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For many travelers, the village of
Lottsburg is no more than a mixed scattering of homes, businesses and
farms along Northumberland Highway on the road to the more picturesque
towns of Heathsville, Reedville and Kilmarnock.
Located in upper Northumberland County
on the Northern Neck, Lottsburg may lack the composition and charm of its
more popular neighbors, but its aesthetic appeal lies beyond the highway.
The tranquil landscape and the friendly people are why folks like to call
There is harmony in the raggedness of
the Coan River that divides into two branches to embrace the area. Fed by
the Potomac River, the Coan’s deep waters flow up to forests of maples,
oaks and pines, and skirt rich pastures and working farms of winter wheat,
soybeans, corn and tomatoes.
In the air, salt mingles with the
pungent odor of fish at Cowart Seafood and Lake Packing Company, Inc.,
where oyster shucking begins at 5 a.m. and the canning of herring roe and
hominy are still part of the operation.
Coan River, which flows from the Potomac to the town of Lottsburg,
was once traveled regularly by steamboats.
During the romantic era of steamboats,
Lottsburg was home to a flourishing seafood industry that dominated the
banks of the Coan and an abundance of canneries that packed produce from
local farms. The area was so productive, steamboats docked at several
landings including Cowart’s, Cherry Hill, Lake, Bundie, Lewisetta,
Coan and Walnut Point, picking up products and passengers bound for
But as with many rural communities,
technology changed the landscape and many of the local jobs went away.
While farming is still an important component, most canneries shut down
long ago. The declining health of the Chesapeake Bay continues to take a
heavy toll on the seafood industry, forcing out many watermen and seafood
Cowart’s is one of the few to
survive and is the area’s biggest year-round employer with some 80 to 90
workers. The family business started around 1898, making owner Lake
Cowart, Jr., the fourth generation.
“My great-grandfather dredged
oysters with a sailboat in the late 1800s. And my grandfather ran the
steamboat dock and store. In those days the steamboats came here three
days a week, because there were no bridges for trucks,” Lake said.
Cowart, Jr., the fourth-generation owner of Cowart Seafood.
Today, Cowart’s is thriving thanks
to innovative aquaculture systems that will produce oysters faster, as
well as strengthen their resistance to disease. Because a single oyster
can filter 50 gallons of water a day, Cowart’s is planting oyster beds
in public waters in the hope of accelerating repopulation as a way to help
restore the health of the bay, according to aquaculture manager A.J.
Another seafood plant still in
operation is Keyser Brothers. Located around a bend in the river from
Cowart’s, crabbers can still drop off their morning catch for steaming,
picking and packing for market. Even in the off season, the pristine plant
still smells like steaming crabs.
Calvin Keyser and his brother Norman
started the packing plant in 1955. In the 1950s and early 1960s the
brothers were young and crabs were plentiful. “We
used to bus in 50 to 75 workers each day,” Calvin said. “The pickers
could put up more than 150 barrels a day.” Now in his 80s, Calvin is
running the business alone and at a slower pace. The decline
in the local crab population, competition from foreign markets, and the
rising costs of busing pickers from Kilmarnock and Littwalton have made it
very difficult to make a profit, he explained. In the past three years,
production has dropped to some 30 barrels a day.
Keyser outside the crab-packing plant he and his brother opened in
While area waters may offer up fresh
seafood, residents must drive a couple of miles to the neighboring towns
of Callao and Heathsville for groceries, clothes and other personal
necessities. Visitors looking for overnight accommodations or evening
dining must do the same.
Lottsburg is home to the
Northumberland County school administration office. Other businesses
include a print shop, combination automotive shop and café, Get ’n Zip,
modular home builder, and an Ace Hardware Store known as Allison’s.
