Truckin' on the Western Branch

Animated publication

Truckin’ on the Western Branch A Cultural History of Churchland, West Norfolk, Western Branch, and Bowers Hill

by: Phyllis Speidell, writer/editor John H. Sheally II, photographer Karla Smith, writer/artist

Images by Sheally



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A nonprofit, 501 (c) 3 foundation, Suffolk River Heritage promotes an awareness and appreciation of the history and heritage of villages and neighborhoods along the Nansemond, James and Elizabeth Rivers. The trio of waterways are as inter connected as the farmers, watermen, businesses, and families living along and near their shorelines. Since 2006 foundation members have been collecting oral histories and other primary source material relevant to those communities. From that work the foundation developed a series of books in which we share stories, photography and a touch of historical research, creating a sense of place to share with a rapidly changing region. Peninsula in Passage , published 2012 , the story of the villages of Bennett’s Creek, Driver and Pughsville as they evolved into the suburban area surrounding the planned community of Harbour View. Truckin’ on the Western Branch , published 2014 , the story of how a thriving region of truck farmers — Churchland, West Norfolk, Western Branch and Bowers Hill — grew into a diverse, suburban community while retaining some of its village culture and closeness. The River Binds Us , published 2007, the story of the farms and watermen’s villages of Crittenden, Eclipse and Hobson.

The Churchland/West Norfolk/Western Branch/Bowers Hill communities owe their unique heritage to the truck farmers who grew vegetables, fruit and flowers across the area. Those “truckers” and their commitment to family, friends and neighbors nurtured a culture of caring that remained after truck farming faded. The community at large also nurtured scores of youngsters who went on to become highly successful in a wide range of careers—and credit their hometown with fostering their achievements. Truckin’ on the Western Branch, created by journalists John H. Sheally II and Phyllis Speidell with educator Karla Smith, captures the story of the truckers and the community through the recollections of more than 100 people, the documented history of the area and a collection of compelling vintage and contemporary photos.

ISBN 978-1-57864-939-6

ISBN 978-1-57864-939-6

Cover design and photography by John H. Sheally II

9 781578 649396

Truckin’ on the Western Branch A Cultural History of Churchland, West Norfolk, Western Branch, and Bowers Hill

Truckin’ on the Western Branch A Cultural History of Churchland, West Norfolk, Western Branch, and Bowers Hill

by: Phyllis Speidell, writer/editor John H. Sheally II, photographer Karla Smith, writer/artist

Copyright © 2014 by Suffolk River Heritage, Inc. PO Box 6007 Suffolk, VA 23433 757-537-7718

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this work in any form whatsoever without permission in writing from the publisher, except for brief passages in connection with a review. For information, please write:

The Donning Company Publishers 184 Business Park Drive, Suite 206 Virginia Beach, VA 23462 Steve Mull, General Manager Barbara Buchanan, Office Manager Pamela Koch, Senior Editor

Chad Casey, Graphic Designer Kathy Adams, Imaging Artist Nathan Stufflebean, Research and Marketing Supervisor Katie Gardner, Marketing Assistant Lori Porter, Project Research Coordinator

Dennis N. Walton, Project Director

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Speidell, Phyllis E., author. Truckin’ on the Western Branch : A cultural history of Churchland, West Norfolk, Western Branch, and Bowers Hill / Phyllis Speidell, John H. Sheally II, Karla Smith. pages cm Includes bibliographical references. ISBN 978-1-57864-939-6 (hard cover : alk. paper) 1. Truck farming—Virginia—Chesapeake Region. 2. Vegetable gardening—Virginia—Chesapeake Region. 3. Farm produce—Virginia—Chesapeake Region. 4. Chesapeake (Va.)—History. I. Sheally, John H., II, author. II. Smith, Karla, 1947- author. III. Title.

SB321.5.C43S64 2014 635.09755’18—dc23


Printed in the United States of America at Walsworth Publishing Company, Marceline, Missouri

Table of Contents

Introduction About the Cover Preface Dedication Timeline

6 7 8 9

10 12 37 52 57 68 81

Did You Know? The Story Place Maps A Land of Churches Lessons for Life Churchland West Norfolk Western Branch Bowers Hill Recipes from Our Storytellers

147 167 195 214 222 224

In Fond Memory Acknowledgments

Image by Sheally



Children laughing, church bells pealing, and whistles screaming quitting time.

Tractors chugging, horses trotting and sea gulls crying overhead.

Ball fans cheering, hunters firing and speedboats skimming by.

The anthem of a time and place held close in the hearts of those who lived them or heard the stories over the Sunday dinner table.

Churchland, Western Branch, Bower’s Hill, and West Norfolk, once along the eastern edges of old Norfolk County, share the rich history of a truck farming, waterfront community. We know it is the heart and humanity in history that create heritage. That heritage, threatened by past annexations and continuing development, deserves to be preserved and treasured, as do its lessons for the present and future.

Truckin’ on the Western Branch brings together the documented history of the community with the memories, stories and photos of more than a hundred storytellers, some of those who knew it best. We hope you will enjoy their recollections and lore, the music of their lives.



Phyllis Speidell John H. Sheally II Karla Smith





Bob Armistead Orchestra, The Starlighters with Nat Howell on sax.


Image by Sheally

Truckin’ on the Western Branch Cover Jimmy (on right) and Jesse Lilley, both from the almost 100-year-old Lilley Farm, load produce at the edge of the Western Branch of the Elizabeth River. In the early 1900s local farmers built a rock causeway to a small island next to a deep channel in the river. Barges collected the “truck” or produce to take to the Norfolk and Portsmouth waterfronts. There steamships awaited to carry the goods to cities in the North. Farmers packed produce in baskets and crates, many from Planters Manufacturing with an outlet in Churchland. Some of the original baskets are shown on the truck on the cover.

