Wander into the Wilton Cottage & Garden just off of the corn field-lined streets of Hartfield, Va. and you’ll find yourself pleasantly lost in the home décor and gift shop, and enthralled with the floral and garden greenhouse.
Stay long enough, though, and you’ll get more than you pay for.
You’ll hear a story.
The story of a family who started the building off as a grocery store, post office and gas station.
The story of a mother who turned it into a garden shop, of a son who keeps it running for the next generation and of a sister who’s helping return the building to its roots, offering fresh and homemade food from within its walls.
Wilton Cottage & Garden started off in 1930 when Armstead Payne built it and opened Payne’s Store, said Frances Marie Payne Johnston, Armstead’s daughter, who many in Hartfield know simply as Nannie.
In those years, Johnston said, there were grocery stores and post offices all the way up and down Route 33. But their family store, she said, always felt different. Special.
For one, “Daddy would pick people up who didn’t have cars so they could get their groceries,” Johnston said.
Every night farmers would come out. A coal stove in the store would keep everyone warm as checkers matches raged on.
On Saturday nights, Johnston’s mother would make her famous chicken salad. Guys on their way up the road to pick up their dates for the night would stop in, get some gas and request, “Miss Rosa, please save me a couple sandwiches for later.”
In the back room, there was a jukebox. If someone stopped in with a fiddle, another visitor was bound to “start calling numbers and we’d all do some square dancing.
That’s where I learned to dance.”
The original Wilton Post Office closed first, followed by the grocery store in the 1990s. The building and land stayed in the family, though, as other businesses cycled through.
In 1998, Johnston’s daughter, Helen Ward, opened Wilton Cottage & Garden.
Today, Helen’s son, Aaron Ward, runs Wilton Cottage & Garden – where you can find a unique piece for your home décor, kale plants, pumpkins and mums for your fall landscaping and farm and, when you hit it on the right day, a pumpkin pie you’ll be afraid to eat in front of your Momma because it’s the best you’ve ever had.
That pie would have come from Aaron’s sister, Helen Elizabeth Ward of The Table at Wilton, who is helping Aaron bring the store back to its roots by selling her fine foods, just like their great-grandmother did with chicken salad sandwiches.
“This is living history,” Aaron Ward said, looking around the old building one recent day as he tried to pick an exterior paint color that best harkened back to Payne’s Store and Wilton Post Office.
“We’re excited to get back to our roots, to make this place a place of community, of family.”
Wilton Cottage & Garden is located 13477 General Puller Highway, Hartfield, Va. 23071. Follow them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/WiltonCottageAndGarden.