|by Jody Argo Schroath|
photographs by Tamzin B. Smith
When I die and go to heaven, I have it on good authority that it's going to be just like Urbanna, Va. Everyone who lives there certainly believes it, and, hey, who am I to disagree? In fact, I can't wait to get started. I'll head for the Pearly Gates by boat (of course) on the shoulders of a sturdy northerly, careening down the Bay with a following sea nipping at my heels, before turning at Windmill Point to meet the wide embrace of the Rappahannock. Here the water will be as-seen-from-space blue and sparkling like the diamond counter at Cartier. My boat will gallop along on a fine broad reach, as the Route 3 bridge rises out of the horizon to meet me. Once under the bridge, I'll tighten sail and take aim for Urbanna Creek on the southern shore. There I'll drop anchor and dinghy in to the dinghy dock at the Town Marina. Leaping gracefully (this is my heaven, remember) up onto the dock, I'll make a beeline up Virginia Street to Marshall's Drug Store to find a seat at the celestial lunch counter. After a cup of coffee or two (there will be coffee in my heaven), I'll stroll back down the hill to Payne's Crab House, where I'll stop to chat with the Payne sisters--Catherine Via and Beatrice Taylor--and Gary Thimsen, an enthusiastic Urbannite whom I'd met on an earlier visit and who now had appointed himself my official guardian angel in Urbanna, and local restaurateur and popular purveyor of ice cream, Mr. Moo. Out on the creek, crabbers will glide by in long and elegant deadrises, white as cumulous clouds.
Ouch! That was me, pinching myself to make sure I wasn't really dead and gone to heaven. Nope, guess not . . . and yet, when I looked around me, it was all just the same. The Payne sisters, Thimsen, Mr. Moo, the water sparkling in the midmorning sun. Everything was just so right. No wonder I had to pinch myself. We all have our own idea of heaven, but mine seemed to be reinventing itself into this tiny Tidewater Virginia town.
Things had been going right ever since I had rounded Windmill Point after a hot night on the hook in Little Bay. My boat had fairly hummed up the Rappahannock from the Bay, making quick work of the 13-mile trip upriver to Urbanna Creek. And my visit to Marshall's Drug Store had been thoroughly charming, in a Wally and the Beaver kind of way. The store's long lunch counter makes a serpentine "W" across the back quarter of the store with the stools repeating the pattern like so many connect the dots. The low and open layout makes general conversation easy and apparently inevitable. I sipped my coffee and absorbed the activity around me. Seated across from me, a teenager amiably offered to leave her breakfast sandwich and iced tea to fetch her grandmother's prescription, returned with the medicine and the pharmacy book to sign and then trotted back to the pharmacy counter with the money. They continued to eat their sandwiches and catch up on the doings of friends and family. A slim man in a bright blue short-sleeve shirt sat down and began to describe to a nearby woman (and, perforce, the lunch counter in general) how he had watched a sailing class make its way up Christchurch Creek the day before in a good headwind. All conversations were suspended momentarily while everyone turned to kid three young men from a local boatyard who had just come in to pick up lunch. "Are you getting it to go?" one person asked. "Yes," they replied. "Good," someone else sallied. Everyone laughed. I guess you had to live here. A few minutes later, local boatwright Carl Dize came in, tall and spare and slightly bent, unassuming yet clearly possessing a special standing in the community, like some Jimmy Stewart. "Hey, Mr. Dize!" called one of the three young waitresses warmly. Dize sat near the man in the blue shirt and the woman he'd been chatting with and picked up a conversation as if he might have left it on the counter the day before.
