Memoir Nonfiction

Then and Now: A Brief History of Phenix, Virginia

“They’ll bite off your toes,” Robbie’s mom Joanne told us of the hogs. “Especially the babies.”

In the summer of 2003, one of my close childhood friends and next door neighbor, Jeremiah Hamlett, from Phenix, Virginia, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. The night I received word of his diagnosis, I went over to the basketball court across the street from my house and Jeremiah’s and sat in my car with a green notebook pressed against the steering wheel of my car, and began writing. This is the story of our childhood growing up in small town America. This is the story of life and friendship in the face of cancer. This is When the Lights Go Out at 10:16, A Memoir.

Before you read this, read:
The Ghosts of Childhood“ (1)
Welcome to Phenix: A Nice Place to Live” (2)

Phenix was just different back in the day

Not to sound all back in my day about it, but Phenix, Virginia, was different back then than it is now. The likely culprit: technology. One of the biggest observations I continue to see whenever I visit home is how empty the streets are of kids. It’s like they no longer exist, as if childhood is boarded up inside the walls of one- and two-story homes, glowing screens having replaced bicycles and basketballs and games of backyard football.

Growing up, my friends and I roamed the streets and woods and everywhere in between like some sort of youthful gang, only returning home when the lights went out at the basketball court or when our parents yelled out the door it was time to eat. Nowadays, nada. No kids, no teenagers, no young adults anywhere in sight — at least that I see.

But in the 1980’s and 90’s, the contrast couldn’t be more dissimilar.

So, it’s hard to tell a story and cast Phenix as merely a simple setting where a story takes place. Phenix, all 1.158 square miles of it, is more than setting. Phenix is a character in this yarn I’m about to tell — and it’s important I say that up front because you can’t understand the rest of us characters without first understanding a little bit about a small town in southern Virginia known as Phenix, in Charlotte County, Virginia — a place most travelers through would miss with the blink of an eye while traversing down Highway 40 or 727 in route to whatever destination they may be headed.

Main Location: Phenix, Virginia
Country: United States
State: Virginia
County: Charlotte
Area: 1.158 square miles
Population: 226 (2010 census)1
Median family income: $34,5832
Fun Fact: There isn’t a single stoplight in Phenix (not then, not now), and until very recently, there also wasn’t a single stoplight in all of Charlotte County3

A portion of the following text (“History of Phenix, Virginia”) was summarized from a write-up by one of my former neighbors who is now deceased, Ms. Sara Gilliam and her husband Ned, owners of one of the fattest basset hounds the world has ever known named Polly.

Phenix began as a hog lot owned by S.C. Daniel in 1905. Then, in 1906, in anticipation of the Virginian railroad being constructed and passing through Charlotte County, a group of businessmen from the Home Development Company from nearby Farmville, Virginia, bought up land. By 1908, Phenix was surveyed and established with streets laid out and sold to local businessmen to start new enterprises within the town’s limits. A town was born.

Eyeing potential profits from the coming railroad, sawmills came to town, as did tobacco warehouses, including S.C. Chamberlyne’s Leaf Tobacco Company, a large tobacco factory built in 1911. Traveling medicine shows came by railcar entertaining the townspeople for two weeks at a time before hitting the rails again. A school was built. A livestock market opened. A volunteer fire department was established.

It’s strange to think of Phenix as a place of opportunity—even on a small scale. Yet, seventy five years before I was born, it was just that. Structural remnants of these bygone opportunities existed in my youth. At the ball field, the feed tower loomed, its rickety metal ladder leading up high that us kids climbed as our dads tried to re-create their own glory days, playing in weekend softball tournaments. Once up high, the square black pool at the base of the ladder reflected below and became the recipient of our spit as the black water rippled to the sides.

The livestock market was a happening place on the weekends, and though we didn’t own any cattle or other farm animals, I went here often with my dad. Thirty odd years later, I can still smell the manure as vividly as back then. Mmmm!

It was also a place of potential peril we were advised as we stood next to the hog pin one Saturday morning before an auction was to take place.

“They’ll bite off your toes,” Robbie’s mom Joanne told us of the hogs. “Especially the babies.”

We all stepped back a few inches, continuing to peer over the rounded red gate of the pin, our toes curled under the balls of our feet tucked in our shoes.

Even in my teenage years, the loft of the axe handle factory still existed, an unsound structure if there ever was one, transforming into a scene of cigarette smoking and other foolishness hidden from our parents.

These structures none exist now, having been torn down due to their potential for insurance perils; but for many of us growing up in the 1980s, if we close our eyes hard enough, we can still see the feed store next to the bank prior to its building expansion.

With all that said, there’s one central location that was constructed that was the hub for most memories of my youth: the basketball court.

After you read this, read “The Court.”

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  1. I can tell you now that 226 people do not live in Phenix, unless you count the headstones of the dead. This 226 census number includes neighboring unincorporated towns such as Bethel, Aspen, and Old Well which stretch three to fifteen miles away
  2. It’s hard to fathom how low this is. In comparison, the median family income across the Commonwealth of Virginia is twice that at $71,535.
  3. Thanks to my friend Whitney for ruining the “no stoplight in Charlotte County even today” proclamation. She informed me there is, indeed, a stoplight in Charlotte County now. Only one, but still.

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