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What Exactly Did You Have in Mind, Mr. Dozier?

April 24th, 2014 Sears Homes 6 comments

It was Mr. J. M. Dozier of Lee Hall, VA that purchased Penniman after World War I ended.

Thursday, after spending many hours at the York County Courthouse, I learned that Mr. Dozier bought Penniman from DuPont in April 1926, after the U. S. Army left.

J. M. Dozier and his wife Annie paid $84,375 for the whole kit and caboodle, which included 2,600 acres, and all tenements, hereditaments and appurtenances.

DuPont even financed the sale for Mr. Dozier with no money down.

The first payment of $28,125 was due in April 1927, the second payment due one year after that, and the third (and final payment) due in April 1929.

It was a pretty sweet deal.

According to an article that appeared in the January 1926 Virginia Gazette, Mr. Dozier had big plans for Penniman.

“The development of [Penniman] will entail the expenditure of a considerable sum,” said the article in the Virginia Gazette (January 15, 1926).

And yet, it never happened.

In 1926, $84,375 was a tremendous sum of money. Surely Mr. Dozier had plans to develop this 2,600-acre tract on the York River. Did something go wrong?

Did they discover that the land was uninhabitable for some reason? Or did they find a few too many buried live shells, left over from the U. S. Army?

What happened?

After 1926, Penniman disappeared from the pages of the daily papers until 1938, when Dick Velz with the Richmond Times Dispatch did a retrospective piece on this “Ghost City,” which had been left largely undisturbed since the U. S. Army cleared out in the early 1920s.

Penniman is a fascinating piece of Virginia’s history but there are days (like today) when the mysteries pile up so high and so deep that I fear I may never figure out enough of its story to write a worthy tome.

To read more about Penniman, click here.

If you have a theory as to what happened to Mr. Dozier’s big plans, please leave a comment.

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January 16, 1926

Sounds like these two "outstanding Peninsula business men" had big plans for Penniman. ("Virginia Gazette," January 16, 1926).

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Richmond

What happened after Mr. Dozier paid $84,375 for 2,600 acres of choice real estate on the York River? Did something go terribly wrong? Did they learn that the land was unsuitable for residential development? (This appeared in June 1938 in the "Richmond Times Dispatch.")

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Penniman

Amongst the piles of papers I have collected on Penniman is this treasure asking Dr. Goodwin if he's interested in buying Penniman on the York River. And look at the date. It was after Mr. Dozier had paid off his note to DuPont.

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Penniman

Penniman was situated between Kings Creek and Queens Creek, on the York River, and during WW1, it was home to about 15,000 people. It was probably one of York County's finest pieces of land. This map shows the village of Penniman as it looked in Spring 1918. Map is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.

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To read more about Penniman, click here.

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Virginia’s Very Own Ghost Town: Penniman

January 31st, 2012 Sears Homes 8 comments

It was called Virginia’s own Ghost Town.

Penniman, Virginia, sat on the land now occupied by Cheatham Annex (near Williamsburg) and started - quite literally - as a Boom Town.

In late 1916, DuPont selected the site as their 37th munitions plant, probably because of its location:  It bordered the broad York River and it was safely away from population centers. When you’re manufacturing explosives and a mistake occurs, things go BOOM.  (Google “DuPont Munitions Plant Explosions” to find a dozen pre-WW1 examples.)

Penniman was named in honor of an American Chemist, Russell S. Penniman, who figured out how to build a better munition. Alfred Nobel’s original-recipe dynamite used nitroglycerine, but Penniman invented an ammonia-based dynamite, which was much safer than nitroglycerine.

According to an article that appeared in the Virginia Gazette, the wages paid at “DuPont Plant #37″ were so high that laborers poured in from all over the area.

“Local farmers found laborers almost impossible to hire, and certainly not at the old low wages. With thousands of men and women manufacturing shells at Penniman and living wherever they could, Williamsburg boomed. Rental space, whether for offices or for living, was impossible to find at any price. The mass exodus of workers was so great, area farmers were left wondering how they’d get their crops planted” (Meyers, Terry. “The Silence of the Graves.” Virginia Gazette June 3, 1998).

“In time,” writes Martha McCartney, author James City County; Keystone of the Commonwealth, “the [DuPont plant at Penniman] employed 10,000 people and the community bordering the plant had a population of 10,000 to 20,000″ (McCartney, Martha W.  James City County; Keystone of the Commonwealth. James City County, Virginia, Donning Company Publishing, 1997).

In August 1918, local papers reported that the United States Navy would take over the 12,500 acre facility. It would now be called, “The Naval Mine Depot.”  On  November 11th 1918, the “War to End All Wars” was over. It was President Woodrow Wilson who’d coined that phrase. Now that the earth had endured the last war that would ever be fought, it was time to dismantle Penniman.

But then something happened on the way to de-construction: The flu epidemic.

