Brief History of the Town of Phenix, Charlotte County, Virginia
Credits: The following is a brief history of the Town of Phenix that was written by long time resident Sara Gilliam with contributions from her well-known husband Ned Gilliam. The history runs from the founding of Phenix until around the mid-1980s.
This history was collected and written by J.E. Gilliam, Jr. and Sara E. Gilliam with great respect for the town in which they have lived and raised their family.
Phenix was first a hog lot owned by Mr. S. C. Daniel in 1905. In 1906, the Virginian railroad was being built, beginning in West Virginia and terminating at Norfolk, Virginia. The rails were laid by Italians. Anticipating the railroad going through this section of Charlotte County, the land was bought by the Home Development Company which was composed of businessmen from Farmville. Mr. R. S. Chamberlayne, Jr. later became president. Mr. Chamberlayne was associated with F. D. Williams Tobacco Company and Dr. S. C. Hatcher, secretary and treasurer, who was pastor of the Farmville Methodist Church, bought all of the land including Hillcroft Farm and Stockdale Farm. This land contained a total of twenty-two hundred acres.
The town site of Phenix was surveyed in July, 1908. Lots and streets were laid off and sold to people who started different businesses. Lumber owned by the Home Development Company was sold, which attracted sawmills and a planning mill. From that time on other businesses opened up. Families began to build and move in. The Walker and Wells home was the first to be built. Later known as the Wingfield house, it is now Johnnie Adams’ home. The other two to follow were the Canada house, now Peggy Hartness’ home, and the Dr. Chalmers house, now Wayne Pillow’s home. Another first house was owned by Mr. Hamilton called Hamilton’s Boarding House. Three tobacco warehouses were built; Mr. Billy Berkley built one in 1908 and in 1911 a large tobacco factory was built by R. S. Chamberlayne, Jr., called Chamberlayne’s Leaf Tobacco Company. This was the beginning of an active and popular tobacco market. Tobacco was shipped overseas from here. J. B. Holt was bookkeeper and later was sent to Bogota, Colombia for three years to teach the natives how to raise tobacco.
In August, 1909, Dr. S. C. Hatcher held a meeting in G.W. Berkley’s warehouse. At the close of the meeting he said Phenix should have a church and that since there were more Presbyterians than any other denomination he would look to them to build a Presbyterian church. The Home Development Company gave a lot and the church was built in 1910 by Mr. Luther Harvey. It was first used as a kind of union church with the Baptists holding one service there a month for awhile.
The first Methodist Church was a sawmill shanty located where the park is now. Later in 1920 the present church was built and the first service was held in 1922, with J. L. Kibler serving as pastor.
With businesses beginning to be in operation, it was necessary to have a bank to help carry on the business interest in the community. The Bank of Altavista furnished the necessary currency to take care of payrolls until the Bank of Phenix was organized in 1912. In 1913 the bank was robbed and the safe blown to pieces. There was another bank robbery in 1934 after which bandit barriers were installed in the bank. Many here today remember the bars across the front of the bank inside. There was another attempted bank robbery in 1953. Mr. Chamberlayne was in Florida and when he returned remarked, “Well, the bandit barrier paid off after all.” Miss Bessie Berkley began working the in the bank in 1918 and worked until 1963. She was a wonderful resident of Phenix, helping in many areas of community activities.
Mr. Chamberlayne retired from the bank in 1972 after 60 years with the Bank of Phenix. He died November 28, 1972. In 1973 the bank was remodeled, refurnished, and reopened for business in December. The bank’s name was changed to The Bank of Charlotte County in 1979 and at the present time have branch banks in Charlotte Court House and Keysville, with 25 employees. Gene Dixon, Jr. is president. The Bank of Phenix was the only bank in Charlotte County to survive the depression of 1930.
Phenix had two doctors—Dr. Ray Moore and Dr. Elliotte—both here at the same time. Dr. Moore opened a drug store in 1910 located just back of the bank, operated by Mr. Payne and later Mr. Henderson, brother of Gray Henderson, Brookneal. At other times, Dr. Walker practiced here and Dr. Chalmers was the last physician. Phenix also had a dentist, Dr. John Hamlet, who served the public until he retired in the Bethel neighborhood.