Our thanks to Jimmy and Jesse Lilley, Ashton Lewis, Louis Latham, Brad Cherry, Bill Quinn, Billy Hargroves, and Jodie Matthews who all worked with us to make this cover possible.

In the Battle of Craney Island in 1813, American forces, outnumbered three to one, defeated the British troops. In 2013 Chesapeake artist Sam Welty created a mural at Cedar Grove Cemetery commemorating the battle. The cemetery, in downtown Portsmouth, is the resting place of at least 47 veterans of the War of 1812. A portion of his mural circles the cover of Truckin’ on the Western Branch .

The greater Churchland area was the “Charlotte of Powerboat Racing,” and the rear cover depicts driver/enthusiast Chris Hall with the unique two-seater hydroplane he had built by Larry Lauterbach (top) and (bottom) The Legend , built by master hydroplane builder and driver Henry Lauterbach and named in his honor by the owner Terry Browning.



Perhaps Don Comer, one of our storytellers, said it best—People are connected to each other here with great stories and a big history.

Truckin’ on the Western Branch is a nontraditional history book, one that captures the stories as well as the history of the greater Churchland area—Churchland, West Norfolk, Western Branch, and Bower’s Hill.

You’ll find here the documented history of the area and you will also find the stories of those who helped shape this unique community.

Our timeline and The Story Place section set the stage where our stories played out. Our storytellers—more than 100 of them—are lifelong residents with generations of family ties behind them, and the come-heres, those of us who came and stayed. Their stories are enlightening, sometimes dramatic, and frequently fun. They tell the rest of the story, beyond the recorded dates and events.

How better to capture the flavor of the community than in the foods they loved and remember best? The Recipes from Our Storytellers section shares a few of those favorites. You might not remember events in the same way our storytellers do, but those are the shades that color our history. You will also notice that spellings of places and names vary as we tried to capture the spelling of the era. We know there are hundreds of other stories out there, waiting to be told. We hope that this book will encourage people to get to know their neighbors, share a few stories and treasure the heritage they find.

Phyllis Speidell John H. Sheally II Karla Smith

Image by Sheally


Dedication—Gracie Lee VanDyck Gracie Lee VanDyck was skeptical when I first called her in the spring of 2013 to request an interview. We were beginning a new cultural journalism project for the Suffolk River Heritage foundation and hoped she would be a key “player” in our storyteller “line-up.” Miss VanDyck or Gracie Lee, as many knew her, epitomized the strong connection that sports and schools had and have for the Churchland-Western Branch community. Gracie Lee VanDyck had been my basketball coach beginning in 1961 and her kind, strong, and independent spirit impressed me. Until I met Gracie Lee I never knew there were women like her on this earth. She was an advocate for women long before Title IX opened the doors for equal access to sports for them in 1972. She taught her players about playing hard and playing fair in sports and life when often “things” weren’t fair. She encouraged us to set life goals and work towards them. Later, I chose her Madison College, played varsity basketball, and became a public school teacher. I am sure many others pursued their goals as well thanks to her support and encouragement. Gracie Lee VanDyck made a difference. She joined the teaching staff at Churchland Academy in 1947 and moved to the new Churchland High School on High Street West in 1954. When the Portsmouth annexation split the schools with Chesapeake, she moved to Western Branch High School. She was a gifted teacher, coach, and mentor to thousands. She advocated for girls in a time when they were often treated as second-class citizens in athletics. She coached girls’ softball and basketball teams, sometimes paying for uniforms and equipment out of her own resources. In the 1960s she coached basketball teams at both Churchland and St. Paul’s High Schools, balancing practice and game times. She was always fighting for gym time and team buses around the boys’ teams.

We returned for a second interview with Gracie Lee on a Thursday because that was when she had her hair done. She insisted. She had style.

That was in March 2013, and Gracie Lee passed away just months later in July.

We dedicate this book, Truckin’ on the Western Branch , to Gracie Lee, grateful that we had the opportunity to hear her stories and memories of Churchland and Western Branch.

Gracie Lee VanDyck. Image by Sheally

Karla M. Smith—one of her players




DID YOU KNOW? Why Churchlanders are “Truckers”? At least two other schools—Norwalk High in Norwalk, Ohio, and Clintonville High School in Clintonville, Wisconsin—share the Trucker nickname. But both of those were named for local truck factories that were major school benefactors. In Churchland, the name honors the truck farmers who devoted their lives to “making truck”—

vegetables, fruit and flowers, notably daffodils. The truckers loaded their market crops onto barges and schooners in the Elizabeth River to be carried to metropolitan markets and railheads in Baltimore and points north.

Images by Sheally

Bill Leffler, longtime sportswriter with The Virginian-Pilot remembered that Charles “Shotgun” Brown, football coach at Churchland High during the championship years of the mid-1950s, was not happy with the Trucker name and sought to have it changed. When the question was put to a student vote, however, the football players were the only ones voting for a change. The name continues today. Why a Bruin is the Western Branch High School mascot? According to retired principal Art Brandriff, the students who opened the new school voted for the Bruins from a choice of names that included the Trojans and the Eagles. Ironically Brandriff, who is color blind, selected the navy blue and old gold school colors after seeing a Sports Illustrated magazine cover that featured a New Orleans Saints’ helmet and liking the colors he thought were blue and gold. Only 15 years later did he discover that the Saints’ colors are really black and gold.

