A Town with Charm and Rich History
Turn just about anywhere in Eastville and you are likely to bump into history.
“Eastville is a charming and historic town and a great place to live,” says Cindy Tatem who has been Eastville’s postmaster for about 10 of her 24 years in the postal service, lives in town and knows almost everyone on a first-name basis.
Graceful old homes, several of them listed in the National Register of Historic Places, are found throughout Eastville, the Northampton County seat on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
Cessford, built in 1801, was the headquarters for the Union army during the Civil War after it was commandeered by Gen. Henry Lockwood, who lived in the house throughout the war.
By 1619, the English had permanently settled here as one of the eight original Virginia shires, or counties. Local government began in 1632 with officials meeting in homes or privately owned taverns and ordinaries. Early court records from those gatherings have survived and represent the oldest continuous county court records in the United States, dating from 1632. They can be seen at the clerk’s office at a modern courthouse complex built in 2006.
Eastville has been the county seat since 1680, with the old courthouse built in 1731. The Declaration of Independence was publicly read from the steps of the courthouse on Aug. 13, 1776. Signs on the courthouse green aid visitors in a self-guided walking tour of the grounds.
During the Civil War, officials in Richmond wanted all court records for safe keeping. Northampton County refused, which turned out to be a wise call since Richmond burned and Northampton’s records survived the war.
A “newer” courthouse built in 1899 is now a small museum, where a weathered whipping post and a measuring stick are among the items displayed. Visitors also can view the debtor’s prison from 1814.
“Our court records can be a valuable tool for genealogists,” says Eastville Mayor Jim Sturgis as he sits in his office at the Northampton Insurance Agency aside his dog, Julia Belle, a rescue bloodhound with distinguished breeding. A 2013 session at Indiantown Park helped awareness of the community’s Native American heritage. “Some of the participants researched their lineage in the court records, unbroken from 1632, and found them extremely helpful,” Sturgis says.
Three generations of mayors
Sturgis is not only the third-generation owner of the insurance agency, which his grandfather founded in 1934. He is the fourth in his family to become the town’s mayor. Ten years ago, he succeeded his father, Edgar Sturgis, who had been Eastville’s mayor for almost 40 years after taking over the position from his father. The elder Sturgis, who was also the town’s fire chief for 25 years, still visits the insurance agency almost daily. Not only has a Sturgis been the mayor of Eastville for more than 60 years, Jim Sturgis’ maternal grandfather was once the mayor as well.
A lifelong resident of the town, Jim Sturgis notes that Northampton County was known in the late 1800s and early 1900s as having the highest income per capita in the United States. “The railroad brought the ability to ship to major cities in the north, farmers were able to double crop their fields, and barrel making was a million-dollar business. Farmers shipped their produce in wooden barrels, and several factories in the area produced the barrels,” he says.
Today, Northampton ranks in the bottom half of Virginia counties in per capita income. The population of the Eastern Shore also has an above-average rate of diabetes, hypertension and other health risks. Adding to the woes of both issues for Northampton County was the February 2017 move of Riverside Shore Memorial Hospital to Accomack County. The hospital was Northampton’s largest employer and its departure also left a void for immediate access to health care. Helping to fill that gap is the planned opening of the $11.7 million Eastern Shore Rural Health medical and dental facility in late 2019 or early 2020 in Eastville.
The state-of-the-art facility, under construction within town limits on Route 13, will provide expanded hours to include 10-hour days and Saturday hours, digital X-ray, expanded lab services and hours, potential telemedicine, and additional providers and staff.
Northampton County Deputy Sheriff Lt. Francis Williams, who has been on the job for 37 years, says the character of Eastville hasn’t changed much, but “we’ve lost a lot of jobs in Northampton County since I first started with the department. I see a lot of hardship and know it’s hard to find jobs that allow young people to stay on the Shore.”
Mayor would like more retail ventures
According to Mayor Sturgis, the town would like more retail ventures. Numerous law offices are adjacent to the courthouse green and a few county agencies are located in Eastville, but there’s only one eatery in the town limits. Among the patrons recently at Yuk Yuk and Joe’s were Northampton County Sheriff David Doughty and one of his deputies, Patrol Sgt. Chad Kellam. Locals gather at this unassuming place known for its cheesesteak sandwiches and reasonable prices. At night, Yuk Yuk and Joe’s is a popular watering hole with a pool table where people gather for good times and lively music.
Kitchen Sync, located at the Historic Eastville Inn, built in 1724, does mostly catering and special events. Yiannis Market and Deli, located just outside the town limits near U.S. 13, offers a variety of sandwiches and subs and an assortment of groceries. Shore Stop, a convenience store, is located along the highway.
Police Chief Dave Eder is a jack-of-all-trades for the town. Heading its three-member police force — that also includes Rob Stubbs and J.K. Brady — for the past 10 years, Eder was the town’s volunteer fire chief for 23 years, only recently stepping down to deputy fire chief, with Glen Richardson taking over the top spot. Eder is also the town administrator. “We might be writing a speeding ticket one minute and then fixing a water problem the next,” says Eder. “But the crime rate here is very low compared with other areas. Eastville has a Mayberry small-town feel to it. People get along and are helpful to each other.”
Eder says a 2017 expansion of the town limits increased the population of Eastville from just over 200 to about 450, although the exact numbers won’t be known until the next Census. Town Clerk Jonny Stephenson and Deputy Clerk Catherine Poto handle the town office.
