Column – Oddities in the city

Published 7:31 pm Tuesday, August 22, 2023

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In the first couple of years of the 1980s, Suffolk battled crimes of theft and school vandalism at a high rate. In March of ’81, police reported another incident in what was becoming a series of mysterious peanut thefts. More than a dozen 300-pound bags of shelled peanuts treated for seed were stolen. A previous theft was reported in which someone took four boxes of peanuts and three boxes of peanut oil from a railroad boxcar. 

In April, after months of planning, the Sister City Commission linked Suffolk County, England, and this city as sisters for cultural exchange. 

In July of ’81, a Whaleyville family experienced something a bit odd. “Tomatoes; Tomahtoes; Potatoes; Potahtoes? No matter how you say it, something unusual is going on in Whaleyville. When people plant potatoes, they expect to harvest potatoes — from under the earth. The Lloyd Seabolt family planted potatoes. What they are harvesting, however, are … you guessed it … tomatoes; above the ground; on potato plants. Mrs. Seabolt has no idea how the phenomenon came about. But about 10 potato plants bear little green tomatoes. The fruits of their labor have tomato seeds inside. They don’t look anything like spuds. Those seeds are being saved for planting next year. Maybe the Seabolts will reap topahtoes. Or pomahtoes. It doesn’t matter how you say it. Michel de Montaigne said it this way before 1600: ‘Let us permit nature to have her way; she understands her business better than we do.’”

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In September of that year, the opening of a hamburger chain in Suffolk turned into a champagne party. Traditionally, Wendy’s would throw big parties when coming into a new area and make contributions to local charities. To symbolize the 256 ways hamburgers can be prepared, Wendy’s gave $256 to the Morgan Memorial Library’s trust fund. 

In an effort to clarify Suffolk City in the beginning of 1982, the city and the Suffolk Beautification Commission worked together to let people coming into Suffolk know exactly where the city starts. Virginia’s largest city announced itself proudly at its boundaries with welcome signs. Each sign featured a peanut and the state dogwood flower, a design created by Parks and Recreation Department employee Judith Oswald. 

In March of ’82, Whaleyville again had some strange occurrences, but they were shared with the entire region this time. “Telephones started jangling in various homes as friends told neighbors to go outside and look up in the sky. They did, and what they saw, they could not describe. Slim Brown thought it was the woods on fire. The thing, whatever it was, defied definition. It had no body. It hovered just over the treetops, and turned everything red. ‘It wasn’t like an object, it was like a cloud,’ said Brown. ‘It set there for a while, and it had lights like headlights on a car. Several times a beam of light would go through the red cloud. It was a bright red.’ The neighbors all decided it couldn’t be a helicopter or an airplane, and they had no idea on earth what it could be. For a while the cloud disappeared. Then it came back at 10:30. The cloud was sighted by airplane pilots. The National Weather Service at Norfolk International Airport described the cloud as Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis. Usually, the lights don’t come this far south, he said, but they can when the magnetic field in the atmosphere gets disturbed.”

Dry conditions and high winds led to a raging fire in April ’82. Fanned by 30 miles per hour wind gusts, it raced two miles from Shoulders Hill Road through to the Pughsville community, destroying 17 homes and damaging numerous others. It took an army of over 200 firefighters from 10 fire departments, some from as far away as Virginia Beach and Fentress Field, to battle the fire under control. The fire was believed to have started on Shoulders Hill Road near the S-curve across from Bennett’s Creek Park entrance. There were 10 fire departments, six rescue squads, two police departments, the Virginia Forestry Division, the Virginia National Guard and the Civil Air Patrol all taking part in the firefighting effort. 

Two months later, in one of his last official acts as Suffolk mayor, George H. Barnett led ribbon-cutting ceremonies at both the new Holland and new Whaleyville Volunteer Fire Stations.