Pungoteague:

A Community Full of Personalities and Rich in History

Laura Emery, Field Editor

Village General Store, operated by Billy and Evelyn “Evie” Huffman for the past 21 years, is the meeting place for many in the village of 350. “There’s not many country stores left,” says Jeff Kelly. “This is almost like home to us.”

May 2018

     Its Indian name means “Place of Fine Sand,” and from the earliest days when colonists came to the peninsula now known as Virginia’s Eastern Shore, they settled here, a short distance from Pungoteague Creek.

     Once a bustling place with two schools, four grocery stores, a barber shop and a pool hall, today the village of about 350 people is less busy but boasts three churches, several artisans and some notable characters.

     Some of those characters gather on Saturday mornings at the Village General Store, operated by Billy and Evelyn “Evie” Huffman for the past 21 years. One recent Saturday morning, a group of men who call themselves “The Coffee Club” gathers at the back of the store and talks about everything from the weather to bygone days to favorite fishing holes.

     “There’s not many country stores left,” says Jeff Kelly, who lives across the street in a house built about 1830, ticking off the names of similar stores in other towns that have closed in his lifetime. “This is almost like home to us.”

      Bobby Parks, who paints houses during the week and preaches from the pulpit on Sunday mornings, adds, “It’s easy to form a bond when we get together in a place like this.

      I know a lot of people go to the fast-food places to gather and talk, but here you’ve got your own coffee cup and your own chair. You don’t get that everywhere,” says Parks, attired in paint-splattered clothes this Saturday morning.

     Stewart Jenkins, another Coffee Club member, adds, “Yeah, we try to solve the problems of the world, but we leave here more messed up than we came.”

     Jenkins doesn’t mean the men are imbibing by any means, because the Huffmans sell many products not found in most stores, but no beer or cigarettes.

     An open Bible rests on a table where the men meet, and Huffman will often be found reading it from his easy chair. “We sold beer when we first opened the store, but one day in church God laid on my heart, ‘Billy, get rid of the beer.’ When I told Evie that’s what I wanted to do, she said, ‘I’ve been praying for a year you would do that.’ ”

     The Huffmans say the demand for local products offsets the loss in beer and cigarette sales. By early March of this year, they had sold 1,500 pounds of Hayman potatoes and 1,100 pounds of chocolate covered peanuts, in addition to locally made cornmeal, molasses, coleslaw, chicken salad and pies. On a recent morning Huffman was busy cutting up a bunch of apples, and there will be fresh produce galore once the growing season arrives. The Huffmans also sell eggs hatched by local chickens. One customer will buy only eggs from a certain hen that produces blue eggs, because of their superior taste.

     Lunchtime at the store is busy, because almost every tradesman or truck driver within driving distance will stop by to order what is known by many as “the best cheesesteak sandwich around.” The sandwich’s large size is more than even a hungry worker can eat without wanting to take a nap in the easy chairs at the back of the store.

People help each other in Pungoteague

     On a wintry night in March, the Rev. Bobby Parks was the featured speaker on the last night of a three-day revival at a nearby church, proclaiming in his folksy manner, “Born in the country, raised in the country and surrounded by people who care.”

     That special bond cited by Parks at Village General Store and from the pulpit was evident when Huffman found he had a 10-pound tumor resting on his kidney in 2006. With no health insurance and facing  huge medical bills, his outlook was bleak until the community held fundraisers to pay his bills.

     “Bobby Carroll Huether asked me if it was okay to hold some bake sales to help with the bills,” says Huffman. “One man dropped a $50 bill in the jar for a single cookie. I will never be able to express my gratitude for how the community helped me out.”

     Huether, the pastor of Pungoteague Community Church for the past 12 years, says things like helping Huffman is simply what his church does. “We have a heart for our community. Our focus is outreach and helping those in need.”

     In addition to bake sales, his church members organized hymn sings and car washes and contacted the medical community to lower Huffman’s medical bills, ultimately covering almost all the considerable expenses.

     Formerly a Methodist church founded in the 1830s, the church became independent in 1999. In the early years, Huether says, they had about 20 members. Today, they often have that many youth attending Sunday services and the congregation continues to grow each year.

     The church supports a self-help center in Pungoteague, which provides supplies, clothing and household furnishings to families in transition, whether it be following a fire, taking on a new job or moving to a new house.

     Twice a month, the church members set up a food pantry in the old Pungoteague School building next door, handing out food to a long line of people able to request items they will use.

     Neither Huether nor any other church official draws a penny for their efforts. “We want all our funds to go toward helping the community,” says Huether.

