The “Great Marsh”: Poquoson

Poquoson is a peninsula jutting into the Chesapeake Bay and the oldest continuously named town in Virginia, where crusty watermen mingle with brainy NASA scientists, and where family histories go back to the 1700s.

A look back at our 2009 visit to Poqsoson:

Once upon a time, the only way in or out of Poquoson was by boat. Fortunately, the tiny peninsula is now connected to Hampton and Yorktown by two roads, but neither carries traffic to anywhere else. People intent on visiting Poquoson are the only ones who enter this quiet city—and the roughly 12,000 residents like it that way. Visitors arriving via Route 171, Victory Boulevard, will pass by a sign painted maroon and gold (the colors of Poquoson High School) that explains how the name Poquoson is derived from an ancient Indian word meaning “great marsh.” However, the marsh itself is more evident to those taking Route 172, Wythe Creek Boulevard, which carries visitors over a small bridge at the outskirts of town.

“It’s referred to as the new bridge,” says Phoebe Harcum, a longtime resident who lives in a much-modified, old family farmhouse. “But it’s not new.” Long before the bridge was built, at the turn of the 20th century, Harcum’s grandfather used his fishing boat as the town’s ferry, hauling produce to market and returning with essentials ordered by catalogue. “Used to be,” Harcum says, sitting on a rocking chair amid heirlooms including a shoulder-high crank Victrola and a ship-to-shore radio of her father’s, “guys would wait out there to meet fellows from Hampton who were coming over the new bridge, and turn them away so they wouldn’t come in and court the girls.”

“It was like a picket line,” adds her husband, Rae, with a chuckle. Visitors nowadays have no such troubles. Instead of a picket line, they are greeted by pear trees, which line the main thoroughfare and bear resplendent white blossoms in spring.

Jutting into the Chesapeake Bay between the Poquoson River and the Back River, Poquoson’s outline against the surrounding blue is the shape of a bull’s head. For that reason, Poquoson residents call themselves Bull Islanders. Sam Ferguson, a retired waterman, gives a second reason for the name. “People used to let their cattle run free through the marsh,” he says. “So the name Bull Island just seemed natural.”

The first mention of Poquoson was recorded in an English land patent issued to Captain Christopher Cal­thorpe on April 26, 1631. It is the oldest continuously named city in Virginia—and in some places the town’s history is tangible. Walking down a row of gray grave markers in Weston Cemetery, you can trace Poquoson bloodlines that have been around since the 1700s. Ferguson’s Poquoson lineage traces back four centuries, and Harcum’s dates to the War of 1812, when her forebears moved from the Eastern Shore because “it’d be safer over here if the British came back again.”

Maybe that explains why Bull Islanders tend to take a long view about most things. They are not, generally, excitable—except, perhaps, when it comes to the water. On that subject they are passionate. No wonder: Standing on the shoreline, it’s possible to watch the sun both rise and set over water. Piers dot every inlet, trawlers fill slips at York Haven Marina, and sails flutter on the breeze at all hours of the day. The community is mostly residential, but commercial fishing is still a large part of the local economy. Even suburban move-ins embrace the sea culture, decorating their lawns with lighthouses, anchors and other maritime ornaments.

Poquoson isn’t solely defined by water. The city’s identity is also tied to NASA’s Langley Research Center. Looming over treetops across the Back River are the giant structures on which Project Mercury astronauts trained to land on the moon. Over the years, many NASA scientists have taken up residence in Poquoson (they constitute about 13 percent of Poquoson’s population), which has benefited from the influx of brainpower.

Bull Islanders like to brag about the sports championships won by Poquoson High School (current AA state champion in baseball and nine-time AA state champion in wrestling), but the school’s most notable achievements are more cerebral than physical. The high school Academic Bowl team has qualified for the National Academic Championships a handful of times, and teams from elementary, middle and high school have all competed at the World Finals in an international construction and problem-solving competition called Odyssey of the Mind (OM).

Norm Remchuk has coached elementary, middle and high school OM teams since 2003, including squads that finished fourth, fifth and 13th at the World finals. Before he took over, Poquoson High had won the championship in 2000 and 2001. In 2001, then-15-year-old Kelsey Boitnott set a world record in the “structure” event, building an 18-gram balsawood tower that held 1,535 pounds before snapping. China is one of the top competitors in structures, but its youngsters have yet to beat little Poquoson—Boitnott’s record still stands.

Stroll the streets of Poquoson and you get a sense that Bull Islanders pay little heed to short-term change. For example, several businesses have passed through the brick building on the corner of Yorktown and Hunts Neck roads, but folks still refer to it as B.C. Smith’s. It doesn’t seem to matter that Smith’s general store closed more than 10 years ago, or that the park bench out front, where boys sat to watch traffic pass, is now just a memory. Residents still talk about the general store and the bench—even though the building now houses a shop called the Perfect Garden. It was closed when I stopped by, a sign on the door stating the reason: “Makin’ cookies.”

That is pure small-town charm. So is Edward (“call me Bubba”) Collier’s produce stand, down the road. It is nothing more than a wooden cart with a tattered umbrella that Collier leaves in front of his house, unattended. Placards with prices sit next to tomatoes, cucumbers and squash—along with a money tin and a sign that reads, “Help yourself.”

