in PDF Format
When you talk to residents about
Sussex, you start to hear the same words again and again — words like
serene, peaceful, laid-back, quiet. The other thing you sense in the
voices of residents is a love for the area and its people.
The tiny hamlet of Sussex (the post
office currently has 50 rented boxes, a good benchmark of the
community’s size) sits smack in the middle of Sussex County, a
496-square-mile county south of the James River and east of Richmond.
Driving from I-95 south and exiting onto Route 40, visitors are treated to
a two-lane country road surrounded by a combination of flat, narrow fields
lined with corn and/or pine trees in a lush blanket of green.
Jeffersonian courthouse building in Sussex was completed in 1828.
from neighboring Surry County in 1753, Sussex’s economy remains
agriculture-based, with more than 160 farms in the county averaging 517
acres in size. Principal crops include peanuts, cotton, corn and soybeans.
Eighty percent of the county’s land is commercial forestland, dominated
by loblolly pine, oak and hickory. Major employers include government,
education/schools, the Virginia Diner in nearby Wakefield and the Virginia
of Corrections, whose two maximum-security prisons in the county employ
over 800 people and house 2,000 inmates.
Turning from Route 40 onto Courthouse
Road, the courthouse area typifies the early 19th-century Virginia county
seat, with the county courthouse complex, including the Jeffersonian
courthouse building completed in 1828, on one side of the road. Across the
road is Thornton’s Store, first opened in 1913; the Sussex post office;
the original clerk’s office built in 1817 (now privately owned and not
open to the public); a colonial-style brick BB&T bank; and several
County native Gary Williams has served as clerk of the circuit
court for 33 years.
Gary Williams, who has served as clerk
of the circuit court for 33 years, is almost finished writing a
nine-chapter history of Sussex County. “It
[writing the book] is hard to complete, with a full-time job,” says
Williams of the heavily researched and footnoted book. “We have not had
a county history written since 1942, so it’s long overdue.”
Now 64 and in his second year of an
eight-year term following his re-election last fall, Williams adds,
“Sussex County has been the centerpiece of my life. I have a great love
for where I came from. I grew up here, went away to the College of William
& Mary and taught school for three years in Henrico County near
Richmond — and came back. Home drew me back.”
Retired nurse Dorothy J. Graves, 71,
grew up in nearby Stony Creek. She moved to Richmond with her husband, but
when he passed away more than four years ago she returned to Sussex as a
primary caregiver for her mother, 93-year-old Mae D. Johnson. Despite the
fact that Sussex is rural and gas prices are skyrocketing, Graves says
rural living is cheaper.
nurse Dorothy Graves, who moved home to care for her mother:
"You can get in touch with God again and see the stars."
“My utilities are cheaper and you
can have your own garden here, which reduces food costs,” she points
out. “It’s peaceful and quiet. You can get in touch with God again and
see the stars.” Asked what would surprise outsiders about Sussex, Graves
replies, “The unity of all races. This is a real community, where people
help each other.” Since she came home, Graves has busied herself with
volunteer and church work. She and her mother enjoy going to the Sussex
Resource & Technology Center, where Graves is taking a computer class
in Microsoft Excel. Graves says her mother has dementia and enjoys playing
games on the center’s computers.
Christel Key, 24, is program
coordinator for the Sussex Resource & Technology
Center. The brainchild of Chequila H. Fields, social
services director for Sussex, the center opened in 2006 and offers patrons
free high-speed Internet, wireless Internet access and 10 state-of-the-art
computers. Open to adults age 18 and older, self-directed online classes
are available as well as teacher-led beginning computer classes like
keyboarding or Microsoft Word. Classes for seniors and beginning computer
classes are free, other than the cost of any books needed. The center
offers fee-based classes on subjects like Web development and graphic
design. Senior citizens from the Crater District Agency on Aging come to
the center once a week, where they began using the computers to play games
and moved on to basic computer functions. The center also offers help with
resumes, job applications and job searches, GED classes and even has a
“We’re doing focus groups now to
meet the needs of the community. Most of our classes run from 5:30 to 6:30
p.m. so people can come after work,” Key explains. Key,
who grew up in nearby Jarratt, moved back home after living in Norfolk and
Lynchburg during her college years. She came home “for this job and to
give back to my community.”
The hardest thing about returning to
country life? “I have to plan trips ... you can’t just run to
Wal-Mart,” she says.
Economic Development is Key
Sussex county’s abundant fields and
forests Surround the tiny town at its center.
