The Agriculture Industry of Fox Hill

Presented by David Routten

September 2003


           From colonial days to World War II the principal industries of Fox Hill were fishing and farming.  In the early days of Fox Hill pine woods covered most of the land suitable for farming.  This presented a tremendous obstacle until draft animals such as horses, mules and oxen in addition to stump pullers and other equipment for clearing land arrived.

           In the latter part of the nineteenth century the Holston Farm, which is now the site of Beach Road Estates, was cleared by William Holston and his son Melvin, sometimes even working after sundown by lantern light.

           Most of the farmers engaged in what is known as “truck” farming, which consisted of such crops as vegetables, strawberries and sweet potatoes.  These crops were primarily marketed to cities north of tidewater such as Baltimore and Washington, although some were sold locally to Phoebus and Hampton.

           The Old Point Dock was a vital center of commerce for the Lower Peninsula. Purchasing agents, known as “Buyers”, traveled down the Chesapeake Bay on the passenger steamers from Baltimore to purchase wagon loads of produce from the farmers of Elizabeth City County.

           One of the companies which purchased Fox Hill produce was Rowe & Jurney, Inc., of Baltimore, Maryland.  Much of the produce purchased by merchants from Baltimore was destined for resale to cities farther north.

           Two of the most profitable crops were early strawberries and fall lettuce.  The demand for these crops was most likely due to the early and later growing seasons of the Virginia Peninsula, as opposed to the shorter seasons farther north.

           Fox Hill farmers, recalling those days, indicated that many of the sales to purchasers from Baltimore were “consignment sales”.  These transactions were evidently fair and honest based on the apparent success of the farmers who were able to build and maintain comfortable homes and lifestyles.  Many of the homes built by these farmers still exist in Fox Hill today.

           Sweet potatoes were grown by every farmer, not only as marketable produce, but were considered a domestic staple for the winter pantry.  Prior to World War II, and shortly thereafter, there were two basic varieties of sweet potatoes grown in Fox Hill:  the Cuban yam, which was yellow, the Haman, which was white and generally larger than the Cuban yam.  The Cuban Yam was preferable for marketing since it was generally more uniform in size and required a shorter sweetening time after being dug.  The Haman, though larger in size and requiring a longer time to sweeten, seemed to be a favorite among the people of Fox Hill.  When baked in its skin the Haman sweet potato exuded sweet syrup that enhanced the flavor.

           Sweet potatoes were plowed out of the ground in late September or early October before the first frost.  In order to protect the potatoes from cold weather they were stored beneath a mound of dirt and pine straw, which process was known as “hilling”.  In the early part of the twentieth century some farmers built masonry potato houses, of which half of the structure was below the ground surface.  This prevented freeze damage to the potatoes stored for marketing.

           An adequately stocked corncrib and hayloft were required for the survival of a well regulated farm, since there were horses, cows, hogs and fowl to feed.

             In addition to field crops, there were gardens of assorted vegetables, a variety of fruit trees and grape arbors, which produced food for domestic use.

           Nearly every farm had an acre or two of woodland from which dead trees were cut and used as fuel for cooking and heating.  Another important by-product of the woods was pine straw, which was used as stable bedding for livestock.  These small, well managed farms enabled their owners to be substantially independent.

           Chicken farms represented the last thriving segment of agriculture in Fox Hill.  Edward Routten, brothers, Lawrence and Gordon Routten and William Milliken operated three chicken farms after World War II.  Edward Routten also slaughtered, dressed and sold the fowl at his farm, which was located at the present site of Beach Road Estates.  The post war social and economic changes contributed to the decline of the farming and fishing industries in Fox Hill.

            Young men returning from the war sought employment at the shipyard in Newport News and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) at Langley Field.

           By 1960 farming was conducted primarily by older men on a part time basis.  Most of the field that once grew produce, which found its way to far off northern cities, are now occupied by suburban homes or lie fallow and overgrown.

           Prior to World War II, 1941, Fishing and Farming were the way of life for the majority of residents in Fox Hill.  The truck farmers grew vegetables that were sold to buyers at the Old Point Doc Fort Monroe or locally to places like Soldiers Home (Veterans Administration in Phoebus).  Thee was a receipt for Mr. Severn Wallace,  8 baskets of lettuce to Baltimore, Maryland or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  The two seasonal product crops, strawberries and lettuce were key and grown in the Spring and August.

The families of Fox Hill lived an independent life style with plenty of hard work and hard living to survive.  The saying 'root little pig or die' was appropriate to describe life.  Life was very difficult.  December to February was spent in the kitchen were the cook stove provided warmth and food to eat.  A favorite kind of stove was a king heater (a tin heater/tin can on legs and the tin would grow red when the fire got too hot) that burned wood.  Men had to chop wood for cooking and heat.

Life one hundred years ago in Fox Hill was not like the Currier and Ives pictures that romantically depict life on a farm.

There were no pipes in the homes which meant no water.  Bathing was from a wash basin or bowel.  There were three ways to have water; a rain barrel, cistern, and well.  In the summer time, water was critical for survival (typhoid fever was not uncommon).

There were animals to take care of because they provided for you.  Most every home had a horse or a mule, a cow, hogs and fowl (chickens, turkey, bannie hens, and ducks).

Every home had out buldings (barn, smoke house, wood shed, toilet (Johnny house)), dairy (for eggs and milk), corn crib, pig pen with lean-to, chicken house with pen.

If you got sick, the doctor was to far away so home remedies were used.  THE AWFUL REMEDY -- sheep menu tea.  Shell Bank Farm had sheep, but not everyone.  Nick Dixon's son Ralph told about this remedy, surely it would kill you if it did not cure you.  David's Uncle Smith Guy, born in 1879, used soot from the chimney to pack cuts from an axe or other sharp farm tool.  Mrs. Soonie Rowe (Percy and Ernest's mother) made a pneumonia jacket from onion that you had to wear and it smelled really, really good.  People died from injuries and sickness that we take for granted today.

If you died, your body was washed and dressed by a family member and the family sat up with the body all night.  Some bodies were put in body cases.  Some cases had glass and slate parts.  Some graves were bricked up.  Like fashion patterns men's thinking change with the times.

Divorce was hard to accept too.

Side saddle was the only way for a lady to ride on a horse.

Pay was eight cents on Saturday night.  Lived in a cash society (silver dollars were the odd money).

Tall tales' told to be true:

Ernest Phillips strawberries were known as BACK RIVER BULLIES.  He raised Pocahontas and Tennessee Beauties.

Corn was any kind of grain in the Bible.

Hay was long or short grain.

Fodder (cow and animal food) is the leaves from corn stalks and shucks.