Issue: February 2002
The Genuine Article

A stop at the Lewisetta General Store on the Coan River means strong coffee, a helping of history and a porch that’s just short of heaven.

 

     There are places on the Chesapeake Bay where you want to get lost-literally, metaphorically, certainly historically and maybe even spiritually. Lewisetta General Store is one of these. Truth be told, you almost have to get lost just to find it. Not by boat, so much; perched as it is by deep water at the entrance to Virginia’s Coan River, just off the Potomac, the store is perfectly located for waterborne traffic, which it has seen for over a century-schooners, skipjacks, steamboats, fishing boats, you name it. By land, though, you drive down the northern side of Virginia’s Northern Neck a long way before you make a left on Lewisetta Road and follow it past soybean fields and salt marsh until it ends, with very little fanfare, in a tidy loop around the store. Which is to say, at the water’s edge. From here, you can gaze across the mouth of the mighty Potomac River, and on clear days thehorizon bends away from your eye, so incoming ships and boats seem to float upon a quivering sea of light. The store’s cement front porch faces southwest, looking across the peerless Coan River, and on a sunny fall or winter day it’s not just a porch; it’s a Zen-like experience. It’s a way to spend an afternoon meditating on tiny towns and old rivers, a way to get yourself lost for a time.

     This is what Helen Scerbo does some afternoons, before the school bus winds down the road and deposits her son and daughter at the store’s doorstep. She and her husband Mark bought the general store as part of Lewisetta Marina 15 years ago after leaving Sandy Hook, N.J. At seven and a half acres, they bought pretty much this whole point of land. Their house is across the street on one side of the store, the marina across the street on the other side. They’ve added a building for indoor boat work, and the place has a fuel dock and slips for all sorts of boats-and even a few hookups for motor homes and RVs owned by customers who want to stay awhile. Understandably.

     The store is the focal point-of the town as well as the marina. Everyone comes here for their morning coffee, or for thick deli sandwiches at lunch, or to sit on the porch on a summer’s evening and trade news, gossip, fishing know-how and dime-store philosophy. And though there are only about eight full-time families in Lewisetta, the store’s reputation has spread far beyond the town’s modest borders.

     The gray clapboard store that stands today was built in the mid-1800s. From the late 1800s until 1990 it served as the town’s post office. In fact, it gave the town its name-a simple anagram of Etta Lewis, who, with her husband Charlie, owned the store when the post office was established. Or so the story goes. In those days general stores dotted the waterfront all over the Bay, many of them linked to the steamboat lines that traversed the Chesapeake and its tributaries, transporting everything from tomatoes and watermelons to livestock and people. It was far easier to travel by water in many places-the Northern Neck among them-because the water was so much more dependable than the roads, if there were roads. Waterways were highways, and general stores were the Wawas and 7-Elevens of the time. Only a few remain, though, Lewisetta one of them. “That’s the story of Lewisetta,” says Scerbo, sighing. “I love Lewisetta.”

     “Don’t forget the General Eisenhower story!” yells an elderly customer as he leaves the store. That story, says Scerbo, goes like so: One cold February morning in 1992, John D. Eisenhower, younger son of President Dwight Eisenhower, showed up at the store to relive some old memories. Back in July 1957, when his father was president and he was an Army major stationed at Fort Belvoir, he and a friend hopped in a 14-foot skiff and headed down the Potomac, their ambitious destination Fort Monroe. The weather riled up, and the pair more or less washed up at the Lewisetta General Store, where they hoped to find a room for the night. The storekeeper suggested Olga Eubanks’ home just down the street. Why of course, said Miss Eubanks, not knowing that half the Secret Service was frantically searching for the young men. It all ended well, but Eisenhower apparently never forgot the place. He returned 35 years later, and he’s visited several times since-giving the townspeople a hefty name to drop when the situation calls for it.

     The store you see nowadays is not significantly different than what Major Eisenhower encountered in the 1950s. Over the double front door is lewisetta general store, written in white cursive letters. A single, naked lightbulb dangles over the porch, and the wooden screen doors slam in that particular way that makes you think of hot, buggy summer nights. Inside, an old pine floor is hidden beneath blue and white linoleum. A command center of sorts stands in the middle, holding the cash register, the kids’ bookbags, boxes of candy bars and arts and crafts projects to keep young fingers and minds occupied on rainy days, among them some oyster shells decorated in gold and silver paint. Behind the central counter stands a furnace with a stove pipe leading to a chimney; doubtless in decades past this spot held a woodstove where chilly hands were gratefully warmed. Hanging from the deli counter in the back is a hand-lettered sign: mark, please do not spill your coffee all over the floor. thank you.

     True to its roots and its name, the general store can handle most all of a visitor’s problems and needs. Here you will find antifreeze, fuel hoses, steering fluid, carburetor and choke cleaner, bilge pumps and the kits to repair said pumps, electrical connectors, epoxy and boat batteries. You’ll also find Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix, tins of Old Bay, jugs of Clorox, honey buns, toothpaste, soup, bread, Ivory soap, mustard, diapers and mayonnaise. And that hardly covers it. Scerbo has included a little bit of New Jersey humor in the T-shirts she had printed up that say: “You Almost See It All at the Lewisetta Mall.”

     Sitting out on the porch, Debi Wigfied, a native of Niagara Falls, N.Y., who moved here three and a half years ago and helps Scerbo run the store (it’s open seven days a week, year-round), shakes her head and laughs as the kids roughhouse nearby. “It’s funny how people find this place, it really is,” she says. She and her husband were looking for a place to live, and he brought her down this little road till it looped around the store. “I never saw the house. I saw the marina and the boats and the water and the store,” she says. “I didn’t care if the floors were falling in. I was living here.” The store is all about people, she says. “The men come in and they want to talk about bait and what they’re catching, and I love that. I sympathize about the gas prices-of course we have to pay it too. You never get bored.”

     As the late-day sun warms the porch, Mark Scerbo walks up from the marina with one hand wrapped around the tails of three whopping bluefish, a gift from a customer. “Hi honey, I’m home!” cracks a regular who’s lounging on the porch. The sun will set soon, over the river. Maybe some dolphins will come in to play. The kids will tussle on the grass. The Lewisetta General Store will shut its doors for the night and rest awhile, awaiting the sunrise, fresh coffee and another timeless day.

     This story is adapted from Wendy Mitman Clarke’s forthcoming book, Window on the Chesapeake: The Bay, Its People and Places, to be published in December by the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va.