By this time I had finished my coffee. I leaned over to the cash register, which was just to my left, and paid up. On the way out, I admired the juxtaposition of traditional drug-store merchandise with tchotchkes. It was also like that next door at Bristow's, where I wandered next. Bristow's dates to 1876 and still looks for all the world like a 19th-century department store, despite the juxtaposition of old-style sewing notions and racks of upscale leisure shirts and skirts. In other words, there's a lot of old-style shopping, but with resort wear and souvenirs thrown in. Tourists are tourists, after all, and Urbanna knows that with a population of only about 550, it's the tourists who make possible its generous supply of good restaurants and boutiques. Most of its visitors are daytrippers from nearby Grey's Point and Beth Page campgrounds, who browse the boutiques, patronize the restaurants and stroll past the town's historic buildings, but do not stay the night. Visiting boaters and weekenders from Richmond and Norfolk add to the summer buzz. All of that helps support the local economy, but it is the city's annual Oyster Festival that rockets the population from the hundreds to the tens of thousands over one weekend every November
It was then, after leaving Bristow's, that I found myself chatting with the Payne sisters. Thimsen, my guide to the good, was there before me. Thimsen was doing his utmost to help me see the Urbanna he loves. He pushed me a little in this direction, prodded me a little in that, made introductions, called ahead, fed me--and half the people we stopped to see--his personal-recipe crabcakes, and generally made sure I met one interesting and delightful person after another in a town seemingly chockablock with them. It's little wonder that I was constantly confusing Urbanna with nirvana.
Now at Payne's, we four settled at a table in the cool shade between the crabhouse's tiny kitchen/office building and its peeler tank/storage room. The Payne sisters have attracted a lot of attention over the years because of their distinction as pretty much the only waterwomen in a world of watermen. Not that they would draw the distinction themselves. To them, it is a natural extension of their upbringing in a family with a long tradition of working on the water. The younger of the two, Beatrice Taylor, is Virginia's only licensed woman commercial crabber. She is also, I discovered, Urbanna's new mayor--not that I had gone looking for a mayor (who does, really?), but in a town this small you tend to get a certain amount of duplication. We set politics aside, however, as we chatted about the past and the present in Urbanna, which is to say, centuries of oysters in abundance, followed by decades of crabs in abundance, followed by recent years of meager catches, and finally a sad but fatalistic shake of the head over the future.
The Payne family came to Urbanna from Tangier Island shortly after the infamous August Storm of 1933, which flooded Tangier so thoroughly that soon afterward many families left the island for good. Catherine Via, the elder of the sisters, recalls the remarkable sight of big oyster boats floating in her yard. "I remember being carried in my aunt's arms from our house to hers, which was a little higher up," she said. "My brother and I thought it was very exciting, but as she held us our feet were kicking water--it was that high." Their father, Avery Payne, soon moved to Urbanna and bought a house before sending for the rest of the family. Everyone, aunts, uncles, children moved into the house. "It was big enough," said Taylor, who was born after the family moved to Urbanna. "I live in it now." In the 1950s, Avery Payne purchased J.W. Hurley & Son Seafood from Boyd Hurley and changed the name to Payne's. In 1987, Payne died suddenly, of a heart attack, while out crabbing. It was the middle of the season, and the two sisters decided to finish it out with the help of other family members. Then they resolved to carry on the business. They continue to sell retail out of their small crab shack, with Taylor and a nephew running the pots and Via sorting the soft shell crabs and putting them through the progression of peeler tanks. A couple of times a year--during the Oyster Festival and the Fourth of July--they sell sandwiches to legions of enthusiastic and hungry visitors.
Crabbing has been slow this year, however, with engine problems on their boat keeping the crab pots high and dry. Meanwhile, the old crab shack by the water, with its welcoming shade and pink climbing hibiscus, is an important part of their lives and of the life of the community. "Sometimes we just sit here and talk and don't even have customers," Taylor said. "People come by and visit. Gary used to stop by a couple of times a week to ask if we needed anything." Taylor laughed and added, "The trouble was, we usually did. I think that's why he stopped coming."
Thimsen began to protest, but just then a pickup truck pulled in the drive. "Here's Mr. Moo," Taylor said, getting up. "I just wanted to know if you needed anything," Mr. Moo said, not sounding at all like a cow. The sisters explained that Mr. Moo is actually J.D. Dobbs and that he and his wife (Mrs. Moo, of course) own Moo's River's Edge Eatery at the corner of Virginia and Cross streets. The restaurant serves a variety of sandwiches and ice cream and boasts a prodigious collection of cow-related items. Stopping in there later for a double scoop, I deduced that it was the old story of a modest interest in cows becoming a landslide of cow-related items as friends, family and customers all chip in an item or two. Still, it provided plenty to look at while I waited to order.
