Column – Bicentennial’s legacy has both endured and faded

Published 6:09 pm Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Public anniversaries offer an opportunity for communities to be creative. Lots of ideas frequently flow, some of which result in popular events, while others tend to be more cerebral. An Isle of Wight committee is even now beginning to look at ways to celebrate the nation’s 250th anniversary in 2026.

The same process occurred in advance of 1976, the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Committees in both Isle of Wight and Surry met for two years prior to the actual anniversary and compiled an impressive list of unique ideas. The results of some of those ideas were long lasting, while some quickly fell by the way, and still others planted a seed of interest that took years to germinate.

Following is a summary of the highlights in both counties.

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The ferry system that connects Surry and James City Counties plays such a vital role in the lives of Surry residents that it was naturally a part of the county’s Bicentennial celebration. In February 1975, an aging ferry named Jamestown made a commemorative trip across the river and back to begin the county’s Bicentennial events. Approximately 200 people and some antique cars made the trip.

Two lasting projects were also undertaken by the Surry Bicentennial Committee.

James D. Kornwolf, an architectural historian and College of William and Mary professor, had documented Surry’s historic homes in a carefully researched, but unpublished, book. The Bicentennial Committee became its publisher, and a “Guide To The Buildings of Surry” was unveiled in the summer of 1976. The popular book was republished in 2007.

The committee was also determined to have some type of county fair or festival to celebrate Surry’s agricultural economy. A partnership with Chippokes State Park staff resulted in creation of the Pork, Peanut and Pine Festival. 

Launched in July 1976, the PP&P featured an abundance of food as well as antique farm equipment displays, arts and crafts exhibits and live entertainment. 

More than 6,000 visitors attended the event every summer for four decades, making it one of the longest-running festivals of its kind. The event struggled in later years as volunteers grew older and finding a new generation of workers became more difficult. Then, in 2018, two days of rain caused attendance to plummet, and organizers canceled plans to repeat the festival.


Isle of Wight

A book was on the mind of the Isle of Wight Bicentennial Committee as well, but it would be years before one was published. In fact, two priceless pieces of county history — “Many Voices” and “Historical Notes on Isle of Wight” — found their way in print following the county’s 350th anniversary a decade after the Bicentennial. While they were not produced during the Bicentennial, the seeds for both books were planted then, but would require years to germinate.

Arguably the county’s most lasting initiative of the Bicentennial was creation of the Isle of Wight County Museum, which opened in late 1976 in the “gaming house” next door to Smithfield Inn and years later moved into its present home, the former Bank of Smithfield Building.

The county’s celebratory contribution was an arts and crafts festival held for three years in downtown Smithfield. The festival was a roaring success in 1976, its first year, but suffered from a lack of interest by sufficient numbers of volunteers after the initial event, and after three years disappeared.

That doesn’t make the festival a failure. A few years later, the county’s civic clubs, which had been instrumental in producing the arts festival, pooled resources to produce the Smithfield Gourmet Food Festival.

The fervor for festivals also led to the long-running and highly successful Olden Days festival. And it heightened interest in the Smithfield historic area, which had not been designated as a National Landmark District at that time. Among the offshoots were the wildly popular house tours sponsored in later years by the Smithfield Library Association. 

Another major undertaking was “The Great American Birthday,” a musical tribute organized by veteran members of the widely acclaimed Smithfield Little Theatre and participated in by school choruses, church choirs and most anybody else who wanted to help.

Smithfield also played host to a visit by the National Wagon Train, a nationwide program launched in Pennsylvania and consisting of five authentic wagon trains. At the stop in Smithfield and at others, a group of performers traveling with the train presented a patriotic revue to local audiences.

Both Isle of Wight and Surry took the national call to celebrate seriously, and the result was a rousing good time in both counties, as well as some legacies that continue to benefit the two counties.


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