Small Town, Big Story
For sale in the Brodnax Town Office is a promotional T-shirt that reads “Tail of Two Counties.” Seeing as how the Brunswick-Mecklenburg county line runs right through the small Southside Virginia town, Brodnax has long been the brunt of such sayings.
“Back in the day, everybody said we were at the ‘tail end’ of both counties,” Brodnax Clerk Beth Moore explains.
But the actual tale of Brodnax is a story of how a 0.71-square- mile town of only several hundred, during the course of a little more than 100 years, made such a huge impact on residents of the town, both counties, and people all over the region, that folks still wax poetic when they talk about Brodnax in its heyday.
Brodnax’s history weaves through a century that saw the town flourish as a hub for trading, business, manufacturing, recreation, education … you name it and Brodnax probably played a role in it in Southside Virginia over the last century.
‘Quiet and Peaceful’
Once holding the reputation for being “a rowdy place,” Brodnax has quieted down quite a bit over the last few decades, although the traffic that passes through the town on U.S. 58 is still as heavy as ever. Police Chief Joe Carey estimates approximately 1,000 vehicles per hour drive through on a given day, and that number has the potential to swell substantially based on naval activities in Norfolk or the weather situation in Virginia Beach and elsewhere.
“Sometimes you have trouble getting out onto the road, it’s so much traffic,” he says.
Even so, Carey describes the town as being “quiet and peaceful,” filled with residents who “have huge hearts” and are “very generous.” Brodnax also boasts an extremely low crime rate. “It’s very seldom that we have any type of crime,” Carey says.
That’s somewhat the opposite of what Carey, a native of nearby Charlotte County, says he’s heard from residents about Brodnax’s past.
“Years ago there were lots of businesses,” he says. “People tell me there was more going on here than in neighboring towns. Brodnax had the reputation as a rowdy place.”
Booming Little Town
Armistead Lambert, whose grandfather was the first mayor of Brodnax and whose father was also a former mayor, made a living for more
than 40 years as co-owner of Garland Drug in neighboring South Hill. But as a young man and teenager coming of age in Brodnax in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he remembers growing up in a “booming little town” where “everybody knew everybody” and people came “from all over the countryside” to shop and hang out on weekends.
Lambert remembers Brodnax having nine general stores where old-timers would gather to play cards and checkers, two service stations on each side of U.S. 58, a restaurant called Lula Mae’s, a post office, a train depot, a barber shop, top-notch hardware and furniture stores, a movie theater that showed all westerns, sawmills, a cotton mill, two schools, and a jail that brought in extra staff for the weekends.
Lambert says the cotton mill, owned by Dugger Cotton Co., was a big employer in the town, administering three shifts over seven days per week. He says workers would be paid in cash on Fridays at 11 a.m.
“There were so many people in front of the beer garden, you couldn’t even get up and down the street,” Lambert says.
Folks would sometimes jump the train to Lawrenceville, and on certain days they could catch a passenger train to Buckroe Beach on the Chesapeake Bay in Hampton.
There was always quite a bit of activity from the naval base in Norfolk. “I remember lots of sailors standing beside the road in Brodnax hitchhiking,” Lambert says.
Most of the roads were dirt, and off one road was a small barn with hay and feed where folks who traveled into town with horses and wagons could hitch their horses for the day.
There were at least four orchards, with the specialty crop in Brodnax being peaches.
Lambert says there were several big annual events in Brodnax, such as the Labor Day picnic sponsored by Woodmen of the World each year at Dugger’s Pond. They had a shed for folks to do the cooking while a flat-back trailer served as stage for the “hillbilly country” bands that entertained the event. There was also an “ugly man contest.”
“That was a big to-do on Labor Day,” Lambert recalls.
Another big annual event was the donkey ballgame sponsored by the fire department.
“You’d hit the ball and try to ride the donkey to first base, but most of the time you’d just end up pulling him along,” Lambert says.
Of course, this was during the segregation era, so there was mostly two of everything in town.
Lambert recalls playing for a baseball club called the Brodnax A’s that would play teams from neighboring communities. But the crowds at his games were rarely as loud as the fans across town cheering for an African American baseball club based in Brodnax and made up of teens and young adults.
Lambert also remembers an African American-owned store called Walker’s where the proprietors would make sandwiches and drinks and sell them out of a tray, ballpark style, at the mills.
“They made a living doing that,” he says.
There were segregated schools in Brodnax that encompassed first through seventh grades. Lambert says at the school he attended the students served as janitors and the building was heated by coal stoves, with older students shoveling in coal each evening for the next morning. There was a running water fountain but no toilets, only two outhouses that “smelled so bad the buzzards wouldn’t even fly over them,” Lambert says.
Once students finished at the Brodnax schools, they had the choice of attending high school in either Lawrenceville in Brunswick County or La Crosse in Mecklenburg County.
“Most of the town is in Brunswick County, and a lot more went to Lawrenceville High School than La Crosse,” Lambert says.
With the town having a big reputation, Lambert says some folks held it as a strike against someone upon finding out they were from Brodnax. But at the same time, he describes growing up in a close-knit community that made such an impression on residents and visitors that they carried a romantic view of Brodnax in its heyday throughout the rest of their lives.
“Everybody knew everybody and did everything together,” Lambert says. “Growing up in Brodnax, you have lots of fond memories of the community, school and the extracurricular activities. We’ve stayed close too, till death do us part.”
in the town, administering three shifts over seven days per week. He says workers would be paid in cash on Fridays at 11 a.m.
Still Lots to Do
While the town may have lost most of the commercial entities from its heyday, there’s still quite a bit to do in and around Brodnax.
A local rails-to-trails initiative, the Tobacco Heritage Trail, runs right through downtown Brodnax along the former railroad corridor. Meandering through Southside Virginia, this non-motorized walking, jogging and riding trail extends 3.3 miles west from Brodnax toward La Crosse and 14.2 miles east to Lawrenceville, crossing a scenic section of the Meherrin River in the process.
The trail runs adjacent to the Mecklenburg-Brunswick Regional Airport, which is located just outside of Brodnax town limits. The airport is across the street from the Cabbage Farm, a popular local pick-your-own strawberries patch that also sells a variety of other produce fresh from the garden.
Upon passing into town limits, make sure to stop by Ricky’s Service Station for one of its famous hot dogs. And if you’re around Brodnax during the holiday season, spend a little time checking out the lights — many town residents go all out in decorating their yards.
Carey notes Brodnax celebrated its centennial on June 6, 2015, with an all- day celebration that included a circus and a parade. He was impressed that the parade drew more than 100 entries.
Brodnax still has all the potential and traffic it had during its heyday, and with all the necessities in place for development, there is room for growth.
“These are great people to work with down here,” Carey says. “The town’s got potential. It just needs to be developed.”
For more information, call the Brodnax Town Office at 434-729-3191.