Column – Smithfield’s civic spirit blossomed during Depression

Published 4:40 pm Tuesday, January 10, 2023

The period between the early 1900s and the years immediately after World War II was marked locally by the emergence of civic and cultural clubs that became the primary boosters of the Smithfield and Isle of Wight economy as well as a stimulant for heightened cultural awareness.

Most of that civic club growth occurred in the late 1920s and 1930s, which, not coincidentally, were the years of the Great Depression, a worldwide economic meltdown that negatively affected every community, including this one.

The first two organizations to be formed were the Shakespeare Class, which first met in 1905. Its creation appears to have been spurred by the principal of the Smithfield Institute, a local educator. It evolved into a weekly study session that continues today, nearly 120 years later. That was followed, in 1923, by the Music Club, which appears to have been an offshoot of a regional movement to promote music.

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Two years later, the Smithfield Chamber of Commerce was created to promote Smithfield business in and beyond the town. Its goal, stated in a brief story in The Smithfield Times a few years later, was to “consider any project that may bring any industry or recognition to Smithfield.”

Two years after the chamber was created, the venerable Woman’s Club of Smithfield was chartered and undertook an ambitious agenda to promote projects in education, citizenship, music, the arts, the literary world and drama.

That club launched a drive to have a community hall built, a project that would finally be realized after World War II.

One year later, in 1928, the Smithfield Rotary Club was chartered and immediately began its sponsorship of a local Boy Scout Troop, a project that would be a mainstay of club efforts going forward.

The civic club fever continued. Seven years after the Rotary Club was created, its members invited Isle of Wight County residents, most of them farmers, to a meeting to discuss creation of a Smithfield Ruritan Club. The Rotarians became sponsors of the effort to create the Ruritan Club, and the two organizations have had a close working relationship ever since.

By the mid-1930s, the Woman’s Club had sponsored creation of a Junior Woman’s Club, an organization that would remain active for the next half-century.

World War II appears to have delayed creation of a Junior Chamber of Commerce, but in 1949, a group of young men, most if not all of them war veterans, met with Jaycee representatives from Newport News to discuss creation of a Jaycee chapter here. The local organizers read like a who’s who of 1950s businessmen. It included J. Kempter West, Rodham T. Delk, J. Travers Edwards, N.K. Jones, H.W. Love, Martin L. Haverty, J.D. Quinlan and J.T. Robins Jr.

Like everything else in the life of Smithfield and Isle of Wight, civic involvement was impacted by Jim Crow — it was segregated by race. But that didn’t mean the town’s Black community was not caught up in the civic fever and the desire to make community improvements. Scant space was allotted in The Smithfield Times to those efforts, but they were acknowledged. In 1930, the paper ran a letter to the editor from the band committee of the “Colored Elks of Smithfield.” The letter explained that efforts to create a black community band were slow in starting but were progressing, with thanks to “our white friends” who had given financial support to the effort.

A front-page story in 1942 listed local contributions to the war effort. It noted that local resident W.F. Shivers, who was treasurer of the Virginia Colored Elks, was a delegate to the national Elks convention. The national organization, on a motion by Shivers, converted $100,000 of its funds to War Bonds to show the organization’s support for the country. The newspaper applauded the gesture.

The level of civic activity here, particularly during the late 1920s and 1930s, is intriguing, coming as it did in the midst of the Great Depression. I suspect that much of the impetus behind the civic activity came from construction of the James River Bridge system, which opened in 1928.

In today’s parlance, that project was a “game changer” for Smithfield and Isle of Wight County. Its combined bridges and roads opened the door to commerce between here and the Peninsula as well as Norfolk, and local business leaders were quick to jump on the opportunities presented by this new level of road connectivity.

A front-page editorial in The Smithfield Times in July 1928 referred to that civic spirit.

“Smithfield is the hub of a large trading territory. Smithfield has the stores, the stocks, and prices, and therefore should command her place as a commercial center of a rich and prosperous territory,” the paper declared.


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