Smitten with Smithfield

Hometown flavor is Hamtown’s biggest draw.

(Photography by Chris M. Rogers)

I’m standing in a dark old shed, redolent of smoke. Hanging from the rafters, 20-pound hams are undergoing a magical transformation into cured pork. DeeDee Darden—co-owner of Darden’s Country Store in Smithfield with her husband, Tommy—grabs a long pole and deftly unhooks one before releasing it into a wooden bin, where it lands with a bam! 

The hams will be layered in salt for 42 days then, from March to December, they’ll hang in the smokehouse, where they absorb the tantalizing flavors of hickory and applewood smoke. We walk over to the store where Darden hands me thin slices. The taste of salt and smoke is perfectly balanced. No wonder she takes such pride in her family business. 

There’s pride everywhere I turn in Smithfield—a small town on the banks of the Pagan River near Suffolk. Everyone I meet says they couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. And why would they? This historic city has the perfect Main Street ambience with cute-as-a-button shops, cozy outdoor cafés, arts and culture, nature, and an authentic vibe. Judy Winslow, tourism director, says, “You can’t make this up. We’re exactly what all those town centers are trying to do.”

I’m visiting with my friend Sue, and we’re discovering that Smithfield is more than an ideal getaway destination. This charming town is attracting newcomers seeking to escape the hectic pace of larger cities. In fact, I’m seriously considering moving here myself. It’s that perfect.

The World’s Oldest Ham

Originally a thriving port city, Smithfield was established by British merchants and sea captains in the 18th century. Drop by the visitor’s center and pick up a guide to the architecture in the old town district. Better yet, take a walking tour with Kathy Mountjoy, a proud local who delights in telling stories about her town and the Victorian and Greek Revival buildings that line its streets. Several are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, says Mountjoy as she points out the home of Captain Mallory Todd, who began curing and shipping hams in the late 1700s.

Smithfield’s famous hams came about when colonists saw American Indians smoking wild boar meat, Mountjoy explains. The British just added salt, and voilà—Smithfield ham was born. Before ham became the city’s main industry, peanuts were king. But in 1921, when a fire in the warehouse district along the river curtailed the growing peanut industry, Hamtown’s fate was sealed.   

Incredibly, you can see the world’s oldest, edible cured ham here at the Isle of Wight County Museum on Main Street. Dating back to 1902, this ancient ham celebrates a birthday every July. A recreated country store complete with a potbelly stove takes visitors back to yesteryear. There’s also a smokehouse exhibit, American Indian and Civil War artifacts, and prehistoric fossils.

Adjacent to the historic area, Windsor Castle Park features a 1725 manor house with 11 outbuildings on 208 acres. A popular wedding and event site, the park includes walking and mountain bike trails, playgrounds, a kayak launch, dog park, and more. It’s also home to popular festivals like the Bacon, Bourbon & Music Fest, coming Oct. 1 this year. 

Not far from downtown stands St. Luke’s Historic Church & Museum dating to the late 17th century. It’s the oldest surviving church in Virginia—and among the oldest in the U.S., says Rachel Popp, St. Luke’s education coordinator. The stunning brick building is a rare example of Artisan Mannerism architecture and houses one of the world’s oldest organs. Today, St. Luke’s hosts weddings and welcomes tourists.

(Photography by Chris M. Rogers)

George Washington Slept Here

After you’ve had your fill of history, enjoy one of Smithfield’s many fine restaurants, like Taste of Smithfield, where you’ll find candied bacon on the pork-centric menu, along with hushpuppies stuffed with country ham and peppers, and fried pork sandwiches smothered in pimento cheese. In the shop, you’ll find everything from country sausage to genuine Smithfield hams.

Or grab a bite at Wharf Hill Brewing Company. Dating to 1906, the building formerly housed the Elk’s Hall, once the epicenter of Hamtown’s Black business district, with now-shuttered storefronts like Ms. Claudette’s Beauty Palace. In 2011 it was purchased and lovingly restored, and many of the building’s original details were preserved. Today Wharf Hill brewpub serves eight kinds of burgers, plus soups, salads, and home-cooked dishes like Mom’s Meatloaf and fried green tomatoes. Beers include the Hamtown Heavy, an oatmeal stout, and Isle of Wheat, a yeasty, German-style wheat beer known as a Hefeweizen. 

