Pat Parsons Pens Memories of Bygone Cape Charles

Author Pat Parsons has nearly finished her book about growing up in Cape Charles (Wave photo)

Author Pat Parsons has nearly finished her book about growing up in Cape Charles, entitled “Before We Were Quaint.” (Wave photo)

Cape Charles Wave

July 28, 2014

When Pat Parsons left home 59 years ago to attend Radford College, Cape Charles was far different from now: a bustling railroad town with a ferry connecting to Norfolk. Now Parsons has nearly completed a book of memories of those bygone days.

During breakfast earlier this year at the Cape Charles Coffee House, Parsons mentioned to proprietor Roberta Romeo that she was writing vignettes of growing up in Cape Charles in order to share her memories with her grandchildren. At Romeo’s urging, Parsons read one of her stories to her. Recognizing a talented writer, Romeo immediately urged her to publish a book, and promised to sell the book at the Coffee House. And so it soon will be.

The Cape Charles that Parsons writes about in the 1950s was the hub of commerce for Northampton County. Schools were segregated, with white children attending the big old school at Central Park while African-American children crossed the hump to Cape Charles Elementary, now often called the Rosenwald School.

Schools and churches were central to the life of the town, and folks came from all over the Eastern Shore to shop in Cape Charles. There were grocery stores, clothing stores, and a business district filled with bustling shops.

(Story continues following excerpt below)



Pat Parsons, born Patricia Joyce, grew up in a house on Fig Street just down from the ice house at the corner of Fig and Randolph. Her house remains, but the ice house is gone. Eventually her family moved to the newer area of town known as Sea Cottage Addition, the filled land west of Pine Street. Parsons then lived in a house that once had been a dance hall across from the ferry docks at the corner of Washington Street and Bay Avenue. Her father, a contractor, moved the structure to Monroe Avenue where it remains today,  just behind Chesapeake Bay View Bed & Breakfast.

Parsons’ father fell ill and died while the house project was still ongoing. Patricia was still in high school, but upon graduation she left for college and never returned toCape Charles to live, as her mother also left the Shore to find work. Her one brother also moved away.

“Growing up in Cape Charles was like growing up in a large family,” Parsons told the Wave. Adults were prepared to instruct, correct, or discipline children at any time, no matter whose children they were.

Parsons left town before the lean years came, when railroad service all but ended and the ferry moved to Kiptopeke. She married, settled in Richmond, and had children, returning to Cape Charles very infrequently. So her memoirs do not include the story of the town’s decline. “Cape Charles was a wonderful place to grow up,” she says.

Having almost completed writing her book, Parsons now must decide how to publish it. Thanks to the computer age, it’s no longer hard to self-publish. When the book becomes available, it won’t just be Coffee House customers who will enjoy it — everyone interested in Cape Charles should give it a read. The title is Before We Were Quaint.

In the meantime, Parsons is sharing a chapter of her book with readers of the Wave. The chapter is entitled “Liquid Refreshment,” and here it is:

Liquid Refreshment

By Pat Parsons 

Sometimes, when out for a walk, Mother stopped to make a purchase at Savage and Blasingame, later called Savage’s Drug Store, located at the corner of Mason Avenue and Strawberry Street. When we were small, it had marble counters, dainty wrought iron chairs with round seats and glass topped tables. This lent it the charm of a late nineteenth century pharmacy. Once we set foot inside Savage’s, Jane and I knew that we would be treated to small dishes of ice cream.

As we got older, we preferred one of Savage’s thick creamy milkshakes. But Savage’s was known for other drinks, as it was widely rumored that the group of men who met in the back room of Savage’s on Sundays after church gathered there to treat their coughs and other complaints with a few medicinal highballs. Virginia was a dry state with Blue Laws that required businesses to be closed on Sundays and prohibited the sale of liquor by the glass at any time. Drugstores, however, could open for a few hours on Sundays, and pharmacists were permitted to keep a supply of alcoholic beverages on hand for use in preparing tonics, cough syrups and other remedies. So, what law could prevent Mr. Savage from hosting his friends to a fortifying drink on an early Sunday afternoon?

