Wednesday, August 16, 2017  

It's All in the Family
Life Goes On for a Crab House  

The year is 1962 on Dividing Creek in Lancaster County, Virginia. The creek rests peacefully at dawn. Two crab boats pull away from the crab house on shore, separating the still water and sending ripples across the glassy surface of the creek. The boats depart to try their luck with the crabs from the creek all the way to the Chesapeake Bay. Palmer Hudnall, the crab house’s owner, a waterman and a farmer, captains one of the boats. He will return to Dividing Creek at sunset, hopefully with a boat full of hard shell and peeler crabs, which will be packed at the crab house and shipped north.

Fast forward forty some years later to Main Street in Kilmarnock where The Pedestal stands, an interior design and accessory shop. The shop is sensational yet serene, smelling like exotic candles but showcasing art, fabric, and furniture that seem very Zen. The items come from all over the world and are thoughtfully selected by the owner, Pam Deihl, who has been in the designing business for thirty three years. Pam, along with her two daughters, decorates rooms, inspires the refinishing of furniture, creates window treatments, and even supervises the entire decorating scheme for new construction. Clients at the Pedestal can trust that this talented family will funnel clients’ individuality into their home décor.

At Pam’s own lovely property, pictures of Palmer Hudnall—none other than the Dividing Creek’s crab house owner—are on display. Palmer Hudnall, Pam’s beloved grandfather, spent hours with her at the crab house during her childhood. During the time spent with her “short, bald, and terrific” grandfather, Pam perhaps never imagined she would perpetuate his entrepreneurial spirit as a small business owner. And while Mr. Hudnall’s business was to ship a taste of the region out to the world, Pam now brings the world into the Northern Neck through her interior design business.

Pam also could probably not have predicted that her gift for interior design would intersect with her grandfather’s work through her decision to remodel the crab house six years ago. Mr. Hudnall closed his business at the crab house around 1988, but its life was not extinguished. Gradually, Pam’s family began holding parties at the charming spot on the creek. Pam then decided to give the crab house a face lift, planning to keep it as natural-looking as possible, but improving its convenience for socializing.

The finished work stays faithful to the original crab house yet enhances the ongoing festivities that it now hosts. The main part of the house serves as a rustic-looking kitchen, fully functional to feed a crowd but with no frills to distract from the pastoral setting of Dividing Creek. The floors, walls, roof and rafters are all original and lay mostly unfinished, raw and energetic. The wood floor can be easily hosed down after a party—no brooms or mops required. Pre-owned kitchen cabinets line the walls, holding party dishes, wine glasses and probably some secrets. Pam found the cabinets wherever she could; she cherishes the bargains she got. The appliances are also nothing special, just sturdy machines that simply want to keep on living. During Hurricane Isabelle, two feet of water flooded the crab house. When the water cleared, the appliances got back to work as if the hurricane had been only another rainy day in the crab house’s story.

The history of the place seems almost tangible, and running her hands along a rough wooden counter reminds Pam of another story. The counter somewhat resembles a workbench; Pam wanted to find old lumber to fashion the counter to keep the simple look of the place. Since the crab house belonged to her maternal grandfather, she was searching to affix a memory of her father’s side to the house. A large lot of old lumber was for sale near Fleet’s Bay, the leftovers from a dissembled barn. When she arrived to investigate the wood, she discovered that her father had farmed the very fields around the barn. Furthermore, as a girl, she and he brother had housed their ponies in the barn. The owner, because of the notable connection, decided to sell her a small part of the lot, and voila!—yet another story added to the crab house.

Outside the house, a concrete patio lays along the edge of the creek, covering the old cement tanks where Pam’s grandfather Hudnall would store the peeler crabs. When the crab boats would return from fishing, the hard shell crabs and peeler crabs were separated. The hard shell crabs would be packed and shipped immediately in wooden barrels. The peeler crabs, however, would remain in the cement tanks under water to continue peeling to a soft shell. Once the soft shell emerged, the crabs were placed on trays in wooden boxes, covered in sea grass and newspaper, and delivered by truck mainly to Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia.

The new patio has seen visitors as numerous as the peeler crabs that lived and died underneath it. Several picnic tables and rocking chairs line the patio to host the guests that arrive for party after party. From the patio, the partygoers can revel in the same unruffled creek scenery that Pam’s family has enjoyed for years. If they desire a break from the heat and hustle of a gathering, they can meander out to the end of the peer to catch some romance and a remarkably fresh breeze blowing through the sea grass.

The history, allure, and authenticity of the place render it a prime place for merrymaking galore. Pam says she sometimes averages two to three events per week at the crab house. Festivities have included weddings, rehearsal dinners, anniversaries, and reunions. She hosted her own high school class reunion, and her youngest daughter was married there. As late as Thanksgiving, she will bring in a few heaters and tarps to heat the patio. Guests can gorge on roasted oysters and Brunswick stew late into the night, staying toasty despite the arriving winter. The crab house will hibernate for a few cold months, only to reopen in the spring to another season of guests, spurning more history for this crab house that may never see retirement. Though the fetes create a steady stream of friendly traffic, Pam relishes the liveliness and legacy of her grandfather’s crab house. “It’s a nice place,” she says, “I like to share it.”