There were several grocery stores in Phenix. L. P. Bailey’s store was built in 1901 on the lot where Kathleen Ramsey’s house is located. The first post office was in Mr. Bailey’s store for eight years. Later (1928) he built a store on the lot now owned by Preston Locke across from the bank. This store, along with several others, burned which was a big blow to downtown Phenix. Mr. Bailey also sold caskets and had a hearse drawn by horses. Walker and Wells built a grocery store in 1908 located on the now B. H. English garage lot. M. C. Canada bought this store in 1921 and it was known as M. C. Canada and Sons. Later, in 1946, Canada’s was built across the street in the present location, and we are proud to have them still in Phenix serving the public.
Mr. Ed Price had a general merchandise store located across from the bank by the tobacco warehouse. Mr. Cox had a grocery store here and sold millinery. Mr. Wesley Payne had a meat market. Later Mr. Willie Gregory ran the business.
C. V. Tucker had a grocery and general merchandise store located across from H. F. Locke’s garage. He also sold caskets which were housed in an old furniture store. The post office was later located in the C. V. Tucker store. Miss Ola Cross was post- mistress for many years. Phenix citizens will remember this store burning some years later.
J. A. Musgrove ran a hardware store here in 1920, located where Newcomb’s Service Station was. His brother, L. C. Musgrove, owned a furniture store between the hardware and Price’s store. J. A. Musgrove also built the brick building on the corner for the purpose of assembling Model T Ford cars. One was assembled with a body, so a racer body was built and the car sold to J. B. Holt. His niece, Sara Gilliam, rode in this car to Bethel Church on Sunday mornings.
Phenix had two blacksmith’s shops. One was operated by Mr. Rock Rogers, the other by Mr. T. L. Sims. People brought horses to be shod and buggies, jumpers, and wagons to be repaired. Later Mr. S. A. Garrett ran a blacksmith shop behind J. E. Gilliam’s flour mill.
There were three garages here—Hobson Townsend and H. F. Locke, L. R. Gilliam, and T. L. Sims. Mr. Sims closed his blacksmith shop and built a garage where R. D. Berkley operated a Texaco service station for 36 years. Mr. Sims had a garage in the back and sold gas in the front. J. E. Gilliam, Jr. bought the L. R. Gilliam garage and sold it to Woodrow Hamlett, who sold it to R. D. Berkley, who sold to Frank Dahm. It is now known as Dahm’s Duck Inn.
Around 1911, J. E. Gilliam built a planning mill located where the wood yard is now. It was operated by A. C. Cross and J. E. Gilliam. This burned and Mr. Gilliam rebuilt the planning mill and sawmill in the location back of the Jimmy Taylor home, employing approximately 40 people. Later H. F. Gilliam and J. M. Gilliam bought this planning mill which was sold to Gene Dixon in 1942.
In 1916 J. E. Gilliam built the flour mill known as Phenix Roller Mills. The mill burned in 1925. He rebuilt the mill and operated it until 1936 at which time this mill also burned on May 1. In 1937 Mr. Gilliam rebuilt the mill at a new location, where the former Chamberlayne Leaf Tobacco Company was located. This mill, later owned by his son, Ned Gilliam, was in operation until it too burned in 1963. This property was later sold to Franklin Dodd who was operating the business known as Dodd’s Supply.
The Charlotte Gazette was started by R. S. Chamberlayne, Jr. in 1912, in the location of Dodd’s Supply. It was first printed in Phenix, published by Mac Pearson, and later sold to J. A. Scoggin, Drakes Branch, and the present location.
T. R. Ramsey, better known as Tommy, had a barber shop located first in the Charlotte Gazette building. He later moved his shop by Canada’s store and was a barber there for many years. His slogan said: “To Phenix, to Phenix/To get a neat trim/Home again, home again/Wearing a pleased grin.”