According to Meyers, the hospital at Penniman was overwhelmed with fatalities from Spanish Influenza, with bodies being shipped back to their waiting families in North Carolina, Texas, Tennessee and other southern states. Many Penniman employees had traversed great distances to find work at DuPont Plant #37, and when they died, DuPont paid a “death benefit” which helped with the costs of shipping the bodies back home, wherever that may be.  Meyers writes:

On October 12, the Daily Press reported that undertakers were being kept busy by the toll at Penniman: “the baggage cars are always full of caskets.” And on October 13 came a report that “a local [Williamsburg] undertaker had to requisition a truck to haul bodies from Penniman this morning…There is a scarcity of coffins here, the dealers having had in hand only a small stock prior to the grip epidemic  (Meyers, Terry. “The Silence of the Graves.” Virginia Gazette June 3, 1998).

By late 1920, the Spanish Flu had taken (by conservative estimates) more than 50 million lives. Penniman was now in the hands of the Navy. And it was time to get rid of the 250 houses that had been built at the DuPont Munitions Plant.

December 5, 1921, a little piece appeared in the Virginian Pilot, describing several houses being floated down to Tanner’s Creek (now the Lafayette River in Norfolk). It said the houses had been erected by the government near Yorktown. That’s not factually correct. It was DuPont that actually built these houses, just as they had done at other munitions plants in Old Hickory, TN and Hopewell, VA and Carney Point, NJ and Ramsay, MT.

The houses shown on the barges (pictures below) came from DuPont Plant #37 in Penniman, Virginia.

Now, after a great deal of research, we’ve learned that DuPont offered several models, and we’ve found these models at the DuPont cities listed in the prior paragraph. Most recently, we were able to get our hands on a picture of the houses - as they stood - in Penniman in the late 1910s. So now we have placed the houses at Penniman, and then floating on a barge, and then in place in four different Norfolk neighborhoods.

And it all started with DuPont Plant #37, site of Virginia’s very own Ghost Town.

And now for Rose’s wish list: I wish that we could find more/better photos of Penniman.

BTW, as of October 18, 2013, we’ve decided it’s time to write a book, so that others can enjoy this lost piece of history, too!

Update:  We found the Ethels!!!

To read part II of this story, click here.

To read part III, click here.

To read an update, click here (Oct 22,  2013).

To read more about Old Hickory, click here.

To read about the Sears Homes of Norfolk, click here.

Penniman was a massive operation in its brief time.

Penniman was a massive operation. This photo is a piece of a panoramic photo from the Library of Congress and is the only known photo of Penniman, Virginia from its days as DuPont Plant #37. I'd love to find out more about the history and source of this photo.

Photo

Clustered together, near the banks of the York River, are the DuPont Houses built for the workers. This photo is a piece of a panoramic photo from the Library of Congress.

This is the last known surviving Dupont Design at Penniman (now Cheatham Annex). This was known as The Hopewell design, and there are several of these homes at the DuPont plant in Hopewell, Virginia.

This is the last known surviving "Dupont Design" at Penniman (later called, Naval Mine Depot, and now Cheatham Annex). This particular model was known as "The Hopewell" design, and there are several of these homes at the DuPont plant in Hopewell, Virginia. About 95 years ago, this acreage would have been filled with houses, built for the workers at the plant.

The views in Penniman (and the views from our last Penniman house) would have been spectacular. Just beyond this bit of brush is an expansive view of the York River.

The views in Penniman (and the views from our last Penniman house) would have been spectacular. Just beyond this bit of brush is an expansive view of the York River. If you were standing on the front porch of our Penniman house (shown above) this is what you'd see.

The

To my utter dismay and frustration, this is the only photo I've been able to find of Penniman, as it looked in the late 1910s. This photo appeared in The Richmond Times Leader on June 22, 1938, on an article they did on Penniman. On the forefront are three "Haskells," and behind them are two "Georgia" models.

The

Sometimes, zooming in really doesn't help a lot.

The Haskell

The Haskell was a DuPont design and there's an entire community of these DuPont houses in Old Hickory, Tennessee. Apparently, there were many of these houses in Penniman.

An article in the December 5, 1921 Virginian Pilot shows these two Haskells on a barge, being floated down Tanners Creek and into Norfolk.

An article in the December 5, 1921 Virginian Pilot shows these two Haskells on a barge, being floated down Tanner's Creek and into Norfolk.

The same article also showed two Cumberlands coming here from Penniman.

The same article also showed two "Cumberlands" coming here from Penniman. They're shown here on the barge, at the end of their long journey which began on the York River.

The

The accompanying text in the December 1921 article in the Virginia Pilot.

The Cumberland was another model that was moved from Penniman to Norfolk.

The Cumberland was another model that was moved from Penniman to Norfolk.

The Haskell arrived in Norfolk, and was planted on Major Avenue. In fact, its one of 50 houses from Penniman.

The Haskell arrived in Norfolk, and was planted on Major Avenue. In fact, it's one of 50 houses from Penniman. The vintage image (of a Haskell in Old Hickory) is on the left. The Penniman house (from DuPont Plant #37) is on the right.

