Five years after fire, a Surry staple’s sad conclusion

Published 5:12 pm Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Fire has shaped and reshaped human history. From the time early man learned to use it to improve his life, fire has been a means of advancing society and of dramatically — and suddenly — altering its course. Sometimes the result has been advancement and sometimes regression. Rarely has it been the status quo.

The fire that destroyed the Library of Alexandria in about 48 BC took with it much of the ancient world’s literature. We will never know what treasures were consumed.

The Great London Fire of 1666 destroyed much of Medieval London but cleared the way for some of the greatest architecture of the Enlightenment period.

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The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, regardless of whether Mrs. O’Leary’s cow was the culprit, led to rebirth of that city into one of the nation’s premier financial centers.

And the Cleveland Cuyahoga River fire in 1969 was precipitated by an oil refinery’s careless dumping of gasoline. It provided much of the impetus needed to drive the environmental movement, which was just beginning.

And all this, you might guess, is an introductory way of talking about a local fire of note. This one has no happy ending.

Samuel Wallace Edwards III’s announcement last week that the family-owned Edwards Virginia Smokehouse is being sold is an unquestionably sad result of one of our community’s most devastating fires.

Nobody, certainly not Edwards or his employees, could have expected this when they went to work on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016. It was just a routine day after the holiday rush was over. Then, at about 12:30, someone smelled smoke, called the Surry Volunteer Fire Department, and the world was turned upside down for a business that had been synonymous with the name Surry for the better part of a century.

The company had a serendipitous beginning. S. Wallace Edwards, Samuel’s grandfather, married the daughter of Capt. A.F. Jester, who had recently founded the Scotland-Jamestown ferry system. Edwards worked for his father-in-law as a captain on the John Smith, a tiny wood-hulled ferry built in Battery Park specifically for the new river crossing. Edwards had grown up on a farm on Jones Creek outside Smithfield and had learned the art of curing hams from his widowed mother, Emma Branch Edwards.

To make a bit of extra money on the ferryboat runs, Edwards and his wife, Oneita, began making ham sandwiches that he took to work and sold to passengers. They were so popular that he began expanding the business and, in time, launched a hog slaughtering and processing plant. He cured his signature Wigwam Brand hams in distinctively-styled smokehouses that sat in the backyard of his Surry home.

Edwards Sr. developed sales routes across Hampton Roads and drove his own delivery truck to country stores throughout the region, where customers waited weekly for what they considered the best fresh pork sausage that could be bought.

One of Edwards Sr.’s proudest accomplishments was the use of a Wigwam Brand ham in a dinner served to Queen Elizabeth II on her visit to Jamestown and Williamsburg in 1957. Long after Edwards Sr.’s death, the queen was served another Edwards ham during her return visit in 2007.

As S. Wallace Jr. and his son, Samuel, joined the operation, it expanded to become known nationwide for the quality of its cured products, including the recently-introduced and spectacularly popular Surryano Ham.

All that was turned on its head with the 2016 fire. The blaze completely destroyed the Edwards smokehouse, warehouse and corporate headquarters, and over the next 5½ years, Sam Edwards has wrestled with what course he should take. There has been a long running battle over insurance, which still has not been resolved, but in the end, the family elected to sell to Burgers’ Smokehouse, headquartered in Missouri.

Burger was a logical buyer. The company has had a long association with Edwards and has stepped in to provide hams and other products for Edwards since the fire.

The blaze that destroyed Edwards Virginia Smokehouse has to clearly fall in the negative category among changes wrought by fire. It destroyed a company that has been a part of Surry lore and allure since smoke began wafting from those wigwam-style smokehouses nearly a century ago.

I wish the Edwards family, but also the Surry community, well as they come to grips with what now is certain to be a permanent community change.


Full Disclosure: John Edwards is a nephew of S. Wallace Sr. He is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is