Liquor had to be purchased from the state-controlled ABC store further down the street on Mason Avenue. Of course, my mother, as a respectable woman, would never be seen entering the ABC store. If she needed brandy for the fruitcakes she made for Christmas or spirits for other culinary reasons, she walked over to Front Street, as Mason Avenue was often called, and approached any man she saw loitering nearby who looked as if he could use some money. She gave him the money to purchase the required alcoholic beverage and waited outside the ABC store for her surrogate to emerge and pass her the precious package. Then she slipped him his tip and hurried off down the street.

Mother had another provider of spirits: Belle Bilich ran a small grocery store on “Front Street” that carried a line of kosher goods, which meant that she was permitted to sell Manischewitz wine. She was a friendly woman with dark brown hair and lively brown eyes. Mother often spoke of how much she admired Mrs. Bilich, both for her industry and the accommodating manner she showed towards her customers. She liked Belle personally, but she also liked the fact that, if she wanted wine for any reason, Mrs. Bilich would discreetly tuck a bottle or two of Manischewitz in with our family’s grocery order.

The adults were not the only ones with a clandestine source of drinking materials. In the first block of Mason Avenue west of Fig Street, Jeff’s, a black-owned store, and Ewell’s, which belonged to a white owner, were housed in two of the oldest buildings in town. In fact, the floors at Jeff’s were so old that they were black with age. Both were typical old fashioned grocery stores where the grocer stood behind the counter to wait on customers.

Occasionally in summer, we children were given a few coins and permission to walk over to Mason Avenue to buy ice cream. We happily set out with other children from the neighborhood for this rare adventure. Mother forbade us to go to Jeff’s but gave us permission to walk farther down the street to Ewell’s. Sometimes, however, we chose to patronize Jeff’s. Jeff’s store seemed dark as a cave as we came in out of the summer sunshine. A group of elderly black men, seated on chairs and crates within range of the breeze from the large floor fan, chatted about events in Jersey, the part of town in which they lived. As we trooped across the doorway and made our way towards the drinks cooler, the men’s conversation ceased. With only the sound of the fan whirring softly in the background, we plunged our arms up to the elbows into the wonderfully wet chunks of ice in the big sweating cooler and fished up a grape soda or a big orange. We opened the bottles with the bottle opener attached to the side of the cooler, paid the grocer and rushed back into the street to drink up our “grapes” and “big oranges” before going home, because we had been permitted to buy ice cream, not drinks.

Soft drinks, except for homemade root beer and an occasional ginger ale, were seldom served at our house, as Mother maintained that drinking soft drinks in youth would lead to consuming hard liquor later in life. What’s more, we were never allowed to drink a soft drink from a bottle, only from a glass, so we were being doubly disobedient at Jeff’s. We soon learned to avoid buying the grape drinks. Purple lips and tongues always gave us away when we returned home.

Years later, when we admitted that we used to buy treats at Jeff’s, Mother confessed that her objection to our appearing at Jeff’s was, not that we were in any danger there, but because she felt that the unusual presence of a group of white children might seem invasive to some of Jeff’s other customers.



12 Responses to “Pat Parsons Pens Memories of Bygone Cape Charles”

  1. Sandy Mayer on July 28th, 2014 9:51 am

    I am confused by the description of a “dance hall” behind the B&B on Monroe. The houses behind us are not big structures. Certainly not big enough to house a dance hall. Also the builder of our house was named Parsons. There is no mention of a relationship. R.A. Parsons, the merchant and builder of our house, did not have any heirs. He left the house to a niece who raised two children here at about the same time in the ’50s. Guess I will have to read the book.

    Definitely read the book! The little house behind yours was indeed the dance hall — folks must have danced close. Pat Parsons’ maiden name was Joyce, so no relationship there. –EDITOR

  2. Anne Hallerman on July 28th, 2014 12:02 pm

    Looking forward to reading the book. Title is a bit confusing. There is already a book with this title “Before We Were Quaint” about the coastal town of Southport, North Carolina.

