Researched and written by Jackie Saunders
In the early 1700s, a small settlement was established on the banks of the Western Branch of the Nansemond River. The South side is where the first church of The Upper Parish of Nansemond was built. The North side of the Western Branch was owned by John Reid, who began a one-vehicle ferry service to carry men and horses across to Jeremiah Godwin’s property on the South side: .44 cents for man and horse. This ferry dock was directly next to the existing bridge. A bridge was destroyed during the Civil War. A later bridge was built in 1913.
In 1931, a pony truss Warren draw bridge was completed across the Western Branch Route 10 and 32 at this location. During this bridge’s time of use, a car carrying Dr. and Mrs. W.L. Ward and their daughter ran over the open draw. George Taylor Nelms gave his life trying to save the young girl. A new replacement bridge, which does not have a draw was completed in 1982. The creek was damned in the late ‘50s to create the Western Branch water supply.
The Reid’s Ferry area was known to have been a Native American Indian settlement. Clay deposits brought interests from colonial settlers as well as The Nansemond River Brick Company. Many of the local people worked at the brick company, which produced as many as 110,000 bricks per day from its two plants. The bricks were shipped by boat down the Nansemond River to market. A.V. Sturgeon general manager of the brick company store lived on the second floor and ran the post office on the first floor from 1904 to 1915. In 1925, the stockholders of the brick yard were C.H. Pitt, W.B Oliver, Happer F. Oliver and Willard P. Sullivan. This is the same store originally owned by The Nansemond River Brick Corporation.
Farming was a large part of the small community. Large farms such as the Butler and Gayle farms were a part of the community, as well as the Gayle grocery and the Nansemond Brick Yard stores. The Gayle farm on which the family still lives was purchased by Barbara Bradshaw Nelms’ great grandfather, Henry James Gayle, in 1902. The property was originally owned by a Mr. Hearst, who was from England, in the 1800s. He brought a man servant with him and hired another when settling on the property. Barbara Nelms’ mother, Edith Gayle, married Rosse Bradshaw whose descendants still live there; seven generations (109 years). In the ‘40s English sailors who were in port at Norfolk for ship repairs worked on the Rosse Bradshaw farm and the family became good friends with them. Cotton, peanuts and other crops were grown and harvested yearly from the land.
The Butlers moved to their farm on the Nansemond River at the end of Sack Point road in 1937. The Butlers raised hogs, cows, peanuts and other farm crops. There was a hog killing every year. All five brothers worked the farm until 2004 when it was sold. The family held a reunion every year on the land. The Butler and Sons Auto Service shop has operated for 50 years. Raymond Butler acquired Gayle’s store in 1951, then built the Butler Grocery and Service in the late ‘50s on the Butler property. During WWII, four of the brothers served in the armed forces. Arthur served in the Army in the European theater and was on Omaha Beach on D Day. Gerline and Raymond served in the Army, also in the European theater. Wilbur served in the Army in the Pacific theater. All returned home safely.
Other farms in that vicinity were the Asbell farm, W.G. Saunders’ farm (Five Mile Farm), Henry Pinner farm, Osmond Underwood small farm, the Moore farm, the Garner farm, the Chandler farm and the Winslow farm, adjacent to Dumpling Island where the Native American Indians stored their corn.
Susie Underwood used a small amount of the farm land which was tuned into a flower farmette. She raised flowers to sell to local markets. Many varieties were grown including, peonies, gladioli, madonna lilies, fever few, baby’s breath, large Shasta daisies, bachelor buttons, sweet william, mums, zinnias and more.
She began taking flowers to the Old Suffolk Market on Saturdays in 1945. Many customers came each week to purchase lovely bouquets for their homes. Some other ladies in the community, Gerorgia Lee Gayle, Virgie Harrell, and Chesson Asbell also began bringing their blooms to the market to sell on Saturdays. On memorial days the market place was ablaze with color and bustling with buyers.
In discussions with Patricia Asbell she informed us that the Asbells like many other families gathered together each year to help out with planting and picking the local gardens. It would not be uncommon to find several of these members at the local Farmers Market in Suffolk on Saturday selling their extra vegetables for an additional source of income. Mr. Asbell was a civilian employee at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia. He was a full time rider on the bus which was operated by John Bradshaw and Bill Chandler to and from the Navy Yard along with several others from the area.
In an article from the Suffolk News Herald “Times Past” Oct 29, 1947 headlined as “One-man posse chases quarry 32 miles, effects capture of gas, alleged car thieves. “Mr. William (Bill) Chandler, an employee at Simpson’s on the Holland Highway, formed a one-man posse Tuesday night and rode hard until he nabbed a couple of gasoline thieves who, it later developed, had also been doing some alleged “car rustling”.
The whole thing started at midnight when two Winston-Salem, N.C., men, James Martin and Roy Carter, drove up and asked for five gallons of gas. Chandler put the gas in the men’s Oldsmobile and then they asked for cigarettes. Chandler went inside to get them and came back to find the car had gone off.
Chandler jumped in his Plymouth and the chase was on. He caught up with the pair in Holland and tried to force them off the road but they almost wrecked him instead.
