"I'm telling you, they built this place up so much you'd be surprised," says Sara Smith, who has lived in Powhatan all of her 79 years.
A recent mild afternoon has sweet-talked her outside for the first time in weeks, she says, to enjoy spring before her allergies flare up. She wears a pink smock and blue slippers, and presides over the tiny tattered house from a front porch where she calmly watches the world, or at least Powhatan, whiz by. Smith used to live across Route 711, Huguenot Trail. She motions to a skeleton two-story farmhouse. She raised eight kids there, while her husband fought in World War II then came home and drifted away.
Smith gets occasional honks or waves from passing cars and trucks, but people rarely stop. When strangers come, she calls her son Clarence. Smith is half-blind and half-deaf. Clarence helps her when her senses muddle faces and words, she says. He lived in New Jersey for 40 years.
"I came down to visit my mother," Clarence says. "I was scheduled to go back in July, but I stayed."
Faded toys and rotting logs remain in Smith's yard. "My son used to load wood," she says, and long ago her grandkids pedaled the tipped-over tricycle now sunken among anthills.
A three-story house is going up next to hers. Pink tape tied to trees marks the future neighbor's land. Smith and her son seem as oblivious to the buzz of construction or any intrusion as they are to carpenter bees tirelessly hovering overhead. "I like the quiet living, I'm telling you," Smith confides.
Dark clouds begin to form a curtain across the sun. "In a minute, I'm going to go in and get my supper," Smith announces. Obligingly, Clarence smiles and stands. "It's getting warm now," he says. "You'll most likely see us around."
It's shortly after 3 p.m., an hour before quitting time. A shirtless Tommy Perdue straddles the edge of the road and Smith's property, lugging a plastic gallon jug in each hand. Perdue bought the water from Lucky's convenience store a few hundred yards away across Route 711.
By now, to the construction workers, the smell of sawdust mixed with the acrid blooms of nearby pear trees has been absorbed and forgotten like a farmer's tan. For a week and a half, Perdue, 26, and his brother, Stevie, 28, have planted their Lakeside business, Perdue Construction, and a handful of employees at the 2-acre site from dawn to late afternoon, framing a sizeable house for a man who is building it for his son, Perdue says. The workers hammer and saw and shout over bleating generators. Soon they'll spin out of the clearing in their pickups, hunting bows in back, and head home. Until then, time spent in Powhatan is business, conducted from a man-made perch high above brick and lumber piles, empty packs of Mountain Dew and Marlboro Lights.
The sky promises rain. Proof looms above the soot-stained farmhouse where Sara Smith once lived. A diaphanous strand of dingy white curtain clings to an upstairs window. Behind the house, twin oaks rise like wrinkled mammoths. One stands splintered and decayed. The other buds now and has spewed acorns for what must be generations. The nuts are everywhere, embedded in the ground. So are beer bottles. Pine saplings, some bruised by a buck's rub, form a hedge to deeper woods.
A mile west on Huguenot Trail is St. Luke's Episcopal Church, a brick and black-shuttered chapel built in 1844. Throughout the churchyard, gravestones and English boxwoods mingle and stand untouched like chess pieces halted in play. It is still cloudless here. The glare of the sun flickers off the chapel's stained-glass windows and falls on flocks of periwinkle and pink cherry blossoms, mimicking the minuet of butterflies.
Powhatan, with a population of 24,000, is a place where rural has come to include, more or less, convenience. Take manure, for example. In Powhatan it's used for everything from fertilizing pastures to patching potholes in dirt roads and driveways. There is the Lucky's store and the Citgo station on Huguenot Trail that Emily Shults, a county resident, visits daily for sodas or smokes, toting Malibu and Lucky, her two Boston terrier pups, along for the ride. And soon Route 288 will bisect Route 711 and connect the county to its already suburban neighbors in Chesterfield and Henrico counties.
The resulting increase in traffic and expected influx of people moving to Powhatan mean more action for the county's five volunteer fire stations.
"It's going to affect our station more than anyone else," says Phil Warner, Powhatan's acting director of emergency services. Warner works full time as a Henrico County firefighter and also volunteers as chief of Fire Station No. 4 in Powhatan. With a squad of four vehicles and 27 volunteer firefighters, station No. 4 responds to more than 300 calls a year. It covers Route 711 from beginning to end, from the county line to route 522, Warner says.
Powhatan has few "pressurized hydrants," so when a fire erupts, a tanker carries water to the scene, where its hoses spray 1,000 gallons a second. Warner calls another engine a "toolbox on wheels." It carries everything from first-aid supplies to a Jaws of Life to a thermal-imaging camera that allows firefighters to see through dense smoke and darkness.
"We do what other people don't want to do," Warner says. "We go into burning buildings and pull dead people out of cars. Last winter we pulled a dead horse out of a pond."
Shortly after 5 p.m. most weekdays, volunteers like Warner and Wayne Hooe stop by the station after work. Hooe is a regular. He's counting the days until he retires after 26 years spent as a police officer with Virginia Commonwealth University. Today, Hooe is busy polishing equipment.
"People swing through, check what runs were made and the message board, then go home and have dinner," Warner says. On Friday nights, if no calls come, the firefighters "sit around and socialize" especially, he says, on hot summer evenings like the ones to come. S
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