In the center of the village is the
famous Callao Auction House — pitting folks from around the region in a
bidding frenzy over collectibles and antique furnishings. Saturday
mornings will find a crowd gathered as auctioneer Grayson Smith works up
the price of each bid. Check for auction dates on the Web site
Situated at a bend in the road
overlooking the village is the most prominent building around — Zion
Baptist Church. With its towering silver steeple, it is the cornerstone of
the community for Edward and Eleanor Holden, members for more than 70
Zion Baptist has served the black
community since before members ordained their first pastor in 1869,
according to Eleanor. “Before the Civil War,
slaves attended church with their masters,” she said. Eleanor read a
passage from a history book on Zion Baptist that claimed the white
congregation felt blacks were multiplying too rapidly and should start
their own church. With a twinkle in her eye she closed the book and
delivered her version of events, “It was because blacks were too
The Holdens were married 64 years ago.
The secret to their lasting relationship may be that they were life
partners in every way. Eleanor stood side-by-side with her waterman
husband each day, helping to clean fish. Their little seafood business was
well known to office workers in Alexandria, Washington, D.C., and
Baltimore, where Edward sold fish out of the back of his refrigerated
truck, even earning a feature story in the Washington Post as the
“fishman” from Lottsburg. There were many times when Eleanor had to
drive up to re-stock his supply.
and Eleanor Holden receive a house call from Assistant Pastor
Marvin Johnson (center) of Zion Baptist Church.
A stroke three years ago sidelined the
89-year-old waterman from the work that brought the couple so many good
memories. But he said it was the church and the school that made life
worth living. Edward said he “found” Eleanor when they were students
at Holley Graded School, a segregated school for black children. Both
enjoyed reminiscing about their school days together.
The day after our interview Eleanor
passed away, leaving Edward in the care and love of their church family.
Holley Graded School educated children
up through the seventh grade in a little schoolhouse
situated near Zion Baptist Church. The four-room building is listed on the
National Register of Historic Places and is a Virginia Historic Landmark.
According to historian Mark Huffman of
Northern Neck Today, Holley Graded was founded in 1868 by three
northerners, Emily Howland, Caroline Putnam and Sallie Holley. Leading
abolitionists and suffragettes of the day, the women worried that black
children in Virginia were not receiving an education so they moved to
Northumberland County and began a school outside Heathsville. In 1869,
Sallie, also an agent of the American Anti-Slavery Society, purchased two
acres in Lottsburg and the school was built.
In 1917, Holley Graded School was
deeded to a black board of trustees who continued the education legacy
solely on funding from the black community until desegregation in 1959.
Lottsburg’s slow, quiet pace is a
quality that attracts artists, boaters and city dwellers to its shores to
paint, bird watch or kick back in their waterfront nests and enjoy the
peace and beauty of the natural setting.
and Page Frischkorn enjoy retirement on the river.
For former Ashland residents Jim and
Page Frischkorn, it was the only place they considered for retirement.
After all, she is from the Cowart Seafood family and Lottsburg is home.
Because the area also offers plenty of waterfront property at affordable
prices in comparison to other regions, they were able to build their
rustic dream house at the water’s edge.
“The area has everything we wanted
— the kind of living we wanted. And it’s convenient to towns for
shopping and entertainment, as well as hospitals,” Page said.
The Frischkorns, like so many others
in the area, are happy to show off their wonderful neighborhood and share
local history with anyone who stops by.
That “down home” feeling is
evident at places like Allison’s Hardware, where neighbors are greeted
by their first names and owner Nancy Allison Fisher genuinely cares about
the community the store serves.
Two family-oriented events are
organized by the store every year. One crowd pleaser is the Lottsburg Fall
Festival in October. Folks enjoy all sorts of fun entertainment including
pumpkin picking, face-and-hat decorating, and music. There’s plenty of
food and it’s a great opportunity to purchase crafts from area artists.
For information on this year’s events, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eugene Brown is a sales associate at
Allison’s. Born and raised in Lottsburg, he returned after 10 years of
travel with the military.
“It’s a quiet, friendly place. You
always want to come back home,” he said.
Lottsburg’s charm is centered in the
joy, pride and cohesion of its citizens. It is the kind of place where
sense of community does not come from a showy façade, but rather is
present through the strength of church families and unified beliefs.