Lost Communities of Virginia

Lost Communities of Virginia
By Terri Fisher, Kirsten Sparenborg, and the Community Design Assistance Center
Earlysville, Va., Albermarle Books; distributed by The University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville
2011, 251 pages, $49.95

Review by Tony P. Wrenn, Hon. AIA

Lost Communities of Virginia is not a book one expects from a school of architecture. Its concern is vernacular architecture, and architect-designed works are hardly ever identified, much less discussed. Moreover, this book covers landscape and architecture with a reverence seldom evidenced in works that grew out of university studies.

Kirsten Sparenborg, who received her degree in architecture in 2000 and continues an active blog, long ago began photographing old, abandoned,  no longer useful yet they stand buildings. As she writes:

“their presence conveys a measure of history about the place they stand … Our surroundings, if noticed, resemble a living … disjointed, but readable visual narrative … to complete the essential complement of the physical remnants are the people themselves weathered with experience and age who have seen the changes in their communities that led from boom to abandonment.”

As an architecture intern, working with Virginia Tech’s Community Design Assistance Center (CDAC), Sparenborg had noticed a road sign pointing toward Eggleston in Giles County and, one day while working on another project, turned off to see if there was an Eggleston there.
“I found a community … a road, a few weathered buildings, and a few people with investments of life in that place, wondered about the buildings seemingly left behind, and I heard about the booming town Eggleston was once from two community matrons over eighty who sat on the sill outside the general store. The experience planted the seed for the Lost Communities of Virginia project.”

Returning to Blacksburg, she shared her excitement with Elizabeth Gilroy, the director of Tech’s CDAC, and this book had its beginning.

A layered narrative

CDAC, established in 1988, encourages students:

“To be observant of their surroundings, to create informed designs for their clients. CDAC’s mission is to assist communities, nonprofit organization, and government agencies from throughout Virginia in improving the natural and built environment through design, planning, and research. Teams of two to three Virginia Tech undergraduates and graduate students work with a CDAC staff … College of Architecture and Urban Studies (CAUS) faculty members, and community members to create conceptual designs in response to community landscape architecture, planning, architecture, or interior design needs. Students visit the communities to learn about the place and the project input, and present preliminary and final conceptual designs for the community.”

Programs evolve from a sense of place, for studies are based on location, landscape, buildings, people, and needs still there. The programs may not be unique, but all differ in one way or another, for in these communities the teams discover that “there is still a there there.” Programs are designed to help one understand once-functioning communities, learn from the decline, and inform others of their importance in Virginia’s settlement, design, development, and continuing life.

The process is a layered one that may involve architecture, landscape architecture, oral history, transportation, population growth and development, religion, immigration, race, ethnic differences, and other facets of growth or decline. CDAC may not be actively preserving with hammer and nails, but, as the book illustrates, is preserving with camera and words. Few program I am aware of are more directly involved and effective in preservation, for the Tech program leads to understanding and preserving architectural and landscape diversity, often overlooked elsewhere in other programs.

The lost communities project, out of which this publication grew, is only one of CDAC’s projects. I sought other states with similar studies but could locate no other statewide program with the scope, depth, and readability of the Lost Communities study.

The project

The Lost Communities project began in 2000 with a windshield survey of 2,600 small Virginia communities, identified from the DeLorme Gazetteer of Virginia. In the first stage, communities that were obviously still successful or completely abandoned were eliminated, leaving 548 active communities. Photographs—2,400 of them—were taken of the 548 and information gathered. The list was then narrowed to 130 communities that exhibited a locus of community life—communities where people still lived and or gathered.

Each of the 130 once thrived economically and socially and, though all showed evidence of decline, still revealed physical evidence of their past. In all, long-time residents preserved memories of the community. In each, the combination of design features and surviving residents provided a sense of community uniqueness or difference. Each also represented a regional community of a particular type in the development of the state.

The 130 were restudied and summaries presented to a panel of professors from Tech’s CAUS. The 30 projects in this book were the final narrowing of communities that the book describes through historical or visual narratives, surviving structures and landscapes, and quotations from local residents. Some 3,300 photographs covered these 30 communities.

All photographs, interviews, and other materials are being archivally processed and stored and are, or will be, available to researchers. Available images totaled 5,200 as the book was being prepared.

What the 30 lost communities represent

The initial 548 represented specific criteria. Each is still visually intact and can be understood through existing buildings, landscape, and history. Equally important as long as buildings and people survive, the community will not vanish entirely, and it is important to understand these communities if one would understand Virginia. The industries, transportation modes, and way of life that once defined the community may be lost, but:

“As long as the buildings and people remain, the community will not vanish entirely. Some of the lost communities have found a way to reinvent themselves, but all have in common a lost industry or way of life that has forever changed the place and the reason for the communities’ development.”

As the study of the 130 evolved, it became clear that each of the communities served an important and basic resident need. Some communities began as a result of one activity but morphed over time as needs or resources changed. Seven types of community developmental needs indicated a way that each of the 30 could be studied.
The 30 do not cover all of Virginia. One can draw a straight line from Frederick County on the state’s northwest border to Accomack on the Atlantic to the east, of from Bath County on the West Virginia border to Virginia Be3ach on the Atlantic and find no lost communities covered in this work. They are there, though, waiting to be discovered. Southern and Central Virginia are areas best covered in this book.

Even now, motorcycle or auto tours are being developed for one- or two-day visits of the communities. Discovery along the way is a vital part of each of the tours, and visitors are invited to check road signs or other evidence that may interest them, whether a part of the tour or not.

