A tragic day on Hwy. 10

Published 8:01 pm Tuesday, March 14, 2017

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I couldn’t have recalled the date without researching it, but it was May 18, 1955. In fact, The Smithfield Times even recorded the precise time — 6:15 p.m.

That was the day, and the time, that five people died in a horrific automobile accident at the far end of the long roadside field on our farm, about a half-mile from our house.

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Two sisters, May and Olive Branch, were on their way home from a doctor’s appointment in Newport News. Workmen were paving Hwy. 10 that day and a tar truck (ironically, not one involved in the paving project) had stopped, waiting to be flagged through.

The Branch sisters were also stopped and waiting behind the tar truck when a third vehicle, a hog truck in route to one of the town’s packing plants, plowed into the rear of the Branch car, shoving it into the back of the tar truck. It was surmised that the truck’s brakes likely failed.

All three vehicles exploded in an immense fireball. The Branches were incinerated, as were the two truck drivers two daughters, 9 and 10 years old, who were riding with their father that day. The hog truck driver was thrown from the truck and also killed — blessedly, I would have to conclude.

The truck was carrying 115 hogs, many of which also died. Others wandered about, some briefly on fire.

I was 9 years old at the time, my sister Betty was 7. We were cousins and neighbors of the Branch sisters — two much-beloved “old maids” in the parlance of the time — and we were frequently invited to ride with them on their trips to the city. My mother told me much later we would probably have been with the Branches that day but they had to leave before we got home from school.

I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere near the accident and that was OK with me. The black smoke rising from the fire at the far end of the field was sufficiently close to make an impression that remains with me. My parents didn’t say much about what had happened, but we absorbed enough to know the basics — and they were terrible.

May was 63 and Olive was 56 when they died, and the community was stunned, not only by their loss but the nature of the accident. They were active members of the community and of Benn’s Methodist Church, where they and their ancestors had been worshipped for a century and a half. In coping with the tragedy, resolutions were written, memorials set up, and the accident was talked of for years.

The Branch sisters’ deaths also heralded the beginning of change in the rural Hwy. 10 community between Benn’s Church and Smithfield.

The sisters owned two farms. Their father (my great grandfather) was a dairy farmer. His dairy operation was located where horse barns now sit at the eastern end of the Smithfield Bypass. A second farm was located next door to the farm my parents owned which, in turn, they had bought from the Branches in the late 1930s.

With no children and no will, their property was put up for auction, the proceeds to be divided among more than 40 heirs, including nieces, nephews and cousins.

First went the personal effects. Room after room of family treasures were sold on the steps of their farmhouse. Local families today still have a table, some chairs or other reminder of the Branches, though it’s doubtful that many now know where the items came from.

The two farms were then sold at auction. They were purchased by Walter Cecil Rawls, originally of Southampton County but then living in St. Louis. Farm prices were depressed at the time and Rawls bought the two farms for a combined price of $64,500 — a price per acre of $182 and change. The Smithfield Times declared that the buyer “Gets a bargain.”

Walter built his home overlooking Cypress Creek and his brother David built a home next to it.

About 15 years later, the Smithfield Bypass would cut a swath across the dairy farm. Anna’s Restaurant, the Smithfield Volunteer Fire Department, the town’s water treatment plant and an auto parts store occupy remnants of it today.

The second farm would be sold a couple of times and today is home to a number of commercial properties and the Canteberry subdivision.

Other farms between there and Smithfield have vanished under paved parking lots, banks, doctors’ offices and fast food restaurants. And fewer and fewer people remember the violent deaths of two gentle ladies who once presided over a sizeable part of the area.