Cover Story

A Country Boy 'Blessed'

Life on the farm has been good to Bobby Conner.

 

Story and Photos by Bill Sherrod, Editor.

 


Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative CEO John Lee says of the Conners, "Bobby and Lucy have always been able to get more joy out of life than anyone I know."

"Blessed.”       

That’s how Bobby Conner describes his life.

Conner, 72, retired in June from Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative’s board of directors after 30 years of service to the co-op. His day job is clerk of Halifax County’s Circuit Court. His passions are farming, family and all things mechanical.

He and Lucy, his wife of 51 years, have three children — Katherine, David and Richard; seven grandchildren — Robbie, Ben, Jessica, Berkley, West, Emory and Bob; and 2,200 acres of land they actively farm. Both sons are involved with their parents in working the family land, which has evolved over the years from a tobacco farm to a beef, grain and flower operation.

“I’ve been lucky all my life,” says Bobby. “There was never a time when I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. And that, as far back as I can remember, was to be a farmer.”

Bobby was born in 1940 on his family’s land (“in the backwoods of Providence Community,” he says) in Halifax County, near Nathalie. He was born within a half mile of the burial sites of his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. He graduated from Halifax High School in 1958, did a six-month stint in the National Guard, then went to N.C. State, where he earned a B.S. in animal science — and the undying affection of Lucy Armistead.

“Lucy was in school at Peace College, which was about 10 minutes from N.C. State,” Bobby recalls. She had grown up on a farm near Bobby and he had known her all his life, but they’d never dated.

“I had a car, so I started giving her a ride home when I went. She would fix me cookies for taking her back and forth, and the cookies kept getting bigger till they turned into a cake,” he recalls with a smile. Bobby and Lucy started dating the summer between their freshman and sophomore years in college and married during their junior year.


A testament to the fact that he clean sup well, Bobby Conner has been swapping coveralls for a coat and tie to serve as Halifax County's circuit court clerk since 1987.

Shortly after they finished school and moved back to the county, they moved to Lucy’s family farm, in 1965, since both of her parents were deceased. The Conner and Armistead farmsteads both date back to the 1800s, and as the years passed Bobby and Lucy gradually acquired parts of both farms, as well as an adjacent tract that had also been used as a farm since the 1800s. 

“From 1963 until 2005, tobacco was very good to us,” Bobby notes. But times change, and with mounting social pressures on tobacco as a cash crop, the Conners saw the need to evolve their operation. They began producing cattle and grain in the 1970s, and continued to look at new or non-traditional agricultural opportunities ranging from broccoli to flowers.

“By the 1990s, we had started growing tobacco plants in greenhouses, and we gradually began converting those into flower houses,” Bobby notes. We now have the equivalent of 15 greenhouses producing high-end flowers. In the springtime during the season, the flower operation employs up to a dozen people.” Bobby’s son Richard runs the flower operation, while son David is involved in grain production on the farm, and does some trucking and contracting work, as well. “And both of the boys help me with hay and the cows,” Bobby adds.

From the Farmhouse to the Courthouse

In the 1960s and ’70s, Bobby gradually became involved in politics as a spokes­man for agriculture and rural issues. “There weren’t many kids coming back home from college to farm, and I was one, so mainly because of that, I got asked to serve as a sort of a farm spokes­man,” he notes. “I wasn’t too sure I would have much input, but I was asked to help, so I did.”

He became known as a go-to person in Halifax County for the rural vote, and in those years Bobby helped candidates running for offices ranging from the county board of supervisors to the state legislature. In the 1970s he also became increasingly involved in community-improvement efforts, such as helping to start the Triangle Vo­lunteer Fire Department, of which he is a charter member and which, he says, is still “going strong.”

During the 1980s, Bobby’s community involvement continued to expand. In 1982, he was appointed to fill an empty seat on Mecklenburg Electric Coopera­tive’s board of directors and was re-elected to the board in every subsequent election. During his career on the cooperative’s board, he served in a variety of leadership capacities ranging from chairman of the Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative board to chairman of the statewide electric-cooperative association. In 1987, he was appointed to the Halifax Regional Hospital’s board. In 1985, he was instrumental in helping to start a community bank, Carter Bank & Trust.

When the incumbent circuit court clerk decided to retire mid-term in 1987, Circuit Court Judge Charles L. McCormick appointed Bobby to fill the position for the remainder of the term. At the end of the term, state Sen. Howard Anderson and Judge McCormick encouraged Bobby to run for the office.

