Column – 50 years on, this and that about 1973 in Smithfield

Published 6:17 pm Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Several months ago, a friend asked me to write some notes about Smithfield in 1973, material she could use during comments for a class reunion.

That class became seniors in September 1972, a month after I returned to Smithfield and began working for the newspaper. Thus, a look back to that year refreshed my memory as well. Here are a few of the things I recalled or found in old newspapers.

Advertising in The Smithfield Times reveals a lot about life a half-century ago. For example, Gwaltney Motor Co. was advertising the new Ford compact Pinto for $1,997.

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Many people were still viewing television in black and white, and Gale Company would sell you a black and white Sylvania for $119.95. If you insisted on color, you could get a console color television for $499.95. (For the cost of four color televisions, you could have bought that Pinto.)

Remember when trash compactors were the latest rage? Jack Little’s Gas and Appliance had them on sale for $199, the same price as a Whirlpool Easy Clean Range.

Rural eating habits were reflected in grocery store ads. You could buy pork liver for 53 cents a pound at West’s Supermarket, located at the east end of Cypress Creek Bridge. Little’s Supermarket, on the west end of town, was competing for the pork liver business, offering the delicacy for 39 cents a pound. Both stores offered hog jowls. If jowls and livers weren’t to your liking, the town’s Colonial Store had sale prices of 4 cents for a pound of hotdogs and 9 cents for two cartons of eggs. 

Lest we get too nostalgic about the price of goods, though, it might help to recall that the national annual family income back then was about $10,000, and for many people in our community, a whole lot less.

Isle of Wight County — even most of Carrollton —was still rural at that time. The total population of the county was just over 18,000, less than half the 38,000 who live here today. 

Smithfield was much smaller as well. Only 2,700 people called the town home, compared with the 8,500 who resided here during the 2020 census. To be fair, that was two annexations ago. The town has grown its population partially by scarfing up county land on its fringes.

There was no Smithfield Bypass back then. U.S. 258 brought traffic to town from Windsor and beyond. All vehicles, including traffic to and from the two packing plants, had to travel along Main Street or Grace Street to and from their destination.

East-west traffic used Route 10, which entered next to the packing plants north of the Pagan River and exited where the Smithfield Bypass and Church Street now meet.

The bypass’s first section opened in 1973 and immediately eased the growing traffic associated with a population of commuters.

Downtown Smithfield was still a viable local retail area back then. There were two hardware stores, two locally owned banks and two drugstores, and one of them was still operating a lunch counter. 

But times were changing rapidly. A decade earlier there had been three automobile dealerships on Main Street, but Kello Motor had already moved across Cypress Creek, and the largest, Gwaltney Motor Co., moved to South Church Street in time to sell the 1972 models from its spacious new headquarters. The third would also make a move to South Church a short time later.

A Ben Franklin store occupied the former Smithfield movie theater building but soon moved up the street several doors to the space vacated by Gwaltney Motor.

The legendary Twins Cafe was operating out of a frame building that occupied the space in front of The Smithfield Times, where the community stage now sits. Martha and Alice Whitley, the cafe’s young owners, remained there until a fire damaged the building in 1974. They soon moved into a town-owned brick building two doors up the street that would be the Twins locale until their retirement.

On the other side of town, the Tastee Freez was going strong and remained an after-the-game hangout. It stayed in business until the late 1990s when it ran afoul of changing times and changing restaurant rules. It was eventually demolished.

The town’s two packing plants — Smithfield Packing and Gwaltney of Smithfield — were still owned by separate companies. Smithfield Foods had been created by then and owned Smithfield Packing Co., though Joe Luter would not return to Smithfield for another three years to take over its reins. Gwaltney was owned by ITT and would later be bought by Smithfield Foods as the Foods expansion got underway.

Out on the farm, peanuts and hogs were still the main sources of cash. 

By 1972, farmers had put away their peanut poles and stationary peanut pickers. Peanuts were now dug by modern diggers and picked from the vines by peanut combines pulled by tractors. They were then artificially dried in drying trailers.

Hogs, traditionally raised as free-range animals, were by then mostly being raised in houses built for that purpose. A number of farmers still had their own breeding herds and sold fattening hogs regularly to one of the two local plants.  

With commuters driving through the county from points south and west, the original James River Bridge, built in 1928, was rapidly becoming congested and increasingly dangerous. Within a decade, the state would begin replacing it with the bridge that stands today.


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