“But actually I like the navy and gold colors better—always have,” Brandriff said.

That the Churchland Truckers’ 1954–55 record of an undefeated, untied, and unscored upon football season still stands? Sixty years after their record-setting season, the surviving players continue to meet twice a month for lunch, a bit of banter, and a few nods to their glory days with the late Charles “Shotgun” Brown as their coach. Slade Phillips was the assistant coach and assistant principal. Now 92 years old, Phillips still drives many of the players to lunch. Captain Robert Carney Powers, USN retired, moved to Churchland as a sophomore in high school and played center on the team for Shotgun Brown. Powers wrote and published a novel, The Perfect Season , based on the team and remembered— Thirty guys were on the football team and we played both ways—with no face masks. Fifteen really knew how to play; the others just filled out the uniforms. I weighed 155 on a good day, but in 1954 we had the big guys, the Jolliff farm boys. We loved Shotgun—he was a character, tough and mean. He taught us a work ethic and a dedication that influenced us for the rest of our lives—you never walked in uniform, you ran. Summer


practices meant no water—you sneaked moisture from a lemon tucked in your belt. Didn’t taste very good but it was moist. Playing was sort of a pride thing, a survival story. We were afraid to lose—afraid to have anyone score on us.

Shotgun claimed it was the most intelligent team he had ever coached. The guys became doctors, lawyers, and applied their intelligence in different ways.

Shotgun Brown had a heart of gold according to James “Jimmy” Webb Jones, one of the younger team members. He played center and tackle, and remembered: Shotgun set a high standard and was very inspiring. He taught us we could do things we never thought we could do. He won games by conditioning and strength training his teams. He taught us how to tackle without injuring our opponent or ourselves. When Jones was sidelined by a life-threatening reaction to a prescription drug, Brown convinced him to be the scorekeeper, home game announcer, and a stringer for The Virginian-Pilot reporting the games.

Undefeated, untied, and unscored upon 1954–1955 Truckers in 2014. Images by Sheally

“The man had a heart of gold,” Jones said.

A Medal of Honor recipient graduated from Churchland High School in 1948? By presidential order on June 8, 1955, First Lieutenant Richard T. Shea Jr. was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force that can be given to an individual serving in the Armed Services of the United States. His citation tells the story: On the night of 6 July [1953], he was supervising the reinforcement of defensive positions when the enemy attacked with great numerical superiority. Voluntarily proceeding to the area most threatened, he organized and led a counterattack and, in the bitter fighting which ensued, closed with and killed 2 hostile soldiers with his trench knife. Calmly moving among the men, checking positions, steadying and urging the troops to hold firm, he fought side by side with them throughout the night. Despite heavy losses, the hostile force pressed the assault with determination, and at dawn made an all-out attempt to overrun friendly elements. Charging forward to meet the challenge, 1st Lt. Shea and his gallant men drove back the hostile troops. Elements of Company G joined the defense on the afternoon of 7 July, having lost key personnel through casualties. Immediately integrating these troops into his unit, 1st Lt. Shea rallied a group of 20 men and again charged the enemy. Although wounded in this action, he refused evacuation and continued to lead the counterattack. When the assaulting element was pinned down by heavy machinegun fire, he personally rushed the emplacement and, firing his carbine and lobbing grenades with deadly accuracy, neutralized the weapon and killed 3 of the enemy. With forceful leadership and by his heroic example, 1st Lt. Shea coordinated and directed a holding action throughout the night and the following morning. On 8 July, the enemy attacked again. Despite additional wounds, he launched a determined counterattack and was last seen in close hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. Shea grew up off Dock Landing Road, was an altar boy at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Bowers Hill, and went to school from the first grade on with Paul Smith, who grew up on a farm in Hatton Point. Smith said, Richard was very serious, a real leader, a good friend and made good grades. He was our class president every year. When we were seniors, the senior class president was automatically named to the student council, a rule change to get him on the council. Back then high school seniors drove the school buses, and Richard drove the Dock Landing Road bus. I was the bus conductor and maintained order on the bus—once we had to put a kid off the bus for trying to cut the cables to the bus lights.

And although he never played a sport growing up, Shea was inducted, posthumously, into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 1987. Once again the citation tells his story.


Images by Sheally


Image by Sheally

Portsmouth-born, Churchland High and Virginia Tech educated, and West Point trained, Dick Shea was the U.S. Military Academy’s greatest distance runner of all time. He won nine championship races and set five Academy track records. He won the national cross-country championship and was ranked among the country’s top runners in the mile and two-mile. The young track star also included the two-mile title in the Penn Relays and a new record in the Heptagonal indoor meet at Boston among his conquests. In one race, Shea defeated Horace Ashenfelter, who won a gold medal in the 1952 Olympics at Helsinki.

Shea became interested in track during an overseas assignment in Berlin as an enlisted man in World War II. Twice named to the coaches’ All-America track team, the Virginian graduated from West Point with high honors, receiving the award as the cadet contributing most to athletics during the Academy career.

Shea was invited to become a member of the U.S. Olympic track team but rejected the invitation in order to go right into the Army as a second lieutenant. Shea, at the age of 26, was killed while leading an assault on Pork Chop Hill in Korea on July 8, 1953.


Smith said, He met Joyce, a girl from New York, when he was at West Point. They married on his graduation day at the Academy in 1952. Before he left for Korea, he came home on leave and asked me to go to Smith Brothers gas station on Western Branch Boulevard where Raymond Smith (an old friend but no relation) and I could witness his last will and testament.

