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June 24, 2003
The Zuni Indians (pronounced Zoo-nee) are a southwestern tribe that once inhabited the area now known as Arizona and New Mexico. Zuni, Virginia (pronounced Zoo-nigh), is a small village on the edge of Isle of Wight County, abutting the Blackwater River that serves as a boundary with Southampton County to the north and west.
If you drive up Route 460 past Suffolk through the town of Windsor, the next place you come to is Zuni. Take a diagonal left off the main highway just before the curve in the road, you’ll ride down a street with a few houses, a Presbyterian church, a dental office, and an old peanut storage facility whose silo still sits partially collapsed from a fire forty years ago that ended its useful life.
Take a left at the end of that road, go through a narrow one-lane railroad underpass, and follow Thomas Woods Trail to the Zuni Presbyterian Homes, a facility offering training for mentally challenged adults in a residential setting. You’ll also find the Zuni Gourmet Peanut & Plant Shop, which employs those residents and sells locally grown peanuts and peanut brittle. You’ll think you’re in the middle of nowhere, and you won’t be far wrong.
Zuni supposedly has about 120 residents, but no one knows exactly where the city limits are. Although Zuni has some notoriety among giggling teenage boys as the home of White Tail Park, the “southeast’s premiere clothes-free resort” is actually two miles up the road in Southampton County, on the way to Ivor.
Folks in Zuni are friendly. Beth Swartz, whose father, Dr. J. R. Hager, practiced dentistry there for 37 years until his retirement in 1997, remembers her father and his partners being paid with farm products.
“The dentists knew they couldn’t afford full dental care,” she recalls, “so they would honor fresh eggs, fresh vegetables, tomatoes in the summer. One guy was so thankful he brought in chitterlings. Of course, that made for a little fragrance in the office.
“People would just walk in and say ‘I have a toothache, I need it pulled.’ We used to get some of those patients [from White Tail Park] in there too. We kind of joked about it because we couldn’t help but notice they were sweating. We said it’s just because they were wearing clothes.”
Zuni was also a major center for gun sales in the 1970s. The Blackwater Trading Post was a huge firearms retailer until its owner was shot and killed in an attempted robbery in 1979. And in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, Wright’s Barbecue was a must-stop spot for north/south travelers before Interstate highways took them away from Route 460.
Norfolk resident Jerry Butler grew up in downtown Zuni. He says the village has changed since the days of his youth, especially after the 1999 flood rampage created by Hurricane Floyd along the Blackwater River.
“Everybody lives out in the country now,” he says. “There are very few people in Zuni itself. Thanks to Floyd, a lot of the homes are gone. The gun shop is gone. That end of town is totally different.”
His 87-year old father still lives there.
“My dad told me that when he was growing up, Zuni was the hub of Isle of Wight County. Zuni had a bank, a couple of hotels, a blacksmith shop. It was really more of a center than Windsor or Smithfield. It was a busy stop for the railroad.”
These days, the trains just keep on chuggin’ past this quaint little hamlet. The once-grand hotel building was washed away by the floods of Floyd. There’s no longer a full-time dentist in town. And Wright’s Barbecue is only a memory.
But, as Beth Swartz concludes, Zuni remains a special place: “There’s just nothing like the people out there.”
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