Thursday, July 20, 2017  



Urbanna, Virginia: A Big Little Town

Beautiful and quaint, the small town of Urbanna defines the comforting feel of returning home. When you round that last curve on Urbanna Road and see the river, the harbor, the masts clustered at the marinas alongside the bridge, it takes your breath away. Located on the Rappahannock River, the town occupies an oddly shaped peninsula between Urbanna Creek, and the smaller Perkins Creek. Among visitors it is probably best known for the annual Oyster Festival, a huge event held the first Friday and Saturday of each November. But, there is so much more to the little town than that one weekend. Residents will eagerly tell you that Urbanna is open year ‘round.

You could call Urbanna a “Big Little Town.” The acreage is small, but its historic impact is surprising! In fact, this was a mighty important place back in the colonial days! The town was created in 1680, by an Act of Assembly at Jamestown. Urbanna Creek, with its protected, deep harbor, became the basis of one of the original port towns in Virginia.

Named the “Burgh of Urbanna” or “City of Anne,” for England’s Queen Anne in 1705, the town was sliced from a small portion of Ralph Wormeley’s Rosegill Plantation, which before the European invasion, had been an important settlement of the Nimcock Indians. Tobacco was the original export for the colonials. Over time, Urbanna’s industry turned to oysters and related packing plants, with additional emphasis on retail, fishing, and tourist trade. By the early 20th century, it was also a cherished summer resort.

Scant decades ago, when the Baby Boomers plied Urbanna’s streets on their bicycles, skateboards, and hotrods; when many youths had their own little skiffs or Scrappy Cats, the town was nearly self sufficient. There were two car dealerships, two hotels with restaurants, three gas stations, several grocery stores, two dry cleaners, a barber shop, a movie theater, a five & dime, a bank, a hardware store, a Coca- Cola bottling plant, a laundromat, an elementary school, and numerous small businesses, all within the town limits. On the shores of Urbanna Creek were Southern States Granary, F.L. Hall’s Texaco Fuel Dock, Hurley’s Seafood, Dick Newman’s Seafood, a swimming beach, and boat races in the creek. Across town, just a skipping stone’s distance, was the Lord Mott packing plant, located on the Rappahannock River at the end of an oyster shell causeway separating Perkins Creek from Robinson Creek. Urbanna was a “happening place!”

As in many small towns, the Boomers grew up and took jobs elsewhere. Many of those who stayed became career commuters to Richmond, Williamsburg, or Newport News. Shops changed hands and were repurposed or went dark. The theater eventually fell into disrepair and was demolished. And, perhaps worst of all, the droves of happy little bodies that had swung from the great climbing trees, the barefooted lads & lasses scooping crabs from the mud and stuffing them into the pockets of their rolled up and drenched wading pants were largely gone, leaving fading echoes of the lively neighborhoods. Lovely old homes remained, but fewer evening lamps shone in the windows between darkened houses that felt life only in the summer months or on the odd weekend. The entrepreneurship that created America’s small towns of past generations gave way to the followers of “Corporate America.” Young adults went where the jobs were.

Urbanna Elementary School gave way to Tabor Park when it was torn down in the 1970s, and the town scrambled for its identity. Thankfully, some things refused to disappear. Marshall’s Drug Store still operated the old soda fountain and grill and served up its “world famous milk shakes,” old fashioned hot breakfast, grilled lunch, and a vanilla Coke, along with all the latest “news” from the regularly congregating townsfolk. Bristow’s Store also endured, a general store, offering the latest fashions, buttons, needles & thread, jewelry, or a pair of sandals.

Entrenched traditions and history can prevail where the residents are resolute to enjoin history’s lessons for the future. Thank God for these people! They have preserved much for us today. The “Come-Heres” and many returning “Boomers” have enthusiastically joined the effort. As a result, Urbanna is once again on the rise, creating its own stimulus with a renewed focus.

Urbanna’s Historic & Architectural Review Board labors to help residents and business owners breathe new life into the downtown while protecting the town’s rich heritage and classic charm. How many places can claim the history of an enduring colonial harbor town?