Doughty has headed the 87-member sheriff’s office for eight of his 24 years on the force. He notes that the position of sheriff was an appointed position in the early history of this country, but Northampton County had the first elected sheriff in the United States in 1651.
True to the Mayberry feel of the town, Doughty points out that Samuel Jarvis served as Northampton County sheriff for 27 years but did not carry a gun, though he did serve President Grover Cleveland a summons while the commander-in-chief was duck hunting at the Broadwater Club on Hog Island in 1892.
Town Council an asset to Eastville
Mayor Sturgis says Eastville is fortunate to have a strong town council with members who are knowledgeable and thorough in their work. The council consists of Anne Sayers, Barbara Thomas, Denise Bland, John Crockett, Mary Beth Briggs and Eleanor Gordon. That group represents a former commissioner of revenue, a former head of a financial company, an attorney, a businessman involved in quality control, a school librarian and a business owner in town.
The mayor was diagnosed with Stage 3 lung cancer in 2014. Despite intense chemotherapy, it progressed to Stage 4 cancer a year later. He has spent as many as four months at a time at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore receiving treatment. Back to work for now, he said the council steps in for him very capably during his absences. He notes that Briggs, the librarian, is especially adept at making sure the council follows procedure and proper wording of forms.
Missing the mayor when he is away, Julia Belle, a 9-year-old bloodhound, has appeared on the cover of an American Bloodhound Club national magazine and has a kennel mate that once won Best in Show at Westminster. Sturgis said Julia Belle, whom he refers to as the “First Lady,” is bilingual and obeys commands in both English and French. Julia Belle stays with Sturgis’ parents when he is away and is particularly fond of his mother.
Buck Doughty is in charge of keeping the six vehicles running for the Eastville Volunteer Fire Company. A hulk of a man at 6 foot, 3 inches and 270 pounds, the chief engineer can bend steel as a longtime welder, and shape steel and other metals to create delicate pieces of art that are popular at art shows along the East Coast. Doughty was only 10 years old when his father, Kellam Doughty, a Northampton County deputy sheriff, died at 50. “I had to grow up quickly and help support the family. I had two sisters and my mom at home, but I was the only boy in the house,” recalls Doughty.
Through his cousins, Doughty learned how to keep lawn mowers and cars running, helping out his family. Today, he also uses those mechanical skills to keep the fire company’s two fire trucks, two tankers, the chief’s truck and a brush truck in top running order.
Rich history attracts researchers
Archeologists, historians and genealogists flock to Eastville and research the past. A willow oak tree in Ralph and Liz Dodd’s front yard was declared a National Champion in 2013 as the largest tree of its kind in the country. Currently, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources is conducting an archaeological investigation at the Eyreville site outside of Eastville. The site has been continuously occupied since 1636 through a series of houses leading up to the current house that dates to 1799.
One noted historian, Frances Bibbins Latimer, was born and raised in the area. Latimer, who died in 2010, published books on Eastern Shore history, genealogy, poetry and children’s literature, but was most passionate researching and publishing books related to local African- American people and places.
Ellen Widgeon Jordan has lived near or in Eastville for most of her 100 years. She grew up in Eastville Station and left by train to go to Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania in her early 20s to work as a waitress, for $22.50 every two weeks. After 15 years, she returned to Eastville and has made a life here, losing one child to illness and raising a daughter with her husband Fred, who died in 1991. The centenarian still drives, lives by herself, attends nearby Union Baptist Church and enjoys puzzles at the nearby senior center she visits twice a week.
According to Jordan, the secret to living to be 100 is following the Golden Rule and knowing “it is best to keep your eyes open and mouth shut,” though she enjoys a good conversation about the old days.
Religion has long been woven into the fabric of the community. Christ Episcopal Church, built in 1828, is of recent vintage when compared with its sister church in the same parish, Hungar’s Church, where services have been held since 1623. Bethel AME Church was built in 1903, but its congregation dates from 1865. There’s also Eastville Baptist Church in town.
In charge of keeping the historic court records safe is Northampton Clerk of Court Traci Johnson, who has held the position since 2002. Johnson took over from Kenneth Arnold, who had served as a constitutional officer in Northampton for 31 years. “We never miss an opportunity to tell the public we’ve got the oldest continuous records in the country,” says Johnson.
Before the records moved to the climate- controlled room of the new courthouse in 2006, they were kept in a fireproof room in the 1899 courthouse, protected by an iron door, iron shutters and a metal ceiling.
Johnson often hosts groups from elementary school students to senior citizens, explaining the importance of the records and revealing “neat” things such as a tribal chief’s signature — a couple of slashes — or the name of Kentucky’s Daniel Boone in a land transaction.
The handwriting is beautiful but difficult to read as the words are Old English. Notes Johnson, “All the handwriting is cursive, which they don’t teach in school anymore.” Johnson can show visitors the names of each person who was in attendance when the Declaration of Independence was read on the courthouse steps in August of 1776.
Johnson said Northampton did not follow through on orders to send the court records to Richmond during the Civil War for two reasons.
“Transportation would have been very difficult across the Chesapeake Bay,” Johnson explains. “But, mostly, legend has it our residents were eating, drinking and being merry with the Union general and didn’t feel the records were threatened. True or not, our records survived the war while others were burned. Now, they are a national treasure.”