Column – Dear friends came back to life during October’s Ghost Walk
Published 4:56 pm Tuesday, November 14, 2023
The annual Ghost Walk, sponsored each fall by the 1750 Courthouse, offers an enjoyable and entertaining stroll through Smithfield’s Historic District.
This year’s tour became something more for Anne and me, and possibly a handful of other lifelong, aged residents who may have participated in the event several weeks ago. It was a stroll through the years of our youth, back as far as the 1970s and ’80s. For a couple of those years, we were residents of the district and the rest were spent as newspaper employees and owners who were downtown every day.
In December 1972, we rented a small Victorian house on Mason Street adjacent to the Grove and thus became tenants and neighbors of Anna Delk Stephens and her husband, A.E.S. “Gi” Stephens. We lived there for just over two years before moving to the farmhouse we have occupied ever since. Two doors away, on Thomas Street, lived William H. Sykes and his wife, Edwina. During those two years, the Sykeses and Mrs. Stephens became close friends and would remain so until their deaths.
Two weeks ago, we “visited” with Mrs. Stephens and Mr. Sykes vicariously as they were portrayed by actors during the Ghost Walk. It was touching and just a little unsettling to have people portrayed whom we had personally known so well in what seems to us not all that long ago.
Robin Ferguson presented vignettes from Mrs. Stephens’ long life in Smithfield that appropriately portrayed her as a dignified dowager who dearly loved her hometown and the house she and her husband had restored.
We knew Mr. Stephens as a neighbor only briefly. He was terminally ill with cancer and died six months after we moved in. That spring, however, he spent warm days sitting in his backyard and I had the privilege of spending time with him there, listening as this former lieutenant governor of Virginia related stories of 1950s Virginia politics. I didn’t own a tape recorder and have regretted ever since that I didn’t.
Mrs. Stephens became a dear friend, especially following her husband’s death, and our children, John and Beth, came to adore this elderly neighbor. Our daughter Beth forever called her Mrs. Ste.
Anna Stephens was a child of the steamboat era and, like everyone who lived during that first quarter of the 20th century, she loved to recall trips to Norfolk aboard the daily boats as well as waiting expectantly for mail to arrive aboard them. Her family owned the Geo. W. Delk store, and she and her sister, Martha Gale, continued to own the building for as long as it remained a department store.
Beth and John also fell in love with Mr. and Mrs. Sykes, who regularly welcomed us into their Thomas Street home.
Mr. Sykes was portrayed during the Ghost Walk by Warren Johnson, who accurately related the life of Bill, or Ace as many knew him. He recalled growing up working in his father’s lumber company and his years as an airplane pilot beginning during World War I. During World War II, he trained young pilots to fly fighter planes.
Bill Sykes’ major civic contribution, though, was as a member of the Smithfield Town Council, where he spent 19 years, several of them as the town’s mayor.
He had a wry sense of humor. I asked him around 1990 for biographical information that I was collecting on prominent people, and he said, “This is for my obituary, isn’t it?”
I responded that it was valuable for any number of reasons. He laughed and said, “Of course it’s for an obituary.”
A very few years later, it was.
The third recent character we ran into during the walk was Charles Henry Gray, who was a legendary fixture at Smithfield Packing Co. Mr. Gray, portrayed by Harry Johnson, developed a specially cooked Smithfield Ham that to this day is considered the creme de la creme of long cure country ham. Marketed as the Charles Henry Gray Ham, it’s pre-sliced and basted deeply with a brown sugar mix that is simply mouthwatering. It graces many a Christmas party table in these parts.
Mr. Gray became the second African American to serve on the Smithfield Town Council and was universally respected in the community. I knew him primarily as a news source. If there was a question about hams, he was the man to call.
Other portrayals during the Ghost Walk included Col. Francis Boykin by Albert Burckard, a local jail inmate by Bob Strozak, a town crier by Lehan Craine, Jamestown brides by Susie Cooper and Sarabeth Cheech, and a native American and colonial governor by Rosa Turner and David Barr III.
There have been times when the Ghost Walk narratives were entertaining but somewhat short on history. I won’t say “made up.” Perhaps just colorful. The 1750 Courthouse has done an exceptional job of preserving the entertainment value while paying closer attention to factual history, as most of this year’s portrayals did.
Kudos to all involved. I hope the narratives are being preserved.
John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.