Preserving a unique history

Published 10:34 pm Monday, January 30, 2012

There’s been a spate of “historical” books released over the last few years, books that endeavor to preserve communities and groups for the world to remember. In my stint as a copy editor at the Daily Press in Newport News, I witnessed our fair share of these 60-page cookie-cutter tomes making the rounds. What was most surprising about all of these books was that, while the communities they represented were as different as could be, the books themselves look identical sitting on a shelf.

So when it was announced last year that the Greater Chuckatuck Historical Foundation was almost done with its project to collect memories and photos for their own book, I was dismissive. I mean, I think it’s great when a community attempts to preserve its heritage, I just think books claiming to preserve the unique perspective of a community should be a little more, well, unique.

So it was with delight that I paged through a copy of “Chuckatuck: A Crossroads in Time” when it showed up at the Suffolk News-Herald office in December.

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The hardback book has a whopping 240 pages and more than 400 photographs covering the unique history of Chuckatuck. The foundation put in so much work that the book even includes a bonus DVD of pictures and interviews that wouldn’t fit.

It’s a beautifully put-together testament to both the Chuckatuck community and the persistence and dedication of the GCHF.

It’s refreshing to see a group like the Greater Chuckatuck Historical Foundation actively working to preserve their community, instead of just talking about the good old days. But the GCHF hasn’t stopped there. Only a few months after finally finishing the difficult book project that has taken more than two years, the foundation is at it again, this time working to preserve an endangered building.

Gwaltney’s Store, a deteriorating building that was almost demolished, sits on Route 10 and served the Chuckatuck community back when villagers didn’t rely on traveling to Suffolk for their goods.

The foundation’s earliest record of the building is a tintype photo of the store with a sign reading Peck’s Cheap Goods. Like countless other Suffolkians, I drive past it on my daily commute. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has always wondered what the old building had been and what it could be, given a little attention.

After securing a $10,000 grant to help bring the building back up to code, Kent Gwaltney, the building’s owner, and the GCHF are ready to do just that.

“It’s part of our history,” GCHF board member Drex Bradshaw told a Suffolk News-Herald reporter. “The people who visited those stores, who ran those stores, most of them are gone now. … That’s one of the reasons Lynn Rose and I have been so doggedly getting the history done, because if we don’t, people will forget it.”

But thanks to a partnership between GCHF and Gwaltney, the store will soon see new life.

Bradshaw says the building will likely become a museum, a place for the foundation to show off the items collecting during the making of “Chuckatuck.” Gwaltney also sees promise of a small retail section to go along with the museum.

No matter its future, Gwaltney’s Store is a piece of Chuckatuck history. And just like everything about the community, as long as the Greater Chuckatuck Historical Foundation is around, no one will forget it.