The natural beauty is enchanting—water sparkling, marsh grass swaying, fish jumping, and eagles soaring against the backdrop of sheer cliffs. And yes, there is historical gravitas here. Dotting the map are the birthplaces of founding fathers, George Washington, James Madison and James Monroe. Stratford Hall, the ancestral home of Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee, both signatories of the Declaration of Independence, and their descendent, the Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, is a star on any list of historic venues. Another Lee family home, Menokin, in its various stages of ruin and restoration, is another historical must-see.
However, if natural wonders and impressive history embody the soul of the “necks,” its heart can be much lighter and more playful -- a heart which loves to laugh and refuses to take itself too seriously.
Imagine the mystery of the “beach ball” buoy stranded on land down a country lane in Tappahannock. Smile at the strains of music from a vintage carousel, and the children’s squeals it inspires, at a carnival in Kilmarnock. Admire “The Stack,” a fishing industry emblem in Reedville that represents the business that brought the town its fame. Marvel at the 40-foot tall corkscrews beckoning visitors to a vineyard in Irvington. Ponder the symbolism of Gloucester’s artistic beehives, gaily painted with daffodils, famous faces and at least one mosquito.
For those who are delighted by the unexpected, follow the roads less traveled and look with fresh eyes to see the somewhat secluded “quirky” landmarks of a place rich with history, but also full of fun.
Fox Hall Corn Crib
Rising in the distance from orderly fields along U.S. Route 17 in Essex County is the oval corn crib of Fox Hall farm. Although often referred to as a “round barn,” the lovely structure is neither round, nor a barn, explained Fox Hall owner, Mrs. David Butler. Though out of use for about 25 years, the building is a type of granary, constructed in the 1940s to store and grind feed corn for Angus cattle. Its shape may best be described as oblong, or as a rectangle with rounded ends.
Mrs. Butler’s father-in-law built the elegant storehouse using plans he bought in the Midwest, where rounded designs were thought to be more resilient against storms. The building is mainly formed of concrete and vented to provide air circulation. The rounded ends were used to store corn on the cob, which was mechanically unloaded into a center grinder.
Rounded farm buildings are historic designs most popular from 1880 to 1920 and were promoted as more efficient, with a greater volume-to-surface ratio than square buildings. George Washington designed and built a rounded sixteen-sided threshing barn at his Dogue Run Farm in Fairfax County in 1793. It is considered to be the first American round barn.
Founded in 1938 by Wesley and Lorelle Lowery, Lowery’s Seafood Restaurant in Tappahannock is a local institution beloved by residents and travelers alike. The familiar gold sign with its Old English typeface, and the corresponding billboards on U.S. Route 360 and U.S. Route 17, have been navigational beacons for generations of parents answering the question, “Are we there yet?” The answer is usually something like this: “When we see the Lowery’s billboard, we’re almost there.” It’s a marker by which locals and visitors give directions, as in “a few blocks past the Lowery’s sign,” or, “it’s before you get to Lowery’s.”
Beach Ball Buoy
A little farther off the beaten path in Tappahannock is a bright buoy stranded on land, vividly painted like a giant beach ball. Down rambling Island Farm Road, amid cornfields and enclaves of summer cottages and river homes, the buoy long ago left it’s watery berth to mark the Minor family home.
John B. Minor, Sr., settled the buoy on his lawn in 1960 as a sentimental reminder of his days as a merchant marine. The iron sea buoy was typically used for mooring, or as a channel marker. The United States Merchant Marine is the fleet of U.S. civilian-owned vessels which transport goods and services in and out of the navigable waters of the U.S.
Mr. Minor’s daughter Patti Minor explained that although Mr. Minor’s primary occupation was farming, he dug artesian wells as a side job. He bought the buoy from a lumber company and transported it with his well rig.
“Dad loved the sea and told many maritime tales through the years,” she said.
Tucked away on a corner of the Kilmarnock Volunteer Fire Department’s four-acre carnival grounds on Waverly Avenue is the vintage carousel which has been a festive fixture there for nearly 30 years. The KVFD’s annual Firemen’s Festival, which celebrated its 78th anniversary this year, runs for nine nights starting the last week of July and is one of two fire department owned-and-operated carnivals in the state.
