A Place Called Guinea

In Gloucester County, a centuries-old culture with its own dialect endures.

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(Photography by Rob Ostermaier)

A yard sign in front of the wooden house behind the white fence on Lillaston Lane summed up Guinea Neck in Gloucester County this way: “There’s no place like this place anywhere near this place so this must be the place.”

This place is where watermen weathered rugged conditions all day every day, fishing the rivers, dredging the oysters, and hauling in crab pots to harvest the seemingly endless bounty of the Chesapeake Bay. Smelling like fish, dismissive of their swollen hands and knuckles, these same men would later gather in a general store—you could find one on almost every corner—and swap stories over whose catch was the biggest.

“Whoever was louder was the winner,” says fireman Nick Bonniville, whose father, grandfather, and a generation of great grandfathers all worked the Guinea waters. 

A Place Defined by Culture

Plug Guinea into a GPS and you might not get a straight answer. It’s the unofficial name for a collection of Gloucester County communities in Guinea Neck—including Maryus, Jenkins Neck, Perrin, and Achilles—and located just across the York River from Yorktown. Here, a culture marked by its own dialect has proudly endured for centuries, preserved through oral history and the ongoing effort of the Guinea Heritage Association. 

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Guinea heritage photos. Church of God Maryus Monday August 9, 2021.

(Photography by Rob Ostermaier)

Like a lot of things here, how Guinea came to be called Guinea is up for debate. Some say the first Guineamen were British deserters, who, after the Revolutionary War, exchanged Guinea coins to pay their taxes. Or, it’s been said, Guinea dates back to the slaves from the African nation of Guinea, who labored on the plantations in this farming community.

If you catch yourself in conversation with a true Guineaman, be prepared. Deciphering the fast-talking dialect that sounds like Cockney English with peculiarly accented syllables can stump locals. A string of words collides into one, like an auctioneer’s call. “Pasture” can sound like posture. “Canoe” rolls off as cunnah.

Hamilton Williams, 79, was raised in these parts; his dad owned the Stanley Williams store. 

When a waterman mumbled “fivepounflar,” he tried his best to make sense of it. “It was as if he had a mouthful of oatmeal,” Williams laughs. “He said ‘five pounds of flour’ like it was one word.”

Storytelling to Preserve History

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Hamilton Williams portrait for Virginia Living Magazine Friday January 28, 2022.

(Hamilton Williams; photo by Rob Ostermaier)

As Guinea’s unofficial historian, Williams can fill your ear with stories that bring one of Virginia’s few remaining pockets of undiluted culture vividly to life. He can narrate the back stories of every nook among the forks and circuitous roads that surround waterways as big as the York River and as small as Browns Bay and Maundy Creek.

Williams’ aunt Lena Rowe ran the general store and Lady post office, adjacent to the Severn River dock that once bustled with steamboats dropping off the fancy goods from Baltimore to stock the Guinea stores. He shares the memory of an easygoing man named Jack, shot to death by his scheming brother Clarence. The brothers were in a rift after Clarence grew convinced that Jack was going to turn him in for fencing goods from Jack’s store. 

Williams’ father, Stanley, used to work at Jack’s store and was pulling a push broom on its porch when a lady named Clarice Bunting, seated in the passenger seat of her brother’s pickup truck, snapped at him from the parking lot, “Don’t you even know how to handle a broom?” 

Stanley turned around and later told his son, “She was the most beautiful girl I ever saw, and I knew right then and there I was going to marry her.” By the time Stanley died in 1991, they had been wed 54 years.

Williams hasn’t written down any of his memories, but he is a genealogy buff who lays claim to 77,300 extended family members, virtually all of them from Guinea. He’s been charting the names on an ancestry program since the 1980s. 

“I want people to know the names of these people, who they were, what they did, and why they were important,” he says.

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Guinea heritage photos. Buck’s Store Monday August 9, 2021.

(Photography by Rob Ostermaier)

A General Store Museum

When he tools around Guinea today, Williams can’t hide his nostalgia, tinged with sadness.  These homes were once the pride of the Guineamen—nothing fancy, but the fresh vegetable gardens and manicured lawns, many with flowers, were well-maintained year-round. 

Turn onto Guinea Road from Route 17 just past the Taco Bell and McDonald’s today, and it’s a hodgepodge of modest homes, several raised to avoid the floodwaters, junky front yards, abandoned buildings, and new houses that contrast with the simplicity.

The waterfront property has attracted young families, most with no ties to a community that dates to the 1600s.