Community types

Some of the community types are obvious. None is related to size or importance at any given time, but each community fitted at some time in its existence into one of the types.

Gathering places is perhaps the most obvious—places where business was conducted or news was shared. Courthouse communities, market places, churches, mills, stores, and commerce centers were gathering places. Five of the 30 selected communities were given that designation. The Bridge in Carroll County and Troutdale in Grayson are among them.

Farming communities were also a logical and an easy type. As acreage became smaller and the number of persons caring for individual farms diminished, farmers began to build communities together. They could grow, produce, and market diverse products and interact socially. As fewer family farms remain, these are among the most endangered of all community types. Four of the 30 are farming communities: Doe Hill in Highland County, Uno in Madison, and Moneta in Bedford are among them.

Cultural enclaves were dominated by a single religion, race, ethnic, or economic class. Three of the 30 are cultural enclaves; among them the Pamunkey Indian Reservation in King William County, Jerome in Shenandoah, and Almargo in Danville City.

Resort communities is a type associated with the wealthier class of Virginians. As the springs of Virginia became internationally known—places where the upper classes could escape the heat, humidity, and disease of their local areas and socialize with their own class, communities grew around the springs or along routes where relief was required in the long journey to a resort community. Three of the 30 communities were so labeled, including Sweet Chalybeate in Allegheny County and Eggleston in Giles.

Transportation hubs are located along waterways, railroads, and highways where early development met the need to travel from community to community. Trips sometimes took days or weeks and required rest or business along the way. Waterways created early communities, highways somewhat later ones, with railroads not far behind. Sometimes these hubs were communities already established, but as often they were created by the arrival of turnpikes or railroads. Seven of the 30 are so idenfitied, including Sharps in Richmond County and Newport in Giles.

Resource extraction towns were usually located in rural or isolated areas where coal, timber, iron, gold, clay, or other minerals might change the direction of a given community or create a new one. Often, as well, the resource changed over time, which brought changes in the community. Five of the 30 are so identified. Mineral in Louisa County and Mendotta in Washington, are among them.

Company towns, a special type of resource extraction community, were created to serve the companies and workers involved in extracting a specific resource, particularly coal. Four of the 30 are so identified: Pocahontas in Tazewell County, Paint Bank in Craig, and Stonega and Derby in Wise among them.

Reviews give little space for coverage such as this book deserves, for even names of many lost communities are worth remembering. Doe Hill, The Bridge, Pamunkey, Jerome, Mineral, Paint Bank, Uno, and others conjure up images worth mulling over.

This volume is readable, enjoyable, informative, and beautifully illustrated, all reasons to spend quiet time with it.

“Just as no two people are the same, every community is different. Every community in Wise County is different. Every company town is different. Every coal town is different. None looks the same. None feels the same. None has the same history, nor will you hear the same exact story from every resident about life in the place … A complex set of circumstances has created each community, providing a uniqueness that, when understood, can help us learn how communities form, grow, live, and die. Each place survives today, certainly different from its heyday, but either evolving or stagnating under the pressures of the twenty-first century.”

Gathering places

The Bridge, Carroll County
The Bridge consists of the New Hope Primitive Baptist Church in an idyllic setting alongside Little Reed Island Creek—three houses, a store, and a bridge (a covered one until 1939). Obviously, the bridge gave the community its name and it, the roads that lead to it, and the church, made it a gathering place. The church, typical of Primitive Baptist churches, is plain with separate entrances for men and women, no decoration inside or out, clear glass, no musical instruments, and services by lay preachers. One of the myriad groups that call themselves Baptists, Primitive Baptists trace their lineage to John the Baptist and believe that only those called by God before the world was created are saved.

Acceptance into the church is by total immersion, and water is an important source for choosing a site, as is comfortable shade and space for the crowds that came to meetings. Primitive Baptists had reached Virginia by 1789, meetings were held monthly, and Southwest Virginia became their stronghold. Membership was never large because one had to be certain of being one of the chosen before baptism was offered, and it came quickly then. A hole might be cut in iced-over streams. Women sewed weights into the hems of their dresses, generally ones they had designed and made themselves, to keep them from ballooning or floating during baptism.

These Baptists, often called Hardshells, Old School, Footwashing, and other less complimentary names, opposed missionary societies, Sunday schools, colleges or seminaries, choirs, youth groups, and other such organizations. Though New Hope only met monthly, there were other Primitive Baptist churches in the area, and the Primitive Baptist might still be a weekly churchgoer. The grounds around churches, as ideally located as New Hope, were meeting places for the larger community, only a minority of whom were members of the church.

Meeting times, an activity supported by several Primitive Baptist churches, came in August at New Hope:

“’as far as anyone could see, the road was filled with wagons, buggies, two-seated surreys, folks on horseback or riding “shanks mare” [i.e., walking], and on occasion the home boy who had made good brought his new Ford to show off, all going to the August Meeting at The Bridge. Folks who had Model T Fords drove up and down through the crowd to make sure they had been seen. The cars which had horns were heard almost constantly the entire distance from home to the meeting’ remembered Ninevah Willis.

“Kathryn Worrell Marshall added: ‘they’d park up and down the road for miles sometimes. Just hundreds of people.’

“and Ray Marshall noted that ‘some used to refer to these meetings as “all day dinner and preaching on the ground,” instead of “all day preaching and dinner on the ground,” which is what they had … Of the people who went to the meetings I suppose 90 percent of them never entered the door—at these big meetings there were very few strangers.’

