Column – IW growth spurt began in 1970s and hasn’t slowed

Published 4:44 pm Tuesday, May 9, 2023

When Arthur Smith platted a couple of streets for housing lots and named them Smithfield in 1752, the town that emerged lay west of Cypress Creek and south of the Pagan River.

Smithfield remained pretty much as Smith had platted it for 175 years, until entrepreneurs built the James River Bridge system and connected the town with an easterly route to Newport News and Norfolk in 1928. That prompted a few businesses and houses to be built, but little happened east of the Cypress for the next decade or two.

That began to change when World War II ended and millions of war veterans, including hundreds from our area, came home to begin a family and take up a career. 

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Some returned to their family farms or local stores, others came back to jobs at the steadily growing local packing plants and Newport News Shipbuilding, as well as other jobs that they and their families were creating just by being here. 

One of their most pressing needs was housing, and the owners of two farms located on either side of Red Point Road, now known as South Church Street, were ready to help. Jack Grimes, who owned the large Grimes farm along the southwestern side of the highway, and Carl M. Beale Sr., who owned the farm north of it, began selling housing lots soon after the war’s end. 

Thus Grimesland (more familiarly known as Pagan Pines) and Red Point Heights became Smithfield’s first subdivisions.

For the next decade, those two subdivisions and, a little later, Pagan Point, were the primary development in Isle of Wight County, though a smattering of houses were built along county roads, causing rural Isle of Wight to become a bit concerned about the future.

Those returning veterans became the parents of baby boomers, and that population explosion accounted for much of the local growth for the next decade, though it was supplemented by people arriving for expanding job opportunities. From 1950 to 1960, Isle of Wight’s population grew from just under 15,000 to just over 17,000. 

There it would rock along, with only modest growth, until the early 1970s. That’s when developers began looking seriously at Isle of Wight County and its largest town, Smithfield. From then on, depending on your perspective, wonderful growth occurred or all hell broke loose.

During the next three decades, Isle of Wight’s population grew 63%, so that when the 2000 Census was taken, we were just shy of 30,000 people, and there appeared to be no way of, or interest in, putting on the breaks. Looking back to the end of WWII, the population had by then just about exactly doubled.

As the 21st century dawned, Isle of Wight (including Smithfield) was just getting its second wind in the race to become one of Virginia’s fastest growing counties, as both the Board of Supervisors and Smithfield Town Council looked for new rooftops to spur business and generate new tax dollars.

Rezonings and subdivision plats were approved, and developers quickly built houses and apartments. The county and town grew another 29% during the next two decades, from 2000 to 2020, and the growth during that period would almost certainly have been a lot higher had the housing market not collapsed in 2008, part of the nation’s “Great Recession” that began in 2007 and ended two years later.

As Stephen Faleski reported in this paper last week, the county and town growth strategy has worked. In just two years, from 2020 to 2022, Isle of Wight’s population grew by another 4% and is now ranked as the seventh fastest growing county in Virginia.

Nor will the trend change anytime soon. There are nearly 3,000 housing units already approved, many of which are under construction in Isle of Wight and Smithfield. Close to 1,000 more have been proposed and are being considered by the town and county.

One more thing we can all take to the bank. Road construction will not keep up with housing construction. The congestion on Carrollton Boulevard and Benns Church Boulevard will increase, as will the Nike Park connection. There will be a “tweak” here or there, but the roads we now have are more or less the roads we’ll leave to the next generation. Enjoy driving them while you still can.


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