June 2019

Dundas, Virginia

Driving south from Richmond on Interstate 85, exit 28 takes you past the Alberta campus of Southside Virginia Community College. Winding rural roads showcase vast farm fields, neat homesteads and soaring birds gliding over lush cropland. A few crumbling vacant houses, overtaken by time, trees and overgrown brush, stand as silent reminders of someone’s once-bustling life.

 

Postal Clerk Carol Wood, who lives in nearby Victoria, has worked at the post office since 2016.

Postal Clerk Carol Wood, who lives in nearby Victoria, has worked at the post office since 2016.

Easy Street is where the train depot used to stand before being torn down in the 1960s.

Easy Street is where the train depot used to stand before being torn down in the 1960s.

Robert “Robbie” Hawthorne, a retired oil company owner and Dundas native.

Robert “Robbie” Hawthorne, a retired oil company owner and Dundas native.

Wayne Parrish is involved with many of the projects as a member of the Ruritan Club.

Wayne Parrish is involved with many of the projects as a member of the Ruritan Club.

The Sheep Stew sign that stands adjacent to the Ruritan Club. It’s not unusual to see 1,500 people line up to buy the stew.

The Sheep Stew sign that stands adjacent to the Ruritan Club. It’s not unusual to see 1,500 people line up to buy the stew.

Laura Emery, Field Editor

The roads lead to Dundas, an unincorporated community about 6 miles from Kenbridge, one of two towns in Lunenburg County (population 12,086). The other is Victoria.

Once a bustling village with a busy train depot and six general stores catering to area families, today Dundas is a quiet crossroads that includes private homes, the Dundas post office, Dundas Baptist Church and Dundas Ruritan Club.

Across the road from the Ruritan Club is a surprising display: An American World War II Stuart tank that saw use in Europe, given to the

WWII-era Stuart tank that is displayed at the Ruritan Club.

WWII-era Stuart tank that is displayed at the Ruritan Club.

Ruritans by a Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter. Locals say visitors come “from all over” to see the tank, and no wonder: A similar tank is on display at The National WWII Museum in New Orleans. Stuart tanks were the first American-crewed tanks to engage the enemy in the war.

About 50 vintage post office boxes line a wall at the Dundas post office, housed in a brick building once home to the Bank of Dundas, which failed during the 1930s Great Depression. The bank’s old vault is used for storage. A neighborhood dog lies curled up contentedly in the sun outside the front door.

Clerk Carol Wood, who lives in nearby Victoria and has worked at the post office since 2016, says, “It’s a small community where everybody knows everybody and looks out for each other … I love it here.”

50 vintage postal boxes that currently line the wall of the Dundas post office.

50 vintage postal boxes that currently line the wall of the Dundas post office.

Down the road from where the train depot once stood, Edward and Elsie Almand, both 85, welcome a visitor to their home. “My father had $25 in the Bank of Dundas [when it failed] … I still have my dad’s stock certificate.

My father was the depot agent and walked across a field to work,” Edward Almand remembers. “Most people were tobacco farmers and there was a lot of pulpwood. There were eight sawmills and on Friday nights, all the country store porches were filled. The stores were hangouts and people would stop to buy groceries and other items.”

Established in 1746, Lunenburg County is a rural enclave known for red clay and a climate suitable for crops such as tobacco, grains and vegetables. Dundas grew up as a Virginian Railway stop, and lore abounds about its name.

Locals recall stories of someone getting off the train and saying, “Who dun ’dis?” A 1975 Richmond Times-Dispatch article reported that in the early 1900s railroad officials left it up to the people to name the community; local worker Logan Parrish was reported as saying at the depot’s completion, “We done ’dis.” Whatever the true history, the name stuck.

Edward and Elsie Almand. Edward remembers growing up in Dundas and the way life was and has been in the community.

Edward and Elsie Almand. Edward remembers growing up in Dundas and the way life was and has been in the community.

Passenger trains stopped in 1955, and in 1959 the Virginian Railway merged with the Norfolk & Western Railway. The depot on Easy Street was torn down in the 1960s but freight traffic continued into the 1970s before all train traffic into Dundas ended.

There’s no sign of the railroad today: Robert “Robbie” Hawthorne, a retired oil company owner and Dundas native, says Dundas rails were so good that the railroad removed them for reuse elsewhere.

Dundas Ruritan Club, chartered in 1938, remains a thriving community fixture, famous for holding sheep stews. A sign adjacent to the Ruritan Club building announces, “Welcome to Dundas — home of the world’s best sheep stew — a gastronomical delight!”

Ruritan volunteers cook the stew every March and October in four 50-gallon pots (originally over wood fires; now propane gas fires the cooking) in a covered shed area behind the clubhouse. Proceeds from the stew sales go to multiple Ruritan service projects.

The Ruritans also have three barbecued chicken events annually, but the sheep stew has been a unique tradition since the 1930s. It’s not unusual for 1,500 people to line up to buy the stew.

Almand remembers when the Ruritans sold a “tray meal” of sheep stew, roll and soft drink for 75 cents. Today, it’s sold in to-go quarts for $10 per quart and always sells out. Local farmer/Ruritan member Wayne Parrish notes, “There’s a 25-quart per person limit, first-come, first-served.”

According to a 2001 documentary film The Sheep Stew of Dundas, available online at folkstreams.net, sheep stew was first cooked by a stewmaster from nearby Danieltown; Hawthorne says he heard that the stew was first created by a German immigrant. Ruritans started cooking the stew and it became an entrenched tradition. The unusual stew uses “culled” (old or unproductive) sheep meat for the stew and is cooked through a lengthy process.