The 55-year-old carousel, with its colorful galloping horses and circus music, remains assembled all year long in its own enclosure, to protect it from the weather, said Johnny Smith, firefighter and president of the KVFD carnival committee. Before the construction of permanent housing about 10 years ago, the carousel had to be dismantled and stored every year.
The splendid merry-go-round horses were repainted by members of the local art league and volunteers in the early 1990s. The festival itself is such a cherished tradition that it has its own exhibit at the Kilmarnock Museum on Main Street.
Standing tall over the gingerbread skyline and bustling waterways of Reedville is the 130-foot-tall stack, an iconic symbol of the village’s rich menhaden fishing heritage. Reverently referred to as The Stack, it has long served as a navigational marker for working watermen and boaters but also as a welcoming signal to Reedville visitors and residents.
The Stack was built circa 1902 by the Morris Fisher Company to provide steam to power its fish processing operations. The edifice is a remnant of one of the first fish rendering plants on the East Coast and now towers over the grounds of Omega Protein, the last such operation here.
The Stack survived years of lightning, wind, storms, a fire, and neglect, but was eventually cracked, crumbling and threatening to fall. The community so treasured its menhaden monument that it launched a “Save The Stack” fundraising campaign. With help from Omega, over the course of two years and in spite of a sluggish economy, Reedville citizens raised more than $300,000 to stabilize and renovate their landmark.
Like sentinels at the gates, two towering corkscrews grace the entrance to The Dog and Oyster Vineyard on White Fences Drive in Irvington. The vineyard is owned by Dudley and Peggy Patteson, also proprietors of nearby Hope and Glory Inn, a delightful boutique hotel.
On one of the first crisp afternoons of late summer, Mr. Patteson encouraged a visit to the Dog and Oyster tasting room and explained the origins of the 40-foot-tall corkscrews.
Of course they’re meant to be a visual attraction, he explained. Although there’s a local sign ordinance, there’s no ordinance against public art, sculpture or monuments. Mr. Patteson’s clever vineyard sentries are fashioned in the style of American sculptor Claes Oldenburg, best known for his public art installations typically featuring very large replicas of everyday objects. The corkscrew sculptures were made by Tiffany Yachts in Burgess.
The Dog and Oyster consists of about six pristine acres of Vinifera and French-American hybrid vines. There are four varieties of grape: the two whites are Vidal Blanc and Chardonel; the two reds are Merlot and Chambourcin.
The Robert O. Norris Bridge
The Robert O. Norris Bridge is a truss bridge spanning the Rappahannock River between Lancaster and Middlesex counties. Also known as the White Stone Bridge or the Rappahannock River Bridge, it serves as the river crossing for State Route 3.
Affectionately (or not so much) called the “white knuckle bridge” by some, it can be a gephyrophobic’s nightmare. Although the 56-year-old bridge is tidy and the view is compelling, the drive over it can be daunting. The two-lane span is nearly two miles long, with unusually low guardrails, and as tall at its center as a 10-story building.
The Virginia Department of Transportation has discussed replacing it with a wider, four-lane structure sometime between 2015 and 2020.
The vista is scenic, perhaps a little too breathtaking; it’s often hard to enjoy it while picturing a plunge to the water below. In fact there may be a business opportunity for an enterprising soul willing to drive wary travelers across the span.
A beehive graces the seal of Gloucester County, likewise lively hive sculptures are tucked in spaces both public and private around the county.
According to local history, the beehive represents the unity and labor of a colony, or the unity of a community working together. Gloucester’s Beehive Project is an artistic example. Sponsored by the Cook Foundation, a nonprofit organization which supports local art and architecture, the fundraising project provided 56 blank beehive models to be decorated by both professional and amateur artists, as well as local schoolchildren.
One imaginative entry featured a giant mosquito, while another celebrated the daffodil, in honor of the community’s annual spring festival, still another highlighted bees painted with the human faces of famous local residents. The hive sculptures were displayed in the village of Gloucester and later returned to their sponsors, then auctioned to raise money for future art events. An attentive observer can still spot a few hives decorating the community today.
The Search Continues
Any visitor’s guide in the area will point the way to noteworthy historic landmarks and direct a curious wanderer to nature’s prizes, but after checking off a few of the traditional gems, dare to explore a lovely lane or country cove to discover monuments humble and lovable, quirky and quaint. Linger a little longer and uncover the spirited heart of the “necks.”