Down Home

Again in the year 2006, we’re making our way around the region, each issue visiting a small town and meeting some of the folks who make up the heart of electric co-op country. On this year's seventh stop, we’ll be  ...

 

Down Home in Petersburg

Story by Sharon K. DiRienzo, Contributing Writer

        

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If you’re looking for fancy festivals, posh parades, or high-brow celebrations of any kind, bypass Bloxom. The tiny Eastern Shore hamlet, population 406, has none of these.

If you’re looking for a bustling town with swanky cafés, artsy gift shops and museums, keep on goin’. If, however, you’re looking for a slice of railroad history, faded and a bit tattered around the edges, and a place lovingly called home, Bloxom can deliver. “We’re just a nice, quiet little town,” says Ronnie Williams, a 40-year resident and a town council member. “We don’t have much goin’ on around here.”

Bloxom's main street is only a shadow of its former self. The post office is probably the busiest place in town. Both buildings to the post office's left were formerly businesses, but are now used as rental apartments.

While that may be true now, Bloxom’s rich history tells another story.

In 1884, when the railroad first iron-stitched its way down the length of the Eastern Shore, the seeds of many a small town were planted. Because the railroad’s corridor sidestepped bigger towns, stations were established every 3-4 miles. Bloxom was one of those.

The town’s Railroad Square rose from land rented for $1 to the railroad “for the sole purpose of freight and rail passenger service only,” says the original deed. Businesses blossomed around it. When a post office was built, railroad authorities named the town after its first postmaster, William E. Bloxom.

By the turn of the century, the business district included an undertaker and wheelwright, a restaurant, a general store, a brick kiln, a hotel and five bars, which “suffered when the Commonwealth of Virginia made liquor by the drink illegal in 1918,” according to Eastern Shore author and historian Arthur King Fisher.

Bloxom is filled with farmhouses, Victorians, and wonderful bungalows.

On weekdays in Bloxom, the trains brought produce buyers who bid on a variety of potatoes, green beans, strawberries and other crops at the square’s auction block. When they had bought enough produce to ship, the buyers either bundled them directly on the train or sent the potatoes to nearby barrel makers to be packaged.

Later, the barrel makers would be replaced by grating sheds where the potatoes would be cleaned, sorted by size and placed in sacks. The iron horse also brought preachers and churches looking for congregations and converts. Several denominations, including the Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, founded churches in Bloxom as early as the 1890s.

Sixty-eight-year-old Gene Godwin and his brother Ralph moved to Bloxom as children with their father, a 

On the town's main drag, neglected or abandoned buildings stand alongside thriving mom-and-pop businesses.

Pennsylvania Railroad Express agent whose duties included preparing shipping invoices and sealing the heavily loaded rail cars. 

During Christmas holidays, local families would make holly wreaths and ship them to New York and Philadelphia for sale, remembers lifelong local John Somers. “Believe you me,” says 68-year-old Somers, “We were a thriving community. We had a lot of stores on both sides of the track.”

During Bloxom’s heyday in the late 1930s and throughout the ’40s, the town would boast a doctor’s office, a barbershop, a hardware-and-feed store, two banks, a grocery store and more. Elegant Victorians with wide, yawning porches, tidy bungalows and comfortable farmhouses encircled the town’s business district.  

Bloxom School was closed in 1998 and has been vacant ever since. Harlan and Jan York from Delaware recently bought the building and plan on restoring it into a showcase home.

In 1931, the town celebrated the opening of its own school, a two-story, brick building erected according to state plans, much like what can be found in many a small Virginia town. Bloxom incorporated in 1952. Four years later, Bloxom Volunteer Fire Company was founded and a station was dedicated.

Throughout it all, the town’s siren song was the whistle of the train as it skated into town.

After World War II, however, the train found itself in a dead-heat race for survival with the automobile. Just as the four-legged horse yielded to the iron horse years earlier, the iron horse was about to submit to the motorized one. Its submission would shape the course of  railroad towns like Bloxom.

During World War II, the railroad was loading almost 1,000 freight cars a day. A decade later, freight-car business was down by more than 50 percent. By the end of the 1950s, freight and passenger business had deteriorated so dramatically that passenger service was discontinued altogether around 1960.

On the town's main drag, neglected or abandoned buildings stand alongside thriving mom-and-pop businesses.

As the country’s economy continued to recover from the Depression and the war, highways were being built and improved, and the car and the truck proved to be the preferred modes of transportation. Today, the train only passes through Bloxom on its way to somewhere else and the town is a shadow of its former self.

The auction block is long gone, the decrepit freight station was burned by the town sometime in the 1980s, and Bloxom’s train station, sold, dismantled and moved, now graces the tracks in Cape Charles, a town almost an hour south.

A walk down Shoremain Drive, Bloxom’s version of Main Street, reveals a hodgepodge of thriving mom-and-pop businesses and a good number of neglected or abandoned buildings. Judy’s Flower Shop sits vine-choked and empty just down the road from the busy and crisply modern Greenbush Automotive, owned by Trower Bell. The post office is sandwiched between a good-looking town hall and two forlorn brick buildings. Hart’s Variety Store faces the town’s old general store, whose sagging and paint-chipped porch is now used as a gathering spot for some of the town’s retired menfolk.

