Smithfield marks 100th anniversary of Great Fire

Published 4:50 pm Tuesday, August 10, 2021

The old bell in the tower of Christ Episcopal Church will toll the morning of Aug. 21, just as it did 100 years ago to sound the alarm during the Great Fire of Smithfield.

One-hundred years and four days, to be precise. Aug. 17, 1921, is the exact date the fire spread through Commerce Street, destroying Smithfield’s peanut industry.

Newspapers of the day preserved in the Library of Virginia’s online archives report the fire started sometime after a night watchman at the Gwaltney-Bunkley peanut factory reported at 3:30 a.m. that all was well, but before 6:15 a.m. when day workers found flames near the factory’s engine room.

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By 6:30, residents of the town had formed a bucket brigade. Around 7 a.m., Smithfield had telephoned Suffolk for help, as Smithfield’s Volunteer Fire Department would not exist for another 18 years.

The bell is set to ring on the hour at 10 a.m., 11 a.m. and noon, though the times don’t correspond with any particular events the day of the fire.

The now-defunct Norfolk Post reports the blaze had been confined to a two-block area along the town’s waterfront by around 8:30 a.m. This was largely thanks to the Suffolk Fire Department, who “stopped for nothing,” according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “making the run from Suffolk to Smithfield in less than an hour.”

The Suffolk unit had left at 7:20 and arrived in Smithfield by 8:15. It was record speed for the day, the firefighters having achieved it by telephoning ahead to have bridges reenforced with heavy timber to bear the weight of a “big motored pumper, with a full crew of men,” the Times-Dispatch reports. Half an hour later, a fire tugboat from Newport News had arrived and the two units, in less than two hours, had the blaze under control.

The church has scheduled events to coincide with each ringing of the bell. At 10 a.m., the church will open its doors for an art exhibit and sale inside its parish hall and tours of its sanctuary. At 11 a.m., a special tour led by Bill Egan, a structural engineer, will focus on the circa-1830s church’s history and recent efforts to preserve its historic stained glass windows.

“What I’m trying to make happen is to get the fire trucks,” said Mary Cole, who runs the church’s Sundays at Four classical music program.

Her goal is to have the trucks stationed near Smithfield’s weekly farmers market, held each Saturday morning in the Bank of Southside Virginia parking lot, and to have them activate their sirens at noon in an effort to direct residents and visitors to the bottom of the wharf where the fire occurred.

There, Cole said she’s toying with the idea of having attendees join in a mock bucket brigade, but hasn’t finalized her plans yet.

At 1 p.m., Albert Burckard of the Isle of Wight County Historical Society and Michael Brinkley, a Suffolk historian, will give a presentation at the church of the fire’s sequence of events and its aftermath. At 2 p.m., the bluegrass gospel group Solid Rock will perform period music on the church lawn.

There will also be period-dressed interpreters at the 1750 Isle of Wight Courthouse on Main Street throughout the day, and a 1921 automobile on display. At the Isle of Wight County Museum, also on Main Street, residents and visitors are invited to see the “world’s oldest peanut,” a circa-1890 legume that is all that remains of the town’s once-booming peanut industry founded by P.D. Gwaltney Sr. and Jr. The museum will also host a “lunch and learn” session on the fire at 12:30 p.m. Aug. 17.

Smithfield, in fact, was once known as the “peanut capital” of the world, but the title passed to Suffolk following the fire.

“They really grew that empire,” said Jennifer England, director of the Isle of Wight County Museum, of the Gwaltneys.

Before the fire, “it was the main stay” of the town, she said, when goods were shipped from Smithfield primarily by boat.

“Our commerce was done on the water,” said Cole, who, while not the centenarian she’d need to be to have lived through the fire herself, can remember traveling a partially-rebuilt Commerce Street as a child, which she recalls included a hardware store and blacksmith’s shop.

But modes of transportation were already changing as the world became more and more industrialized, and when the Great Fire destroyed Smithfield’s docks, the peanut industry relocated to Suffolk, which had better access to highways and railroads, England said.

At its Aug. 3 meeting, Smithfield’s Town Council formally thanked Suffolk Department of Fire & Rescue Battalion Chief Nick Savage with a resolution of commendation for the department’s help in extinguishing the Great Fire.

Editor’s note: A previously published version of this story listed an incorrect start time for the Solid Rock gospel group performance.