Nov. 28, 2010

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the Sloane family, the wealthy and energetic New Yorkers whose influence changed Norfolk’s business and cultural life.

William Sloane took over several knitting mills in Berkley and Portsmouth and made a
fortune selling underwear to the Army and Navy during World War I. Florence Sloane became a driving force behind creation of an art museum, forerunner of the Chrysler.

And together they built and lavishly decorated the Hermitage, now a museum and garden on the Lafayette River.

The Sloanes didn’t forget the reason for their growing wealth. They not only established a service club and convalescent hospital for the military but turned their home into a virtual weekend playground for service members.

On summer weekends from 1914 to 1918 the Sloanes entertained American, Australian and English troops on the lawn and gardens of the Hermitage. The entertainment
included cookouts, games and music, with as many as 1800 arriving for one event.

At the same time, Florence volunteered as postmistress, sewed for the Red Cross and helped out at the hospitals. The couple even donated their yacht for use as a patrol boat to search for German submarines.

Last month I included a portrait of Mrs. Sloane and regretted not being able to show these great pictures of the troops disporting themselves on the grounds of the mansion. It’s clear the Sloanes weren’t just being patriotic but enjoyed sharing their good fortune with the troops.

Above photos show troops engaged in a human wheelbarrow race on the lawn of the Hermitage, and the Sloanes entertaining guests at a Saturday lawn party. Click to enlarge. Courtesy of the Hermitage Museum and Garden.

Nov. 21, 2010

Ward’s gas station and grocery in 1926 by Carroll Walker. Courtesy of the Sargeant Memorial Collection, Norfolk Public Library. (Click to enlarge.)

“Mr. Ward wants to see you at Ward’s Corner.”

If you were a farmer bumping around the countryside north of Tanner’s Creek in your Model T a decade after the turn of the last century, you might have stopped at Alfred C. Ward’s general store and gas station and asked just what he wanted to see you about.

And what was this about Ward’s Corner?

Well, the story goes that shortly after Ward opened his store at the intersection of Sewell’s Point Road (now Little Creek) and Granby Street in 1910, an enterprising fellow named D. M. Bell, Norfolk’s first Ford dealer, got him a Michelin tire franchise and began a shrewd advertising campaign. He placed signs along nearby roads advising motorists of Mr. W’s wishes to see them.

And who would not, out of curiosity, stop by and find out what was going on? Seems everyone did, and not long after this crossroads amid lush farm fields began answering to that name.

This is a good time to reflect on Wards Corner’s past. Following a talk by Robert Hitchings, head of the Sargeant Memorial Collection at Norfolk Public Library, the group Wards Corner Now has added a history page to its Web site that includes several old photographs.

And merchants who have long urged the city to focus on revitalizing the corner have begun to see improvements and new stores. A recent City Council election drew attention to the old sprawling complex.

Buried in a thick rile of mostly yellowing newspaper clips at the downtown library is a fascinating history.

There wasn’t much there at first, no shopping center or nearby housing developments, just a store and converging roads. But growth was coming. In 1926, J. Beull Teggs and his brother Herbert opened Tegg’s Log Cabin barbecue restaurant, an instant hit. Folks heading out to Ocean View on the newly built trolley line could stop for a barbecue and coke or order a pork dinner and two sides for 40 cents. It also caught on as a late-night hangout.

Still, not much changed until, as one elegantly written Pilot story put it, World War II “swept the rural corner into memory so quickly that the returning serviceman could not believe his eyes.”

All four corners of the crossroads sprouted shopping centers or major stores. Tegg’s was replaced by a large Hofheimer’s Shoe Store. The northwest quadrant had a golf driving range and, briefly, a small airport. All together, there were several dozen retail shops and restaurants, plus a post office, a movie theater, bingo hall, skating rink, bowling alley and open air market.

In the boom that followed the war, the little crossroads became a major intersection that was in part famous for snarling traffic jams. Some consider Wards Corner – the apostrophe was somehow lost – one of the first shopping centers in America. One developer even proclaimed it “the Times Square of the South.”

