Russell seeks to revive Whaleyville’s past

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 25, 2005

Dean Russell sees himself as sort of the Kevin Costner of Whaleyville.

Not Costner, exactly, but the character, Ray Cansella, that Costner portrayed in the movie &uot;Field of Dreams.&uot;

Cansella heard a voice in his cornfield telling him &uot;If you build it, they will come.&uot; What the voice was referring to, of course, was a baseball diamond, and once it was completed, the ghosts of ballplayers from the early part of the century appeared and played on his field.

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While Russell has not heard any voices, like Cansella, he’s hoping to conjure the spirits of Whaleyville’s past. If he creates an attractive location, he believes some business will move in to fill a community void.

Last fall Russell, who traces his family’s history back to at least 1840 in Whaleyville, purchased a building on Whaleyville Boulevard that in his words had become an eyesore.

Since then he, with the help of several locals, has transformed it into a showplace. Now all he needs is a tenant.

Tops on that list is some type of grocery store.

&uot;Our closest grocery store is Wal-Mart downtown,&uot; Russell said. &uot;If you have an emergency, you need some Tylenol at an odd hour, you drive 15 miles to Wal-Mart. So our community is crying, ‘We need a grocery store,’ we need something like that.&uot;

A restaurant where you could sit and eat a hamburger or get a pizza delivered would also vastly improve the quality of Whaleyville life.

Russell was careful not to criticize the convenience store that serves Whaleyville-and is thankful it is there-but said he believes it has reached its capacity and is always crowded.

The building Russell hopes to fill was built in the 1930s as a filling station and over the years has served as a garage and a Laundromat.

&uot;I grew up seven or eight buildings down the road from that building,&uot; he said. &uot;It was originally built in 1931. Mr. U.B. Vaughn constructed the building and it has quite a bit of history to it.

Russell said it was Vaughn’s son, Woodrow, now a resident of Nansemond Pointe Nursing Home, who gave him the construction date. He also noted that Woodrow, as a teenager, helped his father lay the original brick.

It served as a service station until 1946, when it was purchased by Frank Roberts who ran his garage out of it for about 30 years.

&uot;It has quite a lot of folklore,&uot; Russell said. &uot;Frank Roberts was a local mechanic and his temperament and attitude were, well, unique.&uot;

Over the course of Robert’s occupancy, at various times he ran his garage out of the back of the 2,800 square-foot building and leased the front. Russell knows it was a laundromat for several years, and Richard Forehand, who also grew up near the store, told Russell his parents ran a grocery out of it for a few years. Someone did gun repair there for a while and Russell remembers it as a small engine repair shop.

A recently painted bright red vintage Coca-Cola sign on the south wall of the building has attracted attention from a lot of passersby, many of whom have stopped in to talk to Russell- he’s there most afternoons working after completing his daily duties as a Maytag

repairman- about their memories of it.

&uot;We even had a guy coming up out of Carolina who stopped and asked about the mechanic who fixed his car once when it broke down. Everyone who stops has a Frank Roberts story,&uot; he said.

When he bought building in June, Russell said the walls were literally covered with pinup girls dating from the late 1940s to 1973-though pretty tame by today’s standards, he said.


was just typical of old car garage stuff,&uot; he said. &uot;All the men in the community always have a story about going in there. I used to always like to come up here with daddy because we could always look at girls on the wall. So the building is

just totally steeped in Whaleyville history.&uot;

And that’s what drew the 33-year-old Russell into the project – the history, not the pinup girls.

&uot;That’s really been the fun part about it – all the stories and I love history,&uot; he said.

Contrary to rumors circulating in the small village, Russell said he’s not getting rich off the project and in fact has spent &uot;a small fortune&uot; on the renovation.

His latest acquisition is a set of reproduction, circa 1930s gas pumps that he is installing in front of the building, to lend to the authenticity.

And that’s important to Russell. As a member of the fledgling Whaleyville Historical Society and the village’s steering committee for its city-sponsored initiative plan, he has intimate knowledge of the &uot;vision&uot; for Whaleyville and wants his building to be a contributing structure.

&uot;I’ve spent a lot of money on this, but the history carries a certain price tag to it, too,&uot; he said. &uot;Just the fact that people stop by and say ‘I went to Whaleyville High School and used to come up here and hang out,’ makes me feel good.&uot;

In addition to bringing a needed service to Whaleyville, Russell also hopes his project will spark a revival of community spirit and prompt others to invest in the community.

He said the entire project has been done by people from Whaleyville, something in which he takes particular pride.

&uot;The whole project is interesting, because we’ve done it on a local scale-no contractors,&uot; he said. &uot;It’s been all local people who have come up and offered their services. I’m proud of the fact that it was done locally by local people with the attitude of improving the community in mind.&uot;