Short Rows: Appreciative grandson preserves Orbit store
Published 5:34 pm Tuesday, November 15, 2022
Travel most anywhere in Isle of Wight County these days and what you’ll probably notice most is the change that’s taking place. Blink twice, it seems, and another few dozen apartments or condominiums have replaced what was a bean field a year or so ago, particularly if you’re traveling anywhere between Smithfield and the James River Bridge.
Life in this corner of the county moves inexorably from rural to suburban, with all that urbanization entails. Traffic gets heavier and heavier, backups on the JRB longer and longer, some motorists get angrier and angrier and — well, you know the drill by now.
Even Isle of Wight’s more rural stretches are now as likely to grow houses as they are cotton or corn. What were, not long ago, long stretches of rural roads are now fronted by small clusters of houses. It seems the world that many of us grew up in is gone forever, not only in the county’s high-growth corridor but, increasingly, in rural corridors as well.
Remnants of rural Isle of Wight do remain, however, and they are priceless to those who live in and around them.
Take Orbit, for instance. On second thought, don’t take it. Leave it alone, please. It’s a gem just as it is.
Not much seems to change in Orbit, which is located just over four miles southeast of Isle of Wight Courthouse. The Garner Field Airport anchors the community as it has ever since it was created by Fleetwood Garner well over a half century ago. The airfield, good-naturedly referred to as Orbit International to longtime Isle of Wight residents, is home to the Tidewater Soaring Society, which maintains a fleet of gliders in the airfield hangars.
And next door to the airfield is the Garner Country Store, which, thanks to its owner, Billy Garner, will continue to stand for a long time to come.
Garner didn’t grow up in Orbit. He and brother Tom were raised in Richmond, where his parents, Fleetwood and Anna Garner, were active in business and society. Billy and Tom regularly came to Orbit, however, spending weekends with their grandparents Chesley and Texanna Garner, who owned and operated the C.T. Garner Store.
Garner so fondly remembers the time he spent in this rural setting and the life his grandparents carved out there that he undertook a complete restoration of the building, which from the road looks to be a tiny country store but is, in fact, a rambling combination of commercial and residential space cobbled together by his grandparents as their need for space grew.
Garner has restored the store shelves and lined them with cans of beans and other products that would be found in a country store of the mid-20th century. Advertising posters on the walls entice buyers to purchase a variety of products, and a vast collection of cigar boxes reflect Chesley Garner’s love for a smoke as well as a product that was regularly sold.
The living spaces, which had been added incrementally, have been furnished in large part with the Depression-era furniture used by his grandparents when they lived there, before they built a brick home nearby.
Garner’s goal in restoring the building was simple. He wanted to honor his grandparents and save what he considers an important slice of rural America.
Two Saturdays ago, Billy and Tom met the Tidewater Soaring Society members at the store to present a collage of photos that had been put together to honor his father, Fleetwood, who was a career aviation executive, investor and philanthropist, and a legendary figure in Orbit.
The brief opening of the store became more than a chance to present the collage, however. Longtime Orbit residents dropped by the store where they munched on Lance cheese nabs Garner had purchased and washed them down with Coca Colas in old-style six-ounce bottles that were iced down in a cooler.
The Garner Store isn’t Billy Garner’s only interest in Isle of Wight history. He is a board member of the Isle of Wight Historical Society and was instrumental in bringing National Trust for Historic Preservation official Thomas Mayes to Historic St. Luke’s recently to talk about the importance of preserving old places.
He is also working with the Historical Society on the possibility of preserving the Ebenezer Rosenwald Schoolhouse, located on Bob White Road. The tiny building was the education center for black children in the immediate community and one of several rural schoolhouses throughout Isle of Wight. It is the only Rosenwald school still intact.
That project is in the future, though. The store preservation is complete, and Garner takes great pride in it and its connection to his grandparents. From that little building, they managed a multifaceted rural business that bought peanuts, sold fertilizer and cured country hams on a commercial scale.
Of the restoration, he says simply, “It was an old building and it’s hard to keep a building like that going.”
Hard, but certainly not impossible for Billy Garner.
John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.