Column – In the shadow of war

Published 5:27 pm Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The years 1938 to 1940 were shadowed by full blown war in Europe. Several such headlines and stories bannered the front pages of the Suffolk News-Herald.

On June 4, 1939, it was reported the SS St. Louis, a ship carrying 907 Jewish refugees, was denied permission to dock in Florida after already having been turned away from Cuba. Forced to return to Europe, many of the passengers later died in Nazi death camps during the Holocaust.

Other war headlines included “Nazi planes attack British fleet at sea, claim another carrier sunk,”  “Berlin claims Warsaw ready to surrender,” “Germany planning blitzkrieg on the Allies,” “Italy warns U.S. Sale of Destroyers to England ‘Dangerously involves country in Europe’s war,’” and “British continue attack on Nazi industrial areas.” Every day brought more news as seemingly the entire world was pulled into war. 


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On Oct. 16, 1940, hundreds registered for the first peacetime draft in the U.S. Young men aged 21-35 swarmed to the designated registration places. At Suffolk High School, one of several locations, an average of 54 men were registered every 20 minutes. A total of nearly 5,000 men were registered. Two weeks later, on Oct. 30, a headline read, “First peacetime draft lottery over.” About 40 men from Suffolk and 80 from Nansemond County were included in the first draft call. 

Business in Suffolk continued to prosper and grow. On Oct. 24, 1938, the minimum wage was set at 25 cents an hour by the Fair Labor Standards Act. 

In a Jan. 11, 1939, story, headlined “Churn defined skating limits,” the police chief informed parents to caution children about skating in the downtown area. Skates must be removed to cross streets, and at no time must they skate in the street. Skating was only permitted west of Chestnut Street, north of Seaboard Railway, east of Liberty Street and south of Norfolk and Western Railway. Any skating inside these boundaries would be cited. 

In June 1939, work started on a new theater to be built at the rear of a preexisting North Main Street building. The Pitt-Roth Movie House was expected to cost $100,000. Instead of just another theater, the corporation decided to build an amusement and recreation center offering a modern theater and a 10-lane regulation bowling alley. The new motion picture palace would occupy the space at the rear of the North Main Street building at the time occupied by the Suffolk Floral Gardens and Saunders Service. 

The News-Herald often highlighted unusual farm stories. One such story on July 19, 1939, was titled “W.E. Harris grows large cucumbers.” Harris, who resided on the Rosedale Farm near Zuni, brought two cucumbers to the offices of the News-Herald measuring about 25-inches long. These were supposedly not the largest of the crop. Several had been pulled on his farm that measured 35 inches from tip-to-tip. Harris often experimented with different varieties of corn. He had been working for several years to develop better strains and varicolored types of corn. He reported corn growing on his farm which was solid blue and another variety containing nine different colors on the same cob. 

A local favorite to this day, the Peanut Fest was held in August in the late ’30s. A special treat was reported on Aug 9, 1939, in an article titled “Jumbos eat jumbos as Suffolk gives elephants a feast.” A herd of five of the largest animals In the world — circus elephants — ate their fill of the largest peanuts in the world, in the largest peanut market in the world. Trainer Buck Taylor put his mammoth charges through a variety of stunts for the amusement of thousands of children and adults who packed the traffic-cleared square in front of the City Market. An hour before the demonstration took place, trucks arrived and unloaded tons of peanuts in the middle of the street. Hundreds of youngsters waited patiently on the sidewalks to get a glimpse of the mammoth beasts who were to be the guests of honor at the greatest peanut feast of the century. Workmen ripped open the bags of peanuts and soon a pile more than 20-feet in circumference and some 6-feet high stood in the middle of the street. 

Although the war was raging in Europe, here in Suffolk it seemed times were prosperous and full of growth. 

Jen Jaqua is the creative director for the Suffolk News-Herald. She can be contacted at