“Ruthie Hutton described dinner on the grounds: ‘It was good to beat the crowd in order to get a good parking where you could spread your dinner near the wagon. Dinner consisted of fried chicken, sausage, boiled pork, ham, stewed beef, biscuits, fresh tomatoes, peaches, pickles, cakes, pies, watermelons, and cantaloupe (all from the farm). One or two tablecloths were spread for a splendid ground-covered feast for the family and any friends or relatives who happened by and were hungry or just wanted to socialize.’”

Troutdale, Grayson County
Troutdale was another gathering place. At 3,200 to 4,000 feet above sea level, it is the highest elevation of any community in Virginia and boasts Mount Rogers at 5,729 feet and Whitetop Mountain at 5,520 feet. It also may be the only circular community in Virginia, bounded by a radius in every direction of one mile from the northeast corner of what is known as “church lot” on Main Street. With railroad and highway access and even a bank, Troutdale became a trade center and gathering place for Grayson County and nearby North Carolina communities. The presence of plentiful timber in the late 19th century, when most of the timber in the northern U.S. had already been exhausted, brought trade and people.

Named for the location in the dale or valley between the mountains and trout that crowded Fox Creek, which runs through town, the location supported farms, lumbering, furniture manufacturing, and at least one upscale store. Parsley Merchandise Store had a ladies department with a milliner who regularly visited Baltimore and New York seeking the latest styles for her Troutdale customers.

Troutdale had a meteoric rise when the 2000 census showed it with a population of 1,230, and 84 percent growth surge since the 1990 census, which showed 192 residents. One local quipped: “Even if you count all the cattle, you are going to have a hard time coming up with 1,230 residents.”

More puzzling was the fact that Troutdale was all white in 1990, while its 2000 population included 834 black inhabitants. The Census Bureau finally admitted it had added 1,036 inmates from prisons in Wise County, three counties away on the West Virginia border, to the population of Troutdale. Troutdale had actually grown from 192 in 1990 to 194 in 2000. Its population, also according to the Census Bureau, had been 431 in 1910 and 636 in 1920.

In 1925, Sherwood Anderson, seeking “a cool place where it is not too expensive to live,” came to Troutdale. He stayed with a friend for awhile, then built a home nearby “to live in communion with others, and not in competition.” He wrote a friend about Troutdale:
“The mountain people are sweet. No books. Little false education, real humbleness … Hills everywhere with cold springs trickling out of them. Forests yet. People live in isolated cabins far apart. Everyone wants you to come in, to drink moonshine, to eat and spend the night.”

The population of Troutdale continued to drop as its railroad closed in 1932 and the tracks were removed in 1934. In 1939, when the town was about to lose its charter, since most men could not run for mayor because of unpaid taxes, a woman ran on a write-in campaign and won with 17 of 31 votes cast. Troutdale’s charter remains intact, its people still finding ways to handle problems that arise.

Farming communities

Doe Hill, Highland County
In the Bullpasture River Valley, Doe Hill was settled by Germans from Pennsylvania in the mid-1700s. Originally an Augusta County settlement, it moved to Pendleton County in 1788 as boundaries were redrawn but came to rest in Highland in 1847, where it has remained. The fertile land of the Bullpasture Valley lent itself to farming, including hay for cattle and sheep and buckwheat, oats, rye, and corn while the plentiful water of the creeks made milling a logical activity and maples made maple sugar, an early staple.

Deer were plentiful on the surrounding hills, and Doe Hill is an early name that has survived. Sugar, black, silver, and red maples—the only maples that provide sap for maple sugar—are also plentiful in the area and, though it takes 40 to 50 gallons of maple sap for one gallon of maple syrup, or eight pounds of maple sugar, sugar gathering was and is an important seasonal activity. In a good year, Doe Hill maples may share 6,000 or more gallons of their sugary sap annually.

The Highland County Maple Festival did not begin until 1959, and that year attracted few visitors, some 600. Nowadays, during the second and third weekends in March, 75,000 or more visitors make their way to the county, whose population is around 2,500. At 2,900 feet above sea level, Doe Hill marks the southern range of the sugar industry, now more than 200 years old in Highland County. It has been a part of this farming community’s commerce all year long.

During the festival, visitors participate in sap gathering, visit sugar houses to see the sap become sugar or syrup, and eat pancakes and maple sugar products. With the exception of sap gathering, there are other sugary things to do, which may include watching the silent movie Tol’able David, filmed in Doe Hill in 1921.

The coming of the automobile led to straightening of the county’s curvy roads, improving trade and visitor access, but also making it easy for younger people to move away, and population has dropped somewhat. Still, local clubs hold craft fairs and serve buckwheat pancake/maple syrup breakfasts, and there is a bed and breakfast, all serviced by the automobile.

Local resident Donald Craig knows why locals stay:

“Folks born in Highland County expect to die in Highland County. That’s why there is not much crime. If you were a wild teenage boy, thinking to steal another man’s automobile, would you do it if you’d be called a car thief all your days? Would you burgle a country store if your act would shame your family for say 50 years? Country people aren’t normally better than city people, they’ve just got to live with everything they’ve ever done.”

Uno, Madison County
Uno is near Madison’s border with Orange County on the Rapidan River. It is hilly and forested as it moves toward the Blue Ridge Mountains. Still, there is abundant farm land that some called “the little cow pasture” when Madison was formed in 1792.

Both railroad and turnpike reached Uno in 1854, making the area important to both Union and Confederate forces during the Civil War. Troop movements and skirmishes were frequent and common.