Shea is buried in Olive Branch Cemetery with his two brothers, Robert Bernard Shea, 2/11/30– 4/15/73, pilot, and William George Shea Sr., F2 US Navy WWII, 4/21/28–9/28/88.

In 1958 the U.S. Military Academy dedicated its stadium as Shea Stadium. In 2008 Churchland High School dedicated a commemorative display honoring Shea. A year later Caleb Polston of Portsmouth created The Richard T. Shea Memorial Garden in Pughsville, across from the VFW post, as an Eagle Scout project. On the memorial information board Polston wrote, “My hope is that as you walk through this small memorial, you will take the time to remember those men and women who fought for us and for America and its Freedom.” That ten Virginia Sports Hall of Famers have local ties?

In addition to Richard Shea, nine other local sports personalities have been inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Jean McLean Davis — Equestrian and horse breeder. She won more than 65 World Grand Championships and claimed 845 championships for her stable. Her home and stable were in Churchland for a number of years. Chandler Harper—Golfer. After turning pro at the age of 20 in 1934, he won seven championships on the pro golf tour, including the 1950 National PGA Championship, and finished second in 13 others. He was a member of the Ryder

Jean McLean Davis

Cup team in 1955. Chandler also won National PGA Seniors and the World Seniors titles and was inducted into the PGA Hall of Fame in 1969. A Churchland resident later in life, Harper was the head pro at the Glensheallah course for 17 years and helped build Elizabeth Manor and Bide-A Wee golf courses. A few years later Bob Stanton, of Stanton Partners real estate and development firm, was at Sleepy Hole Golf Course when the pro asked if a retired pro golfer might join him for a round. The retired pro was Chandler Harper who remembered that Stanton had been his newspaper boy years earlier in Green Acres.

Chandler Harper. Image by Sheally.


Ace Parker, Bill Dudley, and Bruce Smith. Image by Sheally

Clarence “Ace” Parker—Football and baseball pro Parker attended Churchland High before Woodrow Wilson High lured him away to become a five-sports star there in the early 1930s. Parker was an All American in football and also played baseball and basketball at Duke University. The Brooklyn Dodgers of the National Football League drafted him in 1937, but he opted to sign with Connie Mack to play shortstop for the Philadelphia Athletics. At the end of his first season, he agreed to join the Dodgers and in 1939 played quarterback in the first pro football game to be televised (Dodgers 23–Philadelphia Eagles 14). In 1940 Parker was the NFL’s MVP.

After serving in the Navy during World War II, Parker returned to the Dodgers and then played baseball with the Durham Bulls and the Portsmouth Cubs. He coached baseball and football at Duke and was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1972.

Parker and Chandler Harper were teammates on Wilson High’s golf and baseball teams (Parker, the shortstop, and Harper, a pitcher). They continued to play golf together and Bill Leffler remembered, “One time Ace, 67, and Chandler Harper, 66, were playing at Bide-a-Wee on Chandler’s birthday—and both shot their ages.” Frank D. Lawrence—Baseball Frank D. Lawrence, a banker, was honored for being a guiding force in professional baseball for half a century. He launched his first minor league team, The Truckers, in 1913, as part of the Virginia League for 15 years. His Trucker teams won pennants in 1920, 1921, and 1927. He owned the Portsmouth Cubs for 20 years until 1955 when the Piedmont League folded. Both Ace Parker and Eddie Stanky played for him.

Lawrence, who lived in Churchland, brought night and Sunday baseball to the area and promoted the construction of Portsmouth Stadium, later named Frank D. Lawrence Stadium, in 1941.


Ricky Rudd. Image by Sheally

Bill Champion

Ricky Rudd. Norfolk County native Ricky Rudd, the “Iron man” of NASCAR, holds the record for most consecutive starts. In his late teens he made his NASCAR debut at North Carolina Speedway driving the #10 Ford of his mentor, Bill Champion. Gracie VanDyck—Basketball VanDyck, known to everyone as Gracie Lee, was a pioneer in promoting women’s sports. From her citation to the Hall of Fame: She excelled on the playing field and then brought those same standards of excellence to coaching, making a name for herself as one of the most influential and successful coaches in state high school history. From 1947 through 1987, VanDyck coached basketball and softball at Churchland High School in Portsmouth, Portsmouth Catholic, and Chesapeake’s Western Branch High School, compiling a 517-271-2 record. VanDyck died July 26, 2013, at the age of 86. Bob Rowland—Speedboat Racing Rowland, who lived in Churchland, was also a track star at The College of William and Mary and a championship golfer. From 1950 to 1952 Rowland won the Virginia & Maryland Gold Cup of racing, the Calvert Silver trophy for Unlimited Class Boats, and several other championships. He was named Outstanding Speed Boat Racing Driver in America by the National Marine Racing Hall of Fame and was named to the All-American Racing Team in 1952.


Henry Lauterbach—Speedboat Racing A dominant force in hydroplane racing for half a century, Henry E. Lauterbach was a champion racer and renowned builder of hydroplanes—those light, swift motorboats that skim the water’s surface. He built his first boat when he was 12 and earned five national championships as a driver in three years in the early 1950s. He is in the National Hydroplane Racing Hall of Fame and, in 1974, was named to the American Power Boat Association Elite Honor Squadron. Lauterbach, who died in June 2006, at the age of 87, is as well known for his handcrafted boats as he is for his racing skills. He built more than 200 custom hydroplanes with the Lauterbach Specials remaining legendary in boat racing. During his later years he lived in Hatton Point, but spent most of his time in his workshop on Nansemond Parkway in Suffolk.