“Sheep stew consists of 800-900 pounds of meat, bones, everything, along with 700 pounds of peeled whole onions, potatoes and water,” Hawthorne explains. “It’s very labor-intensive … we start the water boiling at 4 a.m.”

The thick, hard-to-stir stew requires a team of Ruritan volunteers who take turns working from 4 a.m. until 5 p.m, stirring the stew to keep it from sticking to the bottom of pots.

The recipe is handed down from stewmaster to stewmaster; the current stewmaster is Hawthorne’s brother, Johnny, who lives with his wife about an hour away in Boykins, Virginia, and is a sales representative for Meherrin Agricultural & Chemical Company in North Carolina. He juggles multiple tasks, including farming 150 acres in Dundas. During the summer, he takes time off from his Meherrin job to work in North Carolina, presiding over men and machines who “grade” cucumbers by size for the Mt. Olive Pickle Company, which uses the cucumbers in its pickle and relish products.

Brother Robbie marvels at his schedule, but Johnny says simply, “Dundas’ better years are probably behind it, but there’s no better place to live, raise a family and make a living.”

Residents farm, work for government entities or the school system, run small businesses or commute for work. Ruritan member Nick Daniel works at the area’s largest employer, Virginia Marble in Kenbridge (population about 1,200), which has more than 300 employees. Daniel, who jokes that he’s “single and available,” is the youngest of five children, three of whom still live on the family farm.

He attended Southside Virginia Community College after high school and explains, “I like the rural life. I like hunting, fishing and the pace of life. I don’t like a lot of traffic. Family is the main thing … my daddy had a stroke in 1998 when he was 48 years old, and the whole community came out to cut his tobacco.”

With about 30 active members, Dundas Ruritans expect to raise about $13,000 this year from their events, with proceeds going to a variety of community needs, such as nearby fire departments, literacy programs, health services and the Salvation Army. Robbie Hawthorne says monies raised by the Ruritans stay in the community.

The organization also spearheaded a “Ruri-teens” chapter for students at the county’s only high school, Lunenburg High. Wayne Parrish notes, “Dundas has not changed a whole lot … we’ve lost some youth, but we still have a lot of youth here. And within an hour’s drive, you can get anything you want.”

Dundas native Fred Wilkinson says the community has changed “but to a lesser degree than in a metro area.”

“Blink and you’ll miss it,” says Makayla Willis of life in Dundas. She works at a Kenbridge fixture, Mildred’s Meals, adding that life here is “quiet but nice.”

Walter and Bernice Thompson run Willowland Farm, a pick-your-own-strawberries operation. They also farm cantaloupes, watermelons, sweet corn and seasonal vegetables for wholesale and retail sales. Walter has worked for more than 40 years as an agricultural research supervisor at Virginia Tech’s Southern Piedmont Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Blackstone and shrugs when asked about juggling job and farm operations.

Cecil Shell, self-described “semi-retired” farmer and former Farmers Home Administration employee, is a member at Rosebud Baptist Church, a predominantly African-American church founded in 1910. He says church is the center of the community, noting that the Dundas Baptist Church pastor is presiding over Rosebud’s first night of revival. He says the biggest change he’s seen is in farm expansion and changes in the tobacco farming market.

“You don’t have to worry about traffic jams here,” he says with a laugh. “The community has remained the same.”

Jeff and Liz Parrish established Parrish Pumpkin Patch in 2008. Jeff grew up working in the family business, Parrish Trucking in Kenbridge, which his father Wayne started in 1972. He also farms at his 58-acre farm, growing soybeans, field corn, wheat — and now pumpkins.

“We started [the pumpkin operation] to have supplemental income and expand the business,” Liz explains. “When our three children were young, we spent many an October at pumpkin patches in Virginia and decided to take a stab at agritourism.”

Open to the public from the end of September until the first of November, Parrish Pumpkin Patch draws about 5,000 visitors each season, including busloads of schoolchildren on field trips. The family refurbished a silo they call “Dundas IMAX” that features a seating area, and projector and movie screen for movies and presentations. Other activities include a corn maze, hayrides and pumpkins for sale. The Parrishes grow about 15 different pumpkin varieties.

“I feel very fortunate to live here … this is an incomparable community,” Liz says.

Johnny Hawthorne, the current stewmaster who holds the recipe for the sheep stew.

Johnny Hawthorne, the current stewmaster who holds the recipe for the sheep stew.

 

Nick Daniel, a Dundas native and Ruritan Club member, works for Virginia Marble in Kenbridge.

Nick Daniel, a Dundas native and Ruritan Club member, works for Virginia Marble in Kenbridge.

 

Fred Wilkinson, a native of Dundas, has witnessed many of the changes that have occurred over the years.

Fred Wilkinson, a native of Dundas, has witnessed many of the changes that have occurred over the years.

 

Makayla Willis who works at an area fixture, Mildred’s Meals, says life in Dundas is “quiet but nice.”

Makayla Willis who works at an area fixture, Mildred’s Meals, says life in Dundas is “quiet but nice.”

Walter Thompson operates the Willowland Farm, a pick-your-own strawberry farm.

Walter Thompson operates the Willowland Farm, a pick-your-own strawberry farm.

Bernice Thompson operates Willowland Farm, with her husband Walter, in Dundas.

Bernice Thompson operates Willowland Farm, with her husband Walter, in Dundas.

Cecil Shell, a member of the Rosebud Baptist Church, believes church is the center of the community.

Cecil Shell, a member of the Rosebud Baptist Church, believes church is the center of the community.

Jeff and Liz Parrish established the Parrish Pumpkin Patch in 2008 on their 58-acre farm.

Jeff and Liz Parrish established the Parrish Pumpkin Patch in 2008 on their 58-acre farm.