Hidden Jewels South of the James

Deflated dreams lead to soaring spirits in Smithfield.

Illustration by Steve Stankiewicz

Around the World in 80 Days seemed to air monthly back in the rabbit-eared days of my youth in a rural Nebraska town. In the movie, Phineas Fogg floats into the sky above cheering spectators and rides the winds over land, water, and mountains—he even scoops snow off a peak as he floats past!—in a giant balloon. If movies are escapism, that exotic and fanciful balloon seemed the ultimate escape.

So when my editor called and asked if I wanted to take a hot-air balloon tour of the coastal plains near Norfolk—you know, glide like Phineas Fogg above the James River and the Atlantic shoreline—well, duh.

My wife, youngest son, and I drove four hours to tiny Smithfield, spent the night, and jumped in a van with Rich Moormann and Mark Nelson of Coastal Balloons at 6 a.m. to drive west of town. At the launch site, they rolled out a gorgeous multicolored hot-air balloon, hooked up a wicker gondola, and blasted fire into the balloon for several minutes while we watched it fatten and rise from the ground to stand taut above the earth. We watched the sun rise, too, promising a glorious day—and then, with the rising sun came unexpected upper-level winds pushing 35 miles per hour. Moormann and Nelson made the call: No go; it was too dangerous. The weather worsened through the spring weekend, so we were unable to reschedule. And so it goes in the world of hot-air ballooning: Our special weekend was ruined by 7 a.m. of the first day.

Except it wasn’t. As the balloon (and our spirits) deflated, Moormann and Nelson invited us to join them for breakfast. Sure, why not? And that’s how we met Dianna and Junior Keen. Unbeknownst to us, Moormann and Nelson had asked their friends if they’d mind dropping everything, coming for breakfast, and then giving three strangers a tour of the area. The Keens love Smithfield so much, and have been so deeply involved with the town’s renaissance, they agreed. 

So we hopped in their Tahoe and headed west on Virginia Highway 10 toward a house Dianna said was once lived in by her grandparents. Not exactly ballooning, but okay. But then Junior turned into a long, secluded drive, and in seconds we were in front of a grand manor like I had never seen in the United States.

That’s because there aren’t any houses like Bacon’s Castle left in North America. Wealthy planation owner Arthur Allen built the Jacobean-styled brick home in 1665 (the structure got loosely associated with Nathanial Bacon’s rebellion in 1676 and the more famous name stuck). Few homes were built of brick that early and, by the time colonial structures started being constructed of quality bricks, the Jacobean era had passed. Owned and maintained by Preservation Virginia (whose much, much more visited sites include Historic Jamestowne), this structure is Virginia’s oldest home, North America’s oldest Jacobean structure, and, with its 1665 bones still beautifully intact, is utterly unique. And because it is located in a rural part of the isolated southern bank of the James, you often get to experience the house alone with a Preservation Virginia volunteer (in our case, Dianna Keen herself).

My wife and I are history geeks, so the Keens and Bacon’s Castle saved the weekend. For my youngest son, not so much. But then Junior drove us to his automotive shop out on the bypass highway. Turns out he is one of the premier high-performance engine builders in the region; coincidentally, my son is a horsepower junky and budding inventor. “All this stuff is about trying to get those few extra horses,” Junior tells us. “Awesome!” our testosterone howled.

Then came the biggest hidden jewel of them all. Driving away from the highway, we turned down a quiet two-lane road. After rising over a small hill, it offered a fine view of the historic core of Smithfield—a town that, like Bacon’s Castle, is distinctive thanks to a collection of special circumstances.

Located on the Pagan River, which flows into the James, Smithfield was founded as a seaport in the 1750s and quickly became a haven for wealthy shipping merchants and ship captains; many of their homes have been preserved. In the 19th century, Smithfield became a peanut production and distribution hub, which created more wealthy people and stately homes. Still later, the town became a pork-production mecca, which led to a plethora of ornate Victorian-era mansions. Then the state built a bypass highway around Smithfield, which drew the population away and sent the downtown businesses and neighborhoods into a long, slow era of decline.

But. The townspeople rallied in the 1990s and, with generous support from Smithfield Foods, began revitalizing the downtown. The owners of the town’s mansions agreed to guidelines for maintaining and restoring the homes’ original design elements. Streets were improved, walking paths added. Windsor Castle, the plantation home of the town’s founder, was restored and the grounds expanded to create a sprawling city park edging a creek.

The Keens dropped us off at Smithfield Station, a charming waterfront hotel and restaurant within walking distance of the downtown area’s shops and attractions. (We were staying in the Captain Todd Suite, part of an addition that sits over the water of Smithfield Station marina.) It crossed my mind that this now-remarkable small-town ideal was only possible because the old highway through downtown Smithfield was replaced with the four-lane bypass. Ironically, what nearly killed the town ended up saving everything special about it. So, too, were Smithfield’s earliest bones and quaint grand-mansion core saved because the town didn’t grow into a thriving port city or naval base like nearby Newport News and Norfolk.

That evening I talked to Judy Winslow, the area’s tourism director, who was part of the pioneering restoration group back in the early 1990s. (Now they give classes to groups hoping to revitalize other struggling towns.) She said something that resonated with me as I dreamed of my hometown—the one I hoped to fly away from as a kid—duplicating the Smithfield residents’ accomplishment. “We hear this now, and it’s very nice to hear,” Winslow said. “Smithfield has become the small town everybody wishes they were from. It’s almost like something out of a movie now.”

Around the World in 80 Days, perhaps.

This article originally appeared in our WaterLife 2019 issue.

Special thanks to Coastal Balloons (CoastalBalloons.net) and Smithfield Station (SmithfieldStation.com) for hosting the Nelson family during their stay in Smithfield.

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