A Community Rich in History

     Pungoteague is a virtual treasure trove for historians. It is the oldest town in Accomack County; the court of the newly formed county first met there in 1664. A year later, “Ye Beare and Ye Cubb,” the first-known English-speaking drama ever performed, in America, was staged in Fowkes Tavern. A historical sign at the edge of town states, “Probable site of the Fowkes Tavern where the first recorded play in English  America was performed August 27, 1665.”

     Records of the play exist because the writer and two actors were hauled into court on charges the performance was indecent. When the play was performed again in court, the judge found the men not guilty and ordered the man who brought charges against the three men to pay all court costs.

     Pungoteague also boasts the oldest church on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, St. George’s Episcopal Church. Services at St. George’s began about 1636, but the first church was erected on the site about 1676. Today’s church building dates back to about 1738, although only a portion of the original structure remains.

     The church contained exquisite, handcarved woodwork and a mahogany pulpit before Union soldiers used the building to stable their horses during the Civil War. The building the Episcopalians reclaimed about 1880 was an empty shell, and not all of it could be salvaged. However, a wall still stands that bears the initials of Union soldiers with the date 1864.

     Following a restoration, the church has been in continuous service with communion silver sometimes used inscribed with the date 1734. Dan Meisenhelder, senior warden for the vestry, says a plaque at St. George’s states it is the third-oldest church in the country.

     Next door is St. Paul’s A.M.E. Church, founded in 1866 with the current building erected in 1886. A school for African- American children was operated at the church beginning in 1867; classes were eventually held at an adjacent building.

     Joan Wilson grew up in the church and attended elementary school at Pungoteague School, which had only two teachers, including one serving as the principal, for seven grades. It closed in the 1960s when Eastern Shore schools were desegregated.

     “Our foundation was formed here,” says Wilson, who today is a trustee at St. Paul’s. “Many of our members feel like they are coming home when attending services here.”

     Stephanie Morris Castro has been the St. Paul’s minister for the past 10 years. “This church is really like your family,” says Castro.

     During the War of 1812, British forces invaded Pungoteague Creek from the Chesapeake Bay. The Corps of Colonial Marines battled the Brits from Onancock Creek to Pungoteague Creek. The British troops later retreated to their base at Tangier Island.

     Pungoteague is also believed to be the origin of the name for the pungy schooner developed in the Chesapeake Bay region in the 1840s and 1850s. A two-masted schooner with a main topsail whose deck and hull had a traditional paint scheme of green and pink, the pungy schooner was used to haul freight. Pungoteague Creek, with its deep channels, was a major shipping channel on the bay in the 1800s.

The People of Pungoteague

     Maybe no one in Pungoteague strikes a more distinctive pose than Melanie Parkhurst. A resident of the town for 30 years, Parkhurst is known for her sports cars, her immaculate attire and her generosity in the community.

     Now 92, Parkhurst owns six convertible sports cars, including a 2004 Corvette, two Mustangs, two Mercedeses and a Thunderbird. All of the cars are of fairly late vintage, but recently she sold a 1935 Auburn that was in her collection of cars. She uses a PT Cruiser to drive around town.

     And when she does go out, she is always well dressed. “I never go to church without a hat,” says Parkhurst, who was in the Village General Store recently in a hat and a full-length fur coat.

     One other item she is never without is an 18-carat-gold rose-petal necklace. Parkhust explains, “A few months after my husband died, I got a call from Tiffany’s saying he had ordered this necklace to be created for me.”

     Parkhurst’s husband had owned an automobile manufacturing plant with outlets across the country and a jewelry business. She has restored or preserved about a dozen homes on the Eastern Shore, including her 1815 Pungoteague home. She has also donated major sculpture pieces to the local hospital and country club and has served as a volunteer for the local historical society in addition to being a member of historical societies in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

     “My husband and I lived and traveled to many places, but no place is as friendly as the Eastern Shore. Down here, you talk to everybody. Going to the post office, you say hello to whoever’s there. It’s a very friendly place and a very caring place,” says Parkhurst.

     Fred Moore, who lives at the outskirts of town with his wife Jeanie, mother-in-law Jean and their horse, two goats and about a dozen chickens, echoes the same thought, “I’ve been here five years and the people here are as friendly as any place I’ve ever been. I like walking through town because the town has a friendly feel to it. It’s a nice place to live.”

     Richard McDowell, a 28-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, moved to Pungoteague as an assistant manager of a drug store and stayed long after he retired, raising two sons here. Today, he is often seen walking his dog Toby, a Jack Russell terrier.