A mainstay of Bloxom is the secondhand and antique store called Bloxom's A to Z.

By the looks of it, Bloxom’s post office is probably the busiest place around, mainly because it services other towns, such as nearby Macedonia and Modest Town, in addition to Bloxom. Nancy Neal, postmaster for the last 16 years, maintains 423 rented boxes and 415 routes that run from bayside to seaside.

On Mitchel Road, Bloxom School sits boarded up and silent. Over the years, the county systematically whittled the school down from a  K-12 school to an elementary school to a primary school. In 1998, its doors were permanently closed when the county consolidated schools.

“It used to be a nice place with lots of children running out here,” says Mason Durham, who for 23 years commuted across the street from his home to work as the school’s custodian. He points to the ball field waist-high in weeds and wildflowers. “When they closed the school, it just hurt the town.”

Kimberly Midgett, 10-year veteran, and Sean Bagwell, deputy chief, are part of Bloxom's 65-member colunteer fire company. The company suffered a serious blow in January when their opwn station was gutted by flames while they were out on another call. 

The latest blow to the town occurred in January. While its volunteers were out on another call, Bloxom’s volunteer fire station was gutted by flames. A large group of townsfolk, helpless to do anything, stood on the railroad tracks in the brisk night air and wept. The next day the roof collapsed.

“Many members didn’t leave the site for 48 hours,” says Deputy Chief Sean Bagwell, whose grandfather helped build the original station and whose brother, Jody, is the current fire chief. Defiant, one member hauled the original pull-cart fire engine, scorched and seared, outside the building and stuck a flag in it. “Just to say we were still here,” adds Kimberly Midgett, a 10-year veteran of the station.

Since that night, support from the town and the entire county has been overwhelming. The fire company was lent a pole barn, which was enclosed, equipped with electricity and plumbing, to house the company’s fire engines. Donations and community fundraisers are paving the road to rebuilding, which should cost about $1.5 million. The fire company’s gallant resurrection from the ashes, marked by the flag in the pull-cart, seems to symbolize a change of direction for the town.

A police station is currently under construction for its newly created full-time police officer position. Once completed, it will also act as temporary office space and shelter for the fire company’s ambulances. Bloxom School is also about to experience a revival. Jan and Gil York, antique dealers from Delaware, have recently purchased the over-10,000-square-foot school and intend to renovate it into a grand home with formal gardens. “It’ll be a showplace. That’s our objective,” says Gil. “Someday you might get to see it on TV, but that’s a year or two down the road.”

Citing the boom that has taken place in the nearby town of Parksley, the Yorks think Bloxom is a find. “[Bloxom] is a diamond in the rough,” says Gil. “It has tremendous potential.”

That’s no secret to Bloxom’s long-timers, people like John Somers and Louella Parks Fox, who operated a beauty shop next door to the post office for almost 30 years and whose first husband, the late Ben Parks, was a founding member of the fire company. They have loved this town in good times and bad, in sickness and in health. They know Bloxom’s potential because they have seen it realized. They have lived it. “Bloxom has been my town,” says Somers. “I love this town, always have. And if the Lord is willing, I’ll die here.”

 

If You Go…

 

Motels:

 

Anchor Motel

19083 Lankford Hwy.

Parksley, VA

(757) 665-1250

 

Comfort Inn

25297 Lankford Hwy.

Onley, VA 23418

(757) 787-7787 

www.ComfortInnOnley.com

 

RV Parks, Campsites:

 

Little Acres Campground

25011 Guard Shore Rd.

Bloxom, VA 23308

Phone: (757) 665-4788

Cell: (757) 710-9051

Tent sites to full hook-up sites and tent rentals.

 

Bed and Breakfast Inns:

 

Garden and Sea Inn

New Church, VA

(757) 824-0672

www.gardenandseainn.com

 

Interesting and Off-beat Places to Shop:

 

Bloxom’s A-Z Furniture

A treasure-seekers paradise, there’s no telling what kind of unusual items or rarities one could unearth.

Bloxom, VA 23308

Phone: (757) 665-6328

 

Hart’s Variety Store

The name says it all. Hart’s sells everything from bait and tackle to deli sandwiches.

25629 Shoremain Dr.

Bloxom, VA 23308-2811

Phone: (757) 665-5169

 

Nearby places to visit:

 

Guard Shore Beach

Va. Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries

(757) 253-7072

dgifweb@dgif.virginia.gov

Free, daily site access

Wildlife viewing and nature watching

 

Bloxom Winery

A 35-acre vineyard with on-site winery and tasting room, it sits just outside Bloxom town limits. Open from Memorial Day to December (or until the wine is sold out), Wednesday to Sunday, 1-6 p.m.

26130 Mason Rd.

Bloxom, VA 23308

(757) 665-5670

 

The Eastern Shore Railway Museum

Learn more about local railroad history in nearby Parksley. This restored train station is loaded with memorabilia dating from the late 1800s. Knowledgeable staff can answer questions.

18468 Dunne Ave.

Parksley, VA 23421

(757) 665-RAIL

 

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