Amid needed progress, some history should be preserved

Published 4:56 pm Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Years ago, the late Granville Starke regaled The Twins coffee shop crowd regularly with stories and banter. One day, he said he had been asked if he knew who Joe White was.

No, Granville replied, “But I know where his bottom is.”

The namesake of Joe White’s Bottom has been something of a mystery for ages, but thousands of people today know “where his bottom is” because of Gimme Shelter, a tiny business located in Cornett’s Garage right smack dab in the middle of Joe White’s Bottom.

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Gimme Shelter is the hugely successful nonprofit business created by Robin Knauth to raise money for the county animal shelter and, more broadly, animal rescue and care.

Mrs. Knauth and her husband, Peter, moved here from Virginia’s Northern Neck, where she operated a similar business. They bought the old Benjamin Chapman Library house on Church Street more than a decade ago. After a couple of years here, Robin focused her talent and energy (she has plenty of both) on creating an animal funding charity, and the Gimme Shelter Thrift Shop was born.

The response from the community was instantaneous.

Smithfield “is just heaven on earth. People in Smithfield have been unbelievable,” she said this week.

The venture has raised thousands upon thousands of dollars that were used to improve the Isle of Wight Animal Shelter, making it more conducive to the care of animals that end up there and to their eventual adoption.

Today, Gimme Shelter is not only a successful business, but a social gathering place for people who share Mrs. Knauth’s love of animals and charitable work on their behalf.

There’s also something about the location that seems to fit its use. Cornett’s Garage is one of many tiny service stations built in Smithfield and Isle of Wight County during the first three decades of the 20th century, when the automobile was becoming a ubiquitous part of America’s landscape.

Now, it seems, Gimme Shelter will close, and Cornett’s Garage will be bulldozed in an effort to make Joe White’s Bottom part of a prettier entry to Smithfield’s Historic District. Mrs. Knauth has been told that the property she has rented for a decade from Tommy Askew is under contract to the Luter family, which has bought the Pierceville and Little’s Supermarket property and is having plans drawn for their development. She has until March 31 to clear out the huge inventory of flea market items people have donated to the venture.

I’ve been, and remain, a huge fan of what Joe Luter has done for Smithfield for decades. I am convinced that whatever is planned for the Pierceville and Little’s property will be first-rate.

That said, I believe that sometimes the push for bigger and better overlooks what seem to be less important things that are actually at the heart of a community’s history.

Smithfield is justifiably proud of its business history, dating back to Mallory Todd’s ham export business in the late 1700s. But Smithfield’s prosperity is largely a 20th century phenomenon and is inextricably tied to the internal combustion engine and the automobiles and trucks it powered.

Numerous old photographs of Smithfield show service stations that provided the fuel, oil and basic maintenance needed to keep cars on the road. In my memory there were six service stations or stores with gas pumps between the corner of Main and Church Street and what is now the Smithfield Bypass intersection.

Three remain. One is a soap boutique and another is the Chamber of Commerce headquarters. Those two were remodeled to the point that one would never know what they originally were. The third is Cornett’s. It still looks much as it did when you could pull up to a gas pump, fill up and go inside for a Coke and a pack of nabs.

Service Station owners used to throw the metal bottle caps from soft drinks into the driveway out front. It was cheap paving material. Today, there are still bottle caps visible in the old asphalt in front of Cornett’s.

The building is listed as “contributing” to the town’s Historic District. It doesn’t qualify as a landmark, but it probably should, because it has as much to do with the town’s century-old business history as anything in Smithfield.

All of the old smokehouses are gone, as are most of the reminders of commerce and industry in Smithfield’s heyday. But Cornett’s remains, a fitting reminder of the town’s business history.

Like most people, I look forward to seeing what will be done with the Pierceville and Little’s property. I just wish the old gas station could be a part of it.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is