Our first visit to southeastern Virginia became a wonderful lesson in American history.
James A. Michener (1907-1997) was a prolific American author who penned more than 40 books. His novel ‘Chesapeake’ was conveniently sitting on a bookshelf in a home we rented in Masarrochos, Spain earlier this spring. As we were planning to visit Virginia this summer, it was a fortuitous find. Michener is known for his meticulous research of historical events and geographical locations. He would then weave stories of generations of fictional families into his discoveries and create thoroughly enlightening and inspirational novels. ‘Chesapeake’ follows several families living in and around the Chesapeake Bay area of both Virginia and Maryland between 1583 and 1978. After reading this book we felt we had acquired at least a partial understanding of the pride Virginians have for their history.
The charismatic town of Smithfield Virginia is located in Isle of Wight County, has a population slightly less than 8,500 and is nicknamed ‘Ham Capital of the World’. With part of our family moving here, this town and region offer plenty of enticements for return visits.
Jamestown is the famous historical site that in 1607 became home to the very first permanent English settlement in North America. A few years later, 25 miles south of Jamestown, in 1634 the Virginians formed a county called Warrosquyoake Shire after the Native Indian’s name of Warascoyak. In 1637 the area was officially renamed the ‘Isle of Wight County’.
In 1752, Arthur Smith IV established the town of Smithfield in Isle of Wight County as a seaport on the Pagan River. The Pagan River, a tributary of the James River, Virginia’s largest river, flows 350 miles across the entire state, thereby providing easy shipping and export access for the burgeoning town and surrounding agricultural region.
Smithfield is a popular historic destination and the main street is lined with beautifully restored homes and businesses from the Colonial, Federal, and Victorian periods. It is worthwhile to stroll the streets and we especially enjoyed the Isle of Wight County Museum, the Old Courthouse of 1750 and the former colonial tavern, now the Smithfield Inn.
Early important industries were peanuts and pork, and Smithfield soon adopted the titles of “Peanut Capital of the World” and “Ham Capital of the World.” Unfortunately the peanut warehouses were destroyed by fire in 1921 and the peanut trade moved 15 miles south to Suffolk, Virginia. However Smithfield continued to be well known for the production of the Smithfield ham and in 1926 the Virginia General Assembly passed a statute defining “Smithfield ham” as a ham that must be processed, treated, smoked, aged, and cured within the town limits in order to be labeled a Smithfield Ham. We made sure we stopped for lunch at the Taste of Smithfield Restaurant located on Main Street and thoroughly enjoyed our feast of their delicious hams.
The brightly painted life-size pig statues seen throughout the town enhance the charm of this lovely old town.
Windsor Castle Park is a 208 acre riverside park located in Smithfield. The park features shaded woodland trails, mountain bike paths, picnic and open area spaces and a couple of dog parks that we utilized. There is also a historic manor house with the dubious name of Windsor Castle. Windsor Castle Farm was once part of a 1450 acre parcel of land owned, in 1637, by Arthur Smith, an ancestor of the town’s founder, Arthur Smith IV.
Virginia Beach is the largest city in Virginia yet has less than 500,000 residents. It is located on the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and has a wonderful esplanade stretching miles along the oceanfront. When we visited, the weather was sizzling yet breezy and ideal for swimming sunbathing, picnicking on the beach or leisurely strolling the boardwalk as we did.
Midway along the boardwalk it would be difficult to miss the massive 34-foot-tall (10 m), 12.5 ton statue of Neptune, the Roman god of the Seas. He not only provided inspiration for the city’s nickname, “Neptune City” but also for the annual fall Neptune Festival that celebrates the history of Virginia Beach.
About 8 miles north of the Neptune statue is Cape Henry and a park called First Landing State Park. This Park marks where in 1607, three ships carrying 105 men and boys (the Jamestown colonists) made their first landfall in North America.
Portsmouth and the US Coast Guard Base
The US Coast Guard’s history began in August 1790 when the first Congress authorized construction of ten vessels. The purpose was to enforce federal tariff and trade laws and to prevent smuggling.” That was 106 years ago and counting.
Up until 1915 they were known simultaneously as the Revenue Marine and the Revenue Cutter Service. Congress next merged the Revenue Cutter Service with the Life-Saving Service and renamed it the United States Coast Guard. President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the transfer of The Lighthouse Service into the Coast Guard in 1939 and with that merger came land in Portsmouth that was renamed the Portsmouth Coast Guard Base.
We were privileged to be given a private tour of the base and learned the cutter below showing all the flags is called being in ‘full-dress’. This is done for holidays and Change of Command ceremonies.
Until Congress established the Navy Department in 1798, the Coast Guard served as the nation’s only armed force afloat and has served in every one of the nation’s conflicts. Defense responsibilities continue to be one of the Coast Guards main functions to this day.
As we walked along one pier we were close enough to spot evidence of successful drug confiscations. Note the marijuana plant symbols, the snowflakes (cocaine symbols) and the many colored ribbons that signify awards the ship has earned.
The seaport city of Norfolk was incorporated in 1705 and is home to the naval base, Naval Station Norfolk. In Norfolk we visited Nauticus, the maritime museum where the huge Battleship USS Wisconsin is berthed.
The USS Wisconsin was one of the largest and last battleships ever built by the U.S. and it certainly has a distinguished history. While in service she earned six battle stars in World War II and the Korean War.
She was built in 1943, commissioned in 1944 and following WWII, decommissioned in 1948. Then in 1951 she was recommissioned and served in the Korean War and decommissioned in 1958. The battleship was recommissioned again in 1988 and called into service during the Gulf War. She was decommissioned for the third and final time in 1991.
The Navy donated the ship for use as a museum to the City of Norfolk and the battleship, operated by Nauticus, has been open as a popular museum in Norfolk since 2001.
Similar to the celebrated painted pigs of Smithfield, Norfolk adopted mermaids as a whimsical symbol for their city. Artistic and magical mermaids have graced the streets for more than twenty years and there are said to be more than 100 ‘Mermaids on Parade’ dotted throughout the city. We have only a handful on our first visit.
It was inspiring to walk in the footsteps of early settlers in Virginia and try to imagine how they felt in this ‘New World’.
Cheers from these Virginians,
Ted + Julia
View our Hampton Roads Naval Museum photo album here
View our US Coast Guard – Virginia photo album here