I followed Thimsen home from Payne's for a look at the 26-foot schooner he is building in a shed behind his house. I had first visited Thimsen six months earlier, after I heard about the boat he had designed and was building himself a little bit at a time. Now I wanted to see how it was coming along. Like apparently 100 percent of the population of Urbanna, Thimsen himself has a story to tell. A self-proclaimed Viking, he is possessed of a deep tan, blue eyes, 60-some years and a very short haircut. He works on his boat when he feels like it, and the rest of the time just generally revels in being an Urbannite. He and his wife Nell (his first and third wife) moved to Urbanna from Elizabeth City, N.C., where he had a hobby shop and taught sailing and model-boat building. (You can see his handsome model boats proudly displayed all over Urbanna.) Thimsen fell for Urbanna and the Bay when he spent summers here as a child. His father built him a 14-foot skiff and told him that he'd buy an engine for it . . . after the boy had rowed it a thousand miles. It took him years, but he did it. Grown up, he spent eight years in the Coast Guard, but got out after realizing they couldn't--and no doubt wouldn't--keep him on a buoy tender on the Bay for his whole career.
Thimsen began his schooner project three and a half years ago, although he will tell you he has been building it all his life. Now he was just beginning the second layer of cross-planking on the hard-chine hull. Thimsen likes the hard-chine because he believes it will help keep the boat from radical heeling. "I want my passengers to be comfortable, not scared." He also wants to be able to get the boat under most of the Bay's bridges and up most of its creeks, so the masts will be only 22 feet and the draft 3 feet. She will also be plenty roomy for a 26-foot boat with a 10-foot beam. When the boat is launched in about a year and a half (a time frame he has been giving out for the past year, he admits freely), she will go into the water with the biggest send-off that Thimsen can muster. It may well be a record-setter of a party too, since he plans to invite just about everyone he has ever met, up to and including the UPS driver--who, like everyone else who has seen the project, has signed her name on the bare hull. She also told Thimsen he was crazy.
By this time I was crazy hungry, so I left Thimsen to his drills and routers and after a quick trip back to the boat walked up toward the Southside Sentinel newspaper to find my lunch date--reporter and Bay author Larry Chowning, who also happens to be an Urbanna native. The town comes well supplied with historic buildings and I passed a good number of them on my way. Nearly all of them are collected along Urbanna's two main streets, Virginia and Cross. Cross Street begins as Route 227 and crosses Urbanna Creek to the south on its way to U.S. 17. Virginia Street is Route 602 and the main route into town off U.S. Route 17 for those coming from the north. The portion that ends at the Town Marina was laid in the 18th century to roll barrels of tobacco and other goods conveniently down to the ships waiting below. Now huffing and puffing just a little (this was my third trip up Virginia from the creek and it was only 1 p.m.), I passed the old tobacco warehouse (now the visitors' center) on my left and next to it Gressitt House, traditionally used by the town's harbormaster. On my right was Little Sandwich, the old custom house and now a private home. Across Cross Street and just beyond Bristow's I passed the original Middlesex County courthouse, which has been used as a church ever since the county seat was moved from Urbanna to Saluda in 1849.
Chowning considers it the most important building in Urbanna. "It resonates for me; it speaks to the importance of how these little towns developed," he said as we sat over crabcake sandwiches and hamburgers in the Virginia Cafe, itself an old five-and-dime store. "The man who bought it after the county seat was moved turned it into a church and opened it up for use by any group that wanted to use it." The town, Chowning went on, looks very much as it did when he was a boy. "The towns around Urbanna have grown--Tappahannock, Gloucester, Kilmarnock--but we're in between. We get included in other people's marketing districts, so we don't get Wal-Mart, or Hardee's or McDonald's." All of which makes Urbanna a special place, especially for boaters, he said. "How many towns can you pull up to in your boat and walk to the pharmacy? Not many in Virginia, anyway."
