Mayberry Meets Manhattan: Northern Neck

The southern end of the Northern Neck—White Stone, Irvington and Kilmarnock—has become a haven for retirees, who like the water and the lifestyle, which one describes as “small-town America at its very best.” 

The setting: the White Stone Wine and Cheese shop, White Stone, Virginia. Inside, at 4:30 on a Thursday afternoon, a half-dozen locals, mostly casually-dressed retired men, are taking advantage of owner Bruce Watson’s hospitality. Nearly every week, Watson, a jaunty native Californian, hosts a wine-tasting in his little establishment—located near the one traffic light in the one-square-mile town—treating his friends to a sampling of U.S. and international wine in the couple of hours before he must retreat to his kitchen, morph from merchant to chef and turn his retail store into a bistro. Duck and bouillabaisse (made from scratch every night) are his specialties. Watson, a former executive with a health care company, says he “once chased a lady to French Canada and ended up going to culinary school.”

On this evening, a retired architect, a retired contractor, a retired DuPont executive, a retired John Deere executive, a retired Chrysler employee, an art gallery owner and an ophthalmologist (still working), among others, are hunkered around a few corner tables, trading gossip and laughs between sips of a 2005 Napa Cab, a 2005 Côtes du Rhône and a 2004 Grenache Noir from California, to name a few of the eight bottles Watson has happily plunked on his tables. Ron Mihills, the former DuPont exec, does some quick math—eight wines, offered weekly—and says, “There aren’t many places in the world where you can taste about 400 wines a year.”

True, and there aren’t many places with quite the vibe of the Northern Neck—and more specifically the little trio of towns, White Stone, Irvington and Kilmarnock, which together have attracted a lot of well-to-do former businessmen and their wives to Lancaster County, and its Chesapeake Bay lifestyle. Lancaster is said to be one of the demographically oldest counties in Virginia, and it’s also one of the wealthiest. The three towns are adjacent to one another—a little triangular community linked by routes 200 and 3. Kilmarnock (population 1,250) is the commercial hub; Irvington (population 700), where the Tides Inn can be found, is a tiny upscale enclave; and White Stone (population 350) is the southern gateway to the Northern Neck.

Until very recently, the area was known for its farmland and easy-going watermen, so it’s hard to imagine that this pocket of old Virginia was a rollicking place in the 19th and early 20th centuries, during the steamship era. Between 1813 and 1930s, a dozen or so steamships plied the coastal waterways. Some would leave Baltimore and move down the bay to Norfolk, then come up the Rappahannock River and dock at Irvington and other towns. In those days, the area teemed with wharves, fishing villages and canneries. “Steamboats were our lifeline—our social and economic connection to the world,” says Anne Long McClintock, a board member of the five-year-old Steamboat Era Museum in Irvington. Her grandfather was the captain of the steamship Potomac, whose old pilothouse sits on the museum lawn. “Everything that people here wanted and bought came by steamboat. We got Baltimore newspapers and knew more about Baltimore than Richmond.”

Terri Thaxton, the museum’s executive director, adds that to accommodate cosmopolitan visitors from Baltimore and elsewhere, Irvington had an opera house, skating rink and other entertainment-oriented venues. “It was a destination spot,” says Thaxton—until cars came along and a major hurricane wiped out many of the wharves. The demise of the steamship came soon after, and Lancaster turned drowsy.

These days, the area has come full circle. It’s a destination spot again, though in an entirely different way. Lloyd B. Hubbard Jr., White Stone’s mayor for the last 11 years, says about 60 percent of the county’s 11,500 people are retirees. Some occupy second homes during the summer, but many live here year-round. Hubbard, who owns Rappahannock Rentals, says the influx of retired people is “a good thing, though I’d like to see more of their money in the local banks, to help with the economy. Some are cliquish, but all in all it’s a good group.” As we talked, Hubbard, an avid goose hunter, helped to set up tents for the annual Rappahannock Waterfowl Show. By Hubbard’s account, the newcomers have blended almost seamlessly among longtime locals like himself and the not insignificant number of have-nots in the area. The mayor, 54, says his family goes back to 1762—“they were farmers and such.”

Local developer Jimmy Carter, a gregarious man whose parents, Jim and Pat Carter, started the area’s most prominent real estate firm in 1957, says the retirees “have done terrific things for this community.” Case in point: the Northern Neck YMCA and the free health clinic, next to each other in Kilmarnock. A local group headed by Doug Monroe, chairman of Chesapeake Financial Shares (a holding company), raised $12 million, which helped to build the YMCA facility (opened in 2004) and a new building for the health clinic next door. Thanks to local munificence, the work of nonprofit groups and volunteer medical practitioners, the YMCA and the clinic offer an array of services to the needy in five counties.