There was another barber shop in Phenix operated by Mr. Arthur Johnson located beside the old M. C. Canada store with a pool room in the rear of the shop. This was in operation until he moved to Richmond. Franklin Bailey, presently Phenix’s only barber, operates his shop located in the yard of his home. Mr. Bailey improved the looks of many in his many years as a barber in Phenix.
C. V. Tucker bought the J. A. Musgrove property and converted it to a service station known as The Yellow Bird Service Station. C. P. Connally operated it for a few years, then it was run by Mr. Hoyt Foster for a number of years, and later operated by Mr. Buck Mayhew. Several people ran this business. The last operators were Mr. and Mrs. A. E. Newcomb. The building was torn down in 1978
H. F. Locke had a garage business in Phenix for many years, taking over the garage formerly operated by Mr. Hobson Townsend. In recent years the building burned.
In 1915 Mr. and Mrs. Rad Berkely operated a rooming and boarding house in the location of Esther Trent’s home. In 1920 Mr. Ida Carden Rogers opened a hotel, and from 1924 to 1934 Mrs. H. N. Elliotte, better known as “Miss Josie”, took over the hotel and operated it under the name of Elliotte Hotel. Teachers at Phenix High School roomed and boarded there, and also road men who built Route 40 and Route 626 to Red House. Traveling salesmen, or drummers, came in on the passenger train, worked the area the next day, then took the train to another location, spending the night and taking meals at the hotel. T. L. Sims operated a Ford “jitney” taking drummers to Charlotte Court House, Aspen, Madisonville, and places not located on the railroad.
After Phenix began progressing, the need for a school was seen. A corner of a warehouse owned by Mr. Billy Berkley was cut off for a school, then to the C. V. Tucker home, across from the Presbyterian Church. This was a three room grade school. In 1921 the Phenix High School was build by L .J. Wirt. The people were proud of their modern school with furnace heat, water and Delco lights. It was thought the furnace would heat the entire school, but that was a mistake. A common sight for the first few weeks, were the teachers and pupils going home shortly after nine o’clock. So coal stoves were bought for each room. The school burned February 18, 1937. Rooms were partitioned off in Chamberlayne’s warehouse and several other logical places around that were used for classrooms, such as the agricultural and Home Economics buildings. High school students went to Aspen and Charlotte Court House. The present school was built on practically the same location in 1959. This school, with all modern facilities including a lunchroom, is quite an asset to the town and we are proud of its teachers and workers. Mr. Robyn Cristo is the present principal.
Phenix had a tomato cannery located behind the old flour mill started by Mr. J. E. Gilliam and operated by Mr. Layman. This cannery was run by steam from the boiler of the planning mill located nearby. This business hired from 50 to 75 workers.
The Virginia Railway station was built around 1909. During World War I there were three operators around the clock, taking care of train orders, sending Western Union telegrams, etc. A popular attraction for the young and old was the excursion train from Roanoke to Norfolk, then by streetcar to Ocean View.
Phenix also had an axe and handle factory located across the railroad track from the fire house. This mill made all kinds of hickory handles, such as axe, hoe handles, etc., and was operated by Mr. Crutchshort in 1908.
One of the greatest enterprises of Phenix was a moving picture run by Mr. Alfred Fears. This was at the time when all factories were operating and tobacco was selling at its best. The picture was shown in the warehouse and, unfortunately, it was upside down. People were sitting patiently waiting while Mr. Fears explained to them that he would soon have it fixed.
Phenix had many tent and medicine shows to come to town, sometimes staying two weeks. They attracted all ages with “modern day” acts and rides.
Many residents of Phenix, especially the young people, will wonder what kind of recreation the old-timers enjoyed. Swimming was in Terry’s Creek and icy Cub Creek at both old and new bridges. There were square dances, especially at Christmas, in homes which were enjoyed by young and old. There were lawn parties, playing croquet, pitching horse shoes, watermelon feasts, community picnics held at school, double-header ball games on July fourth and Labor Day. Phenix had a good ball team, playing teams from Lynchburg, Brookneal, Altavista, Rustburg, Gretna, Chase City, Buckingham, Farmville, Pamplin, Appomattox and others. Sleigh riding was a great sport in 1934 when snow and ice stayed on the ground for about two weeks and large crowds, young and old, enjoyed this recreation. Records were played on the Victrola. This was before radio days. Possum hunting was a great sport, also young people would get together and go serenading. Royal Harper played his guitar. Another activity prevalent in the community was the presentation of plays, gotten up and presented by Miss Bessie Berkley and Miss Ida Williams and given in the Phenix school. Perhaps some of you today were in the cast of characters in one of those plays.
