Smithfield Times 100th anniversary

Published 6:34 pm Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Great Fire of Smithfield, 1921

William Henry Sykes Jr. recalls the first sign of trouble in Smithfield on Aug. 17, 1921. It was an early, oddly timed whistle before 6:30 a.m. from the steamboat Hampton Roads. Sykes bore witness to what was arguably one of the most tragic events in the town’s 20th century history — the great fire.

Back then, there was no organized fire department in Smithfield, Sykes, an eyewitness to the event, told Helen Haverty King in her book “Historical Notes on Isle of Wight County, Virginia.” The town owned two hose reels on two wheel carts with a shaft that could be connected to a car bumper.

Among the facilities destroyed by the fire were a large frame peanut factory and warehouse that “was loaded with peanuts and lard, and the whole thing burned, peanuts and all,” Sykes recounted. The result was a large black slick of “peanut oil that floated all over the river, onto every boat hull and mooring line.”

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Smithfield asked the Suffolk Fire Department for help, which was provided, and in its account of the incident, King mentions The Virginian-Pilot report that the Suffolk Fire Department made the call in record time of less than an hour, which was impressive given that “the highway from Smithfield to Suffolk was a dirt road at that time.”

As the town was dependent on the steamboat for commerce and transportation, the burned dock and warehouse at the waterfront were first to be rebuilt. “The town lost its main business that day, peanut processing, and that just about ended Smithfield’s share of the market. Cleaning and grading peanuts probably began right here in Smithfield, but Suffolk, had gotten into the act. They had railroads; we had none and that made the difference,” Sykes said.

World War II

Wars have almost always been hometown news in Smithfield. Dispatches and updates on local service members regularly filled the paper during World War II. The Dec. 11, 1941, Smithfield Times put in print for posterity what many had likely already heard: “U.S. and Japan are now at war.”

“The Japanese attack Sunday morning (Sunday afternoon our time) by war planes upon Honolulu and Pearl Harbor while diplomats in America were talking peace terms came as a great surprise to the world,” the paper said in that week’s edition.

Four years later, the paper noted the celebration that “War Is Ended With Japan” in the Aug. 15, 1945, edition. The edition was less than a week after the unprecedented atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In a separate headline, the Smithfield Times called the preceding seven days “One of the most momentous news weeks in history.”

But perhaps as evidence of the community’s resilience, war-related news made up only a small part of the approximately 20 news items on the front page of the Aug. 15 edition. The paper that week also noted that E.E. Loomer, a “popular mail carrier” serving Smithfield, had “a very bad case of poison ivy” while delivering mail on a rural route.

Smithfield Foods

For nearly 85 years, the history of Smithfield — the town — and the growth and fortunes of Smithfield Foods, formerly Smithfield Packing, have been and remain closely intertwined.

In 1936, Joseph W. Luter Sr. and his son, Joseph W. Luter Jr. opened a meatpacking company in the town. At the time they established their company, the Luters were working for another meatpacker, P.D. Gwaltney & Co.

“Although one of Smithfield’s youngest members of its happy, progressive business family, we are proud of our great strides since the establishment of our firm in 1936. We will continue to keep pace with Smithfield’s progress,” the company said in a Feb. 2, 1939 Smithfield Times advertisement.

In a 2009 interview with Virginia Living magazine, Joseph W. Luter III described how his father and grandfather ran the business in the early years. Before World War II, the elder Luters “went to Suffolk and picked up about 15 hog carcasses a day — brought them here, cut them up, put the hams in a box and threw ‘em in the back of a truck and sold them to mom-and-pop stores in Newport News and Norfolk.”

The third-generation Luter became chief executive officer in 1966. He left in 1970 and returned in 1975. His son, Joseph W. Luter IV, would also lead the company for several years before resigning in 2013.

By 1986, the company today known as Smithfield Foods reported annual sales of $864 million. A decade later, annual sales reached nearly $2.4 billion and by June 2011, annual sales were $12.2 billion. But in November of that year, the company announced the closure of its Portsmouth plant in 2013, which would eliminate 425 jobs. It was one of many ups and downs the company has survived.

Perhaps the biggest story in the company’s history was in 2013 when WH Group, a Chinese company, purchased Smithfield Foods for $4.72 billion. A front page headline in the June 5 edition of the Smithfield Times summarized the initial reaction thusly: “Much of local reaction to sale is shock.”