  3. Sandy Mayer on July 28th, 2014 1:51 pm

    I stand corrected. The niece of Mrs R. A. Parsons inherited 212 Bay Ave in ’71. There were no children raised here. I understand that the “dance hall” was not moved completely, but pieces of it were used to construct the rental property that is behind the B&B.

  4. Bill Powell on July 28th, 2014 2:23 pm

    The “old ferry dock” housed the Beach Casino, a dance hall. I don’t remember a dance hall across or behind the ferry dock. But, I left C C in 1950. Maybe it came later. Am eager to buy the book.

    Also, the ice plant was at the corner of Mason and Fig.

  5. Wayne Creed on July 28th, 2014 2:47 pm

    Great, can’t wait for the book; not to jump the gun, but as a New York Jets fan (my dad was also Baltimore Colts fan), I was wondering if there was going to be any mention of the Sample family, especially Johnny, who played for the Colts and Jets (both championship teams). When you watch football today, and study the modern cornerback postition, it was Johnny Sample from Cape Charles that is the modern prototype. Good Luck!

  6. Joseph Corcoran on July 28th, 2014 3:40 pm

    The title reminds me of the famous book about Doris Day : ” I knew Doris Day Before She Was a Virgin.”

  7. Allison Mills Duncan on July 28th, 2014 11:57 pm

    The school was Cape Charles High School which was a combination elementary and high school. There was no Central Park at that time. And yes, we were all raised by the people of Cape Charles in addition to our parents.

  8. Terry Strub on July 29th, 2014 11:57 am

    Excited to read the book! Will there be a book signing?

  9. Patricia Parsons on July 31st, 2014 1:30 pm

    What a wonderful time I had writing “Before We Were Quaint.” Looking through old photos and talking to others who grew up in Cape Charles in the 1940s & 1950s made me feel young again. The book will be submitted to a publisher at the end of August or early September, as soon as the illustrator finishes his beautiful scenes showing Cape Charles during the years when it was a thriving community. It has not been easy to find good photographs of Cape Charles during the 1940s and 1950s, so the artist has blended bits and pieces of various photos to make one good picture.

    Re: The Beach Casino: It had been part of the old ferry terminal at the end of Washington Avenue. My father had it moved to 2 Monroe Avenue. He died before he was able to finish it. I tell about it in the book.

    I hope readers will enjoy this tribute to a small town with a big heart.

  10. Kelly Ecimovic on July 31st, 2014 2:59 pm

    My comment is in response to Wayne Creed’s comments about Johnny Sample. My husband and I recently purchased the Sample home on Madison Avenue and are restoring it. We intend to place a marker identifying it as Johnny Sample’s childhood home. We would love to hear from anyone who can tell us more about the Sample family.

  11. Elizabeth Parsons Noble on June 12th, 2015 4:26 pm

    I remember in the 1950s that a place was needed for an Easter Sunrise Service. Possibly mixed up in my mind, I remember that there was a cabin known as John Roberts cabin, which was where we went for a sunrise service. I think it was a hunting lodge, and I have no idea where it is. If anyone remembers, tell me! The owner, John Roberts, also owned the ice plant. Getting large hunks of ice 200-300 lbs. was important to my family, (vegetable packers/brokers). It was the only way to “ice down” a truck, by filling up the truck bunker with a lot of ice. Ice was important in the ’40s and ’50s so that vegetables could be trucked to market in the Northeast. As with all things later, there came machines called “precoolers” which cooled down a truck load of vegetables on a 90 degree day to a reasonable cooler temperature. And then came refrigeration, so eventually not much need for the ice plant. Walking across the vats of ice in the ice plant was really interesting. Lots of the guys worked there in the summer, making ice!

  12. Bill Powell on June 14th, 2015 3:56 pm

    I grew up half a block from the ice plant. Its biggest customer was the railroad, using those big blocks of ice to cool the Pullman sleeping cars for the passenger trains and the Fruit Growers Express and American Fruit Express refrigerated produce cars for the freight trains.