Straight and narrow

Published 1:24 am Wednesday, July 19, 2017

By Phyllis Speidell

“Just call me ‘Blade,’” Ashton Lewis joked as he climbed onto his John Deere 4020. In his bibs and John Deere cap, he could be the farmer he wanted to be from the time he was a toddler on the family farm in Amelia in the late 1940s.

As the rich loam coiled over the plow’s moldboard, he looked back from the tractor seat to say, “Isn’t that beautiful?” with an appreciation you might expect for the latest model Honda or Chevy in one of his dealerships.

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Lewis is president of Lewis Gibbs Corp., the holding company for the First Team Auto dealerships and treasurer of First Team Automotive. He serves on the TowneBank and the Beazley Foundation boards of directors.

He owned a NASCAR race team and, in 1988, was acting president of Eastern Virginia Medical School and First Citizen of Portsmouth. Never, however, has he surrendered his love of farming, tractors and all things agricultural.

Sitting at the wheel of his John Deere 4020 tractor, Ashton Lewis turns over the sod in a field. (John H. Sheally II)

A Western Branch resident, Lewis has seen the community evolve during the last 50 years from fertile farms to suburbia, complete with a booming population, highways, commercial and residential developments — and all the challenges that crop up with them. The metamorphosis almost wiped the once-rural landscape from the culture of Western Branch.

There are still a few active farmers, such as the Lilley family, and there are those, like Lewis, who will always be farmers at heart. Jimmy Lilley, in partnership with his brothers Jerry and Larry, continues the almost 100-year Lilley family farming tradition in and around Western Branch. Several of the Lilley children also work in the operation.

“Western Branch is not part of rural America anymore,” Lilley said. “But there are still a lot of roots here — doctors, lawyers, businessmen who came from farm families in the area.”

Lewis is one of those, still as much at home driving a John Deere as he is running a business, a duality from his days at Churchland High School. He skipped all the high school extracurricular activities to answer his tractor’s call to harvest the beans or prepare a field for the next crop on the family acreage in Point Elizabeth.

He answered that call again in November 2016 at Plow Day in Shawboro, N.C. Watching the participants cutting straight furrows through a field and watching the soil turn in the wake of the plows, he felt something stir inside.

“It hooked me,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to start playing with these guys.’”

In February, he entered the next plow day, in Elm City, N.C.

(John H. Sheally II)

“Plow days are about old tractors and, usually, old men,” he said. “Very few people plow today. It’s not efficient and takes too much power. It’s obsolete, since a disk can go as deep as a plow, but plowing brings back memories, helps us relive our youth.”

Lewis is quick to point out the various parts of a moldboard plow and how it digs into and turns the soil for planting. He has several plows of his own, including a flip plow.

A level planting surface requires the soil all turned over in the same direction, and a flip plow allows the farmer to simply turn around at the end of the field, reverse the plow and head back across the field, while saving fuel and time on the task.

“I love farming, so talking about it tends to bring out the best in me,” Lewis said.

In 1946, Lewis’ father, Bill, left the family farm to partner in a Chevrolet dealership in Portsmouth with his oldest brother-in-law, Charles Davenport. Four years later, Ashton Lewis, 5, and his mother left the farm, as well, and the family rented a home in Green Acres. Then they bought 30 acres to farm off Tyre Neck Road. Lewis and his wife, Bunny, live on part of the acreage now.

As Davenport-Lewis Chevrolet flourished, so did Ashton Lewis’s love of farming

“I was still in high school in 1961 when I decided to plant soybeans,” Lewis recalled. “Uncle Charlie helped me, but he died the next year. I bought the tractor from his estate and farmed 20 acres on Tyre Neck Road. The next year I got a new John Deere 3010, kept farming and kept learning from my mentors, Rufus and James Lilley.”

“I’m about four years younger than Ashton, but I remember from when he was 14 on, he would spend time with my father or grandfather, riding in the pickup with them. He was so enamored with farming,” Jimmy Lilley said. “I think the plow days are all about nostalgia, just like antique cars and shag clubs.”

When Lewis graduated from Churchland High in 1964, he was farming 200 acres in Western Branch. Eventually, however, the family business beckoned.

In 1969, not long after graduating from Randolph-Macon College, he joined the family dealership as the head of sales and service for the new Chevrolet series 90 trucks, the heavy-duty trucks he still loves.

“The car business got me, or rather, my father got me,” Lewis said. “He was ready to retire and needed me to run the business, so I took over in the 1970s. I bought two new tractors thinking my sons would want to farm, but neither of them had any interest. Dad died in 1980, and 1981 was a tough year in the car business. I knew I couldn’t run the business and farm too, so I auctioned off all the farm equipment.”

Today, however, watching Lewis ride off on his trusty John Deere, it’s easy to see where his heart remains.