Jammin' on the James
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
Snippets of conversation overheard at Lumpkin's Restaurant in Scottsville, Va.:
"You cut the hay just in time."
"What you all dressed up for, Gary? Funeral?"
Lumpkin's, a local institution for fifty-some years with a larger-than-human-size white chicken statue out front, is a comfort-food place where everybody seems to know everybody else. A sign reads, "Home Cooking: You'll Eat It and You'll Like It."
And I did. Warm peach cobbler ($1.75) melted on my tongue. Lumpkin's had made eight kinds of pie that day, including pecan chocolate fudge. I heard others agonize over choices.
Past Blue Ridge hills and winery signs, Lumpkin's chicken statue is the first thing you see upon entering Scottsville from Charlottesville, about 20 miles north. The town (population 560) isn't much more than a mile wide. The downtown runs along the James River. Most cars that drive through (7,800 daily) head south across the bridge to Buckingham County or hang a left on Main Street to Fluvanna County.
I'd been a drive-through person until I attended a riverside concert this summer at Canal Basin Square, a transportation history park on the original site of the James River & Kanawha Canal Basin. Lawn chairs covered the grass. The aroma of pulled pork hung in the air. Children climbed an old boat.
So I returned to give Scottsville a deeper look. Outside town offices at Victory Hall, I found a brochure that maps out a walking tour of 40 historic places, many now private homes and businesses. I wandered along hilly Jackson Street, with houses dating from 1790 to 1897, for a bird's-eye view.
Scottsville was once Virginia's westernmost government post. Its golden days came in the 1840s and '50s when it was the chief port above Richmond for freight and passengers. But the river was a problem.
That's why I started my tour at Canal Basin Square, where a floodwater marker instills respect for the James, which has overflowed its banks many times. On June 22, 1972, Hurricane Agnes put that spot under 34 feet of water.
In 1989, the river was tamed when a levee was built, thanks to the mayor at the time, A. Raymon Thacker. There's also a flood protection system. "It prevented flooding downtown, so businesses were willing to put more money into things," explained Brian LaFontaine, president of the chamber of commerce.
Businesses that left are back. Anne Marie McGibney's Crafts & More returned in May. "In the 1980s, we had three floods in 18 months," McGibney said. Now "I feel safe and secure. I really want to see the town blossom again."