Traveling through time into Suffolk

Published 10:24 pm Friday, July 19, 2013

By Archie Howell

It’s after peanut picking time; livestock has been turned into temporary pastures, and a general sigh of relief settles over our household. Days are cooler and shorter; most leaves remain as colorful piles in our yard. My family is not much for lawn tidiness.

The Sears Christmas catalog has arrived, and my siblings and I have overlaid eyeball prints on most pages. The candies and goodies section has more children’s eyeball prints than any other.


Email newsletter signup

It’s approaching Thanksgiving, and something of a tradition is to buy coconut and sweet potato pies from a bakery in Suffolk. Somehow those two delicacies are not a family specialty, or it’s just nice to have someone else’s pies for Thanksgiving.

The bakery is on Route 58, just inside the city, and sometimes, on outings that take us through Suffolk, we stop and buy doughnuts. The sugary sweet, greasy rings of cooked dough are a real treat for us. Sticky fingers are licked without embarrassment; we don’t talk much when doughnuts are available. Passing through Suffolk, we always have our eyes peeled in anticipation of a possible stop.

We also make trips for shopping. There’s a Montgomery Ward store in Suffolk; we have one of their catalogs at our house. They have everything: clothes, furniture, automobile repair parts, farming supplies, washers, household furnishings, lamps, cloth, curtains — everything.

Their catalogs come in two editions: spring and summer, and fall and winter. I don’t know who determines what goes where; some items are available year round. Every household has a Sears-Roebuck and a Montgomery Ward catalog. All the products can be mailed or shipped directly to your house. We mail order things from catalogs frequently.

There are several different clothing stores in Suffolk. When we go to shop, we park behind the police station, a big ol’ red brick building on Main Street. We turn down the alleyway beside the building and park in any available space. The parking area is not paved or marked, but there’s usually enough space for everybody.

There’s a hotel in Suffolk. We have the Stonewall Hotel in Franklin; it’s a landmark there on Main Street, but the hotel in Suffolk is several stories tall and has a coffee shop entrance from the street. That seems like an open invitation to everyone to come in, that it’s not just for hotel residents. There are several restaurants in downtown Suffolk. It must be nice to have such a selection to choose from.

In the summer, a local farmer opens a small roadside fruit stand between Holland and Suffolk. Some of his peaches usually find their way to our table. It’s normally a small quantity, enough for eating fresh or making ice cream, just enough to whet but not overwhelm our appetite. They arrive at our house with a little fanfare and lip lickin’.

Every trip to, through, or from Suffolk takes us by Bethlehem Christian Church. It’s on the Holland Road, just outside the city limits. Dr. Brittle is the preacher there. “Pappy,” as he is called, used to be our preacher at Joyner’s church. I guess preachers “feel the call” to move on to other churches at some point.

Dr. Brittle is much loved by our family. He christened, married and buried many people we know and love. He shared many meals at our house; he is considered family by most in our neighborhood. When he shepherded our church, he planted, tended, and shared a vegetable garden. He made hospital calls regularly.

We sometimes stop and say “hello” if he’s at the church; more often than not, he’s somewhere else. Probably tending his current flock. My parents invariably comment about him and his ways every time we pass the church.

My brother’s wife is from Suffolk. We’ve visited her mother and father on a few occasions, but not on a regular basis. Her family operates a furniture company of some description, but we’ve never been to the business. Our visits are the Sunday afternoon kind — sit around and talk while kids play in the yard. Usually there’s a special invitation involved, not just the “drop in” kind. Our visits are a little more formal than I’m used to.

Suffolk is a big city to me. I will spend a lifetime solving some of its mysteries.

James D. “Archie” Howell is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at