Again in the year 2002, were making our way around Virginia, each
issue visiting a small town and meeting some of the folks who make up the heart of
electric co-op country. On this years ninth
stop, well be...
Down Home in Isle of Wight Courthouse By Audrey Hingley, Contributing Writer
… a lazy
country crossroads, with lots of character …
Tiny Isle of Wight Courthouse is a “blip” on
Virginia maps, smack in between the 319-square-mile county’s only two
towns, Smithfield and Windsor.
resident Frank Drewery, who grew up on a farm: “Everybody was poor but
nobody knew it. On the farm we had the advantage over city people — we
Surrounded by pastoral farmland, the community’s
center includes a sprawling courthouse complex and adjacent historic
Boykin’s Tavern; across the road, there’s a tiny post office, church,
Isle of Wight Academy, and The Courthouse Diner. Forty-five post office
boxes provide a good indication of the community’s size relative to a
30,000 county population.
Lifelong resident Frank
Drewery, who lives with wife Eula
Belle and son Artie in a
comfortable rancher nestled on 70 acres, explains, “I like the quiet
atmosphere here — the more people you have, the more problems you
The World War II Army machine gunner/paratrooper
veteran, retired after a 40-year insurance career, notes, “I’ve
traveled a lot, but to me this is the best place in the world. You can
make friends if you want to, if you don’t want to, people will leave you
alone and respect your privacy. It’s friendly and laid-back.”
The Isle of
Wight courthouse complex is home to some of the oldest records in the
The county traces its beginnings back to 1608, when
Captain John Smith crossed the James River in search of food for the
starving Jamestown colony and met local Indians. In 1634, Isle of Wight
became one of eight original “shires” into which Virginia was divided.
The original county courthouse (1750), which still stands, is in
Stanfield serves up her famous lemon pound cake and other delicacies at
The Courthouse Diner.
“Courthouses had to be somewhat central to people.
The old Smithfield courthouse was a long way [seven miles away] to go at
the time,” explains Joe Ferguson,
president, Isle of Wight Historical Society. “People petitioned the
government for a more central location.”
Major Francis Boykin, a Revolutionary War
patriot/entrepreneur, offered a site for the new courthouse, creating
“an enclave where he could make a nice living,” Ferguson says.
Adjacent Boykin’s Tavern was conveniently located for meals,
refreshment, and lodging.Boykin
built the original courthouse building, which today houses the circuit
court, and is a genealogy buff’s dream, housing some of the oldest
records in the nation. (Records were buried there during the Revolutionary
and Civil wars, allowing escape from fires and wars that destroyed many
other early Virginia records.)
Mary Cash says she likes the “steady pace” of the tiny post office,
where “you know just about everybody.”
“It was a carnival on ‘court days’ —everybody who had business at the courthouse and those who wanted
to see people came, it became a hangout. It’s pretty sleepy now but it
has a long history as a gathering place,” Ferguson says.
Sleepiness is part of the area’s charm, along with
country hospitality. Dollie and
Tom Stanfield, who took over
The Courthouse Diner seven years ago, serve residents, tourists, and
200-plus courthouse employees with a mixture of reasonable prices,
down-home cooking, and homemade desserts like Dollie’s famous lemon
pound cake. A few years back, visitors from Isle of Wight, England,
knocked on the diner’s door, searching for a meal.
Boykin’s Tavern was restored and opened to the public in 2001. Inset is
site manager Arthur LaBonte.
“It was past our hours, but I told them to come on
in and I fixed them some food,” Dollie recalls. “They enjoyed it here
and said they hoped to come back. Later they sent me a teapot cozy from
Isle of Wight, England.”
Somehow one can’t imagine the typical urban
chain-run restaurant providing that level of after-hours service.
The Stanfields anticipate even more business via
Historic Boykin’s Tavern. Built as a 1762 residence, the site alternated
as tavern, private home, and rooming house. In 1913, Fred and Cora Wilson
bought the house; Fred was the jailer and Cora cooked meals for inmates,
as well as judges, lawyers, and boarders.
Caskey, Isle of Wight county administrator: “I think we have a good
handle on controlling growth.”
The late Katherine Boyd Wilson Walls, daughter of
Fred and Cora, recalled in the book Many
Voices: An Oral History of Isle of Wight County, Virginia,
“Electricity came to the courthouse area in 1931. My father paid five
dollars a month extra to help pay for the line. With the coming of
electricity, running water and a bathroom soon followed.”
Wells “Kathy” Mountjoy, a former nurse who works in Smithfield,
lived at Boykin’s Tavern from 1946-1963. Her father, George, was the
postmaster for the post office located in a store he also ran. He later
started G.F. Walls Insurance Agency in Smithfield, where Kathy and her
brother Fred Wells now work.
Sivertson, administrative analyst for Isle of Wight County, says “We
wanted the quality of life here — the cows, the deer, the cotton, the
“We moved in with Grandma because doctors gave her
six months to live — my mother was a nurse — and she lived 28 more
years!” Kathy explains, laughing. “It was a neat community hub —
people so poor they didn’t have running water sat next to judges [for
meals]. Grandma provided meals for ‘court days,’ and the people waited
to hear ‘Miss Cora’s’ dinner bell.”
