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Revitalized Small Town America in Smithfield


More and more people are moving into the cities, but for some people small towns are the only place to raise a family. Smithfield's revitalized downtown makes it one of the great American small towns.

Photography by the authors

Small towns are not for everyone. They are for our San Diego friends, David and Joan Vokac. The Vokacs have written 17 books — regional and national guides to living in the great towns of America. The Vokacs have their own criteria: size, location, natural setting and leisure appeal were important, as was distinct separation and identity from any nearby city. Places that lacked major cultural attractions or were larger than a population of 100,000 were eliminated.

The best towns can change over the years, the Vokacs point out. A dozen places have stumbled in the last year, they say: “Some towns didn’t get more exciting and some new, hot towns came along, marvelous in evolution.”

Such as the towns in California’s Coachella Valley. Palm Springs, America’s original desert playground, came first in the northwest end of the valley and its proximity to the interstate was a catalyst. Then casino gambling made its appearance and crime increased. In contrast, Palm Desert farther in the south is insulated and with its delightful El Paseo shopping has become “California’s preeminent desert showcase.”

As for us, we visit small towns, love ’em and accept that change can happen. And we’re doubly pleased when we find a favorite town has already had its change, one to warm anyone’s heart.

Benjamin Franklin by George Lundeen. One of seven historic statues by the famous Nebraska sculptor, who now has his studio in Loveland, Colo. John Edwards. Cultural Pig by Jennifer Lycke (left side shown).

We’re hearing about that change in Smithfield, Va. now as we sit in the office of John Edwards, the editor of The Smithfield Times. He grew up here, then left for college, the Navy and United Press International in Washington, D.C. But he wanted to come home!

Recalling the unattractive downtown Smithfield had 30 years ago — when only chickens could be found strutting Main Street — Edwards remembers how he and the town attorney were trying to raise money for improvements. They had secured a generous conditional grant of $200,000 from prominent businessman Joseph W. Luter III provided it was matched privately. They asked another local celebrity Julius Gwaltney for his support.

“Mr. Gwaltney asked me pointedly, ‘Why are you doing this?’” Edwards recalls. “My response was that few downtown projects have been economically successful but in the end, I said, ‘We’re doing it for our grandchildren.’ Mr. Gwaltney grumped that had we presented the idea as an economic investment he would have told us to go away. But to pass the downtown all of us loved on to future generations, he would participate.”

Others jumped in. The widow of the family that had operated the local pharmacy for many decades handed them a CD for $30,000. She died as they broke ground but Smithfield surpassed the initial match by $100,000.

And what a downtown they got!

Main Street is the heart of this little town: Brick sidewalks, historical statues, beautifully maintained Victorian homes, fascinating antique shops, numerous family restaurants, a restored courtroom complete with medieval stocks, a Colonial inn, a splendid county museum and — for visitors of all ages — a Porcine Parade of painted pigs. (We’ll explain the pig connection and the two local families who developed an industry next week.)

Top to bottom: Sweet Swine of Avon by Brenda Joyner. Cultural Pig by Jennifer Lycke (right side). Windsor Castle Pork by Cil Barbour.

The project Smithfield 2020 and its partners publish brochures with walking maps that show the locations of the eight pigs, including Steamboat Swillie, Birth of Ham, A Walk Through the Pork and Magnolia (not photographed here).

Historic Downtown Smithfield publishes a map with the location of Lundeen’s statues of The Valentine Couple, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Frost, and Joseph W. Luter, Sr. and Joseph W. Luter, Jr. the family that started Smithfield Foods. The bronzes were donated to the town by the Luter family, who have been most generous to Smithfield over the decades.

If you don’t want to look for the pigs but have a hankering to look at some of the homes in Smithfield, you can either wander the short half-mile of Main Street and see some Victorians or walk down the longer half-mile of Church Street and gaze on the elegant homes that once belonged to sea captains and merchants of a bygone age.

Church Street reminds us “life is sometimes the journey not the destination.” The houses are beautiful.

Smithfield Station, a new marina, hotel and restaurant/shopping complex has another member of the porcine parade, Swine and Roses by Sheila Gwaltney.

Half a mile down Church Street on the water’s edge at Smithfield Station rise and fall the sailing members of Smithfield. The yachts have typical names: Recovery, Crabby Crew, Time Out (titled perhaps by elderly parents with Generation X children) and Our Time (probably chosen by the children themselves).

The Smithfield Station restaurant is wildly praised. It’s worth the walk. In a town famous for Smithfield Ham, it offers crab cakes that are out of this world.

Once you are at the bottom of Church Street it’s an easy walk into Windsor Castle Park. A walk in the park with its wetlands, barns, even handsome horses reminds visitors they’re in a small town.

Small indeed! You can cut across the park and within a few minutes be back on that magnificent Main Street — with several choices of where you might have lunch.

We ate two or three meals at the Smithfield Gourmet Bakery. It’s a busy friendly place with a tin ceiling that suggests an earlier time — and it was indeed built on one of the original 1734 land grants. It was the town pharmacy until the 1970s.

Across the street lunch is served in the bustling company store, Taste of Smithfield, the Genuine Smithfield Ham Shoppe.

Almost next door to the Bakery is the Smithfield Ice Cream Shop which is right beside the town toilets and in between hang posters of tourist information — ideal perhaps for those who might want to photograph them with a smartphone as reading material for the toilets. The café sells more than ice cream, we were told by firemen, who are regular customers — and contented ones from the sound of it, but that probably covers most visitors to small town Smithfield.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.

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