Column – Rural IW, Surry was a photography smorgasbord

Published 4:25 pm Tuesday, March 21, 2023

During the more than four years that I dragged a camera around Isle of Wight and Surry, recording everything from house fires to winter sunsets, much has changed, including the pictures that run in The Smithfield Times, now under new and competent leadership and featuring the work of other photographers.

When I first returned to Smithfield in 1972, it was pretty easy to find feature photos during slow news weeks. Just take a short ride into the country and find a farmer plowing, planting, cultivating or harvesting. If there was no field work, then there was always someone feeding hogs or cattle, or doing some other chore on hundreds of farms.

Today, with the consolidation of farm operations and the ever-larger equipment that’s used to manage fields, you can ride for miles before you find anyone in a field. The work’s still being done, but so quickly and efficiently, you’re sometimes hard pressed to find it underway.

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Back in those days, watermen also provided an endless supply of delightful photographs. This time of year, there would be numerous piles of pine trees on the shore being “skinned” with drawing knives for use as shad poles. In spring, there were always open shad boats going and coming at Rescue. There was also a fleet of deadrise oyster boats in the creek, during much of the year working privately leased beds and during the winter tonging from public grounds in the James. 

There are still workboats in the James, dredging oysters and potting crabs, but the industry has changed dramatically and, with the changes, the images it produced.

Another dramatic change has been the shift from film to digital photography. Decades ago, film was the only option. A photo had to be shot, film developed and images produced. As a result, there weren’t a lot of “contributed” photographs for a small paper to choose from. If you wanted a photo, you went out and shot it.

Today, some very talented people are shooting beautiful sunsets with their telephones, by golly! Thus, while the variety of image possibilities has, on the one hand, shrunk, on the other hand there are far more people interested in capturing the world we live in, and they’re doing so quite artistically.

While there will always be subjects for pictures, and people to capture them, there was something special about the rural world that existed here just a few decades ago. I’m glad I caught a little of it on film before it disappeared.


Some old notes

Digging through some old Short Rows notes, I came across a notice issued some years ago by the Virginia Health Department. The agency warned that eating raw chitterlings (that’s chitlins for county folk) can make you sick. Well, who would’ve guessed?

Honest, a press release issued near Thanksgiving some years ago told chitterling lovers that eating hog intestines raw can cause diarrhea, abdominal pain and fever.

Now, there are some things you’re just supposed to know intuitively, and it would seem to me that cooking hog intestines before woofing them down would be one of those. And if it didn’t simply occur to you, it certainly seems to be one of those things you would have learned from your grandmother. Bet she knew it.

I’m not really making fun of the Health Department over this. Actually, the release back then noted that nine infants in Virginia were diagnosed with yersiniosis, a disease caused by the Yersinia bacteria, which is present in raw chitlins. And the illness isn’t pretty. Small children and infants can actually be hospitalized with it.

The health folks suggested back then that the safest bet is to buy pre-cooked chitlins. But if you insisted on buying the raw variety, pre-boil the heck out of ’em for five minutes, before doing anything else, and be sure to scrub anything that raw chitlins touch.

Years later it still sounds like good advice. So, if your rural roots occasionally yearn for chitlins, enjoy them. Well cooked, of course.


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