Some locals call the Northern Neck the Hamptons of Virginia, but that description is off the mark. There is water, to be sure—the region’s main allure is the Chesapeake Bay and Carter’s Creek, the snaky tributary that offers access to the bay via the Rappahannock River. And there is money: Most of the retirees own $1 million-plus homes, but they’re tucked back along the creek off of access roads with no names. “You don’t see the prosperity,” says Carter. “It’s all back in the nooks and crannies.”

How to describe the area, then? Mihills, one of the wine tasters at Watson’s shop, says that Irvington is like St. Michael’s (Maryland) was 50 years ago. Bernie Knoerdel, a retired contractor who moved to Irvington from northern Virginia, cites the community’s quaint Fourth of July parade every year, and the annual Christmas boat parade on Carter’s Creek, and says, “It’s small-town American at it’s very best.”

While most people laud the area’s country values, the development issue is beginning to percolate. As Carter explains, the southern end of the Northern Neck has had no significant growth since the Civil War. “We’ve had the conversation: ‘What are we going to look like in 10 or 20 years?’ I haven’t seen much dynamic change—it’s not what you’d call a boom area.” Still, a big, middle-income off-water development (500 lots, with golf course) was recently completed off of Route 200 between Kilmarnock and White Stone, and the Tides Inn, the venerable hotel whose genteel accommodations have anchored the region for decades, is planning to put up some condos.

Susan McFadden, owner of Open Door Communications in Kilmarnock, says that the area has “changed hugely” since she moved here from Richmond in 1991. “It’s a pretty diverse population—people who were born and raised here and people who’ve chosen to live here. It’s created an interesting dynamic. We’ve seen a real surge in services over the last five years—there’s now a gourmet carry-out in Kilmarnock.” And, she could have added, little White Stone now has a martini bar, Seven.

Locals say the tiny three-town population will double over the next several years. “I’d like to say we’ve reached our maximum,” says Frances Chase Simmons, 80, who says her family was among the first to settle in the area. “But,” she chuckles, “some of these developers have other ideas, and the main one is to make money.” Simmons, whose grandmother was a Carter and whose husband was a Rhodes scholar, says that she was the first waitress hired by E.A. Stephens when he opened the Tides Inn, in 1947.

When I pull up to the Hope and Glory Inn in Irvington, what I notice first are the quaint aphorisms that dot the grounds like so many metal tulips: “Remember to Breathe,” advises one. “You Live and Learn” starts another, adding, “At Any Rate, You Live.” The lifestyle tips might seem cloying in another setting, but not here; after all, the Hope and Glory used to be a former schoolhouse—the Chesapeake Academy, built in 1890s. (The school is still in town, but now in a more modern building.) With its shabby-chic décor—painted furniture and wide-plank floors, comfortable upholstered couches, birdcages, Sinatra on the sound system—the Hope and Glory, with its butter-yellow façade, epitomizes romantic country charm. There are seven guest rooms in the main house and six garden cottages, each with its own patio.

Peggy and Dudley Patteson are the Hope and Glory’s gracious owners. Peggy says she’s been coming to the area since 1967—her family had a second home. “As a teenager from Alexandria, I used to dread it—it was the sticks. But my mother thought it was God’s country, and she turned out to be right. Irvington today has two Wine Spectator restaurants and 10 upscale shops. It’s one of those rare little towns. I feel privileged to live here.”

The Hope and Glory has no restaurant, but the Pattesons host a three-course, wine-paired dinner on Saturday nights in season at their 12-seat dining table. The inn is not on the water, but guests can take a Friday night “crab cruise” on a 42-foot Chesapeake deadrise: Crack crabs, drink wine and beer.

Peggy bought the inn from former ad man (retired, natch) and entrepreneur Bill Westbrook. He did a lot to turn Irvington into the refined little retreat it is today. Westbrook says he “came down [from Richmond] in the early 1970s and was just looking for a place to go sailing. I ended up in Irvington.” After a time, he started speculating—buying what he calls “rundown, disaster” houses and refurbishing them. “I’d get a hammer and glass of scotch, and walls would come down.” He kept passing the old King Carter Inn, which was also run down, and thought it would be cool to own his own hotel. So he bought the inn, transformed it into the Hope & Glory and put a picket fence around it—the man likes picket fences.

Later, convinced that Irvington needed more attractions to draw new or returning visitors, he opened a chic restaurant named the Trick Dog Café a block from the inn. It and a few adjacent shops, also owned by Westbrook, constitute what one writer recently called Irvington’s version of a strip mall. They include a clothing stored named Khakis, The Local (a coffee shop) and Avolon—a women’s clothing store specializing in what owner Sonja Smith calls “artsy” designs, some of them handmade. Nearby, the River Cottage sells furniture and kayaks, and Brocante Home offers various styles of furnishings. Across the street is Dandelion, one of the oldest stores in town, selling more traditional women’s clothing and accessories.