Roger Brown. Surry County native and longtime Churchland resident, Brown is a retired NFL player (part of the Detriot Lions’ Fearsome Foursome with Alex Karras, Sam Williams, and Darris McCord and part of the Los Angeles Rams Fearsome Foursome with Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen, and Lamar Lundy).

Henry Lauterbach. Image by Sheally

Roger Brown


The Western Branch river house sailed on the James?

For years a river house on pilings was a familiar sight in the Western Branch of the Elizabeth River, across from Cypress Cove condominiums on the Hatton Point waterfront. But few people know that the cabin was originally the deckhouse of the Captain John Smith ferry. According to Bill Fox, a naval historian, Albert F. Jester, an experienced ferryman, had the ferry Captain John Smith built by the Isaiah Hundley Marine Railway at Battery Park, Virginia, in 1924. With the 65-foot, 60-horsepower, wooden vessel, Jester launched ferry service across the James River in 1925 between Surry and Jamestown. The $19,000 ferry held 100 passengers and 16 vehicles. His son-in-law, S. Wallace Edwards, founder of S. Wallace Edwards & Sons, Inc., producer of Virginia country hams, bacon, and sausage, was one of the ferry’s original captains. Jester ran and expanded the ferry system for 20 years before he sold the service to the Virginia Department of Transportation. The upper

Scott Wheeler. Image by Sheally


deckhouse was removed in 1946 while the Captain John Smith remained in service until the early 1950s. Fred Beazley, Portsmouth entrepreneur and philanthropist, brought the deckhouse (20 feet by 30 feet and constructed of juniper and white cedar) to the Western Branch of the Elizabeth River near his Bridgeview Farm to be a boathouse.

Richard Bray, Director of the Beazley Foundation, remembered. “I grew up living on the Western Branch and took my small boat out on the river. The boat house was my landmark in the fog.”

Julie MacKinlay grew up in Virginia Beach, but her father, William Lee Whitehurst, owned truck farms in the Pughsville area. She frequently came to Churchland to visit her grandparents, John and Effie Ballard.

“Our birthday parties were often in the Beazley river house. We’d take a few friends out of school for strawberry picking and sleep over,” she said. “I remember when a Nor’easter drove water up into the river house and we had to evacuate.”

In 2003 the rustic old river house did not fit well with the upscale Homearama event taking place on part of the old Beazley property, Bridgeview Farm, renamed the Estates at River Pointe. So just a month before Hurricane Isabel wiped out other river houses, a Surry businessman, Scott Wheeler, had the river house split in two, raised from the river, and trucked back home to Surry to crown a new commercial/restaurant center near the ferry piers on the James. When Wheeler’s project failed to materialize, he donated the structure to The Surry County, Virginia, Historical Society and Museums, Inc., in 2005. The cabin was tucked, temporarily, behind the Edwards production plant. Beginning in 2009 grants from the Beazley Foundation and the federal government enabled the Society to launch a restoration of the cabin for use as a museum.

Images by Sheally


The original three Jamestown replica ships were built in West Norfolk? In 1956 West Norfolk’s Curtis-Dunn Marine Shipyard built the first full-scale replicas of Susan Constant , Godspeed , and Discovery , the three ships that, in 1607, brought settlers to Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English colony in America. The ships were built for the 1957 commemoration of Jamestown’s 350th anniversary.

The replica ships had to be authentic in appearance, at least as seaworthy as the original 1607 ships, and stable enough to prevent capsizing even if all of the visitors rushed to one side of the ship.

News reports of the day described the ship christening in West Norfolk as a 17th-century-style ceremony with John Hughes Curtis, president of Curtis-Dunn Marine Industries Inc., in period-correct clothing, presenting each of the three ships’ sponsors with a silver goblet to spill wine “to the four winds” on the forward deck. Trumpeters, pikemen, and sailors manning the three ships were also in 17th century dress, and the ships were fitted with English woven flaxen sails.

The trio of ships remained in the James River until the Susan Constant was rebuilt and the Godspeed and Discovery replaced in the early 1980s. The Susan Constant was also replaced in the early 1990s.

Current replica ships at Jamestown Settlement. Image by Sheally


There is a mystery gravestone in Green Acres? For years a mystery tombstone has stood in Green Acres, at Pleasant Point not for from the Churchland Bridge. The inscription on the weathered stone is almost impossible to decipher, but the deceased might have been named Elizabeth. Local lore has it that the tombstone was found among some riprap bulk heading at the end of Twin Pines Road several decades ago and mysteriously appeared in a Green Acres yard as a prank. Since then the stone has traveled on more than one Halloween night to grace another lucky neighbor’s landscaping, but somehow it always returns to its resting place overlooking the river. The Purple Lady still blossoms? Rachel Presha began a quest for her own identity in the 1960s—and evolved into The Purple Lady, known far beyond the borders of the communities west of the Elizabeth River. A generation of children—and their parents—watched eagerly for a glimpse of The Purple Lady as they traveled U.S. 17 where she had painted dozens of utility poles purple. Hezie Banks, longtime employee at Coleman’s Nursery, remembers The Purple Lady

driving her lawn mower and trailer along High Street. Others remember her sitting outside of the ABC store in Churchland hoping for a few donations. A stately woman, swathed in layers of purple, Presha seemed to walk endlessly through the community. She built a huge fan base with no more than a few smiles, proverbs, and lines of fragmented poetry— wrapped in an aura of mystery. Presha lived in an aging farmhouse, painted purple of course, in Bennett’s Creek near what is now the entrance to Harbour View. The utility poles she painted purple are fading along Route 17 as are Purple Lady sightings now that Presha lives a more secluded life with her daughter, Delzorra, in Pughsville.

