Posts Tagged ‘shell loading’

The People of Penniman - We Have Pictures!

January 25th, 2018 Sears Homes 5 comments

Now we just need some names.

Thanks to Steven Beauter, a sharp-eyed and devoted historian and lover of history, we have pictures of the people of Penniman. A few years ago, Steven purchased an early 20th century photo album that he’d found on eBay. More recently, he discovered that I was seeking more information on Penniman. He contacted me through Facebook, and two weeks ago, we met at the Williamsburg Public Library and had a lovely visit.

As yet another testimony to the goodness of people, Steven permitted me to take his much-beloved photo album back to my home in Suffolk, where I carefully scanned more than two dozen images.

Below are a few of those wonderful images.

We have pictures, and I’m going to share all the captions and names within these pages. If there are any genealogists that can help us learn more about these people, please leave a comment! All photos are circa 1918.

Thanks so much to Steven for sharing this treasure. Thanks to him, we now have another insight into this ghost city.

Lastly, I would welcome the opportunity to do lectures. If your historical society/group would like to make arrangements to have a lecture on Penniman, please contact me at

All photos are courtesy of Steven Beauter and may not be used or reproduced without written permission.

Please forgive the obnoxious watermarks. After countless and blatant theft of images, I must resort to this.

Want to learn about one of my personal heroes? Click here.

Did you know that the Great Atlantic Fleet remained anchored near Penniman throughout the Great War?


First, my favorite. This is a picture of Freckles and the caption reads The trial of all of Penniman.

First, my favorite. This is a picture of "Freckles" and the caption reads "The trial of all of Penniman."


Name given

The caption reads, "You might think that Charlotte might be afraid of being bombed by that aeroplane but being in a munition plant, one gets used to that sort of thing. Besides, it was only a spot on the negative." In other captions, Edith and Charlotte are identified as close friends.


Dick and anme

This photo is captioned "Effie and Dick."



The office staff at Penniman.



"First National Bank of Penniman."



"Lodge 9 at Penniman."



This photo is identified as Mr. Benesh's home. He was the superintendent of the plant.



"Noontime at Penniman." Check out those clothes! Were these women loading shells? Judging by their clothing, I don't think so. The shell loaders wore a company issued uniform.



No information is given with this photo, but that's a Penniman house ("The Cumberland") behind this young couple. To read more about the houses at Penniman, see the link below.



This photo offers the most clues. It's titled "Harvest" and reads, "Mrs. Haggart, Jean and Alleyne." You'd think with names like "Alleyne" these people could be found.


To learn more about Penniman, click here.

Read one of my first blogs about Penniman here.

Want to learn more about the houses at Penniman? Here’s the link.


Beaverboard: Long Tough Fibers of White Spruce

June 13th, 2014 Sears Homes No comments

The houses that DuPont built for their munitions workers at Penniman, Virginia featured “Beaverboard” interiors. Sounds pretty fancy, but in fact, it was an economical alternative to real plaster walls.

Bill Inge lent me his “Sweet’s Architectural Catalog” (1917) which had a two-page spread on Beaverboard. It answered all my questions (and then some).

Apparently, this wallboard product was quite the rage in the first years of the 20th Century, and was hugely popular in low-cost industrial housing.

In 1981, our family moved into a house built in 1949, and it had Beaverboard on the walls of its small attic room (complete with 2-inch strips at the seams). When we tore it out, it created a massive mess.

Apparently, Beaverboard wallboard was a product that endured for many years.

According to Wikipedia, it can also be used as an artist’s canvas. Grant Wood’s famous painting of the morose farming couple - American Gothic - was painted on a piece of Beaverboard.

What made plaster so expensive? Click here.

To learn more about industrial housing at DuPont’s villages, click here.

Interested in Virginia’s own Ghost City? Click here.


Beaver Board

I wanted to title this blog, "Beaverboard: Who Gives a Dam?" but I couldn't bring myself to do it. ;)



The houses that DuPont built at their munitions plants had beaverboard walls.



Despite the glowing reports in the Beaverboard literature, this was still an "economical" alternative to plaster.



The header says, "Foreign Branches." Quite an outfit!



"Long tough fibers of white spruce...compressed and built up into...panels..."


house beaverboard

Is the homeowner weilding a walking stick at the old worker?



Now that the worker has started putting up Beaverboard, the walking stick has been removed from sight.



Why bother to put six big beautiful windows in a house and then cover them up? Why not just put Beaverboard right over the windows? If I were queen of the world, I'd make it illegal to have a sunporch shrouded in heavy drapes.



"It permits of mural decorations in theaters..." I have my doubts about this.



Under "Club" it reads, "The club's activities never will be hindered by repairs..." Wow.



Here's a Penniman house that was moved from the munitions factory to Capitol Landing Road (Williamsburg). Was it built with interior walls of Beaverboard? Probably so.