Today, about 2,000 employees work at the company’s Smithfield-area facilities. Nationally, the company employs about 40,000. You can get a taste of what the company offers at its eponymously named Taste of Smithfield restaurant in the town’s historic downtown. The eatery opened nearly a decade ago.

Smithfield Baptist Church fire

In just a few hours, fire destroyed decades of history and memories at Smithfield Baptist Church. Although buildings are just sticks and bricks, it’s what they represent and what goes on inside of them that earns our reverence and respect for important edifices.

Around 1 a.m. on Jan. 13, 1973, the church fell victim to fire. The building was a total loss.

“How do you say goodbye to a building?” the Smithfield Times asked in its Jan. 17 edition. “The Rev. Warren F. Taylor didn’t really expect an answer to his question then. It was too soon — early Saturday — and in front of him stood the Smithfield Baptist Church, 70-year-old home of the town’s largest congregation, hopelessly ablaze, the courageous efforts of the volunteer firemen unable to stop its destruction.”

“We have been burned out but we are still very much alive!” the church said in an Jan. 24, 1973, Smithfield Times advertisement. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, the congregation gathered for worship at Smithfield High School. Apparently, the fire also failed to destroy Taylor’s sense of humor or resilient spirit, as the ad also noted that he was working at the town library because “I have lost my study but not my job!”

Organized in 1830, the church’s first building was on Hill Street. The building on Church Street destroyed by fire had stood for 70 years and featured stained glass windows. Two additions were added to accommodate Sunday School, according to a church history.

The church decided to rebuild in a new location on Wainwright Drive. Services were first held there on June 22, 1975.

Hurricane Floyd

Hurricane Floyd flooding slammed property and roads but spared lives in Smithfield and Isle of Wight.

Initially the severity of the threat was uncertain. In the Sept. 15, 1999, edition of the Smithfield Times, local officials said they were watching the approaching storm. But Floyd apparently didn’t initially concern local leaders beyond readying local schools for use as storm shelters. And they planned to keep the county fair open while watching the weather. “We won’t cancel unless we have to,” county fair manager Alan Nogeic told the paper that week.

The paper summarized what happened next week with an all-caps banner headline: “Flooded By Floyd.”
“Hurricane Floyd didn’t produce the winds which had been feared here, but the rain associated with it left an area which is generally shielded from the worst nature can offer with a disaster of monumental proportions,” the paper said in a front page story. In Zuni, some homes “were flooded to the rooftops.” And in some cases flood survivors said the water rose so fast, “they had to leave most belongings behind as they fled.”

Zuni is no stranger to flooding — another hit in 2006 — but the community remains resilient.

November 2009 nor’easter

Sometimes natural disasters don’t speed through Smithfield. They linger, increasing the misery and risk.

That was the case in November 2009, when a nor’easter lingered for three days, bringing winds close to 60 miles per hour and leaving nearly a foot of rain in its wake about a week before Thanksgiving. The wet and windy weather was a remnant of Hurricane Ida, which had earlier made landfall on the Gulf Coast.
The storm caused more than $500,000 in estimated damage to public and private property. The nor’easter also washed out a portion of Morgart’s Beach Road; the cost to repair the road was about $200,000. More than 20 roads around Smithfield flooded during the storm, officials said at the time.

James River Bridge

When there’s heavy traffic or the traffic lights turn red for no apparent reason, it takes a resilient spirit to not get frustrated. But the convenience of a quick trip across the river didn’t exist nearly a century ago.

Realizing the importance that transportation access would bring to Isle of Wight and Smithfield, a group of local businessmen created a corporation that, in turn, built the 4-½ mile-long James River Bridge linking Newport News and Isle of Wight. At the time of its opening on Nov. 17, 1928, it was the world’s longest bridge over water.

The occasion of the bridge’s opening was cause for celebration. The Nov. 15 Smithfield Times carried several front-page stories detailing the long list of visitors and dignitaries from across the region and state who would participate in the ceremony, as well as a hourly schedule listing all details of the program, which included military units and a parade. Even President Calvin Coolidge was involved — he pressed a button in the Oval Office, sending an electronic signal to lower the new drawbridge’s span.

In September 1928, weeks before the bridge’s opening, the paper opined and correctly predicted that it “is not far fetched to presume that ere long people will be making their homes in Smithfield, while their business will be in Norfolk or Newport News.”

The 1928 bridge was replaced in 1982 with a new, wider span, which is still in use today.