Sussex County’s administrator, Mary
E. Jones, grew up on a peanut farm in Sussex. She says the county’s
biggest challenge is economic development, adding that the board of
supervisors is in the process of hiring the county’s first economic
administrator Mary Jones: "We feel there is interest now in
Sussex because of [nearby] Fort Lee's expansion at the port at
“We feel there is interest now in
Sussex because of [nearby] Fort Lee’s expansion plans and expansion at
the port at Hampton Roads,” Jones explains. “The county has over 100
acres to develop its first industrial park, as well as owning just under
200 acres near I-95 and Route 301.”
Jones says most workers now commute to
Petersburg, a 30-minute drive, or to Richmond
or Tidewater, which means a 45- to 60-minute drive.
Another county focus, she says, is
providing health and medical care: “Fifteen percent of our county
population is over age 65. The health department is in Sussex, and there
are medical clinics in Stony Creek, Waverly and Wakefield, but there is no
hospital in the county. Residents are 30 to 40 minutes from the nearest
hospital, depending on where in the county they live.”
The biggest concern now is that
Sussex, as well as neighboring Southampton and Surry counties and two
North Carolina counties, is being considered by the U.S. Navy for an
outlying landing field (OLF). “NO OLF” signs are seen everywhere in
the area, making clear most residents’ sentiments about the issue.
“Local governments and citizens have
formed a coalition to oppose it. Noise is a major concern, as is the
environment,” Jones explains. “It will encompass 2,000 acres but will
impact 30,000 to 40,000 acres, as well as impacting the type of crops
grown. We’re also concerned this could be a precursor for moving
Oceana’s training base in Virginia Beach here.”
Jones says if Sussex became the OLF
site, there would be no economic advantage: only 72 jobs are proposed and
she says the Navy will provide most of those people.
General store spans
Across the street from Jones’
office, Thornton’s Store is a busy place. There are no restaurants near
the courthouse, but Thornton’s offers homemade sandwiches, chips and
Store owner Morgan Thornton, 61, is a
third-generation owner and also has been the Sussex postmaster since 1979.
in business in Sussex for nearly a century, carries a wonderful
selection of quaint gift items and collectibles, and offers
homemade sandwhiches in its fountain area.
Started as a general store by
Thornton’s late paternal grandfather, the business once carried
everything from meats to hardware. Today the store boasts a quaint gift
area, tables in the lunch/fountain area, and convenience-store items.
own collection of store-related collectibles provides authentic decor,
including a scale model of the original 1913 store. He is, he says, only
one of four Virginia dealers for the Whizzer, a moped-like vehicle that
Thornton calls “a bicycle with a motor on it.” Whizzers on display,
with a suggested retail price of $1,499, are eye-catching and get 120 mpg.
Thornton rides one but says he has yet to sell any of the vintage-inspired
Like many natives, Thornton left for
city life, graduating from Virginia Commonwealth
University and working in banking for seven years before returning to
become postmaster and run Thornton’s Store.
“We haven’t been discovered
yet,” he says. “Sussex has been ruled by farmland and forestland, and
people are holding on to their land.”
Customer Jim Hajacos moved to Sussex
in 1984 from Petersburg, commuting to his job at Fort Lee before retiring
in 1989. He was attracted, he said, by the home he and his wife ended up
buying, Three Creek Plantation. His house was built in 1857 and has five
acres, although it once was part of an 800-acre tract.
“We wanted to live in a rural area.
I like the solitude, and it’s laid-back here ... it reminds me of the
1940s because nobody seems to be in a rush,” Hajacos, now 70, explains.
“Our neighbors were especially cordial.”
Hajacos says he is likely one of the
few people who supports an OLF for Sussex: “I worked at Oceana for three
years ... jet noise is like a train, you get used to it. The Navy needs a
place to train young men, and I think national defense comes first.”
resident Karla Hardin describes Sussex as "quiet, and
peaceful, for the most part."
Employee Karla Hardin moved to Sussex
in 1962 when her husband took a job in Hopewell. Now 70, she retired seven
years ago and works part-time at Thornton’s. She describes Sussex as
“quiet and peaceful, for the most part.” Youthful-looking and
friendly, Hardin admits she would hate to see an OLF in Sussex.
“When we were first married, we
lived in St. Louis near McDonnell Douglas [testing area] and I remember I
couldn’t sleep at all,” she recalls. “I never got used to it.”
Gary Williams says people who like to
hunt and fish are attracted to Sussex.
“I think it’s different from
living anywhere else; a place to be if you are looking for a slower
lifestyle,” he says. “It’s a great place to get away from it all;
there are still some remote areas in the county. If the OLF comes, we are
about to lose that due to noise pollution.”
He adds, “It’s an unusual thing
today where you can [still] find a place where someone is not living right