unusual display is the “World’s Oldest Peanut.”

Apparently this corner of East Virginia had a lightweight sandy soil and a long growing season without frost: perfect for growing peanuts. Smithfield was called the “Peanut Capital of the World” and the senior Gwaltney was the Peanut King until a 1921 fire destroyed the town’s factories. After the great fire, the Gwaltney family concentrated famously on its pork business. However, it was the competing plant Smithfield Packing Company, run by the Luter family, that became pre-eminent and grew into Smithfield Foods, or simply “Foods” as everyone in town calls it. What the locals will call it now that the company was sold to a Chinese company in the fall of 2013, remains uncertain.

In 1926 the General Assembly of Virginia passed a law that all official genuine Smithfield Hams had to be made within the town limits of Smithfield. This has protected Smithfield Ham’s ability to grow into a business that now processes 20 million hogs annually.

Visiting our family and granddaughter Aubrey at Thanksgiving 2013 and hearing from locals, we decide we must check out DeeDee Darden’s 1952 country store. DeeDee cures 900 hams a year and takes a lot of pride in her work. “You can’t have a good wedding or a good funeral without a ham biscuit!” she says.

It is not hard to find residents happy to tell us about what has happened here over the years. The Visitor Center docent Kathy Mountjoy (bottom right image above) continues our history lessons.

“Sure, we’re historically important — because of the original land grants — and we have serious stuff like our 1632 church, but the point I’d like to make is we’re a community where we all know each other and where money, as a necessity, is not so much our focus, as this is a place to enjoy life and bring up our children — in a town that’s out of the ordinary but not out of the way,” Kathy says.

We go to the town’s post office to gaze on the acclaimed restored mural above its counter. The painting is not easy to see up high and it’s a devil to straighten in Adobe Photoshop which explains its final dimensions. Showing Captain John Smith and crewmen trading in 1607 with Warraskoyack Indians on the James River, it was painted in 1941 by Massachusetts artist William Abbott Cheever during the New Deal era when FDR was trying to stimulate the economy.

Wayne Stalling, owner of Imagine Art Galleries on Main Street, points out details on one of his gallery’s paintings of the Revolutionary War. He’s not big on abstract art, he says, but loves photorealism and what either fits his gallery or is whimsical enough to make people smile.

Wayne sends us across the street to the old courthouse of 1750 where we meet historian Albert P. Burckard, Jr. and learn the importance of this building.

“Here we have 50 years of Colonial history from a British colony to the United States of America,” Albert says. He stops talking as a noisy helicopter flies overhead. “Yankee helicopter!”

The telescope dates from the Revolutionary War and has its own history: It belonged to British infantry officer, Col. R. Abercromby, who misplaced it when he camped here crossing the county with Cornwallis. It was found and sold to, ironically, another Scotsman, a local merchant named George Purdie. His widow, in her 1809 will, bequeathed it to her physician son, Dr. John Hyndman Purdie; it passed father to son through several generations till the Purdie family donated it in 1975. The gold eagle trophy from the Union gunboat, the USS Smith-Briggs, that the Confederates secured in the brief Battle of Smithfield January 1864. The wigs were worn in the old days by colonial lawyers.

The restored courthouse is an integral part of the Smithfield story. It was modeled after the Capitol building in Williamsburg with the semi-circular apse popular in English churches of that day — and when Colonial Williamsburg was created, centuries later, architects came here to copy those features. The courthouse served the community for 50 years until 1800 and was restored between 1959 and 1961.

Albert, our historian guide, shows us a historic photograph revealing how Dr. Robert Butler (born 1784) converted the old courthouse into a 10-room residence with his office in the lower level. A politician as well as a physician, Butler was State Treasurer of Virginia when he died in 1853. Across the street at 203 Main stands the impressive restored house built in 1830 and later the home of Rae Parker, MD, until his death in 1948.

When Smithfield found its courthouse too small in 1800, smart businessman Frank Boykin was ready. He donated land for a new courthouse and jail next to his tavern. Boykin’s Tavern became a popular spot for court officials and locals. Bought by the county in 1973 it is now a modest museum but important enough to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places

The house had been built in 1762. Boykin inherited the house and land in 1780. He had “served as a lieutenant with Patrick Henry and camped with George Washington at Valley Forge.” The rooms have furniture of the period from bedside commodes to washbasins and jugs.

A lot older than the tavern and a respectable distance from it back in Smithfield stands what was once called “The Old Brick Church.” Now called St. Luke’s Church it is the oldest Anglican Church in America and the nation’s oldest surviving Gothic structure. Built in 1632 it predates Williamsburg’s Tower Church, which was built around 1638. Says its guide book: “It forms a unique bridge between the early civilization of our country and the rich culture of Medieval England.”

Explains the church docent, “See the structure above the pulpit? It’s a board that magnified the preacher’s voice, the origin of the term ‘sounding board.’” She suggests also that the panel below the elevated front door that prevented chaff (thresh) from blowing into or out of a home originated the term threshold but others dispute that suggestion.

Finding antique shops in a place of antiquity should be no surprise and there are many along the short half mile of Main Street.

The antique shops have exhibits from nautical ones at Wharf Hill to even a doctor’s ancient house call bag in Return Engagements, the former 1826 Atkinson’s Storehouse that was a physician’s home and office.

The Visitor Center not only has helpful people and guides and maps for you up front but, in the back, an eclectic mix of antiques on consignment but visitors who are really into antiques should ask the visitor center to call Mansion Antiques to verify it is open or even available for an appointment.

Not many antique shops have a 1926 Ford Model T — or a 1910 AA Maxwell horseless carriage as prop. But hey! Like all the antiques, including the French carousel in the foreground that we bought ($100 with freight, the same price), they are for sale at Mansion House and Antiques.

There’s bound to be something you’d like among the extensive assortment. If you want an ungodly amount of time to poke around there, you have a choice of staying in the same owner’s B& B next door — and we’ll tell you about it in our next, and last, article about Smithfield, this cool Small Town Virginia.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.