Column – Benn’s Church used to go all out for Fourth of July

Published 7:05 pm Tuesday, July 2, 2024

People really did celebrate the nation’s independence a century ago. Patriotic music, speeches, games for all ages and plenty of food. Locally, they did it by attending a community picnic hosted by a rural county church.

During the first quarter of the 20th century Benn’s Methodist Episcopal Church (now United Methodist) gained wide acclaim for the Fourth of July events it hosted each year. They were community-spirited events with a money-making underpinning. The church that was then being used by the congregation was termite-ridden. The floor of the sanctuary had, in fact, collapsed one Sunday morning, forcing church leaders to decide that a new building had to be constructed. 

The picnics became fundraisers with a patriotic flavor, and thanks to county historian, the late Helen Haverty King, we have a written record of the events. Mrs. King devoted two full pages in her “Historical Notes on Isle of Wight County” to these midsummer parties. 

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According to Mrs. King, the Benn’s picnics became the local “go to” event on July 4. Merchants from Smithfield and Suffolk helped sponsor the picnic/fairs, helping them to become wildly popular.

The Benn’s Church site back then was a thickly wooded grove of oak trees, making it a bit cooler than most places for outdoor activities in early July. Under that canopy were set up courses for potato and egg races, three-legged races, tugs-of-war for children and adults as well as such country delights as a greased pig chase. Mrs. King reports that Smithfield grocer Leon Chapman was always the “high kick” champion.

Along the dirt road flanking the church, horse-and-buggy races were held.

There were, according to Mrs. King, the obligatory Fourth of July speeches, and a favorite orator was Smithfield resident and popular Commonwealth’s Attorney George Franklin Whitley Sr. 

There was also music. The church managed to bring in a band every summer, generally from Fort Eustis or Fort Monroe, which confirms that military bands of the region have for at least a century been an important source of local entertainment.

Food was plentiful and a huge draw for hungry crowds each summer. There was country ham, fried chicken, fresh vegetables (especially corn pudding and stewed tomatoes), pickles, homemade rolls, potato salad and homemade ice cream, cakes and pies, according to Mrs. King.

Along with the sporting events, the church hosted a food and crafts fair, featuring baked goods, pickles and other foods entered for judging, as well as sewing, embroidery, quilts and other handiwork.

Merchants provided prizes for sporting as well as fair contestants. According to a 1924 Fourth of July program kept by the late M. Ross Minton, a Benn’s member, the prizes were interesting by today’s standards and generally quite practical. The Bank of Smithfield offered $2 for the winner of the 50-year dash, while Elliott Motor Co. of Suffolk offered an inner tube as first place prize in the “High kick” competition. A balloon tire gauge went to the second-place winner. Cookie bakers could win a shirtwaist or a box of light bulbs. Electrification had come.

The “Best Plate of Biscuits” winner received a hat from J.J. Thomas of Smithfield while the second place winner took home a pair of silk hose from C.S. Betts & Co. The best plate of rolls would win you a bread plate from R.L. Brewer & Son of Suffolk.

And then there were the jousting tournaments. Jousting was a popular sport in Virginia, harking back to English roots and the Victorian fascination with knights and their romanticized lore. 

Jousting events were held in this area at least as late as the 1950s. Horsemen carrying lances with steel tips rode at a gallop along a course in which were suspended small rings. The object was to spear as many of the rings as possible. As the tournament progressed, ever-smaller rings were used until all but one horseman was eliminated. He (it was a men’s sport back then) was declared the “Knight” for the tournament and got to crown a young woman of his selection as the event’s queen. The winner also carried home the day’s largest purse — $15. 

By 1924, the church had raised enough money to make a down payment on a new church, the one that is still in use at Benn’s today. During that July Fourth picnic, church members and guests paused at 11 a.m. — right before lunch — and had a cornerstone laid for the new building. Smithfield Masonic Lodge No. 18 conducted the solemn ceremony, just as Masons did for the construction of many public buildings during that era.

The annual events died out a few years after that. There are no known reasons recorded anywhere, but I suspect the Great Depression played a significant role in their demise.

Benn’s members will commemorate that event this Sunday with a special service and lunch afterward. Lunch won’t be under the trees, though. It will be in the church’s air-conditioned Family Life Center. 


NOTE: By way of full disclosure, John Edwards is a member of Benn’s. Mrs. King’s account of the July 4 events is one of many vignettes of county history to be found in her book, which was published by the Board of Supervisors and remains available at the Isle of Wight County Museum.


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