Chowning grew up close to the water. His grandfather was an oysterman who worked from a sailing log canoe, and he has a great respect and affection for the waterman's life. He spent summers gunkholing and chicken-necking for crabs as a youngster, before leaving to study at the University of Richmond. But he came back and has never found a reason to leave. "Where would I go that would be better?" he asks. On his return, he worked first on a neighboring farm then, after that closed, bought himself a small skiff and some gear and went to work on the water. He also started recording the stories of local boatbuilder Elmer Crockett. And he started writing and then recording hundreds of other stories from old watermen and boatbuilders. In 1985, Chowning says, he took a picture of the buyboat Nellie Crockett in Urbanna Creek, loaded down with oysters. It turned out to be the end of an era. "That was about the last one [oyster-laden buyboat] ever to come in, but I didn't know that then." Within a breathtakingly short time, the oyster boom was over. "I was fooled by the whole thing, it happened so fast."
Chowning, now graying a little and sporting a tidy soup-strainer moustache, writes for the Southside Sentinel and is a field editor for National Fisherman. He also freelances articles, photographs weddings, helps his wife with their shop, Make Thyme, and is active in a hundred different ways in the community. His passion, however, continues to be chronicling the Bay's watermen, their boats and their way of life, which he has done in such well regarded books as Harvesting the Chesapeake--Tools & Traditions and most recently Deadrise and Cross-Planked. He is currently working on a history of Middlesex County. His ambition with each book, he told me, is only to make enough money to afford to write the next one.
It was just a little while later that Bill Hight, sitting in his office at Urbanna Auto & Marine Sales, practically ordered me to read Chowning's book Chesapeake Bay Buyboats--at least if I had any notion of attending this year's buyboat rendezvous at Tangier Island in August. I had stopped in Hight's store--all on my own this time--to see how much of its stock was devoted to boat parts. It's always a good thing to locate a boat-parts store, whether you need one at the moment or not, boats being boats. It turned out that nearly everything in the store had to do with boats and practically nothing to do with auto supplies, which doesn't happen very often. But then again, this was Urbanna and not some ordinary place. With that happy discovery, I wandered into Hight's office, where he was just about to take the first bite of his lunch. When I mentioned all the boat parts, he set down his sandwich, pulled out a chair for me and said, "We used to have watermen in here from four to eight every night. Oystering people came in all the time, because they were always breaking things." Then he sighed. "Now we're just a leftover." Brightening up again, "Urbanna is a great place to live, which is why I've been working thirty-eight years here, six days a week."
But what Hight really wanted to talk about were buyboats, which are his passion, though he doesn't actually own one. (He does have a very pretty deadrise.) Hight is one of the founders of the loosely organized Chesapeake Bay Buyboat Association. "It's very loose," he said, "no leaders, no money, no organization, just interested people." One of the first homecomings for buyboats was held in Urbanna in 2006. Tangier was chosen for this year's rendezvous because the island is celebrating its 400th anniversary. "But before you come, you must read Larry's book on buyboats," he said emphatically. "It's required." I nodded obediently and went off to look for a copy.
The following morning, I spent a few thoroughly entertaining hours with Diana Gavatt. She and her husband A.G. own Urbanna's architectural crown jewel, Lansdowne, a grand old house that sits appropriately in the center of town on Virginia Street, next to the post office and across from the Southside Sentinel building. Before the Gavatts purchased Lansdowne 10 years ago and began the long process of setting it to rights, the house had sat empty and forbidding behind a towering hedge and a lot of dead trees for nearly four generations. Now, with its hedges precisely trimmed and deadwood long gone, the two-story, gable-roofed, Flemish-bond brick house is again the town's pride and joy. And the Gavatts love inviting the town in, hosting garden clubs, house tours and big friendly parties. Not that there aren't years of work left to be done. It was two years to begin with before the Gavatts could even move in. "The first thing was to stabilize the structure--and to put in heat and air conditioning," Gavatt told me as I trailed her through the house with a cup of coffee.
Getting the house in the first place was probably the biggest challenge. The two were just dating when Diana first glimpsed the house while walking around town after a cruise across the Rappahannock on the Miss Ann. "I told him, 'I'll marry you if we buy this house.' He said, 'You're crazy.' " Over the years that followed, she had him take photos of the house whenever he was in the area and send them to her. "Finally, he said, 'Okay, but you'd better do it soon before it falls down.' " For the next 13 years she wrote the owner (who lived in New York), asking her to let her know when she was ready to sell the house. In 1998, she finally did.