Despite the efforts of the Guinea Heritage Association, preserving a history that is largely word-of-mouth will be up to the newer generations who no longer make their living on the water and lead a far more contemporary lifestyle than their parents and grandparents. 

Bonniville is a board member of the association that holds an annual two-day Guinea Jubilee every September, drawing thousands to celebrate this unique community. The group raised enough funds recently to turn one of Guinea’s storied gathering spots, C.B. Rowe & Son General Store, located in Bena, into a museum.  

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Guinea Heritage Association museum inside the old Buck’s Store in Bena Friday August 27, 2021.

(Photography by Rob Ostermaier)

Don’t mind the mustiness of the small building from 1920. Every artifact—from the commercial white boots fishermen used to wear to an authentic crab pot to the hairpins and spices the store once sold—means something to someone. Don’t leave without picking up the Guinea Jubilee Cookbook that’s full of hundreds of recipes, including Granny’s Guinea Clam Chowder and Alice Horsley’s Chocolate Cake.

“Guinea women make food with a lot of love, and everything is seasoned just right,” says Betty Sammons, whom everyone calls Lou. She’s a fixture at the Achilles Shopping Center—one small store, gas pumps, and a post office—where a breakfast sandwich runs you $1.99. Sammons is revered for her fried chicken, cooked the old-fashioned way. She shrugs when asked why she’s known as the mayor of Guinea. 

“I guess it’s because I know everyone,” she says.

A Bridge, Hurricane Bring Change

Sammons contends she and her uncle were in the first car that drove across the George P. Coleman Bridge in 1952—a modern swing bridge that opened up access to Guinea but also started an exodus. As the years wore on, regulations on seafood altered the ability of the watermen to freely fish, and then Hurricane Isabel dealt a brutal blow in 2003 with dozens of homes lost in the storm surge that topped five feet.

Sammons lost everything.

“I was living right far from the river,” she says. “But the little house I was living in, the water came right through the windows so bad. It was such a surge, that my coffee tables and end tables beat holes in the walls. I mean, it was terrible. My friend’s house, it pushed his Bronco through the walls, and all that was left were two outside walls and the roof.”

“It was a big devastation,” Bonniville agrees. “The face of Guinea started to change, and to me that started with Isabel.”

FEMA money poured in, but rebuilding in Guinea didn’t make sense for many who moved away instead. When nobody replanted the trees and sagebrush lost during that flood, shoreline erosion worsened. Even after a string of sunny days, it’s hard to drive far without seeing puddles of standing water.

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Guinea heritage photos. A heron catches their dinner along Kings Creek Road Thursday August 12, 2021.

(Photography by Rob Ostermaier)

A Life on the Water

Today, commercial fishermen make a living in Guinea, but there are fewer one-man-shop watermen like Jeremy Bonniville’s father, Kenny. Father and son tried going into business together, but gave up when Kenny had no interest in upgrading to the technology that Jeremy uses to run his booming Crabs Express, a business that employs 30-50 people depending on the season.

“We’d butt heads,” says Jeremy, who still eats Sunday dinner at his parents’ house. “My dad stopped going out in the water in 1994. He hasn’t been back on the water since. I begged him to come on the boat and just ride. He says he’s done with it and has closed that chapter.”

Nick Bonniville dreamed of working the water like his third cousin Jeremy, but at age 15, he made a promise at his father’s deathbed that he wouldn’t pursue it when he grew up. Ricky Bonniville lived his entire life on the water, rising at one in the morning six days a week, returning home by noon to nap for five hours at best. Then he’d trek to a general store to play cards and pool before returning to the water to repeat the cycle. 

It was a life Ricky Bonniville didn’t want for his son.

“There’s nothing more I miss, other than my father, than being out on the water with him,” Nick says. “There’s something about those sunrises at 5:30 in the morning and the smell of rotten fish and jellyfish getting in your eyes. I miss it. I really miss it.”

Even with nature’s wrath and evolving times and just pure change, that sense of Guinea pride remains strong. Folks like Hamilton Williams, Nick and Jeremy Bonniville, and Betty Sammons won’t let Guinea history wash away with the tides. 

This place means too much to too many, Sammons says, adding, “We belong. We’re somebody. We are a working part of the community in this world. We’re a more welcoming people today. We’re more accepting to strangers. Everybody gets along. Once people get down here and get to know us, we warm up to them. We always treat you good in Guinea.” GuineaHeritage.org

This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue.

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