Mystery tombstone of Green Acres. Image by Sheally

Linda Pinkham, horticulturist and former owner with her husband, Bill, of Smithfield Gardens, said they gave The Purple Lady rides as she walked up and down the highway. Pinkham has helped assure the longevity of The Purple Lady lore with the development of a new daylily, The Purple Lady, that blooms with Rachel Presha’s purple flair.

Rachel Presha and the Purple Lady Day Lilly. Image by Sheally


Hoffler Creek is the only urban wildlife preserve in Virginia? “We try to keep the human footprint to a minimum so you can experience the wonder of the world here,” Randi Strutton, the first director of the Hoffler Creek Wildlife Foundation, said. “You never know what you’re going to see—deer, birds, eagles, osprey, hawks, and rabbits, squirrels, ground hogs, black bear, grey and red foxes, frogs, turtles, crabs. And whenever you can tap into the human spirit, you’ve got something valuable.”

“As one man was signing in, his toddler daughter kept tugging on him. Finally she got his attention, pointed to a butterfly and said ‘Look Daddy—there’s a flying flower,’” Strutton said. “People find peace here. I remember one woman who stayed past closing—her husband had just died. And a young man who also overstayed said he lost track of time— he had just put his dog down.” Strutton moved from Chesapeake to Churchland in 1986, adjacent to the preserve property, then owned by Virginia Department of Transportation. In 1995 the River Shore neighborhood learned that VDOT wanted to sell the land to a developer.

Randi Strutton. Images by Sheally

Allysa VanDykenv. Image by Sheally


Worried that the proposed 185-home development project was ill planned and environmentally unsound, Strutton and her neighbors campaigned to preserve the property, 142 acres surrounded by wetlands. For years truck farmers had used Hoffler Creek, named for William Hoffler, a Revolutionary War militia captain, as a waterway to market for their crops. Hathaway, to his Queen Anne house that overlooked both Hoffler Creek and Hampton Roads. They raised their six children on the farm that would become the wildlife preserve. In the 1940s and ’50s the family planted timber on parcels of the land with the idea of later selling to developers. Strutton’s group persevered, she said. In 1996 we got a provisional deed for the preserve after we hired a landscape gardener and an architect to create a master plan we submitted to the City of Portsmouth and we proved our fundraising ability by raising $104,000. The city gave us a five-year trial in 1997. In 1903, one truck farmer, John Wright Ballard Sr., brought his bride, Effie Toler

We were in an old construction trailer with no heat and no air-conditioning. We had mouse droppings everywhere, snake skins coiled on the ceiling—it was bad. We raised the money for a new building in 2004. It was certainly not what we had hoped for but it was a start. Delegate Johnny Joannou helped us get $175,000 from the General Assembly, and the Beazley Foundation contributed. We became the Hoffler Creek Wildlife Foundation.

Strutton retired at the end of 2012. Helen Kuhns is the current executive director.

Helen Kuhns, Executive Director. Image by Sheally


Chris Hall Jr. does a backflip in the Hall Team hydroplane.


The Western Branch was the “Charlotte” of hydroplane racing? For decades the Western Branch was the Charlotte of powerboat racing said Smokey Glover, Director of East Coast Operations at Willard Marine, Inc. Some of the most legendary names in the sport—Bob Rowland, Henry Lauterbach, the Hall brothers, Chris and Earle, and Chris Hall Jr.—all lived in the Churchland area at one time. Owning a small boat seemed as common for area youngsters as owning a bicycle. Glover grew up in Hatton Point and graduated from Churchland High in 1974. He remembers: I wasn’t one of the cool kids. I wasn’t much of a student—I slid into classes like Kramer from the Seinfeld show—and I didn’t do many extra-curriculars but I was active outside of school on the creeks, always in boats. I learned so many life lessons in Henry Lauterbach’s shop—It was like a baseball fan hanging out in the Yankees’ locker room. I learned that there is a pecking order and that a man could have a big wallet but that doesn’t mean he can buy class. I crewed for Larry Lauterbach’s boats [ Larry Lauterbach, Henry’s son, is also a renowned driver and boat builder ] and some for John Stauffer and the Edelweiss , built by Henry Lauterbach. I was like a sponge soaking up everything. Henry launched his boats from Shep’s in West Norfolk, and when we heard the engines we’d jump on our bikes and race to the Suburban Country Club to watch him speed by.

Our parents didn’t have to worry about us. Boats gave us a sense of responsibility. We learned independence and resilience. If we needed gas we had to mow a few yards to get the money to buy it. Our parents knew the police wouldn’t pick us up for hanging out behind a convenience store, smoking, but they might call if we were injured on the water.

“Churchland was a nest of hydroplane racing,” Chris Hall agrees. “I hung out at Henry Lauterbach’s too and bought my first Lauterbach boat in 1976.”

Earle, Chris’s younger brother, also fell under the spell of Lauterbach, whose sons were about his age. Lauterbach’s influence lured Earle Hall into hydroplane racing, leading to his 1982 induction into the American Power Boat Association’s Hall of Champions. Chris Hall won numerous championships as a yacht racer and convinced Larry Lauterbach to build a two-seater hydroplane, a rarity that Hall hoped would interest more people in the sport if they could experience the thrill firsthand.

