Our Town: Urbanna, Virginia

A Colonial Seaport Town Sails Through the Twentieth Century

by Ruby Lee Norris

This article appeared in the November/December 1991 issue of Pleasant Living.

As motorists—be they residents or visitors—round the curve at the top of the hill on the road leading to Urbanna Bridge, they can easily for a moment envision the quiet slow-paced life of another era. On the right, the open fields roll into the creek. Straight ahead, the steeple of the Baptist Church takes its place alongside the double arches of a two-storied general store. Crossing the bridge, the motorists almost see sailing schooners and steamboats instead of the masts of modern sailing and power yachts.

Situated on the west side of Urbanna Creek that empties into the Rappahannock River, this picturesque, small town abounds in history. In 1990 and early 1991, Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places accepted the designation of its central area as an Historic District by the State Historic Preservation Office. However, its position as the home of the Rappahannock oyster gives it another claim to fame. It will host the 34th Annual Oyster Festival the first weekend in November, 1991.

A bit of turmoil marked the birth of this seaport town. There was a controversy between a plantation owner and Middlesex County Court. Ironically, the struggle for power and ownership among governing bodies, the court, and citizens has again caught the attention of the public. In early February, 1991, Jack Hamilton, of Hamilton’s Book Store in Williamsburg, notified a well-known Middlesex historian of important Colonial documents which he had acquired. He offered them for sale for $40,000. Among these documents are 81 Middlesex papers dating from 1687 to 1818 including wills, inventories, emancipation and indentured papers and receipts. Of particular interest, are the 20-page ledger of the inventory of Major Robert Beverley, dated September 14, 1687, and the deed to a lot of 1/2 acre in the town of Urbanna for Henry Thacker, dated February 13, 1692.

At their February meeting, the Middlesex Board of Supervisors authorized Dan Gill, a member of the board, and Dr. Louis Manarin, state archivist, to review the documents to determine if they fall under the Public Records Act, (section 42.1, Chapter 7, of the code of Virginia) effective, 1976.  This act protects public records from private ownership.

The account of their visit to Williamsburg, February 11, 1991, is the stuff of cloak and dagger stories. Hamilton refused to surrender the documents for study by state archivists when the men told him that they believed the papers to be public documents. They left Hamilton’s for James City Courthouse where they were joined by Mike Soberick, Middlesex County attorney. The judge issued an order to bring the papers under the jurisdiction of the court. When they returned within one-half hour, Hamilton and the papers were gone. Hamilton surrendered the papers the next day, February 12, 1991, to the James City Courthouse.

Court proceedings began February 26, 1991, in James City between Middlesex County and Hamilton. At that time Circuit Court Judge William Person ordered the documents transferred to Richmond for review by Manarin’s office. He also ordered Manarin to report in writing to the court and to Hamilton within 60 days. In accordance with these orders, Manarin and Lynn Hart, his archivist, testified, May 17, 1991, that the papers are public documents. Meanwhile the Virginia State Attorney General’s office has submitted a petition to assert ownership of the documents. Both sides are now waiting for the judge to set a court date.

The Beverley inventory in contention is of particular interest. Dan Gill discovered evidence that the inventory (signed by William Churchill, Robert Dudley, Thomas Roby, and Christopher Robinson) was in the Middlesex Courthouse in 1895. It is cited in Philip Alexander Bruce’s Economic History of Virginia in the Seventeenth-Century, copyrighted 1895. The inventory is not there now The other document of interest besides Beverley’s inventory is the deed to a lot for Thacker in the town of Urbanna, signed by trustees appointed by the Middlesex Court: William Church, Christopher Robinson. and Matt Kemp.

Not for the first time has the right-of-possession been the focus of public concern in Middlesex. Ralph Wormeley, in 1681, agreed to sell 50 acres of Rosegill Plantation to the Middlesex County Court for the establishment of a town. He received 10,000 pounds of tobacco in return. Oddly, he procrastinated signing the deed for undetermined reasons for more than ten years; in fact, he died without signing it.

Historic District
In spite of past and present contentions over right-of-ownership, this village of 671 (1990 census) has prospered and grown while preserving its identity as a seaport town with stores, shops, churches, and the first brick courthouse built in Middlesex County at its center. Urbanna Creek, Jamison’s Cove, Perkins Creek and the Rappahannock define its boundaries. The Historic District includes 101 buildings, 75 of which are designated of historic value. Ten buildings are 18th century, many are 19th century, and some are Victorian structures. The district extends from the corporate line along Urbanna Creek, and includes the central areas of Virginia, Cross, Prince George, Watling Streets, and Rappahannock Avenue.