Finally, Chandler took a pistol from his glove compartment and started firing. Soon he made a hit on the left rear tire of the car, causing a slow leak.
Martin and Carter drove two more miles before the chase ended near Como, N.C. This was the end of the trail for them as their car overturned and they were caught inside it. Unable to get hold of the police, Chandler had to take measures into his own. He pointed to his trunk and said “Get In”. Chandler then drove them back to Nansemond Jail and deposited his cargo with an astounded jailer.
Editors note: Bill Chandler, also know as “Horse Chandler”, was like many of the men in the GCH area in that when necessary they would take the situation in hand and do the best thing possible to prevent a crime. In the case above the number of cars on the road to Holland and Como were very lightly traveled and little did the two men know who they were trying to run from. The Chandlers were mainstays in the community with three separate families all within about a mile of each other.
The Reid’s Ferry Home Demonstration Club was organized by the VPI Extension Service. There were approximately 10 ladies who met each month to lean easier and better ways to manage their households. They learned about art, crocheting, quilting, knitting, canning and gardening.
In the 1950s, the Henry Pinner farm, north of Reid’s Ferry on Route 10, grew acres of daffodils for market in New York. In Spring, the fields were vibrant with yellow. Dorothy Bland Gamble remembers that she, her mother and grandmother picked the flowers, tied them in bunches and put in baskets. They were then carried to the red barn on the farm and boxed for shipment.
Happer and Eula Oliver lived upstairs in the brick store owned by the Nansemond Brick Corporation. They sold incidentals such as candy, milk, bread, beans and some small garden tools. After WWII, there were goodies like Grapette soda and RC Cola. Let’s not forget the “moon pies”. Walter and Eva Oliver lived in a small brick house at the bridge. Walter built the house from bricks produced at the company where he worked. The Oliver brothers married the Pitt sisters.
Walter Daniels, well known to all the community, lived on a house boat at the foot of the bridge where he fished and crabbed to sell the seafood to locals. He was seen frequently riding his bicycle from Reid’s Ferry to Chuckatuck on some important errand.
Gayle and Son ran a small garage; then Elwood Gayle began operating the Reid’s Ferry Grocery. The property is still in the descendants’ ownership.
During WWII, long convoys of soldiers traveled Route 10 in big trucks moving troops from one base to another. Jackie Underwood Saunders ran out to the yard and waved until her arm was tired. The soldiers waved, whistled and yelled as they passed, which made a small child happy. Many planes in formation flew over our country farms during the war years and seemed to roar on forever. During night “black outs” the lights were turned out and no flames from fireplaces or stoves were allowed to show to the outside. During these years, schools had drills requiring all students to take cover under the desks.
After the war there were many men out of work who became wanderers. They walked the roads, stopping at homes along the way to do odd jobs for a daily meal. Susie Underwood always had some extra food on the back of the stove for these vagabonds and they were so very grateful. Sometimes they would chop some wood or weed some in the garden, but most of the time they just sat on the back steps and rested. They never stayed overnight, but went on their way after a couple of hours.
Jackie Underwood Saunders remembers fox hunting on the farms around Reid’s Ferry. Most of the hunters came over to the country from Norfolk. Ladies in red jackets and little black riding hats on high spirited horses ran over the farms and sometimes through our yards chasing that elusive little fox. The dogs were not always victorious. It was a very impressive sight for young eyes.
Osmond Underwood was an avid hunter. He, his cousin and his brother hunted squirrel in the Fall and Winter months. He had the most prized squirrel dog, ”Blackie”, in the county. He used a .22 rifle with a scope or a Hornet high-powered rifle with a scope, in order to hit the squirrel in the head. He would not hunt with anyone who used a shotgun. They also hunted raccoons at night and other small animals. Deer hunting had not been established as an important sport as it is now.
Vernon and Mable Tucker were active members of the community and were members of the Wesley Chapel Methodist Church in Chuckatuck. Mr. Tucker spent most of his years working for the State of Virginia in the road maintenance department. His crew consisted of three convicts on loan from the local jail and during the summer at least one or two high school members. Drex Bradshaw remembers several events of which only one will be related because on one was hurt but the results could have been a disaster. John, one of the convicts was deathly afraid of snakes and on this occasion there were five of us making our way along the roadside just east of Franklin with bush axes cutting a swath of fairly tall grass. John was in the center and during a rest period we found a snake and placed it along the path that John would be cutting. As John struck the tall grass the dead snake jumped up when John hit him but as freighted as he was he ran out into the highway and a car had to swerve to miss him. That was the last practical joke we every played on anyone on that team.
Many families were friends, who visited often. Crab feasts, ice cream socials and picnics were prevalent during the 40s. Barbara Bradshaw Nelms remembers her grandmother making churned ice cream. Jackie Underwood Saunders remembers her mother steaming the custard, cooling it in the ice box, then wrapping it in the ice cream bucket. Ice and salt were added and Jackie sat on the wrapped bucket while her brother, Lee, turned the handle. What joyful eating!