SMITHFIELD, Va. -- When Colonial Williamsburg planners began to reconstruct the town's historic courthouse, they only had to cross the James River to Smithfield to see how it should be done. Smithfield's original 1750 courthouse still stands on Main Street, not far from the 1752 Smithfield Inn. First settled in 1634, the south side of the river is often overlooked even though the oldest English-built church and one of the oldest continuously worked farms in the nation are here, along with several of the region's earliest plantation houses.
The river town of Smithfield is a delightful home base for exploring. Main Street retains its old-time ice cream parlor, pharmacy, and one of the last authentic Ben Franklin five-and-dime stores, as well as its historic sites. Smithfield's architecture is an unusual mix of early American and the grand Victorian era. While much of the South languished after the Civil War, this town emerged unscathed and continued to prosper, thanks to its best known products: peanuts and ham.
Using smoking techniques taught to early settlers by the Native Americans, the ham business reaped fortunes for its entrepreneurs and made this sleepy river town a haven of gentility. Before the Revolutionary War, members of English royalty had standing orders for Smithfield's famous hams. The era of steamboats and the still-flourishing peanut and ham industries in the 1870s brought new wealth, accounting for the town's elaborate Victorian homes with their elegant turrets, towers, stained-glass windows, and steamboat Gothic trim.
The Isle of Wight County Museum on Main Street tells the story of the town and of Smithfield hams. Displays include a country store from the late 1890s, Civil War memorabilia, and Indian artifacts. Among the 44 listings on the printed town walking tour are buildings dating from 1730 to the early 1900s. The courthouse, which had been modeled after the first capitol building in Williamsburg, was threatened with demolition in the 1930s. It was saved by local preservationists and has been completely restored.
Other interesting sites include the Smithfield Academy, a school for young men, built in 1826; Oak Grove Academy for Young Ladies, circa 1836; and a host of Victorian mansions, many of them built with fortunes made in the ham business by families such as the Gwaltneys, whose packing plant can still be seen on the edge of town. Some of the fine homes are now bed-and-breakfasts.
Other former homes along Main Street are now occupied by small boutiques and antique shops. One highly recommended stop is the Collage Arts Center, a former Victorian home now housing galleries, a gift shop, and studios where local artists can be seen at work. Wharf Hill Antiques has unusual and tasteful wares, and Antiques Emporium offers a potpourri of goods from more than 50 dealers.
A drive into the countryside takes visitors past fields of cotton and peanuts. In Isle of Wight County, just outside Smithfield, is St. Luke's church, circa 1632, the oldest Gothic church of English foundation in America.
Lovely in its simplicity, the church has a Jacobean interior and an arched and beamed ceiling resembling a ship's hull. Its treasures include a 17th-century American silver baptismal basin set in a font hewn from a great log, and a remarkable organ from about 1630, adorned with trompe l'oeil paintings.
Fort Boykin Historic Park, high on the bluffs of the James River, first protected colonists from Indians and raiding Spaniards in 1623. Since then, it has been involved in every major conflict fought on American soil. Boykin's Tavern, built in 1762, recently was restored to the look of its days as a Colonial stagecoach stop.
Some of the best-preserved sites in Virginia are about 15 minutes from Smithfield in Surry County. Chippokes Plantation State Park, circa 1619, is still a working farm. The park offers walking trails with beautiful vistas of the James, fields of cotton, many of the original plantation buildings, and the grandly restored Jones-Stewart Mansion, dating from 1854. Summer activities include swimming at the pool, guided fossil-hunting walks along the river, sunset canoe tours on the James, campfire programs, and garden tours by candlelight. Three of the original small homes on the property have been converted to guest cottages overlooking the cotton fields.
Surry County has two other historic attractions. Bacon's Castle, built in 1665, is one of the oldest brick houses still standing in America, while Smith's Fort Plantation, its 18th-century main house intact, stands on land that was presented by the Indian chief Powhatan to John Rolfe in 1614 when Rolfe married Powhatan's daughter, Pocahontas. This fort was named for Captain John Smith, who led the building of a fort here in 1609 as a retreat in case of an attack on Jamestown.
Just down the road from Smith's Fort is the free ferry that travels to Jamestown. The ferry ride offers a chance to see the landscape almost as the first settlers saw it when they arrived via the James River. The ferry makes it easy to visit popular attractions such as the Jamestown settlement and Colonial Williamsburg, then escape from the crowds, sailing back across the river to the gentle tranquillity of Smithfield.
Eleanor Berman is a freelance writer in New York City.