EMMERTON: A nice place to live with a very interesting heritage
A short drive from Warsaw on Route 3 (History Land Highway), past creeks and farm fields in the heart of Richmond County in Virginia’s Northern Neck, the unincorporated community of Emmerton was once a bustling place.
The village boasted a dozen businesses, including car dealerships, tomato canneries and country stores. A steamboat landing on the nearby Rappahannock River in Sharps also provided customers for area businesses.
Named for Dr. Richard Durrett and originally known as Durrettsville, the post office disappeared by 1869 and moved a mile up the road to Emmerton. Emmerton lost its zip code and post office in 1966; the last tomato cannery closed in 1968.
Today about 50 people call Emmerton home, albeit with a Warsaw or Farnham mailing address. Two churches ― Jerusalem Baptist Church (founded 1832) and Mulberry Baptist Church (founded 1868) ― remain community anchors. Ann S. Veney, a lifelong member of Mulberry Baptist, says, “It’s a nice community to live in. Everybody gets along.”
After a stay in Washington, D.C., post-high school, Veney learned she didn’t like city life and came home, working a variety of jobs until retirement. She remains active in church and community, and serves as a notary public. The widow of Walter W. Veney and mother of four admits, “We have some challenges. Our young people commute for work or move away. But I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”
Jay Garner is an Emmerton native who lives in Westmoreland County. The public relations manager for Northern Neck Electric Cooperative in Warsaw, Garner researched and compiled information for a 2011 Jerusalem Baptist Church homecoming event. Response was so positive that he wound up writing and publishing Our History — A brief history of Jerusalem Baptist Church and Emmerton, Virginia (2012).
“The book started when I found my grandmother’s old scrapbook with old newspaper clippings and stories about Emmerton people,” Garner explains. “It started out as just a church book and began to grow.”
Founded by the Rev. Thomas Braxton (grandson of Carter Braxton, an original signer of the Declaration of Independence), Jerusalem Baptist originated as Royal Oaks Baptist Church. The congregation worshipped in a rustic log building beneath oak trees. By 1840 members had built a wood frame structure and changed the church name to Jerusalem Baptist. The present brick church dates to 1978.
In pre-Civil War days, African-American slaves and free blacks sat in Jerusalem’s balcony while whites sat in the first-floor sanctuary. In 1868 David Veney asked for church permission to start a predominantly black congregation on Mulberry Road.
“They started holding meetings under a mulberry tree, becoming Mulberry Baptist Church,” Garner explains. The church celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2018.
Garner says there were three tomato canneries in Emmerton, including the Just Ripe label (1922-’26), Emmerton Canning Company (1930s-’54) and Hammacks Cannery (1931-’68). Canneries employed locals and provided an outlet for farmers to sell their tomatoes. The canneries are gone now, except for now-dilapidated structures once home to Hammacks Cannery. Local entrepreneur Richard Thomas bought the Hammacks property and hopes to restore the buildings.
“I don’t like to see old buildings go bad,” Thomas explains. “I’m trying to encourage no blight, trying to preserve history and put the old properties back to use. That’s my goal.” Currently serving his third term on the Richmond County Board of Supervisors, Thomas notes, “I’ve grown up here, made investments here, my family is here … and I’ve been blessed with good neighbors.”
Local employers include Northern Neck Regional Jail, government and the school system. Residents also farm, run small businesses or commute for employment.
“We have very dedicated people here. We have people who commute to D.C. for jobs; some leave at 3 a.m. and don’t get home until 7 or 8 p.m.,” Thomas notes.
Thomas also oversees Thomas Store on History Land Highway, founded by his late parents Audrey and Kermit Thomas in 1970.
When his mother died in 2013, Thomas inherited the store. “A store is a way of life that allows you to be part of peoples’ lives and serve your community,” he says.
A community hangout, Thomas Store sells groceries but also offers unique items like local oysters in season and goat-milk soaps.
“We use local suppliers when we can. Our sandwich counter goes back to my mother; people would say ‘I’m hungry’ so she started making sandwiches,” Thomas says. “We still sell sandwiches, and our deli is in its second year, offering things like ham, corned beef and cheese.”
Wayne LeVere, owner of LeVere Seafood, supplies Thomas Store with fresh oysters.
“I left here in 1967 and went to Job Corps to take up a trade in welding,”
LeVere recalls. “I couldn’t wait to get back here!” LeVere, who began working on the water with his father and uncle, divides his time between the oyster business he started in 1986 and a welding business. A dad to two adult daughters, his wife Delores passed away in 2017. He married wife Pauline in 2018.