Ultimately, Jack’s Shop, a local blacksmith shop, became known as Kingdom Come. Rochelle, the next stop, was near Glory, and Rochelle gained quick fame by claiming to be located “between Glory and Kingdom Come.”

In 1891, when the Post Office came to Kingdom Come, the name was changed to Uno. Legend suggests that the name came from the local popularity of a moonshine operation. Whenever someone asked where the moonshine came from or where one was going when headed toward it, the answer was always “You know,” and the name stuck.

A creamery and other farm businesses were located in the area, but the store operated by the Weaver family seemed the center of the community where farmers came to discuss their problems and pass gossip around the coal burning stove they congregated near in winter. The store installed the first telephone, which tied Uno to the outside world, while the store, which also operated as the community funeral parlor, remained a community locus. A 12-foot-wide stair allowed pallbearers to bring coffins down from the second floor funeral parlor, where coffins could be acquired for $5, $10, or $15.

Uno also had an African American community that included a church, a school, and a broom factory operated by two blind brothers who caned chairs and built brooms of natural materials.

Uno achieved fame in 1946 when the United Nations Organization (UNO) was formed and chose New York as its home. An enterprising reporter suggested that he had a better location and offered Uno, an existing community with the right name and postmark, beautiful countryside, and adequate space. Postmark collectors sought cancellations and the postmaster’s signature, an activity that persisted even after it was certain that the UNO would be in New York. Postmaster Horace Weaver made time to pose for photographs on the store porch, give radio interviews, and answer reporters’ questions.

“I don’t think anything will ever come of it,” he said. “But if they want to bring that UNO here, we can accommodate them.”

A more costly effect may have been to make the community sign a collector’s item. To feed the trade, the community seems to have changed all the letters to capitals, so Uno became, on signs, UNO—which it remained even after the Uno Post Office—just one room with 40 mail boxes in a store that had been closed for years—closed in 1967. The store survives.

Moneta, Bedford County
A tannery, which opened in 1858 at the crossing of Terry’s Branch on the Lynchburg–Rocky Mount Turnpike, marked the beginning of the community that would become Moneta. In 1886 a Post Office was opened, and Moneta was born, said to have been named after a Keats character in The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream, which Postmaster John Thaxton’s wife was reading at the time. Farming was the dominant activity in the area, with tanneries, blacksmith shops, and creameries soon established. In time, a lumber mill, canning factories, a wooden box factories, dairies, and feldspar mines joined the mix.

The building of the Virginia Railroad in the early 1900s may have brought Mark Twain to town in its inaugural run in 1908, but others say Twain hated riding trins and, though in Norfolk at the time, chose to stay there.

Moneta remained a small farming community and, though the train station had waiting rooms, one marked “White Only,” and one marked “Black Only,” locals wondered what anyone needed the rooms to wait for, since there were only two trains a day.

In 1934, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers chose the Roanoke River at Smith Mountains Gap as a possible site for generating hydroelectric power, though studies indicated the water was not sufficient, and the project developed slowly with property being purchased by the Staunton River Power Company.

In 1954, this property was acquired by the Appalachian Power Company and work began on two dams, one to close the Smith Mountain Gap and one at Leesville. Water would pass through both lakes during the day, generating power, but most water released from Smith Mountain Lake would be caught at Leesville and pumped back to Smith Mountain to be used again the next day.

The project began with the blasting and shaping of the Smith Mountain Gap into proper dam form. Concrete pouring began in 1961 for the 227-foot-high, 816-foot-wide Smith Mountain Dam that was completed in 1963. Some 20,600 acres of tobacco farms and pine forests in Bedford, Pittsylvania, and Franklin counties were ultimately covered with water, crating a lake with a 500-mile shoreline. Moneta was changed when, as one reporter noted, “tons of water buried a bit of innocence.”

Moneta’s population was about 700 in the mid-20th century, when the dam changed traffic patterns, the railroad (by then Norfolk Southern) changed its Moneta grade crossing, and highway traffic was rerouted from downtown. The town was split into parts and a bypass built.
In 1990 Walt Disney painted three buildings in what had been Moneta to create a coffee shop, general store, bus stop, and boat rental in what was meant to be the New Hampshire town of Lake Winnipesaukee. During that fall, with Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss starring, What About Bob? was filmed in the fake New Hampshire village located in Virginia.

Just down the road, a new downtown Moneta, Celebration Square, was built with shopping and residences somewhat resembling the real downtown, which was within sight but unavailable. Elsewhere around Moneta the boat replaced the tractor as acreage and forest continue to disappear to development as fast and irretrievably as did acreage swallowed by the waters of the lakes.

“What was once a quiet farming village has indeed lost its innocence as outsiders seeking the same quiet and recreational opportunities have resulted in the loss of the way of life they were seeking.”

Cultural enclaves

Jerome, Shenandoah County
German settlers moved into the Shenandoah Valley as early as the 1720s and, by 1776, nearly half the settlers in the valley, some 50,000, were German. Well known for bringing their religion and rituals with them, the settlers included German Baptist or Dunkards, Seventh Day Baptists, Mennonites, and German and Reformed Lutherans.

Although some groups had no difficulty finding ministers, the German Lutherans required ministers to be university-trained and ordained. With little money for reasonable salaries, few such ministers were willing to move to the valley. The church struggled, but by 1793 had organized into a district with four traveling and ordained ministers. Synods and other organizations followed.