Structures, both private and public, cited on the nomination report of the State Historic Preservation Office reflect the history of this town from Colonial beginnings until the early 20th Century. During the Colonial Period, the survival of the town rested on the tobacco trade with England, and the goods, furniture, silver, and fabrics received in return. The Tobacco Warehouse—used as a storehouse, inspection office, and quarters for the tobacco inspector—sits on a bluff overlooking the creek as a reminder of the commerce in this town before the Revolutionary War. Across the street, on another bluff, sits the substantial brick Customs House, which is believed to have been built between 1754 and 1762.

There is a tavern on Prince George Street. So important was a lodging in a seaport town with a custom house that its rates were set by court order. In this case, one nights lodging in clean sheets was five pounds of tobacco or sixpence.

There is the first brick courthouse on Virginia Street. Its basic plan of being “at least of equal goodness and Dimension with the Brick Courte howse lately built in Gloucester County,’ with sash windows (a style first seen in the New World with the building of Williamsburg), and a raised ‘Justices seat,’ arched and painted ceiling, and whitewashed plastered walls, still can be seen in the building. Its arches and doorways were changed to Gothic style. Altered in 1849, as a church, gable wings were added. Having survived both the Revolution and the Civil War, this structure has been used as a library and prison.

Among structures surviving from the Victorian Era are those built by Charles Palmer. His home, the Palmer-Chowning house, on Watling Street. as built between 1875 and 1878.  Among other structures, a list shows at he built the R.S. Bristow home (bed-and-breakfast lodging on the corner of Watling and Cross Street), the Atherstone Hall home on Prince George Street and the main part of Urbanna Baptist Church.

Another survivor of this era is the Van Wagenen House, c. 1900, known locally as the Marble House. Reflecting he Queen Anne style of architecture which reached its height of popularity during the late Victorian Era, it stands on Virginia Street. Here two centuries meet. Its lot adjoins Lansdowne, c.1740, whose most famous owner was Arthur Lee, who represented Virginia the Continental Congress from 1782 to 1785.

The Palmer and Van Wagenen houses along with other homes and stores mirror the Victorian eclectic style. There are gables, arches, porches, and a steeple. Together they tell of late 19th century and early 20th century commerce, trade, worship and lodging within this seaport town.

Oyster Festival
It is against this background that the Annual Urbanna Oyster Festival as been held during the first weekend in November for 33 years. Some of the same townspeople who watched Joe Cameron, chef at Christchurch School, set up his stand on a corner to sell fried oysters in 1957, have watched the event grow to an enormous array of stands, booths, and displays, all over the town to attract as many as 60,000 visitors during the two days. When oysters are stewed, fried, steamed, frittered, and served on half shell again this November, there will be other succulent seafood as well: steamed and spiced shrimp, clam chowder, clam strips, crab cakes, and crab soup. Breakfast may be had at the Methodist and Baptist churches with oysters as a specialty.

In fact, almost every civic, church, and charitable organization in Middlesex as well as Urbanna offers food for sale. No visitors should miss the bake sale booths sponsored by the ladies of the Middlesex Women’s Club and the Women of Christ Church, Middlesex, where they can purchase the area’s best cakes, cookies, breads (plain and fancy), rolls, jam, and jellies.

Mainly, Oyster Festival visitors come to eat: but, secondly they come to play. For their entertainment there are several stages with Big Band sound, Dixieland music, Rock and Roll, and country singers and dancers. Tall ships anchor at the port and offer tours. Among those visiting the festival, the favorite has been the Alexandria, a classic Scandinavian cargo vessel built in Sweden in 1929, and remodeled for passengers in 1970.

Meanwhile, on shore other attractions draw crowds. In a special section designated Festival Village, the carnival calliope cranks out familiar tunes; and at about 80 booths and stands, crafts are for sale. In another area beside the Women’s Club building (the Old Courthouse), about 30 artists vie for spaces inside the low wall to hang their acrylics, oils, watercolors, pastels, and drawings. Along with these paintings, stained glass, bird carvings and photographs enhance the show and tempt art lovers to buy. They come from cities like Richmond, Hampton, Poquoson, and Manassas, to display their work beside artists from places like Lyndhurst, Madison, Burke, and South Hill. Middlesex artists are there, too.

A parade route is laid out for two parades—one each day. The Friday parade is at dusk with bright and shining fire units and rescue squads from the Middle Peninsula and Northern Neck. The Saturday parade at 1:00 p.m. features the Grand Marshall, a notable town resident; and an Honorary Captain, a longtime waterman resident. Also the Oyster Queen and Little Miss Spat (a spat is a baby oyster), ride on imaginative floats amid high school marching bands and majorettes from the area. Following are the 300 Shriners from Norfolk with their colorful units of tiny cars, clowns and bands.

