March 30, 2021 News & Features » Cover Story

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On the Road Again 

Our inaugural day-trip series heads west to Scottsville.

click to enlarge Small businesses in restored buildings characterize Valley Road, which intersects with Main Street in Scottsville, a small town that straddles the border between Albemarle and Fluvanna counties at a bend in the James River.

Scott Elmquist

Small businesses in restored buildings characterize Valley Road, which intersects with Main Street in Scottsville, a small town that straddles the border between Albemarle and Fluvanna counties at a bend in the James River.

Get out of town.

I’ve often heard that to really know Virginia, you must leave cities and suburbs.

It makes sense. Since most of the state’s land, from beaches to mountains is forests, farms or small towns, it’s a no-brainer. West Broad Street reveals little about a place, just like Mercury Boulevard in Hampton or Virginia Beach Boulevard.

But here’s something I’d never heard until this year: Richmond is becoming another Northern Virginia. This is due to the acceleration of construction, especially of architecturally underwhelming apartment complexes, and the commensurate upsurge in vehicular traffic – not to mention low housing stock and fast rising prices.

Maybe it’s time to venture out for a day trip. Many individuals and households are getting inoculated and springtime is literally warming lives that have been hollowed out by the pandemic. The time is ripe to explore different parts of a new Old Dominion. Even that moniker seems dated and frumpy after the racial and political strife that challenged and tossed out long-held, defining historical narratives.

So on a recent Saturday morning, in an effort to seek renewal from Virginia landscapes and townscapes, Style Weekly photographer Scott Elmquist and I set out on for a 70-mile drive west to Scottsville. This is a small town that clings to the north bank of the James River in the foothills of the Blue Ridge.

Future trips in this series will take us in other directions.

At 8:30 a.m. on a mild, crystalline day we motored west on Patterson Avenue. This official Virginia byway is State Route 6 as it winds through Henrico, Goochland and Fluvanna counties to Scottsville. While the route has little commercial activity, it is evocative in natural, rural and historical ways. A cardinal, the state bird, has adorned byways signs that dot 3,000 miles statewide since the program was introduced during the environmentally conscious 1970s.

Leaving the farmlands of Goochland, you enter Fluvanna County. Fluvanna? What’s with the name? The word is a portmanteau combining flu (or flow) with Queen Anne (1665-1714). And the Rivanna River, also named for the monarch, flows from points north and Charlottesville to enter the James River at the county line near Columbia. This decimated former riverfront town may be a local Pompeii, minus Vesuvius. Just a decade ago, dozens of 18th century frame dwellings and businesses hugged Route 6 for a 400-yard stretch here. A Washington Post reporter called it “a ghosty little town.” But ancient dwellings where ghosts might have clung have mostly disappeared due to neglect and the reality that the James and Rivanna regularly flood at the rivers’ confluence here. Established in the 1780s, the only sign of life on this morning were some locals clustered outside a frayed convenience store. 

But we turned off Route 6 onto Columbia’s Washington Street to see if the higher ground had fared better than the riverfront. We found a small modern post office and two sturdy churches. St. John’s Episcopal is a Gothic revival gem that shares a walled churchyard with many tombstones. Across the road is the white frame St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. We walked around the sanctuary. It is a rare Catholic church in this part of the state with a largely African-American Catholic congregation.

click to enlarge Little remains at Columbia, a once thriving community along Route 6 at the confluence of the James and Rivanna rivers, but St. John’s Episcopal Church, at left, and St. Joseph’s Catholic with the Shrine of St. Katharine Drexel have still-active congregations. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Little remains at Columbia, a once thriving community along Route 6 at the confluence of the James and Rivanna rivers, but St. John’s Episcopal Church, at left, and St. Joseph’s Catholic with the Shrine of St. Katharine Drexel have still-active congregations.

It was designated as the Shrine of St. Katharine Drexel (1858-1955) by Richmond Bishop Walter Sullivan in 1975 in honor of the patron saint of philanthropy and racial justice. Drexel was the first American-born saint. The former Philadelphia debutante and heiress gave up society and great wealth, became a nun and built schools and churches for Native Americans and African Americans across the United States. She came upon St. Joseph’s in 1901 when her train stalled at the Columbia depot and she spotted bereft St. Joseph’s upon the hill. Now, Catholics at nearby Fort Union Military Academy, just a few miles away, are also beneficiaries of St. Katharine Drexel’s benevolence.

click to enlarge The small shrine in St. Joseph’s churchyard honors the first United States-born citizen canonized as a saint. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The small shrine in St. Joseph’s churchyard honors the first United States-born citizen canonized as a saint.