St. Paul’s Lutheran was first served by the Rev. Ambrose Henkel, owner of the Henkel and Company Printing Press in New Market, 18 miles away. He made monthly visits on horseback for a salary of $1 per month. The Rev. Jacob Steirwalt replaced Henkel in 1837, continuing the monthly service and salary. During his service, in 1849, a deed was received for property on which to build a church, school, and cemetery, and the congregation built a simple church and school.

A Post Office was established at the G.W. Miller Store in 1886 and named Jerome for the much-respected Rev. Jerome Paul Stirewalt, who was minister at St. Paul’s from 1882 to 1886. A church was completed by 1891, with a nearly 20-foot-tall roof topped by an 8-foot cupola with a bell rung for services and deaths (six times for a woman; nine for a man). A new school was built in 1906, and stained glass and radiator heat went into the church in 1926. In 1930, with a membership of 223 and Sunday School of 238, more space was needed, and the church and school reached their present configuration in 1937. That same year, the rock wall of native stone that separates the church and cemetery from the public road—one of the most striking features of the community—was completed.

During World War I there were only two families in the school who did not speak Dutch, and one of those understood it. Even after two world wars, Jerome was still culturally isolated. A German dialect was still spoken in Jerome in 1964.

Several store buildings and an abandoned gas station remain near the church. A grocery store continued in service in Jerome as late as 1977, and church membership remains high so that the church, school, and cemetery are carefully maintained. The 600-foot-long stone wall that follows the curves of the highway visually distinguishes Jerome from other communities in the valley.

The community began with the church and today the still-active church and its members give Jerome continuity.

Pamunkey Indian Reservation, King William County
The Pamunkey’s have inhabited the Pamunkey Neck in Eastern Virginia, bounded on three sides by the Pamunkey River, since at least 5000 B.C. Captain John Smith recorded them there in 1607. They were not restricted by land boundaries as we think of them, for the Pamunkey believed the land and its bounties of fish, game, and other foods belonged to everyone and skirmished early with the British over the idea of land ownership. A treaty was reached with them in 1646 that ceded 5,000 acres to the Indians, a fact they little understood.

Pamunkey boys were sent to Indian School at William & Mary, converted to Christianity, and trained to replace their beliefs and rituals with Christian ones. New treaties followed, and the Pamunkey declined.

By Thomas Jefferson’s time, no more than 10 or 12 members of the tribe were said to survive. At the end of the 19th century, in 1899, there were reportedly 150 Pamunkey. Virginia’s racial laws and public sentiment in the 19th century tended to separate the Pamunkey more and more from whites, with “Indian” no longer regarded as a race. In 1929, under Virginia’s Racial Integrity Law, they were classified as “Mongrel,” “Colored,” or “Negro.” White churches and schools were then off limits to them.

Not allowed to attend white schools, they refused to attend black schools, a problem that only the end of a segregated school system could change. The Pamunkey Indian Baptist Church, established in 1865, remained a safe place where they could gather under the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion.

Believing that “if you take fish from the river, you should put some back,” the Pamunkey had established a shad hatchery in 1918 to replace the shad that over-fishing and loss of habitat had drastically diminished. It is the oldest shad hatchery in America, and its hatchlings are used to restock East Coast rivers. In operation still, it introduced more than 32 million young shad into the Chesapeake Bay Watershed between 1989 and 1997. Today, the hatchery, located on reservation wetlands, is threatened by nearby water needs for Newport News and other area cities, but is still in operation.

Traditional potters, the Pamunkey established a pottery school during the 1930s, intending to reintroduce Pamunkey pottery. Instead, its teachers introduced commercial pottery making, and the Pamunkey produced pottery such as normally found in inexpensive houseware stores. There was no expected revival of traditional Pamunkey pottery.

When this book was written, fewer than 90 people lived on the Pamunkey Reservation. Though again recognized as Indians by Virginia, a status they received only in the late 20th century, they still are not nationally recognized.

The present-day 1,200-acre reservation is, according to Ashely Adkins:
“a small piece of land, but the fact that it’s never been out of our hands—ever—and that we still manage to exits here … it just says a lot about who we are as a people. You know that this is where you come from. I’ve carried that with me every day of my life.”

Almagro, Danville City
Areas around Danville, including large parts of Pittsylvania, Halifax, and Henry counties, have long been known for the tobacco grown there. In the late 18th century, tobacco, in both leaf and manufactured form, became increasingly more important and a tobacco inspection station for tax purposes was established on the Dan River in 1793 and. When its post office opened in 1800, the community was named Danville.

The Danville area prospered as bright leaf tobacco, first introduced just across the border from Danville in North Carolina, became more and more popular. Its production was labor-intensive and growing, marketing, and manufacturing involved slave labor. After the Civil War, the ex-slave—“not a free man, just a free Negro”—continued to provide the major labor force in the tobacco industry.

As the Richmond and Danville Railroad was constructed, black workers made up much of the work force and joined the tobacco workers, batteaumen who worked on boats on the river, and other black workers to develop black communities in and around Danville. One large and important community developed south of the city and its railroad tracks near the North Carolina boarder. Called Jacksonville, probably after Jackson’s Branch around which it developed, it had its own stores, a hospital, a school, and an important church, Shiloh Baptist, which developed around the Jackson’s Branch Sunday School, established just after the Civil War in 1865.

Danville, established to make it easy to market and tax tobacco, had initially been governed as predominantly white, which it was not. That changed briefly during Reconstruction. In the 1880 election, 7 of 12 councilmen elected, four policemen, and the mayor were black. By controlling the voting process, the city returned to white control in 1883, however, and by 1902, Virginia law controlled black voting so that white control was not likely to again be surrendered.