It had a suburban but vaguely cosmopolitan air, where one might hear Yiddish and Greek spoken at the same dime store lunch counter. It was vibrant and at the same time haphazardly planned. A bar and Christian book store were nearly side by side, cheek-by-jowl with more beauty salons per square foot than just about any place in America.

Around this hub spread a half dozen or more housing tracts where generations of Norfolk families would grow up. So many stores and services were available that there was hardly any need to go elsewhere. “When we were kids,” one old-timer was quoted as saying, “we thought Wards Corner was the center of the universe.”

In February 1971, columnist Guy Fridell, who briefly lived at Wards Corner, wrote, “We never did a week’s shopping. Simply strolled, as if to another room, to the bakery, the drug store, the grocery, for whatever item was needed at the moment. Wards Corner served as a gargantuan pantry.”

Many who love Wards Corner believe it still does.

Nov. 14, 2010

We know the scene. St. John’s Church. Richmond, March 1775. Delegates to the Second
Virginia Convention, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, convene to hammer out responses to the coercive measures that Britain has handed down to deal with those troublesome Americans.

And Patrick Henry, after all others have spoken, gets to his feet, an unearthly fire in his eye. What he’s about to ask his more timid colleagues is to raise a militia and prepare for war. It’s traitorous, dangerous stuff and they know it.

But here’s Henry, rough around the edges but eloquent beyond imagining, risking everything.

Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains or slavery? I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

That’s about all we know about this firebrand from Virginia’s hill country: the single fiery speech that ignited the American Revolution.

The famous speech was reconstructed some years later and may not have been word-for-word accurate. But the essence of it was. All over the state, men and boys sewed the words “Liberty of Death” on their shirts as they took up arms.

But there’s much more to Henry than this single moment. He was a fearless champion of individual rights who fought for inclusion of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution. During a chaotic prelude to the Revolutionary War, he rallied troops against the clueless Lord Dunmore and helped drum him out of Williamsburg for good. He was Virginia’s first governor, and a wartime one at that.

Personally, he cut quite a figure: married twice, fathered 17 children, wrote poetry and serenaded his courthouse friends with his fiddle.

Historian Harlow Giles Unger, who spoke last week at Colonial Williamsburg, has written “Lion of Liberty, Patrick Henry and the Call to a New Nation,” a reintroduction to this silver-tongued rabble rouser who was so blunt in his disregard for English law that dumbstruck opponents could think of no other response than to accuse him of treason.

This happened at least twice. The first was at Hanover Courthouse when the brash young lawyer, 27, shocked his adversaries by declaring that the king of England “had degenerated into a tyrant and forfeited all right to his subjects’ obedience…” The case involved a tax that farmers were forced to pay the clergy, and Henry persuaded the jury to award the plaintive, a parson who was owed thousands, a single penny.

Spectators whooped and cheered and carried Henry out of the courthouse in triumph.
He was no more cautious two years later when he rose in the House of Burgesses and denounced the Stamp Act. “Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third…”

“Treason, sir!” the speaker interrupted. “Treason!” the older burgesses chimed in, some shaking their fists at the “insolent renegade.” Then, when the shouting faded, Henry continued… “and George the Third may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it!”

After the shock wore off, a majority approved Henry’s resolution stating that Virginia’s elected officials, not Parliament, had the exclusive right to levy taxes upon Virginians. This was the first known colonial opposition to British rule, and it reverberated throughout the colonies, leading swiftly to revolution.

We get glimpses, too, of Henry’s personal life. He and his first wife, Sarah, had six children. But, buried in one crisis after another, he had little time for family. Desperately lonely, Sarah fell into deep depression, tried to kill herself and died early in 1775.

Two years later Henry fell head-over- heels in love with 18-year-old Dorothea Dandridge, the daughter of his former next-door neighbor in Hanover County. Henry’s oldest son, John, also in love with “Dolly,” was crushed and temporarily vanished. She presented her husband with11 children.

Henry’s battle for individual rights was not just against Britain, but the United States. “As this government stands, I despise it and abhor it,” he thundered to delegates to Virginia’s constitutional ratification convention.

