December 11, 20011

The old general store back when Fentress was a thriving community. Courtesy of the Great Bridge Cyclery.

The news that the Fentress Naval Auxiliary Landing Field is taking a nine-month breather for repairs sends me out for a drive into old Norfolk County history.

What I don’t realize is that making my way out old Fentress Road is following a route that farmers and their families took centuries ago, wagon wheels crunching on oyster shells as they went to town or carried their crops to market. It goes back to the 1700s, to pre-Revolution America.

And the fascinating thing, thanks to the Navy’s touch-and-go landing field, is apparently not a whole lot has changed. There are miles and miles of wide open acres and a few narrow roads.

I’d heard there was a Post Office and maybe the remnants of a train station, so it’s great finding, right at the triangle formed by Centerville Turnpike, Fentress Road and Blue Ridge Road, what, sure enough looks like an old general store, with a sign: United States Post Office, Fentress Station.

This hundred-year-old building, the last commercial structure in what was Fentress Village – with its entrance on a wide porch still shaded by a hipped roof – is now home to Great Bridge Cyclery, a full-scale bicycle shop.

Inside, at the back, is a wide postal counter where Robert Parker, the store owner, and his assistant, Steven Shils, are busy sorting, weighing and stamping packages. It’s that time of year.

“I lived nearby as a kid and we used to come in for candy and stuff, but it was pretty dinghy even then,” says Parker. He’d heard there was a pot-bellied stove in the oldest days – he’s traced the building to 1920, but thinks it might be older than that.

A customer comes in who asks if he can repair the wheel of a bike that got run over by a car. Sure, no problem, he says. Then Barbara Wright enters with a package. She was the librarian at Hickory Middle School, and drove by here every day.

“It’s great to having this here because if I had to go to the main Post Office I’d be there all morning,” she says.

I take a minute to walk behind the building to where the old Elizabeth City and Norfolk Railroad Station once stood. There’s nothing left but a four-foot high concrete slab where goods were loaded and offloaded from a siding, now overgrown with weeds.

Back inside, Parker shows me the few things that are left of the old building: the green-painted, square wooden pillars, the original ceiling a walk-in freezer that now stores bike handlebars, and the bars on the front windows.

The place was pretty shot when he bought it, the floor sagging and porch falling down, and then Hurricane Isabel can-opened the tin roof. So be it. Hating the sameness of shopping center stores, he brought it back to life. And then bid for and got the Post Office franchise.

Fentress was the closest thing to a bustling village you might find in the late 1800s, according to the application for the Centreville-Fentress Historic District, which I found on the City of Chesapeake’s Web site, thanks to local historian Raymond L. Harper who pointed me in that direction.

It’s a prime example of a rural farming community that developed a small commercial core, the application tells us. First there was the north-south shell road (“Great Road”) linking Elizabeth City and Great Bridge. At the time, Norfolk County was a “vast garden” for produce of all kinds.

Along came the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal in 1855, then the railroad in ‘81 and the Post Office in ’88. By then you had a flat-out booming crossroads community, with a hotel, fire station, several stores and a dozen or so two-story frame houses.

The first store in the village was owned by a fellow named Jetson Jett, but the one who owned the store that won the postal business in 1888 was Jerome Fentress. He became postmaster and of course it was named the Fentress Post Office – and later so was the village.

Those buildings, the hotel, the fire station and a whole lot of other structures are gone now.

Cars came along, the Great Depression arrived, the railroad stopped running and the station was leveled in 1941. Fentress as a shipping and transportation hub was, as the historic district application puts it, “defunct.”

And the store that now houses the little Post Office would probably have been gone, too. “I’m sure this place would have been bulldozed if we didn’t get it,” Parker says.