Was that house at Penniman beaverboard

How I'd love to see the inside of this Penniman/DuPont house when built in 1918.


To learn more about industrial housing at DuPont’s villages, click here.

Interested in Virginia’s own Ghost City? Click here.

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William & Mary and Penniman, Virginia

November 16th, 2013 Sears Homes 4 comments

After the War to End All Wars ended (November 1918), the whole world changed.

The bloom of Virginia’s youth had gone to Europe to fight in The Great War. Between mustard gas and powerful munitions, many suffered crippling injuries and many never made it back home at all. Most of the young men who saw battle were never the same again.

Returning vets got hit with two obstacles to home ownership: During the war, resources had been diverted to the front, and housing analysts estimated that 1-2 million housing units were needed immediately for the returning soldiers. Secondly, after the war, the cost of building materials soared, with prices doubling and tripling in the months following.

These were challenging times for many colleges, and William and Mary was no exception.

Due to a growing enrollment, the college needed more space for dorms, classrooms and dining areas. Perhaps someone at the college pointed out that with the closing of Penniman, there would be many buildings available for sale - cheap.

According to the Board of Visitors’ minutes from June 8, 1920, William and Mary’s Committee on Student Accommodations paid $985 for their first two “temporary” Penniman buildings, with $3,000 set aside for their re-building.

In reading the minutes I was interested to learn that the college did not merely “move” these structures. They disassembled them, and then hauled the building materials to the campus and re-assembled them, board by board. Kind of like building a pre-cut Sears kit home, but without a 75-page instruction book or numbered lumber.

On October 4, 1920, the BOV minutes stated that the, “President of the College was authorized to dismantle and bring the buildings recently purchased from the government at Penniman to the College and rebuild them here at an approximate cost of $5,000.”

I hope President Chandler was handy with his hands.

On January 8, 1921, The Flat Hat (student newspaper) reported that the “Hotel at Penniman has been bought and will be moved on the campus in the near future,” with construction beginning in mid-January.

Judging by the description, this was a large building.

One “wing” of the new building was for the Biology Department (five large laboratories and a lecture room). Another wing would be used as a dining hall (with seating capacity of 150 students) and another wing would serve as a dorm, with space for 50 students.

In June 1923, the BOV minutes reported that there was a great need for additional class room space. Mr. Bridges and Colonel Lane were instructed to run out to Penniman and “make some purchases at Penniman on the 13th of June, so that the temporary buildings may be constructed cheaply.”

Reading these minutes, you get the impression that they were running out to Penniman like we run up to the Home Depot.

It was recommended that the new building be placed behind the existing Citizenship Building “even though it may look bad to connect cheaply with the steam pipes” (that’s my favorite part).

William and Mary thought much more highly of these “temporary buildings” after they were erected on the hallowed grounds of the campus. In a document titled, “Valuation of College Land and Building,” they estimated that the value of two of their Penniman buildings (presumably the two with an estimated $5,000 outlay), to be $45,000 (June 1923).

Wow! At that kind of appreciation, they should have bought everything Penniman had to offer!

In June 1925, a fire destroyed the “Penniman Building”  (the one used as a dining hall/biology building). In 1926, the college was given a $60,000 grant (by the Virginia General Assembly) to put up some prettier buildings that did not look bad or connect cheaply with the steam pipes.

To learn more about Penniman, click  here.

To read about another interesting facet of Penniman’s history, click here.

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house with iron

According to the caption that appeared with this photo in "The Romance and Renaissance of the College of William and Mary in Virginia" (1924), the original tar-paper siding on this lovely building was replaced with "galvanized iron." Frankly, I think that's got to be a misstatement. Perhaps they intended to say galvanized metal. You have to wonder if the W&M folks went to Penniman and said, "Could you please sell us the ugliest structure you have on this 6,000 acre site?" Now *that* would be a believable story. And who decided to ramp up The Ugly by covering this building with metal? Did W&M have an abundance of students that liked to practice archery with flaming arrows? (Photo is from "The Romance and Renaissance of the College of William and Mary in Virginia," William & Mary Endowment Association, 1924, with special thanks to Terry Meyers and Kris Preacher for providing a digital version of this wonderful old photo.)


house longer

Here are the Twin Uglies in their native habitat at Penniman, Virginia (1918). The vertical line is from the stitching of the two photographic images into one glorious whole. (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)


Longer view

Longer view showing The Twin Uglies at Penniman, with the York River in the background. (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)



Also shown in "The Romance and Renaissance of the College of William and Mary in Virginia," is this building. The book states that it was moved to the college campus about 1924, which isn't right, unless you put a lot of weight on that word "about." "The College of William and Mary, A History, Volume II" states that these buildings were built at Penniman in 1914. That's also a little boo boo. (Photo is from "The Romance and Renaissance of the College of William and Mary in Virginia," William & Mary Endowment Association, 1924, with special thanks to Terry Meyers and Kris Preacher for providing a digital version of this wonderful old photo.)


