Known best for its eponymous pork, Smithfield, Va.,
is a cruising destination and historic seaport that can
satisfy a variety of tastes. [March 2008]
By Paul Clancy
One of the best things about having your wedding anniversary in September is that it's usually a fabulous month to go cruising. Last fall, we made quick work of the "where" question after considering Smithfield, Va. Here was a historic town where we could dine splendidly, stay at a cozy inn, soak up a little history and shop till our toes tingled—all after meandering along one of the Bay's most beautiful and unspoiled waterways to get there.
Smithfield is best known as the hometown of the world's largest pork producer and capital of famously salty Virginia hams. Ham Town, you could call it. But its historic area also happens to be one of the best-preserved colonial-era seaports in America. How it got and stayed that way is what we hoped to discover.
Barb and I set out from Norfolk on one of those days that herald the coming of fall, blustery with the breath of cool northerly winds. From our mooring on the Lafayette River it's only a few hours out to Hampton Roads and a few more over the Monitor-Merrimac Bridge-Tunnel, past Newport News and under the James River Bridge.
As soon as we cleared the bridge and entered the James River, the change was obvious, from busy shorelines and boat traffic to calm and bucolic waters. And as we turned to port and eased the sheets, it kept getting better. That's because the Pagan River, which flows into the James about three miles beyond the bridge, is hauntingly gorgeous. No one, including historians, knows exactly how the river got its name. Not from pecans, as some have suggested. Maybe from a Native American term for pastoral. But most likely from white settlers' impressions of the ancient civilizations that inhabited its shores.
Near the entrance to the Pagan, where Jones Creek bears off to the east, we threaded our way through a practice session of the well regarded Smithfield High School Sail Team. Two-person teams on half a dozen 13-foot Flying Juniors were getting ready for the fall racing season. Just beyond, the river resumed its look and feel of wild marsh, with barely a house in sight. Now I understood why settlers liked this long, narrow river; pirates, fearing they'd be trapped, rarely chased vessels into these waters. Shortly before reaching the bluffs near town, we could see the imposing Smithfield Foods plant, as well as the company's new headquarters complex. And lastly, at the junction of Pagan Creek and Cypress Creek, which join to form the Pagan River, the sprawling marina resort called Smithfield Station. We pulled up to the long inside floating dock and tied up.
Ham may have put the town on the economic map, but Smithfield Station has put it on the boater's charts. For decades the waterfront was a jumble of seafood shacks and decrepit buildings that flooded at high tide. Then in 1983, Ron Pack, an enterprising local, bought the land and began turning it into a showplace marina, restaurant and hotel. Its signature building, set on piles over the water, is a replica of the Hooper Strait Lighthouse, which differs from the real thing (now at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Md.) in that it has upstairs and downstairs honeymoon suites with balconies and cupolas overlooking the river. A hotel complex of seven three-story, dormered and gabled buildings has been added, with retail shops below. The complex doesn't look as massive as it might because the buildings are tied together like townhouses and painted in what Pack calls "historically correct colors." But they have distinctly un-colonial, if useful, features like HDTV and Wi-Fi in every room.
Instead of staying at the marina or hotel this time, we opted for the venerable Smithfield Inn, an easy walk up Church Street, then along Main Street to the heart of the historic district. The inn, which was once a tavern for seafarers and travelers on the carriage road, is right next to the 1752 courthouse. It is not only cozy, but locally famous for its brunches, served inside its ornate dining room and, on nice days, out in the garden. (During a later visit I stopped for lunch at the inn and dined out in the covered garden. With the white tablecloths, water gurgling in the fountain, birds singing in a magnolia nearby, I had the feeling of being in Renoir's timelessLuncheon of the Boating Party
After checking in, Barb and I hoofed it back down the hill to the station to dine with landlubber friends who had come to meet us. The next morning, well spoiled by food and hospitality, we set out on a walking tour of the historic district and a journey back in time.