Despite his long-winded speeches – one lasting seven hours – the Federalists beat him. But they did so only after James Madison assured reluctant delegates that Congress would immediately propose a bill of rights. Although he lost, Henry – and America – had won.

Patrick Henry addresses the House of Burgesses in this painting by P.H. Rothermal. National Archives.

Nov. 7, 2010

On Sept. 29, 1864, a force of 2,500 Union soldiers stormed Fort Harrison, one of the key defenses around Richmond, and quickly overran a 200-man garrison commanded by Maj. Richard Cornelius Taylor of Norfolk. Taylor was wounded, but the kindness of a Union officer saved his life.

It’s one of the untold human stories of that long and bitter war that survives in brief but intriguing memoir that Taylor’s descendants have placed in the local history collection of the Norfolk Public Library.

Taylor, a member of the VMI class of 1854, wrote about being caught up in the “martial spirit” that pervaded Norfolk after Virginia seceded from the Union. He left his job at the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad and joined a volunteer company, the “Norfolk Grays.” Soon after he helped overpower Fort Norfolk and make off with tons of gunpowder.

Taylor was from an old-line Norfolk family and several of his brothers, including Walter Heron Taylor, who served as Robert E. Lee’s aide de camp, fought for the Confederacy.

Richard Taylor was promoted to major and placed in command of a number of fortifications, including Fort Harrison. During the attack, he wrote, enemy troops “gave us a volley, dropping several men at the guns, myself included.”

As Union soldiers entered the fort, one of their officers, an Irishman from New Hampshire named Colonel Donohoe, approached the wounded Taylor and asked if he was the commander and where he was from.

“When I told him Norfolk, he said ‘Norfolk? Why I know nearly everybody there.” Donohoe, who had been provost marshal in Norfolk, spoke fondly of several people he had befriended there and seemed thrilled that Taylor knew them all. One of the Union officer’s favorites was Taylor’s younger brother, Eddie, clerk of the Atlantic Hotel.

So here was this wounded Confederate commander in the midst of a still-raging battle, having a friendly conversation with an enemy officer, who promptly produced a small flask and offered him a drink. Then Donohoe issued orders to have this special prisoner well cared for. The orders were followed throughout a long painful ordeal during which Taylor narrowly avoided having his wounded leg amputated. He was taken to a hospital in Hampton where he was treated nearly as well as the Union officers.

But soon he was diagnosed with gangrene and the remedy was to burn away the infected flesh with acid. At the same time, though, the doctors prescribed nourishing food and stimulants, including a daily bottle of porter.

He was confined to the hospital’s gangrene ward, consisting of a row of tents down by the waterfront.

“The weather was pleasant,” he wrote, “sun brightly shining on the white capped waves, the flaps of the tent were spread and hooked back, and lying on my couch I was thrilled by the beautiful view of Hampton Roads. I had not seen salt water for two years, and had been longing for it. I commenced to feel better at once.”

He was soon on crutches but his hopes of going home in a prisoner swap were dashed and he was sent to a prison in Delaware. His brother Walter, in negotiations with Union officers, got him released and he reached Richmond just before it was evacuated. They took a train out of the city and, passing over a bridge, saw “the city lurid with flashing flames, with falling walls and chimneys.”

Long after the war, Taylor was able to locate Donohoe and send him a gift, a silver flask similar to the one his friend had produced at the fort. On one side was inscribed “Fort Harrison, Sept. 29, 1864,” on the other, a “Token of Gratitude.”

Later, in a letter dated the day they met on the battlefield, Donohoe replied that the flask would be treasured during his lifetime and passed on to his descendants. Taylor wrote that Donohoe’s wish was “that they and my sons should never be arrayed against each other…but if duty called, would march shoulder to shoulder in defense of their common country.”

In reading the story I remembered what Lincoln had said about the better angels of our nature. He probably didn’t mean the kindness of enemies on the battlefield – the war hadn’t begun yet – but for me it fits.

Illustrations: Richard Cornelius Taylor after the war. Norfolk Public Library.
Federal troops in front of bomb-proof headquarters at the former Ft. Harrison, renamed Ft. Burnham for a Union general who died in the attack. Library of Congress.