house house house

Construction on Penniman began in April 1916. Within Penniman, this was known as a "boarding house," (admittedly, a much gentler term than "barracks," the word that was used to describe these buildings in W&M literature). As built, the structure might have had as many bedrooms as there are windows (40+), with 4-8 bathrooms and a long central hallway. No need for a kitchen because there was a mess hall in another part of the village. (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)


house house house

As you can see from this 1918 photo, W&M had many buildings from which to choose. At its peak, Penniman had 15,000 people within its borders. (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)


Penniman Hotel

As to the 1921 acquisition, there's only one building at Penniman that resembles a hotel, and that's this long structure shown above. When "The Flat Hat" stated that W&M had purchased the "hotel at Penniman," surely they didn't mean those crummy boarding houses or one of the Twin Uglies. If so, I hope that the student that wrote that piece had a chance to travel around a bit after he graduated. (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)


hotel hotel hotel

A more expansive view of The Penniman Hotel. (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)


barge Dec 1921

Here in Norfolk, our 50+ Penniman houses arrived whole and intact (and by barge!). Thanks to Robert Hitchings for finding this wonderful photo in the December 1921 Virginia Pilot.


house house

By May of 1921, The Garden City Wrecking Company (a 1920s term for architectural salvage) was inviting the general public to come pick at the bones of Penniman. Pretty depressing, really, and yet also shows how prior generations took recycling very seriously. The same colleges that rant and rave about saving every scrap of paper don't hesitate to tear down old houses, thus sending 300,000 pounds of irreplaceable building materials to the landfill. I now have first-hand evidence of three colleges tearing down three rare kit homes in the last 10 years. This advertisement appeared in the May 1921 Virginia Gazette.


After the war, building material costs soared.

After the war, returning vets wanted homes of their own, but the cost of building materials had soared. Plus, housing analysts estimated that 1-2 million housing units were needed immediately. It was the high cost of lumber that probably inspired W&M to turn to Penniman for their building needs. (This photo came from Stereoscope cards that I found at a friend's house. The images are quite clear, given their age and original purpose.)


To read more about Penniman, click here.

To read about Penniman’s forgotten flu victims, click here.

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Missing: “The Projectile”!

October 21st, 2013 Sears Homes No comments

The hunt is on.

We’re working on a new book about a piece of Virginia’s regional history that is utterly and wholly captivating.

Penniman: Virginia’s Own Ghost Town.

In 1916, DuPont opened a new munitions factory on the old Bechtel Farm, on a piece of land east of Williamsburg. Less than three years later, it would be an impressive facility with scores of buildings, dozens of dormitories and hundreds of homes. By 1920, it was gone. The “War to End All Wars” was over, and there was no more need for this munitions factory on the York River.

The property was turned over to the U. S. Government and in later years, it would come to be known as Cheatham Annex.

To read Part I of this story, click here.

To read part II of this story, click here.

To read part III, click here.

To read more about Old Hickory, click here.

But there’s a piece of the puzzle that we really need. According to this article in the Richmond Times Dispatch, a full accounting of the building of the houses at Penniman can be found in a 1916-ish publication called, “The Projectile.”

There are a whole lot of history buffs that read this blog every day and if anyone has any clues where to find “The Projectile,” please let me know.

Additionally, we’re also looking for a weekly employee newsletter written for the workers at the DuPont Munitions Plant in Penniman. It was called, “The Polka Dot” (yes, really).

Last (and this may be the easiest), I’m hoping to find a copy of “Old Hickory,” a reprint of a 1920 booklet with extensive information on the DuPont munitions  plant in Tennessee. It was reproduced in 1987 by the Hadley Bend Historical Association. I have a paper copy, but would love to have the original document.

Thanks in advance to the many smart people who read this blog every day!  :D


Lots of good clues in this article from 1938, but the best is the very last paragraph. About 300 houses were built in Penniman, and from what I've gleaned, most were moved (not destroyed) into "nearby towns." We've located about 50 of them in Norfolk and one in Williamsburg. That leaves 250 missing. If we could find "The Projectile," that would be a good start!


The only photo we have of the houses in Penniman

The only photo we have of the houses in Penniman is the grainy image above, from the 1938 newspaper article shown in the prior picture. According to the photo's caption, this (and other photos shown in the article) came from the collection of Drewery Jones, who apparently worked at Penniman for a time. Thanks to David Spriggs, we've found that Drewery (also spelled "Drewry") lived in one of the Penniman houses that was moved to downtown Williamsburg. Mr. Jones passed on in 1977, but I'm thinking that he did not take these photos with him. The clearer image (shown above here) is "The Haskell" which was one of the houses found in Penniman. The houses shown in the grainy image are both "Haskells" (with one turned 90 degrees). So where are Mr. Jones' photos of Penniman?

To read more about Penniman and see vintage photos, click here.

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