The Jacksonville community lost even its name in 1897 when the Pittsylvania Post Office was opened. Its name because “Almagro,” a name that may have come from a description of the community as “all Negro,” from the Spanish word “almagro,” meaning all black, or from the Spanish “almagre,” meaning red ochre, the color of the soil that grew such fine tobacco in the area. Whatever the origin of the name, it marked the community racially.

In 1909, Almagro had a population of 230 adult residents, with occupations such as school teacher, barber, minister, postmaster, carpenter, mason, plasterer, and chairmaker, plus those who worked in tobacco warehouses, where tobacco was sold and traded, or in tobacco factories or fields.

By 1925, Danville’s 8 tobacco warehouses, soon to grow to 11, had become the largest loose-leaf bright tobacco market in the world with the sale of 75 million pounds during the year. Almagro had provided much of the workforce that insured that success.

It had a post office, town council, and police force and was the largest African American community in Virginia when it was annexed by Danville in 1932. Of the families in Almagro, 62 percent owned their own homes or other properties.

In 1946, James Peters Sr., with the Almagro Stadium Corporation, bought 10 acres behind Shiloh Baptist Church and the Almagro Training School, where a stadium for the African American semi-professional Danville All-Stars baseball team was built. Said to have lighting for night-time play second only to Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, it drew regular crowds of 3,000 to 4,000 spectators.

When nationally famous African American players—Jackie Robinson, Luke Easter, Roy Campanella, and Larry Doby—played there, as many as 14,000 crowded the stadium. It was a Danville All-Stars player, Percy Miller, who, in 1951, left the African American team to play for the previously all-white Danville Leafs in the Carolina League, thus making history and difficulties for himself. The Leafs played at Danville’s segregated League Park, where Miller could not use the clubhouse. Initially, he had to dress at home, drive to League Park in uniform, and return home in uniform before he could change.

On July 3, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was scheduled to return to Danville—he had spoken there to 2,500 in March—to urge protests that would hasten integration. On July 2, the day before King was to return, the Danville City Council denied his parade permit, condemned and closed Peters Park—where King was scheduled to speak, and the parade to begin the next day—for any future public use.

What a historical highway marker Peter’s Park in Almargo deserves.

The power of the black community continued to challenge the white community, but the power fo the Danville cotton mills, with 450,000 spindles, 9,000 looms, and 10,500 workers grew into the world’s largest textile mills. For a long time in the mid to late 20th century, Danville could not decide whether it was the world’s best tobacco market or world’s biggest textile mills. But it didn’t matter, for WBTM, in the public mind, worked for either community.

Resort communities

Sweet Chalybeate, Allegheny County
“There are four requisites that must combine to form a perfect health and pleasure resort: climate water, amusements, and good hotel accommodations. At Sweet Chalybeate Springs, all these important requisites are to be found,” proclaimed a 1910 advertising brochure.

Sweet Chalybeate was known as early as 1773 as a healing spring and had important sponsors. George Washington, probably on a surveying mission, was camped nearby when his horse was bitten by a rattlesnake. The horse waded in the springs water and, it is said, was cured by the next morning. Relief from rheumatism or similar disorders, and perhaps belief in the Washington story, brought early settlers to the spring where they both drank and bathed in its waters.

By the early 19th century, the springs, spread through the Virginia mountains, had become famous places for Southern aristocracy to vacation. They and others used the waters to purge and cleanse their interiors, improve their complexion, heal, relieve pain, relax, and for almost any medical purpose one can imagine. Meanwhile, they filled the social purpose of bringing those who could afford it together in one of America’s most famous vacation areas, replacing the scenery and offering ever-improving facilities as the 19th century evolved into the 20th. Virginia’s springs easily equaled the European Grand Tour.

Red Sweet Springs was the name this spring was known by until the Civil War, when they closed. The spring reopened as Sweet Chalybeate, a name it has carried through the many attempts to reopen it until it finally closed during World War I in 1918.

Sweet Chelybeate had pools, a grand hotel, cottages, manicured lawns, an orchestra, and even a newspaper reading room with well-known news sheets from many locations. It was the first of the resorts to offer its guests this means of keeping up to date.

One could fish, hunt, play tennis, go horseback riding, and bathe, not just with water and a sponge, but in 79 degree Fahrenheit water that ran at the rate of 1,152,000 gallons daily. Bubbles in the water provided buoyancy and a tingling sensation that made many patrons—if not healthier and stronger—at least happier. Some bathed before breakfast, some before bed, some five or more times a day, each time spending at least 20 minutes in the appropriate pool; one for men, one for women.

One also drank the water, sweet but with a strong mineral taste that many found distasteful initially but grew to like. Food and service were first class for up to 350 guests at a time, some of whom might stay for weeks as they made their way from spring to spring.

Sweet Chalybeate suffered because it was nine miles from the nearest railroad station when guests were known to arrive with as many as 15 trunks, 150 garments, and their own staff and slaves. Distance from the railroad was a disadvantage, but Red Sweet Springs/Sweet Chalybeate made up for this inconvenience with a reputation for quality and reliability in its accommodations, food, and staff. The 1,700-acre resort of 1850 is down to 10 acres today.

It is remarkable that after having been closed for nearly 90 years, Sweet Chalybeate is still recognizable from its pools, bathhouses, gazebos, cottages, hotel, and other surviving buildings, which still provide a look at the era of Greek Revival beauty when the resort was in fashion.