“I was absolutely happy being a farmer,” Bobby points out. “But between the hospital board and the bank and the other things I was involved with, I guess Senator Anderson and Judge McCormick saw me as a possible candidate for the county’s circuit court clerk.”

Bobby ran for the office. He won, and he’s been re-elected as Halifax County’s circuit court clerk ever since.

“Bobby’s done such a good job for Halifax County,” says Judge McCormick, now retired. “I’ve always been proud of that appointment.”

A Penchant for Puttering

Dealing with the various, often-contentious legal facets of the circuit court — cases, trials, lawyers, plaintiffs and defendants — can make the clerk’s job a stressful one. In fact, a difficult day in court can leave you with downright scrambled sensibilities, Bobby says.

To allay the stresses of the court, Bobby indulges his favorite pastime, working in his shop.

“Bobby spends a lot of time tinkering, usually from right after work till late into the night,” notes Lucy. “It’s his main hobby, his way of relaxing.”


Bride Lucy is sure to look sweet upon the seat of Bobby's "whatchamacallit" built for two.

His shop work ranges from restoring antique tractors and cars to creating new single-copy inventions, such as a self-propelled manure spreader and a whimsically conceived two-wheeled conveyance Lucy fancifully refers to as his “whatchamacallit.”

A corollary hobby is collecting old farm tools, equipment and other antique implements. It’s an activity Bobby, Lucy and friends have long enjoyed, and it’s the genesis of what has turned into one of the county’s premier events, the Halifax County Heritage and Antique Machinery Festival.

“Lucy and I and friends have always enjoyed going to shows to see antique machinery, tractors, tools and such,” Bobby notes. “We probably go to a dozen of these shows a year, in farm states all up and down the East Coast. They’re celebrations of the way farming used to be, with a blend of good food and good, clean, family fun.  

“Nine years ago we decided to have one of these shows in Halifax County. It was well received and we’ve had one every year since, and 5,000 to 6,000 people attend. To some extent, it’s more like the traditional county fair-type event.”

Proceeds from the festival are used to improve the fairgrounds, which now belongs to Halifax County and is used for various rural-celebration events throughout the year. Money generated by the festival is also used to provide scholarships for county high school seniors who want to further their education in agriculture or motor sports.

“The festival has allowed us to show off the mechanical aptitude of the community,” says Bobby. “A little bit of a mission of the festival is to recognize the talents of the mechanically inclined. Our festival shows that it’s okay for lawyers and doctors to ‘play with rust,’ to have fun with things mechanical.”

It’s Bobby’s way of doing what he’s done all his life — promoting Halifax, Southside Virginia and rural life.

“Bobby and Lucy are wonderful people, and Bobby is absolutely an ambassador for Halifax County and for the agricultural community,” says Cathy Coles, who helps put on the annual Heritage and Antique Machinery Festival. She notes that the Conners serve as directors of the event.

“They’re the kind of people who’re always there when you need them,” adds Tom West, the Conners’ neighbor and chairman of the Halifax County Board of Supervisors. A retired farmer, West also enjoys collecting and restoring old tractors and farm equipment. “We enjoy it together,” he says of his neighbor. “That’s our play time.”

“Bobby’s really a good citizen,” says Judge McCormick. “He always has the best interests of Halifax County, and Southside Virginia, at heart in everything he does. He and Lucy are just a great couple, a huge asset to our community.”

“Bobby’s one of those people you’re instantly comfortable with,” adds John Lee, CEO of Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative. “He’s easy-going, likeable, and he has a great sense of humor. The Heritage Festival is his and Lucy’s baby, and they’ve given back a lot to the community through the festival. He’s a strong family man, and Bobby and Lucy have always been able to get more joy out of life than anyone I know.”

“Bobby Conner is just a great guy, with so many interests,” adds Nancy McCormick, Judge McCormick’s wife. “And Lucy is such a wonderful person, too. I don’t know of any couple who do so many things together, and have so much fun.”

Reflecting on his career and his life with Lucy and their family in rural Halifax County, Bobby Conner sums up things in two words: “We’re blessed.”

And so — thanks to Bobby and Lucy Conner — Halifax County, the agricultural community, and Southside Virginia are blessed as well. 

 

Home ] Up ] Caught in the Web ] [ Cover Story ] Down Home ] Editorial ] Happenings ] Reader Recipes ] Rural Living ] Say Cheese ]