Chris Hall’s son, Chris Jr., is a sailor and a boat driver who was also lured by the magic and raced hydroplanes for the Hall team.

An all-around athlete, Bob Rowland lived in Green Acres where the wa-wa song of the hydroplanes was heard frequently. Focusing on speedboat racing in the early 1950s, Rowland won championship after championship.

Top row: Chris and Katherine Hall, Larry Lauterbach, Henry Lauterbach. Bottom row: Smokey Glover, Earle Hall, Bob Rowland, and Chris Hall Jr. Top three: Images by Sheally


The Churchland/West Norfolk/Western Branch/Bowers Hill area has a connection to notables in the arts, sports and education?

Jimmy Anderson —Western Branch High graduate and retired MLB pitcher (Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds, San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox, Florida Marlins).

V. C. Andrews —novelist, perhaps best known for Flowers in the Attic .

Josh Baker —Western Branch High graduate and NFL player (New York Jets, Tampa Bay Buccaneers).

Dick Balderson —retired Atlanta Braves scout and special assistant to the manager. He was a standout pitcher at Churchland High and the University of Richmond and Double-A pitcher in the Kansas City organization.

Fred W. Beazley —Portsmouth entrepreneur and philanthropist. The Beazley Foundation, Inc., established in 1948, was funded by Fred and Marie Beazley and their son, Fred W. Beazley, Jr. Beazley Sr. was also responsible for the establishment of Frederick Military Academy as well as Frederick College that was, in 1968, given to the Commonwealth of Virginia to become Tidewater Community College.

Dre Bly —Western Branch High graduate, All-American and retired NFL player (St. Louis Rams, Detroit Lions, Denver Broncos, San Francisco 49ers).

Jamin Elliot —Churchland High 1997 graduate and wide receiver in NFL Europe as well as with the Chicago Bears, Washington Redskins, and Atlanta Falcons.

Missy Elliott— singer, attended Churchland Middle School in the ’80s and spent time with family members in Twin Pines as a child.

Perry Ellis —fashion designer, lived on Dogwood Trail in the Pinecroft section of Portsmouth when he was growing up.

David Carr Glover —composer and developer of the David Carr Glover method of piano instruction. He owned the Glover School of Music in Portsmouth and lived in Churchland.

Ryan Glynn —Churchland High 1992 graduate and retired MLB pitcher (Texas Rangers, Toronto Blue Jays, Oakland Athletics).

Wendy C. Haley —romance/suspense writer who set several books in local venues. Her third book,

Dead Heat, is a suspense story of arson and murder set in Western Branch and Churchland.

Porter Hardy Jr .—U.S. Congressman from Virginia.

The Rev. V. Carney Hargroves— president of the Baptist World Alliance and the American Baptist Convention.

Nathaniel Howell —1957 Churchland High graduate, University of Virginia professor and U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait in 1990 when Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait and held the embassy in siege for more than three months.


Frank D. Lawrence —baseball promoter and team owner.

Ashton Lewis Jr.— NASCAR driver.

Alf Mapp Jr . and Ramona Mapp— educators/historians/authors, the couple lived in Churchland from the early 1970s.

Arthur Moats —five-sport athlete at Churchland High School, graduating in 2006, and NFL player (Buffalo Bills, Pittsburgh Steelers).

Tommy Newsom —saxophone player/orchestra leader/part of The Tonight Show for 30 years, retiring with host Johnny Carson in 1992.

Denny Riddleberger —Churchland High graduate, former MLB player (Washington Senators, Cleveland Indians).

Dave Smith— Churchland High graduate, poet, and professor whose work often reflects the local area.

Patricia Southall —Western Branch High graduate, former Miss Virginia USA, and wife of retired NFL star Emmitt Smith.

A dirty sales pitch led to the Sunray Settlement? In the early 20th century, Polish immigrants struggling to eke out an existence in the mines and factories of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania were lured to Sunray, “a farming community platted by the Southern Homestead Corp. of Norfolk,” according to a recently erected historical marker. The developer attracted future settlers by sending out glass sample vials of rich, fertile earth. As the 10-acre plots sold and eager future farming families arrived, they were surprised to find their promised land was undrained marsh on the edge of the Dismal Swamp. According to Gary Szymanski, local historian whose grandfather had bought four plots, many of the men found jobs in the shipyard or elsewhere while the women hitched up the mules, chopped stumps, and hand dug ditches to mark property lines and drain the farmland. The excavated earth supplemented the fields that were cultivated into prosperous truck farms.

“Bowers Hill women were tough—it was not unusual to see an 86-year-old woman jump a ditch carrying a bushel of potatoes,” Szymanski said. “Ladies here worked harder than anyone I’ve ever seen.”

Sunray became the first long-term Polish settlement in Virginia with a church, a school, and the Sunray Farmers Association to look after the well-being of the community. The association sponsored the recently erected historic marker, a source of community pride. But who placed the stones—mini boulders carefully etched with the word Sunray—at the foot of the marker? No one seems to know. Image by Sheally



TowneBank started in a FROG? While a surprising number of successful businesses—including Amazon, Disney, Mattel, Hewett-Packard, Google, and Yankee Candle—were started in someone’s garage, TowneBank was born in the frog (finished room over the garage) of Chairman and CEO G. Robert Aston. From his home in Churchland, Aston steered the energies of his team of banking colleagues to develop a new bank. In 15 years TowneBank evolved into a family of companies providing a full range of financial services as well as insurance, real estate, and property management services. His original team included R. Scott Morgan, William A. Copeland Jr., U. Starr Oliver, William T. Hodsden, Keith D. Horton, Judy D. Moody Stephenson, Dawn S. Glynn, Peggy U. Moser, Ruth W. Guthrie, J. Morgan Davis, P. Ward Robinett, Clyde E. McFarland Jr., and Sandra S. Dresch.