“That-there thing you drove up in. That automobile. That killed the springs. People got to go, go, go, go. They don’t want to sit and enjoy.”—Woodward Harry Evans, They Called Them Watering Places.

Transportation hubs

Sharps, Richmond County
The Sharps area on the Eastern Shore of Virginia was explored in the 17th century by Captain John Smith. Samuel Peachy established Milden Hall Plantation there in the 1660s, and his family later built Milden Hall in what is today Sharps, a brick, five-bay Federal-era house that survives. It was later acquired by the Sharp family after the Peachys left the area in the 1820s. The D.W.C. Sharp House, a six-bay frame house built in the same era, which was in derelict condition when this book was written, has since been restored. Milden Hall was acquired by the Sharp family in the 19th century, giving them ownership of two of the premier houses of the community.

The Sharps gave their name to the community where they helped establish the steam ship as the dominant mode of travel for both passengers and freight on the Rappahannock River. Ultimately, the favorite honeymoon trip in the area was from Fredericksburg, Tappahannock, or Sharps to Baltimore and return. A trip that might take two weeks or more as the steamer stopped often at wharves or plantation docks—there were more than 30 of them on the navigable 100 miles of the Rappahannock River. The round trip equaled the cruises honeymooners take today.

“Steamboat companies vied for passengers by hiring charismatic captains and offering luxury accommodations and meals … The boats came to symbolize a way of life—elegant, pretentious, self-indulgent, class-conscious, but exquisitely attuned to the beauties and vagaries of the Chesapeake.”—Walter Fidler.

The arrival of a steamboat was a source of entertainment, almost a ritual, and country folk for miles around came by cart and carriage to the event, bringing activity, people, and views of the outside world.

By the Civil War, boats had become so important that when the Union commandeered all the boats at Baltimore and blockaded the Rappahannock, the Northern Neck came to a standstill. One can appreciate the standing of the steamers when one remembers that, as Walter Fidler continued:

“White tablecloths, silver sugar, coffee, cream … and the men waiting tables had white jackets on … good food, excellent food … The ships burned coal and carried livestock, distinctive odors—there was no way to get away from the odor. You couldn’t. You went upstairs [the animals were below, the smokestacks above] … wide stairways going up to the main deck, off of which were the rooms, and all the furniture up there, heavy leather. Everything was brass and everything was polished—every handle, rail.”

Prosperity returned after the war. Oysters were planted, grown, and harvested from the river at several wharves, producing as many as 7,000 cans of oysters daily. At Sharps Wharf, 150 to 200 men were still employed until World War II. The oyster company remained on Sharps Wharf until 1954 when Hurricane Hazel destroyed the wharf.

The community passed through many names, several of which involved the Sharp family, but did not become Sharps until 1901, and the name has remained.

Tomato canning was perhaps as important to Sharps as were oysters, at least during tomato season. The canneries shipped 300 to 1,000 cases of canned tomatoes daily during tomato season, the peels and cores dumped into the river turned it red.

Little except the evidence of pilings and other remnants of transportation on the river remain, but Sharps is still a community to be reckoned with and is one that remembers its past.

“The gasoline engine in the automobile proved the nemesis of the steam engine in the river boat, but the gasoline engine has not yet been installed in anything so conducive to languorous luxury or so majestically picturesque as a steamboat coming ’round the bend,” wrote Fidler.

Indeed the James Adams Floating Theater, a large barge pulled by tugs and seating 850 people in its auditorium, visited Sharps yearly between 1914 and 1918. Its repertory company performed six or more plays while anchored in Sharps before moving on, in a week or so, to the next wharf. Audiences came from as much as 60 miles away. It was the James Adams Floating Theater that Edna Ferber used as the model for Show Boat.

Newport, Giles County
In the fertile valley between Gap, Sinking Creek, Spruce Run, Clover Hollow, and Salt Pond Mountain, Germans settled Chapman’s Mills in the 1770s. There was adequate water power to run grist mills, saw mills, and a distillery, all before 1820. The settlement became a stop for travelers and settlers heading west toward the headwaters of the James River. Turnpikes and roads crossed at Chapman’s Mills, and by 1837 it was officially known as Newport, basically a new port of entrance to Virginia’s western frontier.

During the Civil War, 123 men from Newport joined the Confederate forces, and its travel arteries quickly brought Union forces to the area. Future presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley arrived with those forces. Though there were skirmishes, little damage came to Newport, and it rebounded quickly at the end of the war. Its transportation arteries served it well, and though there was no railroad and the first automobile did not come to town until 1912, or the first garage until 1917, Newport prospered as a transportation hub through which east-west traffic passed coming and going.

In 1872, it was the first town in Giles County to be incorporated, and that same year some of the first students at Virginia Tech (Virginia Agricultural and Technical College when it opened) were from Newport.

Woolen and flax mills, iron furnaces, charcoal kilns, tool manufacturing, and new distilleries joined the industrial mix. Though a disastrous fire on April 1, 1902, destroyed three stores, two hotels, the jail, Masonic Lodge, and two houses, the town quickly recovered. By 1920, with a population of 225, more grist mills and stores, the Sinking Creek Valley Bank, and another new road, the town’s status as a transportation center was preserved.

Newport boasted four telephone companies and, in 1936, hosted the first Newport Fair, the oldest continuously operating agricultural fair in the commonwealth. Horses, cows, poultry, and other livestock are the stars of the fair. At any time other than fair time, the survivors of the roads that crossed at Newport, three covered bridges in Newport—there are only eight in all of Virginia—may be the town’s main attraction.