On the edge of town, Red Point Taphouse takes brewpub fare up a notch. “We wanted to change people’s expectations and offer gourmet-quality food,” says Julie Hess, wife of one of the owners. You’ll find local vegetable soup pistou, pan-roasted duck breast, local pork meatballs, and some of the best pork cracklins I’ve ever tasted. Cocktails and craft beers are also top-notch.

One of Smithfield’s finest lodgings is the Smithfield Inn, which counts George Washington as an illustrious guest. Dating to 1752, it’s just a few blocks off the Pagan River. Sue and I stay in the spacious Todd Suite, one of five furnished in classic 18th-century style. The bright, cheery Garden House is perfect for a large family. 

The inn boasts an outstanding restaurant with cozy charm. Sue and I head there for dinner and enjoy its white table linens, fresh flowers, and mellow jazz. Our delicious salads are followed by salmon stuffed with crab for me and fried rockfish with an almond honey coating for her. Bread pudding makes a tasty dessert. 

A few doors down is the Smithfield Gourmet Café and Bakery, managed by the inn’s owner, Carolyn Burke. It’s known for its delicious breads, custom cakes, and decadent pies, and breakfast is cooked to order—from omelets to biscuits and gravy. One local chooses a coconut pie to go. “It’s all good,” he says. Our server Dorothy Bobonick says living in Smithfield is like a Hallmark movie. “Everyone knows everyone,” she says. 

Part of the Family

With a mission to sample the best the town has to offer, Sue and I move over to Smithfield Station. This family-owned marina on the Pagan River includes a restaurant and hotel rooms. We stay in the spacious Captain Sinclair Suite, an exact replica of a Chesapeake Bay lighthouse, right beside the harbor.

“It’s like staying on a boat,” Sue says, as we drop our bags off before having dinner at Smithfield Station’s pine-paneled, waterfront restaurant, where seafood dominates the menu. 

Back on Main Street, we explore Smithfield’s shops. At our first stop, the Arts Center@319, we find handcrafted art, jewelry, quilts, and more. Every May the city hosts the Smithfield Arts Festival with vendors, live music, kids’ activities, and a food court. The city also has its own drama productions at the Smithfield Little Theatre on the edge of town.

We stop in Wharf Hill, the home and garden store Judy Begland opened 30 years ago. “The town has really taken off in the past five to 10 years,” she says. “People come and really enjoy themselves.” She finds the role of small-town shopkeeper rewarding. “People send us Christmas cards and come by and visit,” she says. “They make us feel like part of the family.”

Nearby, we visit Beyond Main—a cute, welcoming shop with an island vibe. Owner Robin Stahura tells us she’s “an island girl at heart,” as we browse the colorful clothing, jewelry, and accessories. She echoes Begland on owning a small-town shop: “You make a lot of friends.” 

Smithfield Gourmet Cafe and Bakery (Photography by Chris M. Rogers)

Heritage Horses

Further afield, Sue and I visit Mill Swamp Indian Horses, a nonprofit run by Steve Edwards that focuses on preserving heritage breeds like the Corolla Spanish mustang and the Choctaw Colonial Spanish horse. He’s also the Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney for Isle of Wight County, but these horses and the families he works with are his real passions.

“We encourage guests to come by the ranch,” Edwards says. “The only hope for these horses not to go extinct is for people to know about them and see what they can do.” He also teaches natural horsemanship to local families who become members of his organization and offers trail rides to members every Saturday.

“The horses are the focus of what we do,” he says, “but we have a slew of education programs.” One, which has been on hiatus, invited vets from the nearby VA hospital to participate in equine therapy programs. Edwards hopes to offer them again soon.

Serendipity Meadworks (Photography by Chris M. Rogers)

Wine, Spirits, and Mead

Not far from Edwards’ ranch, the family run SummerWind Vineyard offers top quality wines and charcuterie platters in a laid-back setting. We sample a flight that ranges from a semi-dry rosé to a full-bodied Bordeaux-style blend. Owner Kim Pugh says she and her husband started SummerWind in 2005; now, around 11 acres are under cultivation. The vineyard is ideally positioned to capture breezes off the Pagan and James rivers.