The colonial history of Smithfield begins with the ever-resourceful Captain John Smith, who in 1608 ventured across the James to a settlement of the Warascoyak Indians and obtained 14 bushels of corn. But it is Arthur Smith, not John, for whom the town is named. This successful farmer took title to the land along the Pagan in 1637, and a little more than a century later his descendants carved up the real estate to build houses for merchants and ship captains.
The town quickly prospered. "Records show that the first families to settle here maintained close family and business ties with other seaports—especially with Barbados, Bermuda and Scotland," writes Harry Dashiell, a local historian. "Consequently, we like to think, this was no backwoods town, out of touch with the rest of the world—and the homes and public buildings that these men erected, and the recorded inventories of their possessions, reflect a cultured and economically sound society."
The peanut was king for a time, but it eventually ceded the crown to the Virginia ham. Down one of the side streets near the waterfront there's an almost reverential nod to Smithfield hams. Near a tall white frame house a sign informs tourists that it was here in about 1780 that one Captain Mallory Todd "cured the first commercially produced Smithfield hams, shipped to customers in England."
Hams were cured right there in town until 1936, mostly by small operators. John Edwards, the editor and publisher of theSmithfield Times
, told me that when he was growing up "you could smell hams all around here. The fire department would get calls saying there must be a fire somewhere, but that was just somebody smokin' hams." In the past couple of decades, though, Smithfield Foods bought up most of the small businesses on its way to becoming a Fortune 500 company, with sales approaching $12 billion. Down along the waterfront, the company has opened a new complex of headquarters buildings that Barb and I saw as we cruised up the river into town.
The company's influence is everywhere, from the huge factory that's out on the highway but visible from town, to the hog-shaped logo on Isle of Wight County signs. There's a ham shop, and little-pig tree ornaments in the Christmas Shop. Even the Smithfield Inn, we realized, is owned by the company because of a long family connection. Our room was called the George Washington, but others were named for founders of the company.
Smithfield itself has benefited significantly from the company's presence. A generous challenge grant helped raise the wherewithal for extensive renovations on Main Street. They took years to complete, but once finished, almost instantly revitalized the historic district. Phase Two, the revamping of Church Street, was to begin early this year, also thanks to a challenge grant from Smithfield Foods. The company also put up the funds for a new building for the Smithfield Little Theater, a small but first-class regional performing arts center, in exchange for "The Cotton Gin," a renovated warehouse where the theater was once housed.
There is, though, another presence we couldn't help noticing. On rare days (and this happened to be one of them) there's a cloying odor of—how to put it delicately—rendered animal flesh. I've wondered, too, about the health of the Pagan River, which has been closed to shellfish harvesting for 30 years due to high levels of fecal bacteria. In 1997, Smithfield Foods was found guilty of violating the Clean Water Act and fined a record $12.6 million. The good news is the company began piping millions of gallons of hog waste daily to a new treatment facility, and soon after, a study by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science showed that the river was significantly cleaner.
The occasional dubious olfactory influence notwithstanding, there's no question whatsoever about the beauty of this town, specifically its amazingly preserved architecture. During our visit Barb and I saw just about every one of the 70 or so historic houses, including 15 homes that date to the 18th century, and many of those predating the Revolutionary War. Others aren't much younger. Guidebooks say there was a spurt of growth before the Civil War, but a bona fide boom afterwards. An era of steamboats and a flourishing peanut industry spurred construction of ostentatious Victorian homes, complete with turrets, towers, stained glass windows and Gothic trim.
"It's not like Williamsburg," Dashiell, the local historian, told me. "All the old houses in Smithfield are original, not rebuilt or reproduced."
Barb and I started our tour right next to the inn at the restored Isle of Wight County Courthouse, built in 1752. You get the distinct impression that harsh penalties were meted out here. Out front are stocks, where one sat with legs clamped (hence the term "stock still"), enduring jibes and occasionally rotten tomatoes from villagers. There's also a pillory, where one stood with head and hands clamped in vises. Repeat offenders, a guide in the courthouse told us, had their earlobes nailed to the pillory and were forced to painfully extricate themselves. But these were for lesser offenses! There was once a whipping post and, out back, a hanging tree. You could get hanged, as one entry in the clerk's book inside indicates, for breaking and entering.