Phenix had a pickle market operated by the C. V. Tucker family. Cucumbers were brought in and graded, then sent to Mossingford for distribution.
An important development in the Town of Phenix was the Phenix Volunteer Fire Department, organized in 1959, and constructed in 1960. Members worked hard to rise the necessary funds for equipment by having chicken frys, stews, white elephant sales, etc. The Phenix Home Demonstration Club women raised money to build kitchen cabinets and furnish other kitchen equipment. The town is especially proud of this organization and the service it renders to people, not only in the Town of Phenix, but to others in surrounding areas. The fire company at present is composed largely of interested and capable young men, who are still raising money for more and better equipment with chicken frys, marathons, and public contributions. The women in the town still bake and sell those delicious pies. Walt Bailey is fire chief with around 45 members.
The Phenix post office was built in 1962 by H. B. Andrews, Jr. with Richard P. Davis serving as postmaster. The present postmaster is J. C. Allen.
The Phenix Recreational Association was organized in 1972 with private membership. This has been a big attraction for Phenix as people of all ages enjoy the beautiful pool in the summer and year-round tennis and basketball.
The stock market in Phenix was opened in 1948 by B.F. Dodd. This has been both profitable and entertaining to farmers who bring in their livestock for sale on Saturdays.
B. H. English purchased the building which operated for several years as Mayo Ford Sales run by Bill Mayo. He has operated English’s Garage there for about 25 years.
The Pallet Plant was built in 1978 and began its operation in 1979. H. B. Andrews, Jr. and W. M. Andrews are co-owners and they have 11 employees.
Phenix has two beauty shops. Phenix Beauty Shop is owned and operated by Georgeanna Taylor, and Edith’s Beauty Salon is owned and operated by Edith Floyd. Phenix not only has clean heads but also clean cars when they use the car wash owned and operated by H. B. Andrews, Jr.
The Plant Place and Florist Shop, owned by Mr. and Mrs. J. L. Harding is a special attraction for Phenix and surrounding area people. This business opened in 1979.
Yonder Blossom Drive-In, owned by Mr. Billy Tucker, has been in operation two years, serving the public with those good old hot dogs and hamburgers. This drive-in was built by H .B. Andrews, Jr. in 1971.
Hugh P. Andrews owned and operated Andrews’ TV and Appliance store for several years. United Motor Parts is located at present in this building and operated by Henry Rowlett.
The most recent business opened in Phenix has been the Box Office Video owned by Mr. and Mrs. Bryan Powers of Roanoke. Mrs. Powers was Miss Linda Evans, formerly of Phenix.
A group of interested and concerned women in the Town of Phenix met in 1985 and organized the Phenix Improvement Council. The following officers were elected: President, Mrs. Willie Jean Johnson; Vice President, Mrs. Marjorie Bailey; Secretary, Mrs. Janie Evans and Mrs. Linda Gilley; Treasurer, Mrs. Nannie Kate Anderson and Mr. Fred Anderson; Reporter, Mrs. Gwen Pillow; and Parliamentarian, Mr. Randy Mason.
Committees were set up and have been working to improve conditions and beautify the town. Street signs have been purchased and will be put up by the Highway Department; speed limit signs have been extended, dangerous traffic spots have been improved and school bus signs have been erected. A fence has been constructed around the dumpsters. A stew was cooked for Labor Day, a Christmas Party was held for the entire town, flowers have been placed at the business places and homes in the community. A flag pole will soon be erected. Let’s cooperate with them and support them. By doing so we will all reap the benefits of their labors.
This is not a complete and accurate history of Phenix by any means, but it is a challenge to the business men and residents of the town to keep it, according to the signs placed in the corporate limits, A NICE PLACE TO LIVE.