“I retail some oysters myself, but the bulk goes to Thomas Store,” he notes.
Thomas says LeVere’s oysters help draw people to the store. Thomas and wife Cynthia have two sons: Richard Jr., a Richmond County deputy sheriff, and David, who works at Thomas Store.
A strong proponent of small business, Thomas says, “Shopping local affects small businesses. I like to say it’s a ‘we’ thing, not a ‘me’ thing.”
The area’s newest residents are Amish families from Maryland relocating to the area, attracted by land availability and lower prices. Henry (who declined to give his last name) says eight to 10 Amish families plan to make the move.
Thomas observes, “We’ll need to share the road with our new neighbors, who use horses-and-buggies and horses for transportation.”
Down the road from Thomas Store, the Rev. Kenny Park is in his 16th year as Jerusalem Baptist’s pastor. The son of missionaries who spent his childhood in Chile, Park and wife Leslie, who pastors Warsaw Baptist Church, live in Jerusalem’s parsonage. Park says service times at the two congregations are adjusted so Leslie can also serve as Jerusalem’s pianist. Park also oversees a Hispanic congregation, which meets at Jerusalem two Sunday afternoons a month.
He describes Emmerton as “quietly significant,” noting, “A quiet community doesn’t mean there’s nothing going on … I love the way people here respect and appreciate each other.”
On the adjacent corner is the Lemoine-Griffith House, a sprawling 4,000-square- foot Victorian farmhouse and linchpin of Emmerton. Jerusalem Baptist’s original log church was in the front yard of this home. “
An 1870 census shows Oscar Lemoine living on the property. The house was expanded in 1887. Since the original church was built in 1832, we speculate there was a house here earlier. You can see different foundations where the newer foundation was put in 1887,” says current owner David Griffith.
Owner of Lemoine’s Store, Oscar Lemoine married the Rev. Thomas Braxton’s daughter Maria. His unmarried sister Emma — who inspired the name Emmerton — lived at the historic home her entire life. In 1899 Lemoine’s daughter Olivia Staige married Benjamin Griffith, inspiring the Lemoine-Griffith moniker. Benjamin’s brother William Fairfax “Fax” Griffith took over the former Lemoine Store following Oscar’s death. The brothers operated a tomato cannery and Benjamin’s store later included a car dealership.
Benjamin and Olivia had two daughters: daughter Katherine grew up to marry William Tayloe Murphy, who became a bank president, Virginia state delegate and state treasurer. Their son W. Tayloe Murphy Jr., a lawyer, delegate to the Virginia General Assembly (1982-2000) and Secretary of Natural Resources (2002-2006) under then-Gov. Mark Warner, lives in Westmoreland County with wife Helen (daughter Anne Brumley lives in Richmond). He fondly recalls his Emmerton years.
“I grew up across the road from my grandmother’s house until we moved to Richmond when my father became state treasurer,” Murphy explains. “There was a blacksmith shop behind the store on the same side of the road where the Griffith house is now, run by Herman Smith. It was fascinating to watch him make shoes.”
He adds, “When I was a kid the old Immanuel Episcopal Church building was still there, and we would go inside the old, derelict building and play the pump organ. Today, just the cemetery remains from the old church.”
Electronics designer, history buff and antique collector David Griffith (no relation to the Lemoine-Griffith family) discovered the house online while living in Heathsville. Griffith bought the house, in foreclosure and needing repairs, in 2011, doing much of the repairs himself.
New plumbing, electrical work and a ductless heat pump were installed; it takes eight outside units to heat and cool the massive home. Griffith also added a new front porch, transforming the house.
“I wasn’t sure I was going to move here permanently but I was fascinated with the whole house,” Griffith explains. “I’ve always said a house is the ultimate antique.”
Repairs took over a year. During that time he met Darlene Benson of Kilmarnock. They married in 2013 and now make the Lemoine-Griffith House their home. One distinctive touch — each of the home’s 50 windows is illuminated by electric candles year-round.
“People said it was so nice to see the old house lit up,” Griffith recalls. “At the turn of the century, they made their own gas here; they had a machine that used coal to generate gas lighting for the house.”
Murphy says, “Emmerton has produced people whose contributions went beyond the community in which they lived … for example, Thomas Braxton became a chaplain for the U.S. Congress. They had a vision for the larger world around them.”
Griffith is more succinct: “Everybody is so nice here … I consider it paradise.”