Lansdowne was built about 1750 as a one-story home by the Wormleys, who also owned Rosegill, a plantation just south of Urbanna. The house was purchased and greatly enlarged by prosperous local merchant James Miller, before coming into the hands of Arthur Lee, its most famous resident. Lee is best known as one of the three diplomats, with Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane, sent to plead the patriot cause at the Court of Versailles. Lee died soon after he purchased Lans-downe and is buried nearby.
In the Gavatts's restoration of Lans-downe, they haven't found anything specifically related to Lee, but old things have had a habit of popping up. In the dining room, Gavatt opened a drawer and carefully removed a remarkably intact 17th-century fork. "We found this jammed in beside the fireplace," she said. "Williamsburg is envious because they don't have anything nearly as well preserved." She also showed me a button from a Civil War uniform that had fallen out of a wall. It was so shiny and its pattern so precise, it looked as if it had been mislaid the day before. A similarly pristine-looking Civil War bayonet was found in a crevice in the attic; its blade as smooth and sharp as when it was laid aside 140 years ago. Then again, pieces have turned up in other ways too. Gavatt pointed to the fireplace mantel in the living room. "A piece had been chipped off here," she said. "Then one day, a man who was visiting the house said, 'I did that years ago, and I've always felt guilty about it.' He left and returned a little later with the missing piece--it fit perfectly."
Thimsen arrived, bearing crabcakes and a new list of people to visit, so we wrapped up the home tour and went to sit at the kitchen table to eat. It was time to move on, but I was beginning to get a little cranky about it. "Hey, I said, "I can't meet everybody in town. I love them all, but I've got a boat to catch." "Okay, okay," he replied genially. "Just one more. You have to talk with Bonnie Vautrot at the hotel." And I did. And he was right.
The spanking new hotel, called Liberty at Compass Quay, stretches out luxuriously along the shore of Urbanna Creek between Payne's Crab House and Port Urbanna Marina, its long veranda a nearly irresistible invitation to languid afternoons and slowly sipped mint juleps. The hotel was built by the Vautrots a few years ago and has quickly become the town's favorite location for weddings and receptions. It has also become a favorite stopover for visiting boaters, who can tie up alongside the 372-foot-long bulkhead with its 18- to 22-foot depths.
But the special story about this hotel is how it came to be. The Vautrots were living in Williamsburg when they discovered Urbanna. Like everyone else who has ever set foot here, apparently, they promptly fell in love with the town. First they bought a summer place and not long afterward moved here for good. When Southern States Cooperative decided to close its grain-loading facility on Urbanna Creek, the property came onto the market, and the Vautrots decided to buy it. Then--and here's the special part--they went to the town and asked what they most would like to see there. Yup, I know it's crazy, but it's true. And the town said, well, we don't really have any place for people visiting the area to stay, and it happens that there used to be a hotel right on that spot. That's what we'd like, they said. So the Vautrots built a hotel and based the design on the old Hurley Hotel, which is what was there, with its wide porches and green-and-white striped awnings--only up to code, of course, and built to withstand hurricanes. And local residents have brought them things that had been saved from the old hotel, like invoices and juice glasses. So now everybody's happy. The Vautrots. Urbanna.
I said goodbye to Vautrot in a kind of daze. "What kind of place is this?" I asked. I must be in . . . oh, no, I was going to have to do it again. Ouch! Yes, I was still alive and kicking, even though all the evidence seemed against it. But heaven was just going to have to wait, at least for now. Now I was going to have to sail back into the real world, the one where the wind dies promptly at 11 a.m. and the sandwiches go soggy at noon. I walked past Payne's Crab House one last time on my way to the dinghy dock. Back on the boat, I glumly pulled up the main and unfurled the jib.
Goodbye, Urbanna, I thought. Goodbye, Catherine, Beatrice, Diana, Bill, Larry and Bonnie. Goodbye, Gary. Suddenly, a gentle but steady wind picked up out of the southwest. Hmm. . . .