Trains still rumble through Milford daily, but passenger trains no longer stop in the community, once the largest and longest-surviving freight and passenger station among five stations on the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad in Caroline County.
Two miles west of Bowling Green, just north of the Mattaponi River coming from present-day Virginia Routes 207 and 722, Milford was established in 1792 by an act of the Virginia General Assembly.
Once known as “Doguetown,” the area of the Mattaponi River headwaters was home to Dogue Indians, and the Mattaponi was navigable, allowing colonists to transport tobacco and other cargo by boat. Chartered to build a railroad from Richmond to the Potomac River, the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad reached Caroline in 1836. Incorporated in 1887, Milford became an important transportation center after passenger and freight stations were built in 1891-’92 and commodities were shipped into or out of Milford.
Troops and supplies moved through busy Milford stations during World War II, but passenger traffic declined post-war. In 1955 the passenger station closed and was demolished. The freight station, still standing today, closed in 1973. Now unincorporated, Milford has an expanded zip code that includes areas miles away from the original “old” Milford. But buildings and businesses remain, as do residents’ memories of once-booming Milford.
“Milford’s a ghost town now, in comparison to when it was a thriving commercial center,” says Herbert Ridgeway Collins, 86, author of Country Crossroads: Rural Life in Caroline County, Virginia (2015), available for sale at the Caroline County Library. “Milford had the distinction of having the first telegraph office in Caroline. There was a hotel, bank, Blatt’s Chevrolet dealership, ice plant, Blatt’s Store, Miller Sumac Extracting Company and Lang’s Pickle Factory. During World War II, troops were transported through Milford and temporary quarters were set up there.”
Collins, who grew up in Caroline’s Green Falls area, spent over 30 years working at the Smithsonian Institution and has known U.S. presidents and first ladies but admits, “My heart always remained in Caroline.” After retirement, he returned to the county he loves and has an almost-encyclopedic knowledge of history in general and Caroline County in particular. He’s written over two dozen books.
About Milford’s sumac company, he writes, “I carried the sumac leaves to Milford, where they gave me so much money per pound. The sumac extract was used in tanning light leathers and as a dye fixadent to fasten colors in textile fabrics.”
Born and raised in Milford, Betty Gouldin, 86, worked 33 years as an administrative officer at nearby Fort A.P. Hill before retirement. After her husband John died in 2014, she sold her home and moved into a newly built apartment/ addition at her daughter Tana McDonalds’ Milford home.
“Milford was a busy place at one time, with five grocery stores. People brought cucumbers from their gardens and sold them to the pickle factory,” she recalls. “Everybody knew everybody else, and you had everything you needed here. The stores had not just food, but shoes, clothes and my mother bought sewing materials there. Now we just have one store, Dhillon’s Grocery, and most people drive to Richmond or Fredericksburg to shop. There were weekend dances, and we had a drive-in theater.” Collins’ book notes that the Milford drive-in theater was located “along the main street (now Colonial Road),” adding, “It was the only outdoor theater in Caroline County and clips of local interest were shown before the feature movies.”
Gouldin’s church, Milford Presbyterian Church, built in 1952, remains a community fixture. The original 1908 frame church building is now a private residence. The church helps keep “old Milford” alive. Since 1999, “Milford Community Day” has been hosted on church grounds. Next scheduled for Sept. 21, 2019, the event features local food, music, a bake sale and children’s activities.
Gouldin’s childhood friend, Marian Atwell, returned to Milford in 2005 with her husband George, after both had educational careers in Loudoun County.
“The pickle factory received cucumbers from local farmers and local women sorted the cucumbers by size. My mother and a lot of local women worked seasonally at the pickle factory,” Marian recalls. “The railroad was so important … when we were teenagers we’d go down to the station to see people coming in on the train.”
A Loudoun County native, George says Milford and Caroline County are like Loudoun was 50 years ago. They both enjoy what a friend calls “quiet country” in Milford.
“Once in Leesburg I counted 55 cars before you could get out of the driveway,” Marian notes. “Life is much slower here, and traffic is nothing compared to Loudoun. Milford Presbyterian Church is small but very active and does a lot in the community. Community is still here, but it’s not like when I grew up here because now people commute to jobs elsewhere.”
Kent Farmer, CEO of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, also grew up in Milford. He recalls, “It was a wonderful place to grow up. We were a neighborhood of children and all the parents in the neighborhood were all our parents … you could never get away with anything here!”
Farmer remembers a booming Milford, too, “before the interstate highways came.”
“With interstate advent and trucking replacing some rail shipments, Milford lost its popularity a little bit. But it’s still a great village full of wonderful people.”
Today Milford is a mix of historical homes, newer homes, some abandoned structures and some still-thriving businesses. Wayne Brooks, president of the Caroline County Historical Society, observes, “Businesses are locally owned and have kept traditions like great customer service.”