“The Clover Hollow section of Newport is really building up now. That’s the Givens’ here and the Lucas’ over here … home places. And there are families that go back five, six, seven, eight generations in Newport. And, of course, they’re still hanging in there farming, but not many of the farms left. And these little buildings that you see alongside the road are the scales where they would weight the livestock and all as they loaded it for shipping out.”—Doug Martin

“Newport,” the authors write, “is a prime example of a place where the community is very much alive, but its original incarnation as a crossroads community has been lost, a victim of transportation advances.”

Company towns

Derby, Wise County
Essentially a linear city along both sides of Highway 686, which runs alongside Preacher Creek on whose other side runs the railroad, Derby began in 1922 as an experiment in “welfare capitalism” or “social paternalism.” As the unions moved toward organizing miners , the companies seemed equally certain that a happy or content workforce was more likely to remain loyal to the company employing them and less likely to demand union representation.
Essentially, Stonega Coke and Coal Company (SC&C) workers were content. The Wentz family, which owned the company, offered job security, competitive wages, and comfortable living conditions. Named by the mine owners on their way to the Kentucky Derby, the construction of Derby, a planned community, was intended to sweeten those positives.

Begun in 1922, the year the SC&C signed all its employees to a contract forbidding them to join unions, the new town was to house 192 families in 92 two-family houses and 8 single-family homes. The single-family units housed the mine superintendent and managers, and the houses assigned to them were called Society Row. This kept the mine owners’ representatives among the miners and was intended to ensure that whatever was happening in the community made its way to the company offices.

Most houses were of hollow tile construction, with interior walls finished and plastered. They were basically Craftsman Style, had indoor plumbing and service lines and included a kitchen sink, enclosed toilet on the back porch, electricity, front and back porches, and individual coal storage houses. Front lawns were enclosed with white fences and 375 maple trees planted along the road leading to the mines. A church, theater, baseball field, school, and company store were provided, most built of brick.

Baseball was a popular pastime during the era, and the company attracted players by offering good salaries, easier jobs, and company-provided uniforms and travel. Games were played on Sunday afternoons and provided popular entertainment for the community.

Though Derby was not segregated by class, it was segregated by race. Blacks lived near the point where the road narrowed, so they had no room for front lawns or shade trees, which houses for whites shared. When workers were paid by the number of tons of coal they loaded each day, black workers were employed in a mine where it was difficult to mine good coal, so they were paid less than the white miners and, as conditions changed, were the first to lose their jobs. The houses they had occupied were also the first demolished as the community faded.

Much happened quickly. The 1923 price of coal that the company sold the year Derby was being built dropped to a third of that price by 1928, a year one of the mines was nearly depleted.

In 1933, fights for unions intensified, and state police were called to maintain order. Agreement was reached, but a new strike was called when it was realized that the company was not required to rehire workers previously fired for supporting union membership.

On Monday, August 6, 1934, at 7:20 a.m., just minutes after the morning shift began work, an explosion killed 17 workers and blocked the main mine entrance. Strikes continued during the 1930s and 1940s as mechanization continued to replace workers. The mines were 75 percent mechanized by 1952, when one machine and 10 men could do the work that previously required 80 men.

The Derby coal mines closed in 1957. By 1960, the company had demolished the company store, boarding houses, and theater and begun selling other buildings, though the coal beneath them still belonged to the company, which became the Westmoreland Coal Co. when SC&CV merge with Westmoreland.

In 2002, 72 houses remained in Derby, with the church and a number of coal houses. The planned community had basically lasted 32 years.

“Everything perfectly laid out. Everything in a direct line—all the fences were identical—one could stand way down below the church and that fence never wavered a bit. Come to a curve, and it made a perfect angle …

“You worked and you never had a payday … but you go to the [company] store. They’d have down they owed you sixteen dollars, and you would take it out at the store. You bought your food and paid your rent and you never saw a cent. They paid you in—the company had their own currency—they called it scrip …

“You still have a few of these houses that two families live in. They are owned by two different familes. We call them a coal camp thing. Now they call it what out on the beach? Condominiums? We had this before they even knew what they were talking about.”—Richard Falin

Every two years a reunion gives former residents … a chance to visit and catch up on each other’s lives, intertwined by proximity and the coal industry.

Almost a living organism

Terri Fisher, who worked to finish the Lost Communities of Virginia after Kirsten Sparenborg left Tech to practice architecture, summed it up:

“The lost communities of Virginia retain enough of their history to help designers learn more about creating successful communities by asking questions that can be answered by longtime residents, community history, and the remaining built landscape. Why did this place work as a community once? Why doesn’t it work now? What were the centers of the community? What has been lost? If I tear this building down and build something new here, why will that work when the previously successful place has been deserted? … Look at city neighborhoods too … Could those big old bedraggled houses have once been the tonier part of the city? All of these are lost communities that have stories waiting to be found and told to a new generation.

“While the loss of a storyteller may not be visible to outsiders, it creates a hole in the fabric of the continuity of the place … more obvious to the outsider is the loss of business, buildings, railroad tracks, fields, and other visible signs of community … that which makes the community almost a living organism.”

Tony Wrenn is co-author of America’s Forgotten Architecture. He is the 2007 recipient of the VSAIA Architecture Medal for Virginia Service.

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  1. VSAIA News: July 2012 | VSAIA - July 18, 2012

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