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PASSING THE TIMEPeninsula In Passage

'Peninsula In Passage' tells the rich history of North Suffolk through voices of the locals who shaped
the area's past and present

By James Thomas Jr.

Memories of the Purple Lady, collecting souvenir baseball bats from professional players off Sleepy Hole Road, a marriage of local twin girls to the famous P.T. Barnum Siamese Twins, iconic places, socialites and visionaries are all part of the history and lore that is North Suffolk.

These gems are found in "Peninsula In Passage," a chronicle of events from Driver, Bennett's Creek and Harbour View, told through the voices of locals that helped shaped the area's past and present.

Many of those featured attended a book-signing party at the rustic 1929 Arthur's General Store in Driver and took turns retelling some of their early recollections.

Hinton D. Hurff shows a picture of John and Virginia Nurney Harlow who devoted much of their lives to the betterment of the Bennett's Creek/ Driver community."I could walk from our family house (on Bennett's Pasture Road) all the way here (to the Driver crossroads), to play with a buddy, Shirley Arthur, and no cars would pass me on the road. And if they did I knew them," recalled Hinton D. Hurff - to whom the book is dedicated.


John Eberwine recalled getting two cracked bats from a Cleveland Indians farm team that trained at Monogram Field on Sleepy Hole Road in 1948.John Eberwine came with two cracked baseball bats he got when a Cleveland Indians farm team trained at Monogram Field in 1948, the deactivated Naval air base on Sleepy Hole Road. "Ballplayers gave away broken bats to youngsters who came to watch them practice," Eberwine said. To this day, Eberwine treasures his Louisville Sluggers.

Other reflections came from Matt Hartman, who discussed "glory days" at the Obici House, based on reflections from his parents, Ryland and Marian Hartman, who lived in the mansion for five years.
Phyllis Cornell, right, who is mentioned in the book, signs a copy of Peninsula In Passage for Greg Parker, owner of Arthur's General Store.George Cornell and wife, Phyllis, still live in the Eagle Point home his parents bought in 1946. "We do see eagles fly overhead" she says in the book. She also mentioned "Esmeralda, the nice ghost who lives in the main house."

Suffolk River Heritage, the former Crittenden-Eclipse-Hobson Heritage Foundation, produced "Peninsula In Passage." The nonprofit organization modified its name and logo to reflect an expanded mission that includes more North Suffolk communities, said Karla Smith, the group's chairman.

Largely written and photographed by former Pilot writer Phyllis Speidell and former Pilot photographer John H. Sheally II, the hardcover, 224-page publication follows their 2009 "The River Binds Us" collaboration on Crittenden, Eclipse and Hobson. It represents the team's fourth completed regional effort.

"It's the voices of the people telling their stories about their growing up and things that happened," Smith said. "They include old letters, family history and memories all put together to make a book."

Several of the people featured are legends in the communities where they lived or live - people like The Purple Lady, aka Rachel Presha, who walked along U.S. 17 in Belleville, cloaked in purple. She painted telephone poles and other objects the same color. Purple Lady sightings became part of local lore and fueled longing curiosities about her. After a long disappearance, Presha returned home in 2009 and lives with a daughter near her one-time home. A purple figurine appears on the front cover of the book in her honor.

Perhaps more lore than fact is a tale recounting the double marriage of local twins Sal-lie and Adelaide to conjoined twins Chang and Ang, natives of Siam. The pairs purportedly produced 21 children before the men ran off to join the circus and P.T. Barnum dubbed them the Siamese Twins.

"Peninsula In Passage" covers a span from the first English settlers' encounter with Nansemond Indians to present-day development in North Suffolk. It pays tribute to the philanthropy of people like Amedeo Obici and Richard Bennett, and the educational vision of Frederick Beazley and John Yeates.

Yet plenty of space is given to the establishment of local churches, schools and book clubs, as well as Easter egg factories and the many locals who still offer a good-natured smile and friendly welcome.

"Too many places are losing their sense of community," said Gregory A. Parker, who hosted the party at the general store bought by his grandfather at the start of The Great Depression. In the book, Parker notes Driver's own economic woes with the closing of the Kings Highway Bridge, a tornado in 2008 and a deep recession ever since.

The passage continues as the book notes recent government and commercial development, including the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel and the entire Harbour View commercial and retail corridor.

The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities has invited Suffolk River Heritage to present "Peninsula In Passage" at the Virginia Festival of the Book, March 20-24 in Charlottesville.

James Thomas Jr.,
Photos by James Thomas, Jr.

Order the book on line.