Perhaps it’s the first rays of morning light that break over the Chesapeake Bay and bathe the water in pink hues. Some say it’s the spray in the wind as the sailboat tacks, the hull cutting across the waves. Or maybe the sound
of the fish breaking the surface as it’s pulled up into the light, the one that didn’t get away. In Middlesex County, it’s definitely the water. It speaks to everyone and it lures its visitors back again and again to enjoy its history of working waterfronts made modern. With 135 miles of coastline, two rivers, one big bay and endless creeks and tributaries, Middlesex County’s water is a feast to behold: a feast that has a long history of attendees.
Based on the arrowheads and spear points found throughout the county, the water has been luring people since the Native American’s used it for their summer fishing camps 10,000 years ago. Captain John Smith landed here at Stingray Point in 1612 when he was exploring the area for trading and commerce. One of the most notable encounters he had in the County was when he was in the water fishing and was stung by a stingray, thus giving the point its name. The sting was bad enough and left such an impression on him that he gave his orders for his burial. Thanks to a Native American remedy he made a full recovery and made sure to include Middlesex County on his map of 1612.
Just over 100 years later, Urbanna made history as a colonial port and commerce center in the early settlement of the Virginia Colony. Trading ships came in and out of Middlesex on their way to England and Martineque on a regular basis, moving lucrative tobacco through the region. Two of Blackbeard’s crew members were brought to Urbanna in 1719 after their trial and death in Williamsburg. Captured off of the coast of North Carolina, they had been brought back to Port Urbanna and hung in the harbor to deter other pirates from any looting in the area.
As society progressed and continued to develop Urbanna saw the construction of the James Mills Scottish Factor Store, now only one of two still in existence in the nation. This building was used as a tobacco trading site where farmers could trade their tobacco for other goods prior to the creation of a currency system. This store not only supported local farmers by allowing them to trade goods, it supported the State’s tobacco exports and helped establish Middlesex as a boat building capitol.
The Middlesex County Museum in Saluda has a letter penned on New Year’s Eve 1849 from a captain in Maine who came to the area for timber for two ships and their masts. He speaks of the changeable weather. Then as now, it’s the changeable weather that brings the breezes and the breezes that bring the sailors! These breezes and our boat building heritage have continued into today and are easily recognizable at any one of the more than 30 marinas around the county with the largest concentration being in Deltaville. Much like in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries many stores and establishments that cater to the special needs of life on the water offering services for engine repair, hull repair, canvas and sail repair, and lettering are still the bread and butter of Middlesex county.
Middlesex County was in its heyday when the steamboats came up and down the Chesapeake Bay and Rappahannock River between 1870s and 1930s. With nine wharfs and ports in the county, Urbanna, Deltaville and all points in-between drew visitors down from Baltimore and Richmond for weekends in the country to enjoy the fresh air and seafood. With coal at its peak at the turn of the last century, Middlesex’s bay breezes were enticing to the city dwellers wishing to leave the stagnant city air behind. Then, as today, locally owned small bed and breakfasts, hotels and campgrounds gave the visitor a truly unique flavor of the area. While slightly hidden, a few of these steamboat landings can still be identified.
Not only is there unique history, good times and great boat services, there is also a vast array of accessible culture here too in the form of three museums. Founded in 1935, the Middlesex County Museum and Historical Society opened as the first of its kind within the state of Virginia. Its collections are dedicated to the preservation of the history of the county and are varied. Many articles and stories are included of the many distinguished and colorful past residents who have made an impact on our state and nation. Exhibits include: a history of education, African American history with Civil Rights pioneer Irene Morgan, a Veteran’s area including Lt. General Chesty Puller, the most decorated marine in Corps history, historic textiles, fossils and Native American pieces, and a 1930s general store.
The Historic Clerk’s Office just opened as part of the Historic Courthouse Square in Saluda. The two-room building discusses “Court Day” in Middlesex County and the due process of law. It highlights the documents that were saved by county clerk P. T. Woodward in 1863 during the Civil War and Union raids in the area. Thanks to Mr. Woodward’s heroic act, the county has most of its 300+ years of historical documents. The back room is set up as Mr. Woodward’s office.
Many historical documents and artifacts are included in the exhibits.
The Deltaville Maritime Museum was founded as an institution to collect and preserve the boatbuilding history of Deltaville, once called the “Boatbuilding Capital of the Chesapeake” and now known as the, “Boating Capitol of the Chesapeake,” They seek to preserve the boatbuilding skills that made the area famous through activities, such as Family Boatbuilding Week, held every year in July. They also hold educational programs in the boatbuilding shop, such as the rebuilding of the 64 foot log bottomed buyboat, the F.D. Crockett which is moored at the dock at the museum. The maritime museum is also home to a historically accurate reproduction of the John Smith Shallop.
The James Mill Scottish Factor Store (a.k.a. Old Tobacco Warehouse) is located in Town of Urbanna. The historic structure is open to tours and has one of the original John Mitchell Maps of 1750 on display. The John Mitchell Map was one of the earliest maps of the Virginia Colony and was used when the boundaries of the Nation were drawn with Canada. Exhibits in the museum discuss the colonial port of Urbanna and the ships that came to the deep-water port to pick up local tobacco.
Urbanna today is still a great port with a charming downtown within a short walk of the area marinas. If you haven’t regained your land legs by the time you dock or if you would just prefer a ride around the town the trolley, The Pearl, would be happy to give you a lift. Urbanna is still a market center with many boutique shops, great restaurants, the iconic Marshalls Drug Store and R.S. Bristow Store and other retail necessities.
Some of the most exciting times to visit the Town of Urbanna are during the Urbanna Cup Cocktail Class Boat Race happening on May 17 where locals hand build small 8 foot plywood skimmers and affix 6 or 8 horse power engines and race each other around Urbanna Harbor. The Town of Urbanna hosts the only Cocktail Class Wooden Boat Racing Association sanctioned regatta in Virginia.
Another one of a kind event that occurs in this lovely town is the annual official state Oyster Festival that happens the first weekend in November. 2014 will be the Town’s 57th official festival and will feature the world renowned Oyster Shucking champion, Deborah Pratt who is a hometown hero around Middlesex. This little towns’ population of 500 residents open their arms to welcome upwards of 50,000 visitors for this event inviting them in to enjoy great seafood, crafts, concerts and much more.
Middlesex is known primarily through the Urbanna Oyster Festival but this is hardly the only exciting event happening around town. Also in May, the weekend following the Urbanna Cup race is the Deltaville Seafood Festival (May 24) which will host premium seafood vendors and crafters. This event will also give its visitors the ability to try their hand at some of the local pastimes down on the waterfront such as paddle boarding and kayaking. This event will occur at the Deltaville Community Association building as well as the Deltaville Maritime Museum. The Rappahannock River Railroaders will even open their model railroading exhibit to the public for this event. The Deltaville Seafood Festival is a great way to start your summer season and to celebrate our local seafood and working waterfront history.
Yes, it’s the water that brings people to Middlesex, but in between the sailing, boating and fishing, there are lots of other fun to work in. Including Deltaville, Urbanna and the county seat of Saluda, Middlesex is bursting with activities for the whole family throughout the year. Farmers markets, musical concerts, racing at the VA Motor Speedway, ballgames at the historic Deltaville Delta’s Stadium, and events such as Wings Wheels & Keels to name a few. All of these exciting activities are easily balanced with a day on the water to make sure you get the excitement you want and relaxation you need. To learn more about our County and to see our calendar of events please visit us online at www.visitmiddlesexva.org or on facebook at MiddlesexCountyVirginia.