Pugh originally sold her grapes to other wineries. Then she decided to partner with winemaker Michael Shaps from Charlottesville. Together with her daughter, Meaghan, Pugh opened the tasting room in 2018 and added a patio in 2020. The vibe at SummerWind is relaxing, and Sue and I can’t wait to return.

Smithfield is home to other small spirits manufacturers including Blue Sky Distillery, which makes award-winning vodka, gin, rum, whiskey, and more. There we meet Kim Rangos in the tasting room and learn how Blue Sky got its start. She and her husband, Mark, were looking for their next adventure after leaving their “job-jobs.” After visiting Jameson Distillery on a trip to Ireland, Mark was inspired, and Blue Sky became their next chapter. 

Popular offerings include their Painted Pig series: smoked bacon maple whiskey and peanut butter whiskey. “We’re getting ready to roll out our third little pig, so we can have a gift set of Three Little Pigs,” says Kim. “It’ll be a ready-to-drink peach whiskey tea.”

(Photography by Chris M. Rogers)

Close by, Serendipity Meadworks celebrates one of mankind’s oldest spirits. Founded by Jane Schweiger and her husband, Ed, the farm meadery started out as a hobby for Ed, a beekeeper who began using the honey to make mead for himself. Today their business includes 11 partners and produces 10 varieties of mead with flavors like mesquite, orange, and pear. The cozy shop also sells honey-based soaps, candles, and lotions. 

Take Home Supper

Back at Darden’s Country Store, we’re happy to see it’s well-stocked with homemade pimento cheese, chicken pot pies (personal and family sizes), mac ’n’ cheese, ham biscuits, chicken salad, deviled eggs, quiches, and barbecue—all refrigerated and ready to go. I can picture myself stopping by on the way to my new Smithfield home and picking up supper. 

(Photography by Chris M. Rogers)

DeeDee Darden tells me about the fall pick-a-pumpkin field, hayrides, and a corn maze, and I can imagine my grandson, Lincoln, toting a big pumpkin and laughing with delight as he races through the corn maze. I think about all the kind people I’ve met here in Smithfield and how their eyes shine with pride for their hometown. Maybe someday it will be my hometown, too. 

A Weekend in Smithfield
Where To Stay

Smithfield Inn: Cozy inn with period decor and fine dining. 

Smithfield Station: Book a room in the lighthouse.

Where To Eat & Drink

Blue Sky Distillery: Try tasty spirits, perfect for cocktail hour. 

Cure Coffeehouse: Curated coffee served by smiling baristas; great sandwiches too.

Red Point Taphouse: Locally sourced food and craft brews.

Serendipity Meadworks: Honey-sourced spirits and gifts.

Smithfield Gourmet Café and Bakery: Breads, cakes, and home-cooked breakfasts.

Smithfield Station: Fresh seafood and waterfront dining.

SummerWind Vineyard: Chill vibe and top-notch wines.

Taste of Smithfield: Pork-centric menu and authentic Smithfield products.

Wharf Hill Brewing Co.: Tasty brews and bar food.

Where To Shop

Beyond Main: Colorful clothes, jewelry, and accessories.

Maggie Casey’s Celtic Treasure: Irish gifts and fine clothing. Facebook: @mcceltictreasure  

Perfectly Natural Soap: All-natural skincare products and heavenly soap.

Wharf Hill: Seasonal decor and accessories. Facebook: @wharfhill 

What To See

Arts Center@319: Local art and handmade jewelry.

Darden’s Country Store and Smokehouse: Don’t miss fall family activities and year-round good eats.

Historic St. Luke’s Church and Museum: Tour this beautiful church and walk the historic grounds.

Isle of Wight County Museum: See the world’s oldest ham.

Mill Swamp Indian Horses: Call ahead for a tour.

The Schoolhouse Museum: Learn about Black American education in the 1900s.

Smithfield Tourism Tours: Join a walking tour for an up-close look at Smithfield. 

Windsor Castle Park: Hiking trails, playground, and dog park—just steps from downtown.

Smithfield Festivals

Smithfield Events organizes three popular festivals held in Windsor Castle Park. Tickets required.

Bacon, Bourbon & Music Fest: First Saturday in October 

BOB Fest: Bloody Marys, Oysters, BBQ & Brunswick Stew: Held every January.

Smithfield Wine & Brew Weekend: Second weekend in April.

This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue.

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