Bounded by Urbanna and Perkins Creeks and the Rappahannock River, Urbanna is a boating haven with waterfront, water-view, and certainly water-accessible homes, as well as multiple marinas and available boat slips. Pedestrian friendly? There is no place in town so distant you cannot walk to from any other place in town; or you could bike or drive a golf cart. During the summer season, you can ride the trolley called “The Pearl.” For 25 cents it will take you all around town, out to the award winning Bethpage Campground, and beyond to “Something Different,” a country store and deli three miles outside of town.

Although the manufacturing, canning, and most of the fishing industries have left Urbanna, there is good reason to make Urbanna a “destination,” even among non-boaters. Its emerging industry is based on its cluster of historic sites combined with Fine Art and Antique Shops. Add to that some of the most original and inviting boutique style shopping and dining anywhere.

Important Historic Sites

As small as it is, Urbanna claims no fewer than five buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But there are actually some 65 historic buildings to be seen. And the town is flanked by two colonial plantations, both on the National Historic Register.

Rosegill Plantation: The remainder of this plantation lies just across Urbanna Creek from the town proper. It was patented with 3200 acres by Ralph Wormeley in 1649. The plantation can make the claim of being one of the oldest and archeologically most historic estates not only the Commonwealth, but in America.

Hewick Plantation was built in 1678 by Christopher Robinson, a member of the Governor’s Council. He was Colonial Secretary of State and an original trustee of the College of William & Mary. Hewick is located between the town limits and Bethpage RV Campground, and is available to rent for weddings and other special events.

Old Tobacco Warehouse: This brick storehouse was built in the 1766. It was the location of exchange for export of tobacco, where planters could gain immediate cash or credit to purchase other imported goods. It is also home to the historic Mitchell Map and Urbanna’s Vistors Center. A newly created committee is working to enhance the museum and organize a more fully functioning Visitors Center.

The Gressitt House, next door to the Old Tobacco Warehouse, constructed in the 1740s, was the home of Urbanna’s Harbormaster. It is said to be the departure point of William Clark to join Meriwether Lewis for their famous expedition. It is occupied still as a private residence.

The Colonial Courthouse, one of only eleven surviving, is in the center of town. It dates from 1748 and is maintained by the Urbanna Women’s Club and used for Sunday Church services by the Lutheran congregation.

Lansdowne is a privately owned mid-18th century Georgian mansion, in the heart of town. Its owners frequently open it for public events, feeling they are stewards of important history. It was home to Arthur Lee, who represented the Continental Congress at France’s Court of Versailles along with Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane.

The Marble House is a Victorian home built at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries by Lord Byron VanWagenen, a schooner captain in the days of steamboats on the Bay.

Wormeley-Lee-Montague Cottage: It is likely the oldest surviving house in Urbanna, built around 1747, with historic references to both Ralph Wormeley and Arthur Lee.

The Tavern dates back to the 1740s. Confederate officers enjoyed a ball in their honor there, when they were camped outside of Urbanna during the Civil War. Earlier, it is said that Patrick Henry once spoke from its steps.

Annual Special Events

Art on the Half Shell: Annual outdoor juried art festival held in mid-May.

Urbanna’s Farmer’s Market: Monthly Saturday mornings May through September at Tabor Park.

Music Under the Stars: Free monthly outdoor evening concerts at Tabor Park – bring your chairs or blanket & have a picnic. May through August.

Urbanna Oyster Festival: November 2 & 3, 2012 – Virginia’s official oyster festival. More than 75,000 visitors enjoy food, music, two parades, Virginia State Oyster Shucking contest, arts & crafts, and much more!

Urbanna Christmas Parade: December 7. Festivities at the Fire House begin at 4:30pm. Parade starts at 7PM, followed by a Santa Party for the children.

Holiday House Tour: December 8 – Ticket will be $15 in advance or $20 on the tour day. Houses of historic or architectural interest. Box lunches & free shuttle service available 10am-4:30pm.

Note: For more detailed information, visit: http://urbanna.com

Story by Barbara Hartley