In Smithfield, Lay Your Head Where George Washington Slept

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Smithfield isn't just a small town: it has a marina that fills with million dollar boats and an inn that was part of the Underground Railroad and at which George Washington recorded staying.

Photography by the authors

American towns that go back to the very beginnings of the New World will surely have evidence of those early days. So it’s no surprise to find antique shops in Smithfield, VA. We were talking about one last week whose owner also owns the B&B next door, Mansion On Main.

So if you want to come back to look at Betty Clark’s antiques tomorrow or even simply to enjoy those that you would live amongst as a guest then the Maison is, indeed, one of your accommodation choices. However, it has only four rooms so you might want to check that it has space first. Rates per room about $120.

The Queen Anne Victorian Mansion (lovingly restored in the late 1990s) was built in 1889 for a prominent local lawyer and historian, Richard S. Thomas (1837-1915), who has been called “Virginian of Virginians”—no small honor when you consider how many from Virginia have had an impact on United States history.

Dawn Riddle, manager for the B&B, lives in Thomas’ original law office under the front parlor. The “first occupant of the lot” was George Purdie, the Scottish merchant who paid for the Revolutionary War telescope on display in the Old Courthouse and the Mansion was the first house in the Historic District to be restored to “authentic Painted Lady splendor.”

“Smithfield’s Waterfront Hotel” constructed in 1986 gives visitors another choice for accommodations. The original structure had 15 rooms in the Inn but 22 luxury rooms were added in the Lodge in 1994. Romantics might particularly want to look at the two suites in the Lighthouse, an exact replica of a working Chesapeake Bay Light (actually modeled after Hooper Strait Light in Maryland). The Lighthouse rooms, at about $270 a night, are the most expensive.

The Smithfield Station restaurant has an impressive reputation. We ate great meals there twice: once for lunch and another for dinner. We asked our waitress Danielle how she liked living in Smithfield.

“Love it,” she says, “It’s quaint, charming, easily walked with multiple things to do all on Main Street—and most attractions are free! This used to be a one stoplight town (the stop was on Highway 10) and people would come here to get away. They still do.”

The Station’s clientele can be upscale, no surprise when you see some of the boats that are tied down. We talk to Brian Pack, one of the two sons of owners Ron and Tina Pack.

“Our marina is often full of million dollar boats,” he says. “During the last Richmond Power Boat Line we had 108 boats—more than $30 million—docked here.”

Despite pride in his guests, Brian seems unassuming. His parents had gone sailing with friends in Upper Chesapeake Bay in 1983 and realized this location on the Pagan River in Smithfield offered as much as the fancy communities they were cruising past. As a child Brian washed dishes in the Smithfield Inn. The basement of the Inn had been used as part of the Underground Railroad for slaves to escape the South and evidence of that was still around them.

The town doesn’t take itself too seriously. A pirate flag hangs outside Smithfield Station and an original warning to the ladies of Main Street reminds passersby on that street of its former times. And, in the Smithfield Inn itself, hangs a painting showing how little the inn has changed over two and a half centuries.

The Smithfield Inn is more comfortable than you’d expect in a building that is, as its staff points out, “Older than the Alamo.” It has been restored and upgraded as the focal point and signature of Smithfield Foods, the owner. Yet it has retained its appearance. This is, after all, the county that refused entry to Walmart.

“[It] would have changed our way of life. We don’t want things looking new. We want them to look timeless,” a guide told us.

The documentation shows the Inn was built in 1752. It went through many owners but was famously the Sykes Hotel from 1923 to 1968. Annie May Sykes, at those times, was the one who welcomed John D. Rockefeller Jr., Lily Pons and Lady Bird Johnson.

Annie’s name is on one of the inn’s eight room, an honor she shares with our first president. The room shown is the Todd room. It has a fireplace and a king-size bed. The Todd room, the most expensive in the inn, cost (with breakfasts) $175 a night at weekends, $15 less if you have AAA, and $20 less if you come midweek. See website for rates and book early—you never know what event might be on in town. The public rooms are interesting and comfortable. That’s Robert E. Lee you are pushing past.

We chat with Nicki Austin Johnson, the general manager of the Inn. She started working for the Smithfield Inn at the age of 16.

“Thirteen years ago (a lucky number for me) I started busking tables, then moved up to bartender then accountant and now general manager,” she says. She actually loved the bartender part most. “The Inn is like the town: small and welcoming. We get local guests from as far away as Virginia Beach, 45 miles; they tell me they come here to get away! And we say to our guests, ‘Come. We will take you as you are.’ The bar people are my friends. The bar here at the Inn is like the TV series Cheers.”

There isn’t much staff turn-over here. One of her staff, Mozell Brown, has been with the Inn for 50 years and comes in every morning at 3-5 am to make her celebrated ham rolls and bread pudding. No one knows the recipe and Mozell is gone before the staff comes in so they may never know.

GM Nicki shows off her most famous guest. She’s equally proud of her restaurant staff: the elegance and the cuisine. We had the crab cakes dish and the salmon entrée.

So what’s the story about our first president? Did he or did he not sleep at the Smithfield Inn? Cynics abound who say that if George Washington slept in every place where people made claims, he would have had time neither to fight wars nor govern his country.

The facts are these: As a surveyor who kept a logbook, Washington’s diary has an entry that read thus:

“October 29, 1768. Got to Smithfield in return to Williamsburg.

“October 30, 1768. Set out early; breakfasted at Hog Island and dined in Williamsburg.”

And since there was no other lodging in this area except the then-named Sykes Inn this was the only place he could have stayed. In those days, travelers didn’t put up their movements at TripAdvisor or Facebook. We checked.

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.