Life above the river
Published 9:50 pm Wednesday, January 25, 2017
Two cottages perched on pilings in the Nansemond River, one on each side of the Godwin Bridge and accessible only by boat, have piqued curiosity since the early 1900s.
“People thought they were oyster houses or dens of iniquity,” Dorothy Davis says.
The cottages, the only two remaining of several that dotted the river, were early 1900s summer retreats for families from Suffolk and Nansemond County.
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“Spending time out there was like you’d left the county,” says Davis, who, with her husband, Richard, owned the cottage on the west side of the bridge. “Before daylight you’d hear the crab men come by and their search lights would wake you.
She fell in love with the river houses when she was 15 and first visited one — but never dreamed that 25 years later she would own Nix Club (also know as Nix’s Club), the oldest one on the Nansemond. Built in 1914 near Nix Wharf, the cottage was an early timeshare with several local families dividing ownership.
“It had two bathrooms and an artesian well with fresh water, but no hot water,” Davis says. “Water in a barrel was warmed by the sun, and those showers were so great that people would row out from the land just to take one.”
The 1933 hurricane destroyed most of the river cottages. But after repairs Nix Club continued as a lively getaway, until the World War II shortage of materials left the house dilapidated, with swallows and barn owls the only guests.
After the war, Davis’ brother bought Nix Club and added electrical power and a water heater — but the roof still leaked when he sold it to the Davises about 1958.
She remembers: “We didn’t have the money, so we traded cattle for it. During the summer, we were out there most of the time. It was too nice a place not to share, so we had lots of company. The river house was quite the gathering place for old Suffolk; even storms were wonderful out there — thunder and lightning, rain coming from the roof, everyone soaked. They were wonderful parties.
Hinton Hurff recalls: “The North Suffolk Rotary had a shrimp and crab feast at Nix’s clubhouse, and the planning was not the best. The tide was not accounted for, and when it was time to leave, it was low tide. The only thing to do was keep on drinking until the tide came in. Somewhat of a problem — several members had a little too much to drink, and when it came time to leave, they were a little unsteady. When getting out of the bateau, they missed their step and stepped in the mud rather deep.”
In 2003 Hurricane Isabel obscured the cottage in a cloud of fog, and when the fog lifted, the structure was gone. But the river house rebounded, was rebuilt a few years later and was sold to a new owner, the Willis family.
Alonzo Wood “A.W.” Ballard built the other river house, about 1,000 feet east of the bridge, in August 1930, after drawing the plans on a grocery bag. Capt. Lip Johnson of Crittenden drove the pilings. The house was built in 30 days.
Robert Hall Ballard, A.W.’s son, often saw squalls come down the river, but even without weather alerts, his mother sensed that the Hurricane of 1933 was no mere squall. She led 11-year-old Robert, barefoot and carrying his canary, from the cottage at slack tide. Fifty-mile-per-hour winds blew the gates off the drawbridge and buffeted the bird against the sides of its cage. The river rose to the top of the table holding the wind-up Victrola but left the house standing.
The next day, the Ballards read in the Suffolk newspaper that they had been “rescued” from their cottage in the storm.
In 1948, Robert Ballard acquired the cottage and installed electricity and a well.
“We used to all go to the river house, sit back and tell tales,” he says.
Ballard turned over the cottage to the Nansemond River Power Squadron in 2001, just two years before Hurricane Isabel tore apart the building. After more storms and more repairs, current owners Bonnie and John Sims set new pilings and restored the river cottage.
The other cottages didn’t fare as well. The Newport Club, built about 1915 near the Nansemond River lighthouse, was off the Tidewater Community College campus. A.W. Ballard was one of half a dozen men who built and shared the cottage until he pulled out to build his own. The Newport Club fell victim to the 1933 hurricane.
That storm also claimed the Nansemond Club House, built about 1920 near a watch house on the Nansemond bar off Cedar Point Country Club, and the Holland Club House. The Holland river house, not far from the Ballard house, was completed in 1933.
Owner Reginald Holland managed to spend a single night there before the hurricane swept the cottage from its pilings and sent it crashing into the bridge.
Editor’s note: The preceding excerpt from the book “Peninsula in Passage: Driver, Bennett’s Creek, Harbour View,” was reprinted with permission of the authors, Phyllis Speidell, John H. Sheally II and Karla Smith, and publisher, Suffolk River Heritage. Copies of the book are available at a variety of area locations, including the Suffolk Visitor’s Center, Bennett’s Creek Pharmacy, Bennett’s Creek Market, A. Dodson’s and the Crittenden Frame Shop. For more information about Suffolk River Heritage and its other historical books about the area, visit www.suffolk-river-heritage.org.