North Suffolk: Transformation

Published 11:20 pm Saturday, September 10, 2011

Route 17 goes from country road to busy highway

Editor’s Note: This is the sixth in a series of stories on the history of North Suffolk. Look for the rest of the series in upcoming Sunday editions of the Suffolk News-Herald.

To get to work, Jodie Matthews doesn’t have to drive very far — in fact, he just has to cross a road to get from his house to his job. But he still sets aside plenty of time for his commute.

“Sometimes, it takes me 15 minutes to get out of my driveway,” he said.

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Matthews allocates a quarter of an hour every day, because he doesn’t head across any quiet road in North Suffolk to get to work — he has to transverse Bridge Road, which is often loaded with traffic, to get to Bennett’s Creek Farm Market, where he is the general manager.

But Matthews remembers that not too long ago, Route 17 was a sleepy road in an area filled with more farms than people.

Matthews, whose family has been based in Bennett’s Creek since the early 1900s, said he remembers when the road was a two-lane highway that carried travelers from Churchland to Isle of Wight County.

Like Matthews, Charles Parkerson, the president of Lancaster Farms, said Bridge Road was a very different place when he arrived in North Suffolk in the ‘60s.

“It was nothing,” he said. “Nobody came out this way. There just wasn’t anyone out here.”

Before and during the 1960s, Bridge Road was occupied by farms growing a variety of produce, including soybeans and potatoes, that would be shipped to Norfolk using Bennett’s Creek.

At that time, Bridge Road was made for the farms. It wasn’t the straightaway cutting through North Suffolk that it is today. Instead, it snaked its way around the farms there.

A portion of the old road still exists today, but it was renamed Ferry Road when Bridge Road was redesigned and straightened.

The redesign also took out a hand-cranked drawbridge that travelers met as they approached Bridge Road.

The drawbridge, which opened in 1933, crossed Bennett’s Creek until it was replaced in 1968.

John Eberwine, who has lived in the area for all of his 72 years, said it took a lot of manpower to open the drawbridge.

“You had to round up people to get it open, because it took a lot,” he said. “A lot of guys worked together to open it.”

However, he said, the bridge wasn’t opened very often, because there wasn’t much traffic on the creek other than boats taking produce shipments.

But to ensure the bridge could be opened when a boat came near, the caretaker was the owner of Head’s Grocery Store, located in a building next to the creek that still can be seen today.

Eberwine fondly remembers hearing Mr. Head calling for the boys in the neighborhood to come down and help with the bridge.

Eberwine would run to help as fast as his feet could carry him because after the bridge was open, they got ice cream as a reward.

At the same time, another man took care of the Mills E. Godwin Bridge that stretched over the Nansemond River, but instead of opening the bridge, the Godwin keeper collected tolls.

“As a kid, I remember going across the bridge and having to stop to pay the toll,” Matthews said.

In the mid-1960s, the federal government took on a project to expand U.S. Route 17 to four lanes to accommodate more traffic.

The plan called for more lanes on the highway and two new, higher bridges to replace the drawbridge.

The new bridges were built right next to where the drawbridge was located.

Although the expansion opened up the road to more travelers, Route 17 continued to be occupied by very few businesses.

The Matthews family owned two of the first businesses on the road, the farm market and the Bennett’s Creek Restaurant, which used to sit where Walgreens is now located.

J.C. Matthews, Jodie Matthews’s father, opened the farm market as a produce stand to sell the family’s farm items in 1964, but in 1968, when the road expanded, he expanded the business, also.

“He had to do something, because the road was going to go straight through the stand,” Jodie Matthews said.

Since that time, Bennett’s Creek Farm Market has been a staple on Bridge Road.

The Matthews family opened Bennett’s Creek Restaurant in the mid-‘50s.

The family sold the restaurant in 1969 to Juddy Rodham, who ran it with the help of his siblings.

In 1975, the restaurant changed hands again, when brothers George and Steve Ikonomou bought it and renamed it George and Steve’s Steakhouse.

George and Steve’s was a North Suffolk landmark until 2006, when the brothers retired and sold the land to Walgreens.

Other than the farm market and restaurant, few other businesses were established in the area until recently.

Matthews said the only other businesses he remembers in the area were Food Lion, which opened during the ‘70s, and the Bank of Nansemond, which was located on the corner of Lee Farm Lane and Bridge Road.

In 1985, Chris Jones opened Bennett’s Creek Pharmacy further down Bridge Road, on the corner of Bennett’s Pasture Road, but he moved to his current location next to Food Lion in 1994.

“There was nothing out there (in North Suffolk),” Jones said. “It was just a lot of fields. You didn’t have shopping centers. It was not a business corridor, other than a few businesses that were located there.”

But when Interstate 664 opened in 1992, the road took on a new identity as more and more businesses moved into the area to attract the new traffic.

Lancaster Farms’ Parkerson said he thinks I-664 is the main reason North Suffolk has developed so rapidly during the past 20 years.

“I think the interstate had a lot to do with it,” he said. “Things really started to change (when it opened).”

Although traffic increased and houses went up where farms used to be, Parkerson said, he thinks the development has been good for the area.

“Change is not always a bad thing,” he said.

Like Parkerson, Matthew believes development has helped the community.

“I’ve watched a lot of things happen, a lot of development,” he said. “But I like it. It’s nice.”

Matthews said it was great growing up on Bridge Road, and even though he might curse the traffic that flies by when he’s trying to leave his home, he couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

“It was a fun place to grow up,” he said. “I really don’t have the heart to leave this area.”