     “It’s a quiet little town,” says McDowell, who connects with old friends through email and is more active on Facebook than many in his generation, probably due to his military background in photo intelligence and drafting.

     McDowell notes that when he moved to Pungoteague in 1989 there was a vacant 25-acre tract of land near his house where one man, George Kramer, built six homes and lived in all but one of them as he completed each house and added another. “We call that area Georgetown,” says McDowell.

     Scott Harmon has lived in Pungoteague for 20 years and has a wall full of citations at his barber shop in nearby Onley to prove he’s one of the best speckled-trout fishermen around these parts.

     “The best part about living in Pungoteague is that I can be fishing in five minutes,” says Harmon, who has several “honey holes” not far from the boat ramp in nearby Harborton. According to Harmon, the secret to being a good speckled-trout fisherman is not giving away your secrets.

     Eddie Bishop tells a story from his youth that the men in the Coffee Club still recall with laughter more than 60 years later. When he was 6 years old, his grandmother wanted a bag of apples from the Smith family in town, who had an orchard. Bishop was sent to the house one Saturday morning with a burlap bag in hand.

     Television was relatively new in the area then, and before picking his grandmother’s apples, he joined a girl in the Smith family about his age to watch cartoons on TV. Mrs. Smith made her son, Harold, who was about three years older than Bishop, go out and pick the apples. Harold was not happy about having to do Bishop’s work, but went out and brought a full burlap bag back to Bishop.

     Bishop’s grandmother was none too pleased when she opened the bag and found a couple of rotten apples, some horse manure and a few brickbats. And the story lives on more than a half century later at the Coffee Club.

     No one has lived in Pungoteague longer than 86-year-old Frank Drummond, who was born just outside of town and has lived since 1956 in the Heath House, believed to be the oldest house still standing in Pungoteague. The oldest portion of the house dates from the 1700s, with the main portion built about 1809.

     “This town was loaded at one time with all kinds of activity,” recalls Drummond, “but today it is a quiet place and a nice place to live. I guess I’ve been here longer than anyone,” adds Drummond, whose wife, Dorothy, passed away seven years ago.

     He and his wife both went to the same high school, but they never dated until he came to her house to fix a door. He left some tools after the job, and when he returned to get them, they started up a conversation. That house was the Heath House, purchased by her parents in the early 1940s.

     They raised two daughters in the house, and one gave him two cats when her work prevented her from caring for them. That pair has grown to 10, but Drummond says caring for them keeps him occupied. “I like staying busy doing yard work. In the winter I meet some friends at Wendy’s six days a week and we just chew the fat. I also go to the cemetery almost every day to visit my wife’s grave.”

Pungoteague Prominent in Artists

     The Eastern Shore of Virginia is home to numerous artists and Pungoteague boasts its share. Each year on the Friday and Saturday following Thanksgiving, the Artisans Guild hosts a holiday tour. Last year, three of the artisans were from Pungoteague, including glassblower Ken Platt, who designs functional and artistic glass featuring hot and warm techniques.

     Platt heats the glass to 2,500 degrees in making his designs. He once made computer chips in Silicon Valley. “It was good work, but I always wanted to switch from the scientific field to the artistic side,” notes Platt. He and his wife, Edith, now the president of the Artisans Guild, settled on Pungoteague because there were numerous artists in the area but no glass blowers. “It has been the perfect place for us to be,” she says.

     Also on the tour last year was the always popular alpaca farm owned by Tara King and Andrew Leach. The couple raises a colorful herd of alpacas, native to South America, and uses the yarn to make rugs, hats,  scarves, baby sweaters, socks, handbags and other items available in the farm store. Their pride and joy is By the Bay Bristol, a six-time champion.

     “Alpacas are friendly by nature and loved by children,” says King. “We are open to the public by appointment if people want to see the alpacas.” (757-442-5651)

     Maurice “Moe” Spector creates his wood and stone figurative sculptures at his nearly 400-year-old farm outside of town at the end of Taylor Creek. His works have been featured in galleries in New York City and have filled three books compiled by a former National Geographic photographer.

     On his property is a small family burial ground shaded by ancient sycamore trees. The earliest tombstone dates back to the late 1700s, and there are some unmarked graves that may be even older.

     “I like ghosts,” says Spector, 72, “but I had never seen any until maybe last week when I was sitting on my porch and saw my dog I lost three months ago walking toward me from the graveyard. I promise you I wasn’t drinking,” adds Spector.