Launched in April 1999 with 90 employees, the organization grew to its current 1,757 employees and a $137 million payroll. BAUERFINANCIAL, Inc., a leading independent bank and credit union rating and research firm, calls TowneBank one of the strongest financial institutions in the nation.

Aston grew up in banking from the age of 16 when he worked after school at Citizens Trust in downtown Portsmouth. After graduating from Cradock High School, he joined the small bank full time and was exposed to every job there. He was named bank president in 1980. When the bank was sold five years later, he went to Commerce Bank of Virginia and took Scott Morgan and half a dozen other employees with him. That bank would later become part of BB&T.

But as successful as he was, Aston felt the confines of a larger, more bureaucratic work environment. He missed the opportunity to be creative and the ability to get new ideas in place without going through multiple layers of approvals and changes.

Previous page: The Garage Gang, left to right Sitting:William A. Copeland (Buddy), R. Scott Morgan, Margaret Moser (Peggy), Keith D. Horton, Dawn S. Glynn, Clyde E. McFarland, Jr., J. Morgan Davis left to right Standing: Judy Stephenson, William T. Hodsden (Bill), U. Starr Oliver, G Robert Aston, Jr., (Bob), P. Ward Robinett, Sandra Dresch, Ruth Guthrie. Images by Sheally



“The bureaucracy was frustrating and embarrassing when we couldn’t give our hometown customers what they needed because the bigger bank policies didn’t take into account personal knowledge of the customer,” he said.

In 1998 he and Morgan, ready to get back to doing what they wanted to do, quit their jobs and recruited the other members of their start-up team.

“The fourteen of us met and decided what each one of us would do—all based on the premise of hometown banking,” Aston said. “It was great to start from scratch. You might not know what to do, but you knew what not to do. We were able to surround ourselves with people we had confidence in and create the environment and culture we wanted to work in.” They looked at names—Old Town, Home Town, and a few more—but settled on TowneBank as the most descriptive and most versatile for signage and advertising. They sold shares and Aston remembered their simple strategy to attract shareholders and customers. “We had 4,000 shareholders and asked each to recommend five friends, but also told them don’t buy stock if you’re not going to bank here.” In the process of launching the bank, Aston and Morgan took a day off to take their wives shopping in Tysons Corner, Virginia. Bored with shopping, the two men fled to the parking lot where they first saw a new Volkswagen Beetle. It was so retro they were charmed and envisioned the little car, painted black with gold lettering, as the new bank’s company car.

“We do have a remote deposit capture system, but our customers like the Beetles and their drivers, who are like traveling tellers, all very personable and do 10,000 pickups a month,” Aston said.

TowneBank Chairman and CEO G. Robert Aston. Sequence by Sheally


About a year after the bank opened, Aston went to Manhattan for a media tour with then Portsmouth Economic Development Director Robert B. Smithwick to talk about the bank’s success. Their first stop was at Fortune magazine where a seemingly disinterested reporter asked Aston, “So just what makes this all that special?”

Stunned for a moment, Aston reached into his bag and brought out a model TowneBank Beetle. He set the tiny car on the table and talked about small banks vs. big banks and how TowneBank and its Beetles would pick up customers falling off the back of the big bank limos.

“The interviewer was intrigued by the model car and that became the story of the whole media blitz,” Aston said. “The Beetle saved the day.”

Aston has coached two generations of boys and girls in basketball, baseball, and softball in Western Branch and Churchland.

“All I learned about coaching applies to managing the bank as well,” he said. “Leadership is about follow-ship—and the belief that you can do something is central to success.”

Mr. Quick was a song and dance man? Mr. Quick, aka Philip Seidman, aka Phil Speers, aka Phil Sullivan, was a singing, dancing actor on the Cincinnati/New York vaudeville circuit—and also an umpire for the Tidewater Tides and Portsmouth Cubs.

“As Phil Speers he sang, ‘Brother Can You Spare a Dime,’ with a blue spotlight on him,” said his daughter, Sara Seidman Vance. “He didn’t really play an instrument but could fake it a bit on the piano.”

Born in Baltimore in 1912, he grew up in Norfolk. He graduated from Maury High in 1929. When back problems kept him out of the military, he went to New York City to live with a married brother and launch his show business career. He came back to Hampton Roads a widower and owned Phil’s Grill at Alexander’s Corner. He met Suzanne, an artist, painter, and director of the Portsmouth Community Arts Center.

When they married, Seidman moved his restaurant to Churchland and called it the Trucker Burger—home of the nostalgic 35-cent hamburger.

Vance remembered: When Burger Chef came to town selling 10-cent hamburgers, he couldn’t compete and almost went bankrupt. His brother Herman, of Herman’s Grill, loaned him the money to open Mr. Quick in 1964. Phil bought chicken-frying equipment from a Mr. Quick company and got permission to use the name.

Phil and Christine, his helper, could cut up 10 crates of chicken in an hour—the chicken was flying! He gave away the chicken backs and necks to crabbers.

People didn’t realize it was actually kosher chicken—soaked in brine in big buckets overnight and cooked fresh as it was ordered. He always used fresh Rockinghams and had them killed kosher—humanely. And always used kosher salt, but Phil wasn’t kosher because he loved bacon.

Seidman sold the business in 1977 and died two years later.


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