Smithfield was a bustling port, for sure, but it was not anywhere near the center of the county, and in 1800 the courthouse was moved seven miles west. Soon after, the one-story building in town was converted to a three-story house and doctor's office. Despite all this, the original brick walls were undisturbed, even after successive owners. With the help of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities and from local families (you can imagine how many bake sales and house tours there were) the old courthouse was rescued and restored.
As we walked, we noted how historically spiffy Main Street has become. For one thing, the sidewalks are now brick-paved. The streetscapes are uncluttered by phone and power lines, now underground. A nice touch is that darker, older bricks, which were found when the power lines were buried, now designate the crosswalks. The lettering on some of them says "Baltimore Block."
A self-guided walking tour brochure informed us that Hattie Drummond's House on Main Street was so named because, after the Civil War, the good Mrs. Drummond's husband was "apparently an irresponsible roamer, guilty of long and frequent absence." She ran a successful millinery business there, paid off the house and got rid of him. Information along the walking tour doesn't gloss over what was once a down-at-the-heels economy where one house, circa 1830, had been vacant for 30 years and had fallen "into great disrepair" before being restored. Or a 1752 house on Church Street "that stood unoccupied for 40 years" before being rescued. Or another that was used as a counting and gaming house.
There are homes of a few dashing fellows: the 1758 Sinclair House, named for a Revolutionary War blockade runner and privateer, and the 1877 Delk House, built by a one-time Civil War officer who became a steamboat captain. There are oddities, like the 1886 Victorian on South Church, with mansard roof and stained-glass cupola. Nearby is a 1900 beauty with a ballroom on the third floor, a widow's walk and gazebo overlooking the Pagan.
The place that knocked our Victorian knickers off was built by Pembroke Decatur Gwaltney, one of the town's ham kings, in about 1901. It has turrets, towers, gables, stained-glass windows, a tiled roof and a porte-cochere large enough to drive a carriage through. During our visit the 5,000-square-foot house was on the market for $1,090,000. That's a lot of ham.
There may still be a bit of old money in town, but mostly the historic district is now blessed by the new. This was borne out a couple of weeks later when I returned andSmithfield Times
' editor John Edwards, an avid sailor, took me on a tour out on the Pagan. Fog was just burning off the river when we untied his Hunter 33 sailboat,
, from his slip at Smithfield Station.
"It's an interesting thing," he said as we glided along the waterfront in front of the Church Street homes. "During the sixties and seventies, the children of the people who owned homes in the old part of town created the first subdivision. They moved out of the old houses and other people came along and restored them. The care of the historic district has been left to those who moved here."
I met some of these newcomers, among them Florine and Bill Moore. She's from Dallas and went to college with the daughter of a family that lived in a turreted 1876 Victorian on Church Street; he's a retired judge from Norfolk. I sat with them on the enclosed back porch as the ceiling fan whirred. Smithfield has a welcoming attitude, they said. Even before they got here, Florine was invited to head the library association. Then she ran successfully for Town Council and, in 1986, became Smithfield's first woman mayor. "Everybody here does something," Florine said, rocking in a wicker rocker. "To me, it's been a way to try out new things and use the gifts that I've been given. I might not have been able to do that in a big city." The town isn't just welcoming, but caring. "When people ask how you are, they want to know," Bill said. "They'll be there for you."
After my talk with the Moores, I couldn't resist a gustatory tour that included a ham biscuit at Smithfield Station, a butter pecan ice cream cone at the Smithfield Confectionary and Ice Cream Parlor and an oatmeal craisin nut cookie at Miss Bessie's Best Cookies & Candy. This new shop on Main, with a barbershop next door, is tucked into what was once a Chevy dealership. I could have also sampled, but for now resisted, licorice sticks, old-fashioned root beer candy, a huge lollipop and, most tempting of all, a triple chocolate brownie.
