PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
February 8, 2005

Rising from Peanut Dust

by Jim Newsom

“I’m a peanut born and a peanut bred, and when I die I’ll be a peanut dead…”

Despite those lyrics to the Suffolk High School fight song I sang a million times, my knowledge of peanuts at the time was limited to eating them and smelling them roasting in the air over my hometown. A couple of my friends had fathers who were peanut brokers, but I didn’t know any peanut farmers and wouldn’t have known a field of peanuts from a field of soybeans, alfalfa, collards or potatoes.

Still, there is nothing sweeter to me than the smell of roasting peanuts. When I was growing up in Suffolk, that glorious aroma filled the air every fall when the peanut crop was harvested and the processors began roasting them. To me, it represented all that autumn brings, from the fresh beginnings of a new school year to football games, dances and the comforting cocoon of family and friends.

There used to be two Suffolks: The old core city, two square miles whose center was “the square” in the middle of downtown where Washington and Main Street intersect; and the old Nansemond County, 428 square miles of rural peanut fields, swamps and occasional suburbs that included the hamlets of Chuckatuck, Driver, Holland and Whaleyville. These two entities merged into the largest city in Virginia (in land area) in 1974.

Now there’s a third Suffolk, the one where most of the residential growth has been taking place for the last decade. That’s the one spread out along Route 17, between the highway and the Nansemond and James Rivers, much of which falls into the massive development known as Harbour View. It’s a subdivision of the old county, but it’s not what a native would call “real Suffolk.”

I lived in “real Suffolk,” attending Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in the 6th and 7th grades, and Suffolk High School from the 8th grade on. Though I had friends spread out all over town, my world revolved around a very small area downtown. I lived in the second house from the Jefferson/SHS campus. I shot baskets across the street in the First Baptist Church parking lot and played basketball at Birdsong Recreation Center, catty-corner across the street from our house. I spent my springs and summers on the tennis courts behind the two schools. I went to church at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, half a block up the street the other way.

In those days, the 1960s, downtown Suffolk was a bustling place. A city only by Virginia standards, Suffolk had 12,000 people according to the census bureau. We had a new Leggett (with an escalator!), J. C. Penney, Woolworth, Roses, Russell & Holmes, Peoples Drug Store with a soda fountain, Nansemond Drug Store with a soda fountain, Russell’s Drug Store with a soda fountain, two jewelers, a couple of furniture stores, a hardware store, car dealers, a bunch of banks and lots of churches. All within a four or five block area. If they’d put a roof on it, you could’ve called it a mall.

The Chadwick Theatre was a cornerstone of downtown and of every young person’s life. A classic single-screen theatre on Main Street, it was the place I saw A Hard Day’s Night, Viva Las Vegas, Bonnie and Clyde, Gone with the Wind, Romeo and Juliet, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, Easy Rider, and many more---sometimes with my brother, sometimes with my friends, sometimes with a date.

Suffolk was the tennis capital of Virginia. Thanks to the efforts of recreation director Howard Mast, you didn’t have to belong to a country club to learn how to play the game. Lessons were taught on the public courts for no charge. I learned how to play the first summer we lived there, 1964, and later taught lessons myself. My first real job, other than cutting grass, was managing those tennis courts in the summer of 1969 between my junior and senior years in high school.

Suffolk was a wonderfully protective, insulated place to grow up in the ‘60s. We lived a sort of Leave it to Beaver life, at least for the most part. When Suffolk High School won the state basketball championship in 1969, the whole town emptied out and went to Charlottesville for the final. The community was just that, a real community of caring people, where parents looked out for each other’s children.

There were racial tensions at times, but many of us were hopeful that those early days of integrated educational and public facilities would lead to a time in the not-too-distant future in which the color of one’s skin was as unimportant as the color of one’s eyes. We could not foresee that Suffolk, like so many cities and towns, would have its public education system stripped of much of its financial support when community leaders began sending their children to the local white-flight academy.

It’s been 35 years since I graduated from Suffolk High School. I taught there myself for three years after college, then headed off to parts unknown, returning to this area in 1981 and promptly moving to Norfolk. For much of that time, a visit to Suffolk was a sad journey home.

The old downtown fell into pitiful disrepair, with few businesses able to hang in. The banks and churches survived, the banks with different names of course, but nearly every one of the old businesses on Main and Washington Streets disappeared except for G. S. Hobbs Ltd, a men’s haberdashery. The Chadwick was burned down in a failed arson-for-insurance attempt, Suffolk High School closed its doors in 1990, and the tennis courts became cracked and overrun by weeds and grass.

But some in Suffolk refused to give up on the old burg. And out-of-town dreamers saw potential where locals saw only problems. The result is the beginning of an exciting resurgence in downtown Suffolk. New restaurants and shops are opening weekly along Main and Washington Streets. New residents are moving into the grand old houses, and there are even some new homes being built in places long since given up for dead. A stylish makeover has given the downtown a classy new look. There’s a can-do spirit in the air that is as thick as the peanut dust used to be. (I maintain that breathing peanut dust in adolescence leads to premature grey hair!)

The heart of this renewed excitement is the transformation of the Suffolk High School building into the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts. The dream of two SHS alumnae who refused to take “no” for an answer, Betsy Brothers and Barbara McPhail, the Suffolk Center project is a template for public-private cooperation and funding that, when completed next year, will be the shining star in Suffolk’s new downtown firmament.

Construction has begun, and though you can’t see much on the outside yet, the inside of our alma mater is being renovated so that future generations can enjoy live performances, develop their artistic selves and throw great parties in the space that meant so much to those who came before.

Birdsong Recreation Center has been razed in the process, but though the building is gone, memories of winning baskets, beanball and crab soccer, sawdust dances and stolen kisses, pep rallies and Senior Days will linger as long as ex-Red Raiders do.

But it’s been a long time since I breathed in the sweet perfume of freshly roasting peanuts.

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