Westbrook has since sold the Trick Dog—an impressive restaurant that seems right out of Soho. New owner Rob McRaney describes the interior design—by local architect Randall Kip—as “a mix of urban and techno.” There are crimson paper lights and high-backed booths. It’s the height of urbanity in a rural town. Former governor Linwood Holton was enjoying some of Chef Jeffrey Johnson’s culinary creations the night I was there. Johnson specializes in fish—rockfish, sturgeon, tuna, some prepared with a Southern twist.

Westbrook spends most of his time now in Minneapolis, but he still owns the White Fences Vineyard and Winery. You can’t miss it: There are two 40-foot-high corkscrews at the entrance. Jimmy Carter, Westbrook’s friend, is an investor. The two built 19 period-looking, 1,500-square-foot carpenter gothic “tents” on the property, inspired by the church-meeting camps of the middle 1800s. “They sold instantly,” says Carter. He says that 3north, a Richmond-based architectural group, leads a group of investors that will build 25 new homes on the vineyard property. Asked about development, Westbrook says, “There are certainly some people who’d like to see the area frozen in time. I think if it’s thoughtful, people will support it. If it’s irrational and doesn’t seem to fit, people will oppose it.”

These days, Kilmarnock is changing a lot, itself. The town still has few businesses that have been around for decades—the family-owned Lee’s restaurant and the Tri-Star Supermarket among them—but upscale shops are beginning the alter the nostalgic scene along Main Street. Jackie Brown, a Pennsylvania transplant, opened Carried Away Cuisine (the aforementioned gourmet carry-out) in 2002. Chesapeake & Crescent Home, owned by Paula and George Thomasson and specializing in antiques, home furnishings and design, hung its shingle soon after, as did the Main Street Antique Mall. The Pedestal offers custom decorating services. Swank, a new-ish bistro on Main Street, gets high marks from residents. The Rappahannock Art League, a cooperative, also can be found on Main Street, which got a facelift a few years ago. Power lines were buried, new streetlights were installed, and the sidewalks were improved. Thomasson, who practiced law in New Orleans for 30 years, calls Kilmarnock “very eclectic—a good spot. You meet people from all walks of life. It’s not a big city, and yet you have a sophisticated clientele.”

Still, plenty of tradition and local flavor remains. The Carwash Café—a converted gas station—is a favorite place for breakfast and lunch; its stone-ground grits are excellent. In White Stone, Rocket Billy’s has got to be the only roadside trailer in the country selling crab bisque and soft-shell crabs, among the many items on the menu. “We’ve got more in this place than most restaurants,” says Billy Ancarrow, a former Marine who rues the disappearance of watermen’s culture in the area.

Steve Bonner, the owner of the Kilmarnock Antique Gallery, is a font of knowledge about the town. His huge building, where 100 antique dealers rent space, is also the town’s unofficial visitor center. There are shelves full of tourist brochures in the back. “We encourage people to park in our lot and walk the town,” says Bonner, 60. He greeted me with his Yorkshire terrier, Windsor, in his arms—the two are inseparable. Bonner has been working in the building since he was 15—his family ran a wholesale operation. His great grandfather owned a market in the town. Bonner, who played the piano at some store openings in Kilmarnock when he was young, owns a collection of oyster plates, most more than 100 years old and some made by Haviland & Co. (Limoges, France) in the style of its White House china for President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880.

One constant in the Northern Neck is the Tides Inn resort, situated beautifully on a bluff overlooking Carter’s Creek. Only a day after the venerable hotel reopened for the season, it was crowded with corporate groups. “We’re going into 2008 with some of the best advance bookings we’ve ever seen,” says general manager Gordon Slatford, pausing for a moment from his duties. Slatford is proud of the Tides’ new website, enabling guests making reservations to customize their visit. Want crudités and champagne upon arrival? Need to tailor a golf weekend, or sign up for a spa treatment? You can do it all online, and efficiently. “You have to create an individual experience for every guest,” Slatford says. He notes that the pool area has been upgraded—and the hotel now boasts a street-legal, hot-red, six-seat electric vehicle, perfect for taking guests down the road to Irvington.

Bikes are another option—and perhaps more in keeping with the laid-back ethos of this increasingly upscale area. As the affable Jimmy Carter says, “No traffic, the water, caring people—they’re aren’t many places like this. Are we the luckiest people in the world?” It would be hard to argue the point.

(Originally published in the June 2008 issue.)

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