Other annual traditions include the poster and oyster shucking contests. To offer their interpretation of oystering, many artists enter the annual poster contest for which there are monetary awards for the first three places. The winning poster is featured on the front of the official program, and prints in limited edition are sold during the festival. Also, it is printed on the official T-shirt of the year.

Winners in recent years have been from Newport News, Richmond, and Petersburg. In 1990, Sharon Shacochis, a Newport News artist, captured the essence of an enigmatic story of an overloaded skiff full of oysters, told to her by her step-brother, Gene Jett of Reedville. She called her painting, “On the Line”.

The other contest—the oyster shucking—attracts the area’s best shuckers. The state of Virginia has declared it the Official Oyster Shucking Contest. Therefore, the winner goes to Galway, Ireland, to compete for world championship. Held sometimes on the waterfront, and recently beside the firehouse, this event attracts many fans. During the 80s, the star was Sara Hammond, a three-time winner, who won the national championship in 1986. In this way, the art of oyster shucking is kept alive. Both the poster and shucking competitions focus attention on the famous bi-valve around which the festival revolves.

Present Day Economy
When the festival closes and the last out-of-town visitor, the last exhibitor, the last No Parking sign, the last dumpster of trash, and the last state policemen have gone, the town settles back to a seemingly slower pace. At any rate, for the present, Urbanna maintains its small seaport atmosphere with few contemporary encroachments. Both private and public old buildings of clapboard with gingerbread trim, some two stories high, some with porches, in the commercial center of town, hold their own among a few new brick buildings. In one of them, there’s a general merchandise store which has been in operation since the turn of the century. A customer can buy ladies clothes, kitchen appliances, pots and pans, shoes, caps, lingerie, yard goods, and notions. Just down the street along with the usual items, a drugstore is full of tempting gifts of hand-crafted jewelry, ceramics, games, stuffed animals, etc. However, its most inviting feature is a fountain with twirling stools. There a customer can buy a milkshake made from scratch, a BLT sandwich with more bacon than anywhere else, or one of the made-to-order chicken, tuna, or egg salad sandwiches. To accommodate modern tastes there is a soft ice cream machine. Not only is this a place to wait for prescriptions to be filled, but it is one of Urbanna’s answers to the coffee houses so well-known from English history. Every morning some customers come from Water View to Topping to join their Urbanna friends to hear the news of the day, to drink a cup of coffee, and incidentally, to order a breakfast of toast, eggs, and bacon.

Concurrently, on Friday morning, a men’s group meets for breakfast at the Virginia Street Cafe on the corner of Cross and Virginia Streets. The tradition of calling themselves nothing and standing for nothing, according to a long-standing member, has held them together for about 25 years. They have met wherever breakfast was served during the time.

The economy of the town rests mainly on the food industry, the three marinas, real estate and construction, the drugstore, and retail shops. The food industry consisting of restaurants, a supermarket, a wholesale distributor, and a soft drink company represent the largest sector. Boats—both power and sailing—line the docks around the creek to remind everyone that boats nowadays are used more for pleasure than earning a livelihood. Antique shops are located in buildings as fascinating as their contents. For those who need their services, there are three lawyers, a doctor, an accountant, an investment broker, several insurance agents, two banks, and the library.

On the harbor, a Southern States installation at the foot of Virginia Street serves the surrounding farming community. Two grain tanks receive over a million bushels of grain annually. Corn is the largest crop, with soybeans, wheat, and barley following. Some corn is shipped to feed mills in Virginia and Salisbury, Maryland, to Purdue Farms. For the most part, the grain is shipped to Norfolk and from there to overseas markets.

As one can imagine, volunteer organizations—the fire department and rescue squad with their auxiliaries—are an integral part of this town. Other services like water, sewage, and trash collection are administered from the town office in the little town hall next to the hardware store. During the summer a playground, operated with funds from a memorial, offers tennis, swimming, and basketball. Arts in the Park, an open air musical program affords townspeople an opportunity to come out on Friday night to enjoy music and visit with neighbors.

Mayor Brendon O’Brien, a jovial, good-natured man, is proud to serve his town. He and a town council of six members depend upon the comprehensive plan to guide them as they administer town affairs and as suburbs like Garnett Hill, Laurel Hill, and Rosegill develop. For now, there enough water in the two town wells to last until 2025, a sewage plant that maintains EPA standards, and two policemen provide twenty-four hours surveillance. O’Brien says that the most excitement at town meetings does not occur when the budget is adopted, but when a dog leash law is proposed. He says that he believes the current regulation requiring a dog owner to be responsible for his dog will suffice.

“Urbanna is small enough that those who know each other will work out problems—neighbor with neighbor,” O’Brien maintains.