Some of the town's present seems to blend perfectly with its past. As I walked past Antiques Emporium across from the inn on Main, I was drawn into the store by honky-tonk piano music piped out to the sidewalk. The Emporium occupies an 1898 building that for 103 years was the George W. Delk's Department Store. It has the look and feel of the original, with oak floors and ceiling fans. And then there's the still-working "Lamson Air Line Cash System," an overhead conveyor belt that carried money back to the cashier and returned with change. The Emporium now showcases dozens of antiques dealers. Up front, I plunked a quarter into a slot for a player piano and got back a lively ragtime number.
Turns out that Trey Gwaltney, who owns the store, is a musician who serves as music director for a number of plays at Smithfield Little Theater. The theater was then rehearsingSmoke on the Mountain
, a gospel-based musical. This spring, they're doing another musical,
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Gwaltney, no relation to the ham family, grew up in town where his parents owned a car dealership for sixty years. He returned after college and bought, at auction, a 1792 house just off Main that had been vacant for 40 years. He shored up the foundation, gutted the house down to the studs, and replaced every pipe, wire and pane of glass. It took four years, he told me, and all that time, he couldn't get over the thought that "the guy who built it may have served in the army under George Washington."
We went back to the balcony where the cashier used to overlook the store. A lively Scott Joplin tune played over the speakers. "Living in a small town is not for everybody," he said. "Some people would sooner fly to the moon. But when you start to think about what's important, you realize you don't always have to have city lights to have that."
Just down the street, I popped into The Christmas Store and discovered that owner Jim Abicht (pronounced "Abbott") also has a musical bent. Along with his wife, Elaine, he founded Smithfield Music, a nonprofit outfit that brings performers to town and donates the proceeds to music education in the schools. Ever since he appeared as Professor Harold Hill at the Smithfield Theater, Abicht can't escape the name "Music Man." There's real community spirit here. "It's contagious," he said. "It becomes quickly obvious that people care about the community and each other."
Barb and I got that feeling on our anniversary getaway, but what really lingered is the deep history that lurks around every corner of Smithfield. As we motored out of the winding Pagan River, I thought of how the town's early pioneers arrived and departed by riding the rising and falling tides. And then, perhaps, just like us, caught a brisk northeasterly on an early morning and sailed, close-hauled, toward the rising sun.
Cruiser's Digest: Smithfield, VA
Out on the James River, the 2-mile approach to the Pagan begins at red "PA 2". Once inside, you pass on the left the entrance to Jones Creek, where Brown's Marina (757-357-4459) is located. It's the only place in the area where you can get fuel. Just past the creek, also on the left, is a small yacht club.
The Pagan is deep, except for one memorable wide and shallow spot known by locals as "Tormentors Bay." There, between the green "15" and red "16", depths hover at about 6 feet. But careful navigating through closely aligned channel markers eased most of the torment for us. As for shallow-draft powerboaters, they can smile all the way.
It's about 3 nautical miles from the mouth of the river to town, most of the way through undeveloped wetlands, with wide and tall marsh grasses on both shores. At the last turn toward the marina you begin to see the Smithfield Foods plant and the company's new headquarters, and then Smithfield Station. The marina-hotel-restaurant complex sits at the junction of Pagan and Cypress creeks right at the foot of town.
The historic district begins only a few steps from the marina. There's a slight hike up Church Street, past many of the town's historic houses, to the junction with Main Street, where the shopping area begins.
www.smithfieldstation.com) has 60 slips on two floating docks. It includes a restaurant, bathhouse, swimming pool and hotel rooms. In the historic district are several bed & breakfast inns, including
Smithfield Inn Bed & Breakfast Restaurant and Tavern(757-357-1752,
Church Street Inn(757-357-3176,
Mansion on Main(757-357-0006,
www.mansion-on-main.net). There are lots of choices for dining: Smithfield Station, Smithfield Inn, Smithfield Gourmet Bakery & Cafe, Smithfield Confectionary and Ice Cream Parlor, Twin's Ole Towne Inn, Olde World Tea Company.