By Zach Bostic
With a population of approximately 12,300, Lunenburg County is a 432-square-mile swath of rolling hills and tobacco. Close to two hours southwest of Richmond, Lunenburg is not entirely secluded, but like many other areas across the United States, the Eisenhower Interstate System has made state routes obsolete for the long-distance traveler. Thus, Lunenburg, along with many of its neighboring counties, like Mecklenburg and Nottoway, is sliced by freeways which bypass towns and local life. Thus, many urban citizens are almost entirely unaware of the peace and beauty of these forgotten areas.
After passing through Amelia, the flat terrain gradually transforms into rolling hills, which are present in much of southern Virginia. Driving in the countryside along State Route 49, which begins in Crewe, Virginia, most of the scenery towards Lunenburg County falls into two categories: forests and farms. Once off any interstate, most rural areas are navigated almost entirely by two lane roads.
Beautifully situated in the Virginia countryside, between Chase City and Victoria, lies the Yates Farm. Officially founded in 1863 by my ancestors, the 160-acre farm has grown tobacco, corn, and provided pasture for livestock. My grandparents, Chester and Margaret Phelps, have been the active caretakers of the Yates farm for over 20 years. Since the 1990’s, the two have worked with help from family and friends to refurbish and update the farm to ensure it lasts for years to come.
“For 164 years, the Yates family and their descendants have resided in Lunenburg County, Virginia. Each generation has done their best to preserve and enhance the home place. Believing in the adage – He who owns land is never poor – selling the land was never a consideration. Rather, each generation passed to the next ‘pride of place’ and a sense of family history. It is here that we feel the past and know who we are.”
– Chester and Margaret Phelps
For over a century, the Yates family was active in the community and often helped any neighbors and friends that struggled to keep a steady income. Economic change over the past 50 years has caused a decrease in the financial sustainability of small scale farming, resulting in large scale operations nearly monopolizing farming communities like Lunenburg. The Yates farm, after many years of operation by the family, now leases its land to a sizeable farming operation that oversees more than 1,000 total acres of farmland.
To capture more of the essence of Lunenburg, I spoke to Frances Wilson, who grew up on a farm neighboring the Yates Farm. Wilson has lived in Lunenburg almost her entire life and is a veteran employee of the Lunenburg County Public School system – close to 40 years of public service. Over the years, she has taken many additional positions to cover for administrators that moved out of Lunenburg in search of higher pay. In a county with low income, there are fewer taxpayers, which results in decreased public funding for schools. Wilson currently serves as the director of SOL testing, Technology, and Special Education for the district. Despite the declining number of employees that must meet the needs of a mostly consistent student body, Wilson is proud of her job, stating that “I sacrificed a larger paycheck for the ability to stay close to my family in the place I’ve always called home. And it was worth it.”
Lunenburg’s problem lies in the lack of well-paying jobs with ample benefits. Because many young families look to send their children to college, staying in Lunenburg does not offer the financial stability necessary to do so. The two largest employers in the county are Lunenburg County Schools and the Lunenburg Correctional Center. With the exception of other limited positions spread throughout the county, these are the only two large organizations that offer insurance and benefits to their workers. And because of the overall lack of supportive employment, “usually someone in each family will drive outside of the county for their daily job,” says Wilson.
Though it faces hardship, Lunenburg County is not defined by its drawbacks. Much like the days when many of the residents worked in agriculture, the comradery and friendship among citizens can be seen often. Wilson, when asked about her favorite part of Lunenburg County, stated that “the pace is slower and it’s quiet… you can enjoy the simple beauty of things like grass and flowers. There’s not a lot of concrete where we live!” With only two main townships in the county, Victoria and Kenbridge, Lunenburg residents often know all of their neighbors and, even with a small population, community events still occur regularly among citizens in both the more and less occupied areas.
A perfect retreat for anyone looking for quiet time outdoors, Lunenburg is a great place to visit; there are a few bed and breakfasts to choose from in Lunenburg and the surrounding area. And, it’s the only place in the world to get a Timmy Dog!
Lunenburg County is a perfect place to reconnect with the natural surroundings in the world, but it struggles to offer the economic stability that is often required for growing families. However, the county is rich with history from as far back as the late 1700’s, which gives city folk even more of a reason to visit an area otherwise forgotten.
All photos by Zach Bostic.