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What might be the best way to describe Bracey to a
It’s the kind of place its people love.
Part of Mecklenburg County, Bracey is near South Hill,
the first exit leaving North Carolina off Interstate 85, with Richmond and
Raleigh easily within driving distance. Lake Gaston and the interstate are
vital parts of the community’s story line.
Bracey has a small but proud business base, a thriving
community center, retirees who are passionate about the place, lavish lake
properties, and scores of fishing tournaments, all bathed in Southern
Lake Gaston has played a critical role in Bracey’s
development, bringing tourism and a strong recreational and real estate
base. This part of Virginia’s Lake Country affords fishermen, water-sports
enthusiasts and hunters tremendous opportunities.
Bragging on Bracey
Residents gather at
the thriving Bracey Community Center.
While Bracey is no longer an incorporated town, resident
Marilyn Johnson could very well serve as its unofficial mayor. She and her
husband David have lived here since 2002.
She serves as the president of the Bracey Community
Center, after migrating from Plymouth, Mass.
“We were in North Carolina, and we came back, and we saw
this, and we decided to jump off and see what’s there. We were looking for a
place to retire,” Ms. Johnson recalls. She had grown up next to the sea.
When she was ready to retire, Bracey and Lake Gaston seemed ideal.
“Growing up on the ocean, I said, ‘I need water.’ I don’t
care if it’s the ocean, a lake, a creek, I don’t care. That’s how we found
Bracey and Lake Gaston,” she says.
This transplanted Yankee loves the people here.
“They’re so ... down home. They have welcomed us into the
community. They have been more than helpful in us building our home,
settling us in, making us a part of the community,” says Johnson. She had no
family ties here, but found warm-hearted neighbors to make her transition to
“The weather down here is beautiful. One thing that did
surprise us was the red mud. We had nice, really black dirt. Having red dirt
that turns into a pudding when it gets wet was just one of the things we had
to get used to,” she says.
transplant Marilyn Johnson, president of the
center, is full of praise for the community
that opened its arms to her and her husband.
“I can’t explain how much Bracey means to me now,”
continues Johnson. “We’ve been taken in and made to feel welcome. I don’t
know what more you could ask for. Wonderful friends, when you know nobody.
Just wonderful neighbors and friends in the community to lean on.
“People know who you are, okay? And even if they don’t,
they make you feel welcome.
“You have that personal contact, that personal feeling,”
Lisa Hagan is a highly respected literary agent and
lecturer, a person who appreciates expanding her mind and spirit.
She spent her summers here as a child and returned from
Manhattan eight years ago. Her mom is Sandra Martin, who has become the
local Lake Gaston photographer.
Hagan is involved in organic gardening, community
activities, and the appreciation of nature. She’s made a complete adjustment
from a much faster pace.
She savors the gorgeous qualities of Bracey, ranging from
late-afternoon swims to sunrise boat rides. Hagan understands the
meditative, healing qualities and the opportunity for spiritual
enlightenment characteristic of the community.
A History of the Community
Life often revolves around change, and Bracey exemplifies
Susan Bracey Sheppard, a local historian with deep family
roots in the area, has written an excellent history of Bracey.
“Bracey began life in 1762 when a ferry across the
Roanoke River began operation and the area surrounding became a commercial
center. This community became the Town of Saint Tammany in 1792 when the
General Assembly made it the first incorporated town in Mecklenburg County,”
according to the historical account. (Bracey is no longer incorporated.)
In its prime, Saint Tammany was an important site for
commerce and the tobacco trade.
“Thirty-nine people bought lots in the town during its
first year of existence. From the tobacco warehouse, the tobacco, some of it
transported there by the bateaux on the river, was stored until it could be
carried by wagon to Petersburg to be sold. The two-story stone and frame
building also housed a store and the post office. Another store, a
blacksmith, a tankard, a tavern run by Samuel Lambert, and several houses
comprised the remainder of the original town. In 1798, a post office was
established at Saint Tammany,” the history notes.
“In 1816, Virginia chartered the Roanoke Navigation
Company to work in conjunction with North Carolina’s existing company of the
same name to reach for the dream of a water outlet to the rest of the world
by means of canals and locks around the rapids of the Roanoke. One of the
loading stations was Saint Tammany, at which the company had a storage
house,” the account continues.
The Richmond, Petersburg and Carolina railroad later
brought change in 1900, with shifting commercial patterns. Eventually, the
name Saint Tammany was no more. Railroad officials needed a shorter one for
telegraph purposes. They chose the name Bracey, in honor of A.H. Altamont
Hart, or “Mont” Bracey.
Mont Bracey’s legacy lives on in his granddaughter, Carol
Bracey Corker, who is happy to share local folklore about her hometown. And
ask about her granddaughters, Carol and Susan.
Bracey became a tourist destination in the 1920s, with
Florida-bound vacationers camping overnight behind one of the Bracey
schools, among other options. (This Bracey history is adapted from Ms.
Sheppard’s history of Mecklenburg County, Life by the Roaring Roanoke. The
book was published in 1977 and authorized by the Mecklenburg County
Bracey was once a small village revolving around commerce
Beverly Lee Hendrick recalls watching the train pass
through town in 1939-’40, and he remembers when the first electric pole was
placed in Bracey in the early 1940s.
Hendrick remembers one of the most famous citizens of
Bracey when he was growing up, “Uncle Nonnie” Algood, a blacksmith. Hendrick
recalls learning such skills as stripping tobacco, picking cotton and
raising sugarcane and peanuts. Hendrick left the area, returned and has a
28-acre farm. He enjoys the people of the Bracey community.
Another longtime Bracey resident, Buddy Harper, was born
and raised next door to the site of the community center. He attended the
old Bracey school. Harper remembers Tom Wortham, who sold fresh fish on
Saturday mornings, provided homemade ice cream in the stifling summers, and
then sold beef in the fall. Wortham was versatile and ingenious, using a
steam engine to cut firewood when that fuel was necessary in winter.
Sandra Martin is a Bracey native, born in 1946. She moved
away, landing in New York City. After a lengthy career as a literary agent
and a television producer in the Big Apple, Martin retired to the
tobacco-and-dairy farm where she grew up.
Sandra’s dad died shortly before the tragic events of
9/11 and her mom still lived in the family home, built in 1862 by Judge John
Wright King. Her brother, Thomas Martin, Jr., still farms.
According to Sandra, “When I was growing up most, if not
all, of the women of the community were homemakers and worked on the farms
right alongside their husbands, and children worked too. I was an excellent
hander of tobacco leaves. Now Bracey has many women business executives and
entrepreneurs. We have an amazing array of people from all walks of life who
have retired here. There are nuclear physicists, NASA engineers, CIA and FBI
retirees, filmmakers, executives from IBM, and State Department officials
who have traveled the earth to retire in Bracey, Va.” Bracey is home to a
thriving community of artisans as well.
Martin is semi-retired and has a publishing company, and
the appeal of the community was strong enough to compel her to bring her
daughter here. Martin’s friends developed an appreciation for the quiet
evenings on the lake. She has also developed a sideline, teaching classes in
Martin laughs, remembering a story of a friend who was
visiting from New York City and couldn’t sleep the first night she was here.
“She said, I didn’t close my eyes all night ... it was so
quiet, it was so dark, I was so scared ... I’m used to hearing all this
noise ... now she loves it.”