Saturday Excerpt: A Small Town Love Story: Colonial Beach, Virginia by Sherryl Woods
Get an up close and personal look at life and love at Colonial Beach, Virginia with author Sherryl Woods this Saturday! We have a very special preview for you today, so get a head start on this November release.
Rich in narrative history and local color, A Small Town Love Story: Colonial Beach, Virginia is an homage to the town of Sherryl Woods’s summers, a place that stole her heart long ago and provided the basis for the many fictional small towns in her bestselling novels.
True to Woods’s signature style of focusing on characters who are at the center of their communities, here she has woven together the stories of the very real people who helped shape this seaside Virginia town. She takes us back to the days of her own family gatherings, artfully capturing the unique essence of Colonial Beach and making us yearn for small-town life.
Woods’s own memories frame the true stories she features—from the unique history of Colonial Beach itself to some firsthand accounts of the Oyster Wars that once consumed the community, to the stories of neighborhood merchants who made it a point to know just about every customer by name. From farmers to restauranteurs and hoteliers, from pastors to librarians and military folk, Woods’s research and interviews give life to the personalities of a very special place.
In 1650, according to one school report in town library files, the area was first incorporated and called White Beach, because of its wide expanse of white sandy beaches, sand that was sold centuries later to beaches in another state in a shortsighted attempt to put cash into the town’s coffers.
A SMALL TOWN LOVE STORY
One researcher found an early mention of George Washington watching the swans on the Potomac. Whether the swans are descendants or not is hard to say, but there is still a small family of swans in Colonial Beach, and sightings today are always worthy of a quick photo or comment.
Details from those very early times are difficult to come by, but in the comparatively short years since the town was renamed Colonial Beach and filed its town charter in 1892, it has reinvented itself over
and over—from a tourist mecca and weekend destination for residents of Washington, DC, Northern Virginia, Richmond and Maryland in the 1890s, to
a thriving haven for water- men from tiny, nearby islands seeking better opportunities, from a wild and woolly participant in the Oyster Wars
of the 1950s, to a nationally known miniature version of Las Vegas with a lively boardwalk and flashy casinos, to its present-day reincarnation as a small quiet, family-oriented summer community. For many years it prided itself on its designation as the Playground of the Potomac.
Some of its stages have been colorful, some peaceful, some worthy of a Hollywood action movie.
Situated on a peninsula of land between the Potomac River at one of its widest points and Monroe Bay, named for President James Monroe, who was born nearby, Colonial Beach is in the heart of Virginia’s Northern Neck. It’s a region packed with history, including the birthplaces not only of Monroe, but of George Washington and Robert E. Lee. At Yeocomico Episcopal Church not far away, the cemetery provides the final resting places for several original members of the Virginia House of Burgesses from the 1600s.
In its earliest days, when year-round residents were few—well under three thousand by some reports— there were still plenty of reasons for stressed-out folks from far bigger cities to travel to the tiny seaside town. The Colonial Beach Company, among others, operated steamboats from Washington, DC, with a stop in Alexandria, Virginia, to bring travelers to town for the day or overnight to wander the boardwalk, enjoy the entertainment, food and dancing. The St. Johns steam- boat was the best known of these, so iconic, in fact, that its image became part of the town seal.
In those years, the owners of the Colonial Beach Company were visionaries who saw the possibilities for the future prosperity of the town. In their 1911 bro- chure, they promoted land sales, home building and keeping lot prices down. “Population creates wealth,” the brochure stressed.
To encourage visitors, the St. Johns steamboat left Washington daily at 9:00 a.m., except on Mondays and Saturdays. It arrived in Colonial Beach at 1:30 p.m. On Saturdays, it left Washington at 2:30 p.m. to encourage overnight stays. Advertised fares were fifty cents for adults, twenty-five cents for children, with special rates available for church groups.
In those days visitors could stay at one of several hotels in the town, including the sprawling Colonial Beach Hotel, which was once a home owned by General Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, father of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Several small hotels dotted the boardwalk and nearby side streets. There were rooming houses welcoming visitors as well and, in the evening, the sound of dinner bells ringing could be heard around town calling guests in for the evening meal.
The James Adams Floating Theater, reportedly the inspiration for Edna Ferber’s novel Show Boat, visited Colonial Beach on a regular basis as part of its circuit, and there are rumors that when that boat docked, rats fled onto land even as crowds flocked onboard to see the shows.
When it comes to which business was first established in town and which has been in business the longest in continuous operation, there is confusion. The Bank of Westmoreland, in the heart of what was once downtown, opened its doors in 1904 under the guidance of H.W.B. Williams. It continues in operation today, though under the BB&T name, following a stint as First Virginia Bank. The original building, at the corner of Hawthorn and Irving streets, served for a time as town offices, but now sits vacant and under the threat of being sold and possibly demolished, much to the dismay of historic preservationists and former employees who remember working there in its early years.
One of the earliest aerial images of the town features the main entrance where State Route 205 intersects with Colonial Avenue. Known as “Beachgate,” it once had an actual gate, reportedly to keep cows from wandering away. In that picture there are hints of what life was like in those early years—Blackie Christopher’s garage, Mrs. Jenkins’s restaurant and Bill Urbanck’s blacksmith shop. Today that same intersection features the town’s only traffic light, a McDonald’s, a BP gas station, the Colonial Beach Police Station, a dis- count store and a flooring company, among a few other businesses.
Support for the notion that the gate was there to prevent cows from getting loose on the highway comes from the fact that one section of town between Boundary Street and the area locals call the Point was called Cowtown.
Even in those very early years, the full-time residents of Colonial Beach sought out spiritual guidance. The first formal congregation was interdenominational. Founded in the 1880s, Union Church met in various places until it erected its own building, where the Methodist Church sits now, at the corner of Washington Avenue and Boundary Street. Baptists, Catholics, Episcopalians and Methodists all worshipped there until each congregation built its own structure. The Baptist church opened in 1896, followed by the Catholic church in 1906. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church opened its doors in 1911. St. Mary’s also houses the only pipe organ in town, donated in 1941 by a family that purchased it from a church in Washington that was closing.
One former resident, a Baptist herself, recalls filling in as organist at St. Mary’s for her music teacher, Mrs. Van Laer, in the 1950s after Mrs. Van Laer had a heart attack. Grace Roble Dirling was only thirteen at the time and ended up staying on in the “temporary” position until she went away to college. In return Mrs. Van Laer gave her free organ lessons.