Moving on, we didn’t blink as we zipped through Dixie, a village of neatly kept frame houses. Next came Fork Union where things get tricky. Follow the signs for Route 6 and turn right at the red brick Fort Union Baptist Church or you will cross the James River to Buckingham County, heading to Farmville.

We missed the turn.

Back on Route 6, we entered Scottsville via Main Street, population 585. Main runs parallel to the riverfront. We were impressed by the modest, carefully designed and well-constructed 18th-and early 19th-century brick buildings terraced up the cliff. Visible above the older structures are a number of Victorian confections that sit like Easter bonnets on the townscape.

click to enlarge The James River Bridge links downtown with Buckingham County. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The James River Bridge links downtown with Buckingham County.

Some visitors may want to travel no farther than this three-block stretch of Main Street. Since 1970, the Scottsville Museum, the pride of the town we found, is housed in an 1846 structure that once housed the Disciples of Christ Church.

Nearby is a good place to put in for rafters, kayakers or canoeists. The James River Reeling and Rafting, which rents equipment and offers instruction and guides, is a prominent Main Street destination.

Markings on a nearby wall record heights of floods that once regularly disrupted the town. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Markings on a nearby wall record heights of floods that once regularly disrupted the town.

Tiny Scottsville has historically been connected to the James River, for good and, when it floods, ill. In the first half of the 19th century, the waterfront was the most active stop on the James River and Kanawha Canal. From here, tobacco and flour ground at local mills was shipped to Richmond. In 1840, Virginia was the one the nation’s four largest wheat producers with much product passing through here. The wealth generated resulted in the excellent but understated quality of the town’s architecture.

click to enlarge The James River skirts downtown and is accessible to pedestrians via a levee and linear park. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The James River skirts downtown and is accessible to pedestrians via a levee and linear park.

After parking on Valley Street, we explored this main commercial street that leads south across the James River Bridge to Buckingham County. Go north through the gorge and you’ll reach Charlottesville and points beyond.

click to enlarge Victory Hall, built in 1920 to commemorate the Armistice of World War I, houses town offices and a theater. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Victory Hall, built in 1920 to commemorate the Armistice of World War I, houses town offices and a theater.

We have coffee and pastries at Baines Books and Coffee. Its manager, Kristen Freshwater, tells us enthusiastically that the local theater troupe is readying a production of “Birthday Club.” Performances will be at Victory Hall, the town’s 1920s memorial to World War I veterans, which also houses town offices in addition to the theater. Baines is a comfortable spot with overstuffed reading chairs and medium roast coffees. 

Freshwater, like each of the dozen locals we encountered, was open, down to earth and ready to recommend a site in town we shouldn’t miss.

click to enlarge Fresh pastries are among the treats at Baines Books & Coffee, a popular town gathering spot. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Fresh pastries are among the treats at Baines Books & Coffee, a popular town gathering spot.

We then walked up Main to Harrison Street. The latter has long been a stylish, albeit sidewalkless residential street where houses, some nearly 200 years old, share large yards with magnificent shade trees, and on this weekend a profusion of daffodils.

On Harrison and nearby Bird Street are an Episcopal church, a carpenter Gothic treat and the more stoic red brick Presbyterian and Baptist edifices. When considering Albemarle and Fluvanna counties’ strong building traditions, consider the long shadow of Thomas Jefferson and his contractors and craftsmen, many of whom were enslaved. Considering the proximity of Monticello, the University of Virginia and other buildings it’s not surprising that neighboring places upped their game. 

click to enlarge Scottsville Baptist Church, built in 1840, is a landmark on residential Harrison Street. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Scottsville Baptist Church, built in 1840, is a landmark on residential Harrison Street.

Scottsville, from the 1830s until the Civil War, was the largest port on the James River and Kanawha Canal as it connected with the wagon road to Staunton and the agricultural output of the Shenandoah Valley.

