November-December 2019

It took a bloody Civil War battle to put Newsoms, Virginia, on the map forever.

In an area rich in history, General George H. Thomas illustrated the national divide during the Civil War. He was born in 1816 at the Thomaston home, east of Newsoms in Southampton County near the Virginia-North Carolina border.

Thomas lived in Newsoms until his appointment to the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York. He had married a woman from upstate New York and chose to stay in the Union army when the Civil War erupted in 1861. Nicknamed the “Rock of Chickamauga,” Thomas rallied troops to hold their position at Georgia’s Battle of Chickamauga, generally considered the second-bloodiest engagement of the Civil War with 34,000 casualties; only Gettysburg with 51,000 casualties was deadlier.

“His sisters turned his picture to the wall,” John Skeeters says about the family rift that followed Thomas’ decision to remain loyal to the Union. Skeeters lives at Thomaston with wife Lisa, a teacher and Newsoms native who grew up across the road from the historic residence.

Vanless Worrell, a former member of the Southampton County School Board and the town’s mayor since 2016, observes, “General Thomas was, for his day, ahead of the times.”

No wonder a main road through Newsoms is named the General Thomas Highway.

Otherwise, this sleepy community of about 300, incorporated in 1946, is a picture of small-town America, with churches, community organizations and a smattering of businesses. Agriculture remains the top industry, unsurprising in a town that proclaims itself “home of the jumbo peanut,” as Worrell well knows.

“I was born 1 mile from where I now live to a sharecropper family. I worked as a farm produce truck driver when I was in high school and helped haul peanuts,” he recalls.

After high school graduation, Worrell had a long career in the U.S. Army, traveling in the United States and Europe. Now 81, he says Newsoms’ biggest challenge is “to continue to exist as a town.

“I don’t see more development inside the corporate limits and the population continues to drop off,” he explains. “We had a grant for 15 miles of water and sewer along General Thomas Highway, secured because the area is low and had drainage issues. Most people in Newsoms commute for work. There’s plenty of land [around here] but the commute does wear on you.”

Newsoms’ only major employer is Koppers, formerly Atlantic Wood Industries and Cox Industries, which manufactures power poles, and provides foundation pilings and marine use pilings. Plant manager Robert “Chet” Poland has been with the company since its 1987 opening and oversees 45 employees, who recently loaded ships with power poles en route to the Bahamas in the wake of Hurricane Dorian.

The newest business in town is Butcher Block, a butcher shop and grocery store that opened in nearby Boykins in 2016. Owner Chris Jernigan leased space in Boykins and moved his business when he was able to buy a building on Main Street in Newsoms. The new business also offers cooked food items.

Skeeters, who lives in General Thomas’ old house and works in the banking industry, came with his wife to Newsoms in 1992. His wife inherited Thomaston in 1982, when Alma Davis died; a former dancer with the Rockettes, Davis had restored the house after tuberculosis ended her stage career. “My wife had no idea she was in her will,” Skeeters says. “We have spent a lot of money [continuing to] restore the house.”

Skeeters also is vice president of Newsoms Ruritan Club, which has about 30 members.

“Coming here from the suburbs of North Carolina was a culture shock,” he admits. “I remember saying there are only two games in town, the Ruritans and the volunteer fire department.”

Skeeters describes an active Ruritans Club, noting, “We win a lot of awards for service. We sponsor a July 4th parade and picnic, we do college scholarships and have a ballfield that we sponsor. We have fundraisers and monthly bingo [games] and the money goes back into the community.”

In 2020, the Newsoms Ruritan Club will celebrate its 75th anniversary. The meeting house, built about 1840 and restored in 1955 by the Newsoms Women’s Club, was moved to its current location on South Main Street in 1985. The one-and-a-half story, central-passage building with front dormers was one of Newsoms’ first buildings.

Next door, the post office is a community hub. Clerk Nancy Shope has worked for the postal service since 2000 and in Newsoms since 2016. “Everyone is so friendly … the people here are absolutely wonderful.”

Newsoms’ origins date from a plantation called Cedar View, given in a land grant by the King of England and later sold to Thomas Newsom. In 1835, the Portsmouth & Roanoke Railroad laid track here, and the settlement became known as Newsoms Depot. Many years later the name was shortened to Newsoms. Freight trains continue to traverse Newsoms but passenger service ceased in the 1970s.

Lynda Updike, president of the Southampton County Historical Society, says by the 1930s Newsoms had eight grocery stores; four churches; three schools; two garages; a drugstore; a bank; a sawmill; a cotton gin; and a hotel. Carol Drake Majors, a Newsoms native who moved away but returned home in 2000 after her parents died, also remembers a lively Newsoms.

Her grandfather Lewis Drake owned Newsoms Mercantile, a two-story building — since torn down — where he sold dry goods and a variety of things. “We had a train station and a full-time agent. My mother and I used the passenger station a lot, and would take the train to Franklin, Suffolk, Portsmouth and Norfolk. Now life is quiet here.”

Shelton “Shirttail” Story recalls growing up with unlocked houses and party-line telephones, adding, “We played ball in a vacant lot every afternoon and rode bikes to school.”

Amy and Marvin Wilson moved to Newsoms in 2005 after buying and renovating a 4,000-square-foot Victorian Italianate house adjacent to the railroad tracks. They lived in Newsoms from 2005 to 2008, and returned in 2012 after he concluded a U.S. Navy stint in Hawaii.

“The town has been welcoming. You have to break the ice but once you do, you will meet wonderful, kind people,” Marvin says.

Newsoms native Blair Bunn and wife Jenny oversee Newsoms Peanut Shop at 23358 General Thomas Highway as an extension of his family’s Turtle Creek Farm. The farm products include peanuts, other crops and cattle, and different varieties of hay for sale.

Every October, Turtle Creek Farm hosts tours with hayrides and petting zoos, emphasizing positive educational experiences for the non-farming community. The Bunns also host special-occasion tours.

“We also provide horse transporta-tion services. I know horses and how to handle them, and someone asked me to move a horse. That’s how it started,” Bunn recalls. “I have moved everything from Chincoteague ponies to $100,000 racehorses. I’m a body-guard for your horse.”

Bunn’s parents Charles and Nancy Bunn started the peanut business in the 1970s. In 2006, the rustic peanut shop was built and the business has continued to slowly expand. In addition to on-site shop sales and sales to specialty stores, Bunn’s store provides cooked-to-order peanuts for internet and mail-order sales. They also develop packages for groups selling peanuts to meet fundraising goals.

Blair Bunn describes Newsoms as being like “Mayberry” when he was growing up. “I feel fortunate to have grown up farming … it’s the best life you can have,” he says.

Drake’s Shopping Mart has been a fixture on General Thomas Highway since 1970. Owned by Harold and Carolyn Drake, the store offers groceries, gas and convenience-store items. They also offer cooked items like hot dogs and fried chicken. At lunchtime, their small seating area in-store is a local hangout. It is the only country store that has endured in Newsoms.

“Newsoms is a good place, with loyal customers … our customers are great people,” Carolyn Drake says.