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THIS COUNTY SEAT OFFERS SMALL-TOWN
CHARM WITH BIG-CITY PROXIMITY.
It seems appropriate that a small,
stately Southern town that’s had four separate names in its lifetime
continues to weather change, while preserving respect for its heritage.
Such is the case with
Halifax, which emerged from southern
Virginia’s economic downturn more successfully than some towns and communities
in the region.
historic Halifax County Courthouse. Tom Mays/Town of Halifax
This is a safe, tranquil place where
residents and visitors enjoy daily walks, watching the local Dixie Youth
baseball league in the spring, and the magnificent change of seasons in
is home to the Halifax County War Memorial, a place of reverence honoring
the sacrifices of the county’s war dead dating back to the Revolutionary
also has a trail marker across from the War Memorial recalling a snapshot
of history from the Civil War. This is part of a self-guided driving tour
that enhances visitors’ appreciation of history in this region.
The marker recalls how John Powell,
the headmaster at
, called together his young boys to fight for the Confederacy. Together
with the Home Guard, the old men who drilled in Halifax, this Rebel force
fought in June 1864 to defend the Staunton River Bridge and Confederate
supply lines from Union raiders led by Union generals Wilson and Kautz.
Halifax also has a historical marker at the Mary Bethune governmental
complex on the state’s commemorative Civil Rights in Education Heritage
Trail. The Bethune complex was once an all-black school, and has made its
own distinctive contributions to the region.
History is only part of the appeal of
Manager Carl Espy and Assistant County Administrator Jerry
Lovelace confer with survey crew before construction. Town of
Carl Espy, town manager here since
August 2003 and a native of Savannah, Ga., is married to Halifax native
Bee Edmunds. Espy set out to make his mark in professional acting and
lived in New York City, but was captivated by Halifax.
“It seems like a step back in time,
and yet you’re still an hour’s drive from Research Triangle. You’re
very close to Richmond and Washington, D.C.,” says Espy. “The appeal
is, this is right next door, but it almost seems a world away.”
Naturally, there are small-town issues
and problems here, as in most places. But Halifax has demonstrated
The town, which serves as the seat of
local government for Halifax County, is home to three separate police
departments, two pool associations, the Chastain Home for Gentlewomen, and
an eclectic business community with a personal touch. Halifax also has a
historic district and a lake with recreational opportunities on its
With assistance from officials in
Halifax County, the town is involved in an exciting revitalization project
that has transformed the downtown area. “Through economic downturn with
textiles and tobacco, the community had seen better days,” says Espy.
“This was an effort to remove economic, visual and physical blight, and
bring economic opportunities back to the historic county seat.” Streetscape
improvements, efforts to calm the flow of traffic through the main artery
of town, and work to make Halifax a more pedestrian-friendly environment
are part of the revitalization efforts, says Espy.
Betsye Throckmorton, co-owner of
Halifax Floral and Framing Studio and an official in the local business
association, says, “Any events we wanted to hold like the parade, we
didn’t have enough light to have one at night. It’s just beautiful
with the new lighting we have. “The quality of the sidewalks, they’re
much larger. They’re not uneven … We had big holes. We actually had a
few people that were injured from tripping over the sidewalks and now
it’s just beautiful,” adds Throckmorton.
Halifax has new ideas on how to
celebrate its rebirth, including a wine festival planned for September 8.
Fresh landscaping downtown and other improvements enhance the look of the
business area, and broadband Internet access has been made available in an
effort to attract young professionals.
downtown shopping continues south of the railroad tracks at Toots
Creek Antiques Mall. Town of Halifax Photo.
The town’s business district has
evolved, with a mix of professional offices and longtime locally owned
businesses. An expansion across Toot’s Creek past the railroad tracks
and up Spencer’s Hill is home to a unique selection of businesses.
Steve Schopen, an import from the
southern part of England and a co-owner of Molasses Grill restaurant,
explains the appeal of Halifax. “Small-town
atmosphere,” he observes. “No traffic, clean air, but you’ve got all
the attributes of a larger town with South Boston right next door to
you.” His wife Karen elaborates, “One of the
reasons we picked Halifax to open up our restaurant was we had wanted to
be part of a community that was reinventing itself. And with the changes
going on in Halifax, it’s a perfect location for that. It’s a
community that’s dedicated to its history, but is dedicated also to its
Another longtime resident, Margaret
Covington, drove nearly 200 miles to the area to find a job. She has since
raised a family with her husband, Bill, an official with the local school
system. She discovered “this beautiful, historic
village … They valued their history, the family sagas and the security
of knowing each other,” says Covington. Thirty years later, Covington
has found “there is a sense of pride in the community that unites and
promotes preservation as well as progress. “There are a lot of
remarkable leaders around here who have done a lot of things to protect
the environment and the well-being of a lot of people,” says Covington.
“People reach out in this community to do things to help other
Halifax has its own special niche in
Southside Virginia’s history.
Espy explains that Halifax, the county
seat for more than 200 years, had once been the trade center of the
county. The courthouse is a valuable source for local history, according
to him. “It was also known as a river town,
because there were navigable bateau sluices along the Banister River, just
north of the town,” says Espy. The town was first
known as Banister Town, according to local historians, and then Halifax
Court House. There’s some speculation among historians that there were
actually separate locations that grew together as one. “The
third name of the town was Houston, for the treasurer of the construction
company that built the Lynchburg and Durham rail line,” says Espy.
Houston was renamed Halifax in 1920.
There are some surprising historic
facts here of which even longtime residents may not be aware. For
instance, “Below the hydroelectric dam (on the Banister) … there are a
number of bateau sluices and Native American wing dams that wind
downstream four miles to Terry’s Bridge,” says Espy. These are some of
the best-preserved bateau sluices in the Commonwealth. “The
Banister River and Banister Lake comprise our northern boundary to a
certain extent,” says Espy. The lake is home to low-key, relaxing
recreational activities, and has a presence on the Virginia Birding and
Wildlife Trail. “There is a unique sense of place
that has not been diminished over the years, in spite of downturns in the
economy, and it reflects, I think, the strong heritage and resiliency of
the people,” says Espy.
Like most small towns, Halifax has a
vibrant spiritual life, with historic churches, and, at the same time, a
fascinating collection of characters and people who have made an indelible
mark on the place. The town has produced leaders in a variety of pursuits,
both on the state and national level.
Daniel: "I find the people to be ... quite warm here."
Frances M. Daniel, who came here 40
years ago, left the urban life when she followed her husband, town
councilman Cabell Daniel, to Halifax. “I find the
people to be … quite warm here,” says Ms. Daniel, who was a longtime
schoolteacher. She speaks in front of her fruit and vegetable stand.
“I’ve enjoyed the country life, because I never
experienced so-called ‘country living’ until I came here, and I’ve
learned a lot,” adds Ms. Daniel, a lay reader in her church.
Halifax has its own special mood.
“If you were to walk through any
part of town, you sense a feeling of beauty … You think about what were
the people like who built these houses? What were they like who kept these
yards up, these trees? The whole natural scene to me is just something
that can be therapeutic on any day,” says Covington, who strolls through
“And it doesn’t matter what part
of town you walk in, you will sense that the people take pride in who they
are, and … the life in a small town,” she concludes.