In its own way, with its historic buildings and deep seaport, Urbanna will survive the current court controversy over the ownership of the 1692 Thacker deed, the crowds during the Oyster Festival, and other vicissitudes, to sit serenely on the banks of the Rappahannock and its creek. There a vital community is proud of and guards its heritage as one of the first colonial seaport towns in Virginia surviving today.


The Story Behind The Story
Aside from being haunted by the question of who walked out of the courthouse with these papers, why and where have they been cached all these years, we were intrigued with “the story behind the story.” We turned to A Place in Time, Middlesex County, Virginia, 1650-1750 by Darrett B. and Anita H. Rutman to discover something about the men who signed these papers.

We uncovered part of the story by tracing the lives of some of the men who signed the Beverley inventory which is among the Hamilton papers. Two of them are the same William Churchill and Christopher Robinson who were authorized by the Middlesex Court as trustees to sign deeds to property in the town of Urbanna.

Other bits of information surfaced during our search. Beginnings of vast holdings of the Churchills, Robinsons, and Beverleys unfolded. William Churchill established a plantation on the south side of the Rappahannock River first known as Churchill later as Bush Park. His heirs acquired property to the Piankatank River and built the Wilton manor house which has survived until today. Similarly, Christopher Robinson built a home which he called Grange on a creek of the Rappahannock (the creek was called Robinson’s Creek). His son renamed it Hewick after the Robinson home in Yorkshire, England. It, too, has survived until the present. Robert Beverley’s estate included land in four counties. We see an example of the way land and influence grew when Robinson married Beverley s widow, thus adding her holdings and Beverley’s English connections to his own.

The story unfurls further: we encountered a tale of intrigue and struggle between Ralph Wormeley, plantation owner of Rosegill, and the rising young men aspiring to make a place for themselves on the contemporary economic scene. They wanted to become merchants trading with the English, to achieve the same economic advantage that the older landed gentry had already established for themselves. To accomplish this, they wanted public warehouses, shops, a courthouse, and homes in a town.

In 1680, under the leadership of Middlesex’s Robert Beverley (whose inventory is among the Hamilton papers), the House of Burgesses passed a bill providing for twenty towns to be established in various counties. One was in Middlesex. Political turmoil in Europe delayed England’s acceptance of the bill. Nevertheless, in 1681, the Middlesex Court proceeded to negotiate with Ralph Wormeley of Rosegill. He agreed to sell fifty acres of land for which he accepted 10,000 pounds of tobacco. The land was located on the upriver side of Rosegill Creek, later known as Nimcock and presently as Urbanna Creek.

Ten years of delays, mainly by Wormeley, ensued; until June 1690, when the Middlesex Court appointed three new trustees: William Churchill, Matt Kemp and Robert Dudley. They were instructed to “wait on” Wormeley to press for action on the town. Another consideration at that time was the need for a new courthouse. The old one at Wortham’s (near present day Stormont) was badly deteriorating. The three trustees visited Wormeley to no avail; he refused to sign the deed. The reason for his refusal to sign is not recorded.

One year later, 1691, the court raised the town and courthouse issue again, appointing Christopher Robinson to replace Dudley as trustee, along with Kemp and Churchill. (Robinson, Churchill and Kemp are signatures on the Henry Thacker deed for a lot in Urbanna which is among the Hamilton Papers.) Obviously irate over the repeated delays by Wormeley, the court ordered that a new deed for fifty acres to establish the town be drawn and the entire court meet with Wormeley on the town land at seven o’clock in the morning of July 27, 1691.

One can romanticize this event. Imagine the entire Middlesex Court dressed in Colonial attire, standing on a portion of the undeveloped town land in grass wet with early morning dew, among weed and bushes waiting for Ralph Wormeley, who never appeared! Doubly infuriated because the trustees had been rebuffed a year earlier, the three trustees and some others called on Wormeley later that day at Rosegill. This time he insisted on certain reservations which “he had agreed formerly’. They were

one eare of Indian corn or pepper Corne yearly as an acknowledgement or quitrent for the land, with other limitations that None liveing in the towne should keepe a Dove House nor keep any hoggs but in a Sty nor any horse but in the howse.

Confronted with these terms. The trustees assured town ownership of the land by recording their visit to Rosegill in the county’s Order Book and informed Wormeley of his forfeiture of the fifty acres, This information is included in the beginning of the deed to the lot for Henry Thacker, which is among the Hamilton papers.

This amazing struggle between two factions, the large plantation owner and the rising young landowners, was called to the attention of the governor and council in Williamsburg. After three petitions they decided not to interfere in local affairs; thus, forever leaving a cloud over the court’s title to the fifty acres of town land—land where the contemporary town of Urbanna sits.