Wheat wasn’t Scottsville’s only export. Inventor Cyrus H. McCormick (1809-1884) perfected his mechanical wheat reaper at his family’s farm in western Rockbridge County with the help of Jo Anderson, an enslaved man. Sensing the greatest demand for his reaper would be extensive farms in the American Midwest, McCormick managed to transport his harvesters via land from Rockbridge to Scottsville. They were then shipped by canal to Richmond, by sea to New Orleans, and finally up the Mississippi to Ohio. Scottsville was key to the 3,000-mile route. The inventor eventually moved to Chicago where his company became International Harvester. 

During World War II, major industry came to Scottsville with the U.S. Rubber Company, later Uniroyal. It manufactured rayon tire cord required for heavy-duty military vehicles. At the peak of operations, some 350 people were employed. It closed in 2010. Today, predominantly white Scottsville has a poverty rate of 20.9% (not quite as bad as Richmond’s one out of every four residents), a median household income of $59,063 and average commute time of nearly 30 minutes, according to the 2018 census.

However, many of Scottsville still-impeccably maintained commercial buildings are empty. I ask Jacqueline Payne, a Scottsville native and the vivacious bartender at James River Brewery, housed in a handsome old tobacco factory, if vacancies are pandemic-related. “No,” she says, “that goes back to the closing of the tire plant.” 

click to enlarge Scottsville native Jacqueline Payne, a bartender at the James River Brewery on Valley Street, serves up a glass. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Scottsville native Jacqueline Payne, a bartender at the James River Brewery on Valley Street, serves up a glass.

Since then, the town has turned its enduring small town charm and rugged geography to its own advantage.

In addition to breweries, eateries include the Batteau restaurant, a fine-dining destination that offers many seafood offerings. Tavern on the James, high-casual dining, is perhaps the flagship restaurant. It has an outdoor deck overlooking the levee.

click to enlarge The sidewalk gets a sweep at the Griffin Building on Valley Street. Built in 1840, it may have been a tavern when the town was a major stop along the James River and Kanawha Canal. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The sidewalk gets a sweep at the Griffin Building on Valley Street. Built in 1840, it may have been a tavern when the town was a major stop along the James River and Kanawha Canal.

Also on Valley Street are Amici’s Italian Bistro and Beijing Kitchen. The most adventurous eatery is Farmstead Ferments. Naturally fermented offerings include krauts and kimchi, water kefir soda (delicious, I thought) kraut juice and pickles, chutney and salsa. This has become a destination. 

click to enlarge Farmstead Ferments Mercantile features a flavorful and healthful selection of local products, including vegetables, fruits and herbs from its nearby farm. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Farmstead Ferments Mercantile features a flavorful and healthful selection of local products, including vegetables, fruits and herbs from its nearby farm. 

Elmquist and I purchased lunch at the town’s newest restaurant, the Bend BBQ on Valley Street. It is currently takeout only and is open weekends. Husband and wife owners Erik and Kori LaFontaine prepared a combination platter with sides of collards and coleslaw. We agreed the barbecue gives Richmond favorites a run for their money.

click to enlarge Husband and wife Erik and Kori LaFontaine recently opened the Bend BBQ on Valley Street to excellent reviews. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Husband and wife Erik and Kori LaFontaine recently opened the Bend BBQ on Valley Street to excellent reviews.

Scottsville has become a center for beekeeping and has been designated Bee City USA. The store for all beekeeping supplies is called Scottsville Supply on Main Street. It sells a sign that reads “Pardon the weeds, I’m feeding the bees.”

In the past, flooding was a constant threat. When waters rose 20 feet above flood level, the town got soaked. Payne directed us to a marker a few doors down from the brewery (near her great-great-grandmother’s house). We walk down to examine the grim records of the floods that are inscribed on the brick wall. In 1969, Hurricane Camille reached 30 feet, in 1972 Agnes was 34 feet, and in 1985, Juan was 31. In 1989, a federally funded levee was built 3 feet higher than the record flood, after years of tireless efforts by a former mayor, Raymon Thacker. The levee bears his name. Scottsville hasn’t been flooded since its construction.

Near the levee a small plaque, which few notice as they enjoy the linear riverfront park, offers a parting message of resilience.

May all who read this be reminded “of mortal man to the elements and of the indomitable spirit of men who work together to rebuild.”

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