There are two Cumberlands on Major Avenue, next to the Haskells.

There are two "Cumberlands" on Major Avenue, next to the Haskells. The Cumberland is also seen above on the barge, being floated down Tanner's Creek.

The third housing style we have from Penniman is The Georgia. This is a modest (but cute) Dutch Colonial. You can see these in the background of the grainy photo from the Richmond News Leader.

The third housing style we've found in Norfolk (from Penniman) is "The Georgia." This is a modest (but darling!) Dutch Colonial. You can see these houses in the background of the grainy photo from the Richmond News Leader.

And it started in Riverview.

And it started with these 16 matching bungalows in Riverview (Norfolk). For years, we'd heard that these matching houses came from The Jamestown Exposition (1907), but that is NOT true. In fact, these are "Dupont Houses" and they were originally built at Penniman, and shipped by barge to Norfolk when Penniman was shut down. Later, we learned that the name of this design is "The DuPont." How apropos!

The original news article from the 1938 Richmond News Leader.

The original news article from the 1938 Richmond News Leader.

To read more about the houses that came to Norfolk from Penniman, click here.

To learn about the murder of Addie Hoyt, click here.

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Cairo, Illinois: Can This City Be Saved?

May 2nd, 2011 Sears Homes 1 comment

Despite a last-minute plea from desperate Missourians, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the plan to flood 132,000 acres of prime Missouri farmland will go forward. Flooding the farms will spare the tiny town of Cairo, Illinois, population - 2,800.

The Chicago Tribune is reporting that as of yesterday (Saturday, April 30th), floodwaters in Cairo crested at 59.2 feet, and have now reached 59.8 feet (as of 3:40 pm, EST). If the levees in Cairo give way, the town will be flooded. Opening up levees on the farmland in Missouri will spare Cairo, and ruin the farmland for years.

The Chicago Tribune is also reporting that crops have already been planted on some of the farms that will be inundated with this “man-made tsunami,” destroying the crops and causing hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to the local farmers. In addition, about 100 homes would be lost.

Cairo is an interesting little town, and was full of history, but much of their historically significant architecture is gone, and the remnant is in poor condition. A few grand old manses remain, but they’re the exception. Most of the businesses and all of the industry left long ago. Cairo’s downtown is a ghost town, and a virtual trip back in time to the 1960s. To learn more about Cairo’s history, click here.

We’ve got to protect our farms. With the rising costs of food, it’s time to start showing a little respect to the few family farms we have left in this country, many of which are in Missouri.

This time, it might be best to let Cairo be the sacrificial lamb, rather than lose our farmland.

Pictures of Cairo are below.

Entrance to Cairo
Entrance to Cairo. The old flood gates are no longer in working, but the old rivers still work really, really well.

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Part of the charm of the downtown is it really is a step back in time. Notice the vintage cat in the foreground.

down

Downtown Cairo. The barricade is presumably there to protect citizens from collapsing buildings. You'll notice the building on the far right has mostly fallen in on itself. This photo was taken about 11 am in the morning. This is the morning rush hour in downtown Cairo.

Spearmint “Pepsin Gum” surely got their money’s worth out of this old advertisement.

Hospital in Cairo

Is there a doctor in the house?

School

School's out for summer. And for the rest of time.

More views

Capt'n Wades appears to be the only viable business in the whole of downtown. However, this photo was taken in 2003, and when I was there in 2010, this building was collapsing.

Another view

Another store in downtown Cairo, complete with a 1960s Maytag sign.

views

Another view of downtown Cairo. All these stores back up to the Ohio River, and they're all now empty, waiting for nothing fancier than time to take them down. Visiting downtown Cairo really is like taking a step back to another time. Cairo was abandoned - in a hurry in the mid 1960s - when race riots decimated the city. The city went from a population of 13,000+ to 2,800 (current) in a very short time. The business owners and captains of industry are the ones who fled the city, taking their businesses with them.

Throughout the city, there are many such houses, burned out and left to fall down. Note, this shot shows three houses in a row.

Throughout the city, there are many such houses, burned out and left to fall down. Note, this shot shows three burned out houses in a row.

What remain in Cairo, Illinois are many Sears Homes. Most are in marginal condition.

What remain in Cairo, Illinois are many Sears Homes. Many of these Sears Homes are no longer "pretty little homes."

Sears House - The Rodessa - in Cairo.

Sears House - The Rodessa - in Cairo.

An old Sears Homart (prefab house) sits on the edges of the city, not far from the Sears Mill in Cairo, IL

An old Sears Homart (prefab house) sits on the edges of the city, not far from the Sears Mill in Cairo, IL. Homart Homes were post-WW2 Sears Homes that were shipped out in sections, which were then bolted together at the building site. These were radically different from "Sears Modern Homes" which were pre-cut kit homes.

Sears

A glorious billboard at the city's entrance offers such promise.

To learn more about Cairo, click here.

To learn more about Sears Homes, click here.

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