Jammin' on the James
There's Plenty Cooking In Scottsville, Va.

By Sue Kovach Shuman
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."

Canal Basin Square exhibits show bateaux and packet boats, which once were common means of transporting goods and people on the river. There's a replica of a packet boat, which was pulled by horses harnessed single file to a towline attached to the boat.

March 6, 1865, changed Scottsville. Union Gen. Philip H. Sheridan's cavalrymen occupied the town to cut off supplies to Confederate troops. They disabled canal locks, burned warehouses and confiscated food and horses. On March 10, they left for Petersburg to pursue Gen. Robert E. Lee's army.

In the Scottsville Museum, across from the levee, a small Civil War section recalls that era in the town's history. Another exhibit focuses on World War II.

Scottsville's oldest African American congregation (circa 1865) is Union Baptist, which worships at a whitewashed building on Hardware Street. If you want to see inside the town's five historic churches, go on a Sunday.

Downtown buildings, some in the late-18th- and early-19th-century Greek Revival style, house small shops. In the window at Coleman's Outdoors there's a stuffed black bear, a gift from a customer, according to employee Lee McGuire. "I heard it cost $2,500 to stuff," he said, grimacing. Coleman's has no computers but lots of fishing poles, rifles and ammunition.

The busiest store is Dollar General. Sports 'n More sells a Monopoly-like Scottsvilleopoly game for $10. Country Blessing's Grocery and Deli has opened with local produce and home-baked pastries.

For entertainment, check the Victory Hall billboard. The second Friday evening of each month, musicians gather for an acoustic jam in the theater there. When I went, 16 violins, mandolins, guitars and banjos and a bass churned out mostly country tunes. One singer was an 8-year-old boy.

But I yawned. It was time to find the James River Inn. "Watch out for the deer when you drive in, and the wild turkeys," I was warned when I booked. The inn, on 91 wooded acres, is perched on a cliff three miles outside town. Getting there meant driving on a mile-long gravel lane that dips and bends. Fleacollar, the dog, announced my arrival. I was the only guest.

The breakfast view was incredible: From a deck high above the James, I watched a lone kayaker while the inn cat sniffed my raspberry-nut rugelach. Then I trudged down 242 uneven steps to the river. Afterward, Fleacollar joined me on trails.

Saturday mornings, the farmers market at Dorrier Park is the place to be. It draws only about 15 vendors, but they offer such goods as flowers, grass-fed lamb and free-range poultry. I bought heirloom tomatoes, fingerling potatoes, Jennifer Page's sourdough baguette, Lisa Bittner's whole-wheat loaf and Helen Barker's old-recipe peach jam. Even Frances Kerr's zucchini-blossom soaps (from $1.25) smelled edible.

I drove to Hatton Ferry, about five miles from downtown Scottsville. It's one of the last "poled" ferries in the country, meaning poles are used to guide it. It has run almost continuously at this site since the 1870s. People can ride free on weekends, but it wasn't running when I visited; the water was too low.

Last, I stopped at First Colony Winery in Charlottesville. I left with a price list and plans to return with a designated driver.

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