Column – Chapman was prominent name in Smithfield retail

Published 5:00 pm Tuesday, April 18, 2023

According to the late Segar Cofer Dashiell, Smithfield’s indefatigable historian, 1694 was about when the Chapman family first put down roots in Isle of Wight County. That was a while ago, nearly 60 years before there was a Smithfield.

For much of the period from then until now, the Chapman family has played a prominent role in Isle of Wight and Smithfield history.

Throughout the county’s history, there has been a Chapman who was a county justice (similar to today’s supervisors), a county clerk, sheriff, fire chief and founders of Smithfield’s famed Little Theatre.

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In our regrettably segregated history, there have been black Chapman families as well as white, and a member of the African American family line, the late James Chapman, became one of Smithfield’s most revered mayors.

All of which is important, but in the years that commerce flourished along Main Street in Smithfield, the name Chapman was inextricably tied to retail sales.

There was Leon Chapman, who owned and operated Chapman’s Independent Market, located next to the Bank of Smithfield, near the intersection of Main and Church streets. Mr. Chapman lived on Church Street just a few steps from his store. 

Chapman established the Independent Market in the 1920s and it remained open in two different locations until the 1960s when Leon Chapman’s failing health forced its closure.

Chapman’s was where we regularly bought those items we didn’t raise on the farm. Baking soda, flour, laundry and bath soaps (my mother quit making lye soap when milder versions became regularly available), flavoring materials such as vanilla extract and, increasingly, cereals, peanut butter and other packaged food. 

It would all fit nicely in a bushel basket that we carried to town for that purpose.

Folks who lived near the market frequently shopped on a daily basis in order to buy fresh vegetables and other commodities. The store offered delivery to nearby homes, and during the summer months delivered groceries to nearby Morgart’s Beach, where a number of townspeople had cottages.

Charles Henley Chapman owned and operated Smithfield Hardware, a block-and-a-half down the street from the Independent Market and located in the building now occupied by Wharf Hill. It was one of two hardware stores located downtown, and between the two of them, you could buy just about anything needed to make repairs on a farm. (And if you couldn’t, there was Smithfield Farmers, located down on the waterfront.) In those days, no one knew the phrase DIY, they just lived it.

Charles Henley occupied a tall stool behind the counter in the center of his hardware store. He would help customers, but as he got older, they were increasingly expected to find what they wanted and bring it to the counter for purchase.

And then, there was Dick Chapman. His tiny store was located next to Charles Henley’s in what is now a corner of the Smithfield Gourmet Bakery.

I was a bit young to frequent Dick Chapman’s store, though I did venture in to buy candy whenever I had the opportunity. His customers, a bit older than I, included Joe Luter III, the late Bert Willard and others of their ages.

Bert recalled the store vividly. The first thing he and others recalled was the store’s size. It was, as the country saying went, so small you couldn’t cuss a cat without getting fur in your mouth. There was room in the store for a counter that ran through the center, with space on one side for Mr. Chapman to operate and just enough room on the other for customers together.

Dick Chapman’s stock in trade was comic books. You could buy one for a dime, read it and trade it back in for pennies. He would then resell it. You could buy a single cigarette. Some recalled you could even buy half of a cigarette.

We younger customers, falling for everything the cigarette manufacturers produced, would buy candy cigarettes against the day when we could become hooked on the real thing.

He sold bubble gum and little wax bottles of sweetened juice. You would bite the top off the jar, spit it out and drink the liquid. Disgusting? We thought it was cool.

According to Bert, you could buy a sandwich or, if times were tight, half a sandwich.

And that was what passed for commodity sales in Dick Chapman’s, a few pennies, rarely a dollar, at a time.

Old Smithfield Times record that Mr. Chapman’s tiny store made him a target, as country store owners would often become, for assaults and robberies. On two occasions, Dick Chapman was assaulted and robbed, and both times the assailants were caught.

Joe Luter Jr. and Cecil W. Gwaltney, who owned the Ford dealership across the street from Mr. Chapman’s store, were leaving the dealership when they heard a commotion across the street. They found Mr. Chapman, who had been struck from behind. They called for help and an assailant was arrested and charged with the assault later that night.

On a separate occasion seven years later, Mr. Chapman was going home from work when he was attacked by a man wielding a baseball bat. 

Mr. Chapman sold the store in 1959 and the tiny building was later incorporated into the adjoining drug store.


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