Terry Bullock oversees 10 employees at DeJarnette Lumber Company and notes, “This location has gone through a series of owners; the oldest record we have is 1912. I came here in 1979. We are probably the oldest continuously operating business in Milford.”
DeJarnette provides wholesale lumber to commercial customers in several states. Bullock explains, “Most are in manufacturing businesses — we buy rough lumber from sawmills and cut and size to customer specifications.”
Down the road in Milford Industrial Park, Ryan Gray is a fourth-generation vice-president at E.M. Gray & Son, founded by his great-grandfather in 1928. E.M. Gray sells home heating oil, kerosene, gasoline and propane products.
Gray, who has a degree in finance from Virginia Tech, says, “There’s a good, small-town feel to the area, but there’s not a lot in Milford anymore — life kind of passed it by. Businesses here are not big enough to support a heavy population of employees, so many people travel outside the area to work.”
Hoover Treated Wood Products Inc. in Milford is one of four Hoover locations nationwide. Established in 1955 and based in Georgia, ads say it is the largest producer of fire-retardant-treated wood in the world. Family-owned and -operated Beasley Concrete, Inc., dating to 1937, supplies concrete to both commercial and residential customers, with locations in Milford, Callao, Miller’s Tavern and Kilmarnock.
President Bill Beasley, notes, “Freight trains do stop at some of the facilities in Milford’s industrial area. But when passenger trains quit stopping here, it caused decline.”
Out on Richmond Turnpike/Route 301, next to Hidden Acres Family Campground, Milford’s Whispering Pines Christmas Tree Farm boasts 22 acres of white pine and Colorado blue spruce for “choose and cut” Christmas trees. Owner Darrell Schwartz, a retired military and civil service employee, retired in 1981 and started his business in 1982, working with wife Nona and son Dave.
“It’s a slow-paced area, not the rat race you have in cities … there’s never been a traffic jam in Milford!” he says with a laugh. “The older you get the more you appreciate not being in traffic.”
Schwartz, who also operates a 52-acre tree farm in Staunton, says the day after Thanksgiving up until two days before Christmas he’s extremely busy.
“Families come and people see what it’s like to grow a tree in a field instead of buying one from a tree lot. We furnish a little bow saw, people pick a tree, and we shake and bale it,” he explains. “We have a group of blind adults who also come here every year as a group for a service project to pick out trees … it’s amazing to watch them.”
Organized in 1945, Caroline County Farm Bureau’s Milford office is adjacent to Winding Brook Tire Pros on Richmond Turnpike, a repair and tire center that also operates a small wholesale nursery. One of 88 Farm Bureaus in Virginia, the Milford office serves 1,300 member families in Caroline, according to agent Greg Muniec.
“Milford’s a close-knit community where people reach out and support each other. Most people here identify as one community,” Muniec notes.
Another fixture is Caroline County Community Services Center. In 1895, members of the Caroline County Sunday School Union implemented plans to build and operate a secondary school for black children. Originally named Bowling Green Industrial Academy, then Caroline County Training School and finally Union High School, it was the only secondary school for black children in Caroline from 1903-1969. It became the integrated Bowling Green Senior High in 1969 and later, Caroline Middle School.
Turned over to the county, the renovated building is home to Caroline County Community Services Center. With a gym, theater and meeting rooms, it also houses the main branch of Caroline Library, Caroline Parks & Recreation and other offices.
Stephanie Mosby, the sports coordinator with Caroline Parks & Recreation, notes, “We offer programs for everyone from kids to seniors, with art and dance classes, karate classes, soccer and basketball. Our activities include everyone.”
Linda Gray, a director on the Rappahannock Electric Cooperative board, became a board director in 1998. Raised by a single mother in the extended area of Milford, she was educated at Union elementary and high schools and graduated from Virginia State University. Moving to Washington, D.C., after college, she was employed with various federal agencies. She moved back to Milford to take care of her mother in 1998, commuting to D.C. until her 2004 retirement from her job as a correspondence analyst for the Federal Aviation Administration.
Despite her years in Washington, Gray says, “I always had contacts here because my mother and family were still here and I was affiliated with my church, St. James Baptist.”
The late James Shelby Guss, a former school principal and Rappahannock Electric Cooperative director for over 30 years, approached Gray about serving on the co-op board. When Guss stepped down, Gray was elected director.
“He lived within walking distance from me and had confidence in me,” she explains. “The greatest thing on earth is to have the love of God in your heart and the second greatest thing is to have electricity in your home. I consider being part of the cooperative family as the opportunity of a lifetime, and truly a privilege and honor.”
Gray, who lives in the Milford zip-code area and resides in the co-op’s Bowling Green District, says, “We are close-knit here. You go to the bank and everyone knows you. I had been in the fast pace of D.C. so I was happy to come back home. When you go to your mailbox, people blow their car horn at you and wave.”
Mosby says, “In a smaller community like Milford you can be away from the hustle and bustle. If you are looking for a quiet, peaceful place to live where everyone gets along, this would be the place.”