“That’s the kind of community it is,” says Chief of Police Cliff Bowen. By that he means everybody is accessible; there is little pretense. Last year, Bowen stopped by the high school where his son was rehearsing for the musical Bye, Bye Birdie, but something was amiss. A few bit players had dropped out, one of whom played the role of a police officer. Enter Bowen, who is 6-foot-7-inches tall, stage left. “They begged and pleaded,” he recounts with a laugh, “so I ended up taking a role in the senior play. My son and I actually had a scene where we got to sing together.”

An absence of stuffiness does not mean that Poquoson is bereft of finer pleasures. While the town is largely casual, there are cosmopolitan pockets. The Briar Patch Tea Room, for example, blends British culture and Southern charm into a quaint and cozy atmosphere. The food is prepared with flair. The turkey salad almandine, a house specialty, arrives on fine china, slivers of almond coating a large scoop of turkey salad and grapes atop a bed of lettuce. Patrons can also choose from a vast selection of tea, a few wines, and even St. George’s beer, a local microbrew that won the 2007 title of “Grand Champion” at the United States Beer Tasting Championship.

In 2007, a rezoning decision shut down Poquoson Marina, the city’s largest docks and boat ramp, to pave the way for a redevelopment project that would place condos at the waterfront location. Though the move nudges it a little closer to becoming a residential suburb for neighboring cities, Poquoson will never lose its seaside identity. Every year, the city celebrates its heritage with the annual Seafood Festival, a three-day event on the third weekend in October, featuring national musical acts, historic displays of watermen and all the seafood you can eat. The festival wraps up with workboat races, where dozens of deadrise boats and other working craft vie for the title “King of the Bay.” Spectators cheer from bleachers on a grassy hill overlooking Messick Point.

Across Messick Road, a handful of employees at Bill Forrest Seafood are busy processing the catches from 22 watermen—crab and fish of all kinds. Owner Bill Forrest Jr., whose grandfather started the business in 1941, is a gruff but honest man. “I work all day, every day,” he says. His face is a testament to his work ethic, weathered and red, with a childhood scar that curls down his cheek before disappearing into a salt-and-pepper beard. His nine trucks will haul the day’s catch to grocery retailers and seafood shops along the Atlantic coast, but walk-in customers are welcome and receive the same wholesale price that he gives to stores.

Despite the recession, Forrest says his workload is as heavy as ever. “I don’t want to be like my father and granddaddy and work till the day I die,” he says. “It’s the life I chose, and I support my family and pay my bills. What more could a man ask?” He has two daughters, both skilled sailors, but he doesn’t want them to take his place. Forrest plans to put in another 10 to 15 years then sell most of the land around his business, which he owns outright, and hold on to one parcel. “I want to maybe build me a restaurant and give it to my two girls,” he says.

A favorite hangout among working fishermen is Owens Marina Restaurant. Most tie up at the dock in back when Owens opens at 6:30 a.m. and grab breakfast before putting out to sea. For some watermen, however, that’s way too late. Ken Diggs Jr., last in a long line of family fishermen, rises at 3:30 every morning and is underway by 4:15. After running a line of crab pots on the water, he’ll dock around noon and sell the day’s catch. Then it’s back to work, prepping the next day’s pots. That’s been his daily routine since graduating from high school three years ago. “When my dad graduated, there were more than 30 fishermen in his class,” he says, “but I’m the only fisherman in my graduating class.” That fact chafes him. He contends that misinformation about the “endangered” crab population has needlessly scared watermen away.

Crabs or no crabs, there is plenty of waterfowl: egrets, ducks and blue herons all pick through the surrounding marshland, providing postcard scenes for nature lovers. At high tide, marsh water creeps up until it is inches away from flooding the Wythe Creek Bridge.

Poquoson sits at sea level, and storms weigh heavy on people’s minds. In 2003, Hurricane Isabel tore through the community and left a wide swath of wreckage. Months afterwards, household possessions still lay strewn by the roadside. Reconstruction changed the face of the city. Clapboard cottages that had been passed down through generations were razed. Those that remain now stand six to eight feet higher, atop cinder blocks or stilts. “I think Isabel brought the very best out of the people who live in this city,” says Mayor Gordon Helsel Jr. “It was heart-wrenching. Many people lost everything they had. But, even in disaster, that special grit inside the folks who live here just tripled in size. When you move to Poquoson, something just gets in your system about service. Folks come here and they’re [ready to help].”

Like most residents, Helsel doesn’t foresee much change in Poquoson’s future. There are plans for a commemorative license plate, and a four-sided clock tower is slated to go up in the center of town. But otherwise, Bull Islanders will carry on as they have for decades—happily oblivious to the clamor beyond. •

Attractions

Canal Walk

A 1.5-mile loop through the woods and along a canal. 500 City Hall Ave.

Heide’s Point Memorial & Lighthouse

236 Beach Road—follow a sign pointing down a sandy path.

Poquoson Museum

968 Poquoson Ave., 757-868-6830, PoquosonMuseum.com

Poquoson Seafood Festival

October 14-16, 2016, 830 Poquoson Ave., 757-868-3588, PoquosonSeafoodFestival.com

Weston Cemetery

Traditional Poquoson names dating back to the 18th century. 1400 block of Poquoson Ave.

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