The Walls family sold the property to the county,
which used it for storage, in 1973. Over the years the building
deteriorated, but individuals and the Isle of Wight Historical Society
pushed to secure grants and raise money for a million-dollar-plus
restoration.The site opened
in January 2001.
A Rare Monument
Shawn A. Wrenn,
secretary/ human resources for Isle of Wight County, was lured back to the
area by the “peace, serenity, and slower pace of living.”
“There aren’t many taverns from this period in
existence anymore,” says site manager Arthur
LaBonte. “Public buildings were uncommon in that period. People
would congregate here for meetings, food and drink, and lodging.
Courthouse complexes and taverns served as gathering places for auctions,
fairs, and picnics.”
The restored tavern includes a ladies’ parlor, the
main tavern area, tavern-keepers’ bedroom, private dining room, and two
front rooms housing a gift shop and artifacts displays. No original pieces
survive, but furnishings are period pieces typically found in taverns of
the era. LaBonte says future plans include obtaining funding for
well as replicating the site’s 1745-1959 gristmill and sawmill.
Baughman, Virginia Cooperative Extension agent, says she’s concerned
about the implications of the “peanut bill” on “the rich cultural
history of the county.”
Everyone agrees that controlling growth is the
area’s biggest challenge. But W.
Douglas Caskey, county administrator, says, “I think we have a good
handle on controlling growth.”
Caskey notes there are five “development service
districts” for the county; by focusing on these districts, he predicts
80 percent of the county will remain open space.
“Quality of life is a significant issue. We also
have to grow in a managed manner that doesn’t outstrip services,” he
lives on 86 acres with his wife and son. He hopes people can resist the
temptation to sell off farms for development in Isle of Wight.
Two Fortune 500 companies (pork giant Smithfield
Foods Inc. and International Paper) provide a sound employment base,
Caskey says, adding that the county has “an active economic development
department.” The new Richard T. Holland Commerce Park is anchored by a
500,000-square-foot Cost Plus distribution center.
“Boykin’s Tavern also gives us the ability to
draw tourist traffic to the central part of the county. Between the
history and architecture in Smithfield and now Boykin’s Tavern, tourism
is growing,” Caskey says.
Mountjoy and her brother, Fred Wells, lived at Boykin’s Tavern for many
years. Although the area remains rural, Mountjoy says, “We’re
beginning to be rushed in Isle of Wight.”
Nearly 15,000 people work in the county or farm or
commute to Hampton Roads-area employers. A recently passed federal farm
bill has many concerned; according to Virginia Cooperative Extension agent
Sarah Baughman, the bill
changes the way the government handles quotas for peanuts, a prime crop
for the county’s 190 farms.
“It will have tremendous impact, but we don’t
know yet what that impact will be,” she admits.
a state food inspector who lives on an 86-acre farm whose land he leases
out, says he’s concerned the “peanut bill” (as it’s called
locally) will tempt more farmers to sell their land for development.
and the Isle of Wight Historical Society pushed to secure grants and raise
money for a million- dollar-plus restoration. The restored tavern is
furnished with period pieces typically found in taverns of the era.
“Except for administration, the [former] program
didn’t take anything from the taxpayer; the new bill will drop the quota
price lower than the production cost,” he insists. “We grow gourmet
peanuts, but a lot of candy [manufacturers] buy peanuts to grind up and
put in candy bars; they want cheaper peanuts from overseas. People are
predicting a [land] rent price drop. Since many elderly people on family
farms also supplement their income with farm rent, it could have a major
Keeping a Positive Outlook
But despite concerns about farming, growth, and
development, people remain optimistic.
People like Shawn
Wrenn, a Smithfield native who moved to Norfolk during college, was
lured back by “peace, serenity, and a slower pace of living.”
Historical society member Tom
Finderson believes that quality of life can be maintained.
“The county is referred to as a leader in
controlled growth. I see them as someone to emulate, with ordinances to
control growth and assure open space,” he says. “I think with the new
Board of Supervisors, and the fact that open space is the attraction for
new residents, they will succeed. I think Isle of Wight Courthouse will
[stay as a] lazy country crossroads.”
Boykin’s Tavern Hours: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thurs.-Sat.;
1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sun.
Phone: (757) 365-9771 or 1-800-365-9771
Admission: Free (donations accepted)
The Courthouse Diner Hours: 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri.
Phone: (757) 357-6309 Web site: www.courthousediner.com
Isle of Wight Courthouse Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mon.-Fri.
Phone: (757) 357-3191
The original courthouse is still in use and is a
great source for genealogy.
Smithfield and Isle of Wight Convention & Visitors Bureau Phone: (757) 357-5182 or 1-800-365-9339
Web site: www.smithfield-virginia.com
(information on area historic sites/ attractions,
dining, lodging, etc.)