Despite change, Powellville retains historic charm

There’s only one side-street in Powellville, “Easy Street,” a narrow dirt lane that once led to a stream where the boys of the Great Depression splashed and laughed and reveled in their eternal youth.

Motorists might forget the 10 seconds passing through the heart of Powellville, were it not for the peculiar sight of two Victorian-era-styled churches side by side.

You can almost hear Beulah Rayne play the piano in the 1940s, as the congregation sings “Heavenly Sunshine” or “Faith of Our Fathers” at the church once in sight of picket fences, apple trees and acres and acres of strawberries.

Standing in front of the churches is the spot that can transport you to yesterday.

But you better look fast. As unlikely as it seems, there’s almost nonstop traffic passing through the intersection “in the middle of nowhere.” Cars and trucks almost fly through the village. Bikers and road walkers beware.

There is so much traffic, one wonders where in the world are these people coming from and going? Obviously, Mount Hermon Road that “dead ends” here, leads to the hub of something big and busy, somewhere.

To the left, Route 50 and Willards. To the right, Whiton and Snow Hill. The stop sign is right in the heart of Powellville, once a booming community.

The place was home to a shirt factory, nine stores, barbershop, post office, grist and saw mill, an undertaking establishment, tomato cannery, hatchery, cement block maker, basket factory, a tiny doctor’s office, Mechanics Lodge, blacksmith shop, and garage, “Tony’s filling station,” a TV and appliance store, a car dealership, “and a place where somebody pulled teeth,”  all within shouting distance.

This was once home to the founders of the famed E.S. Adkins Co., to the principals of the Holloway Funeral Home and Vernon Powell Shoe Co., the Homer White shoe store, and the famed Russell P. White Jewelry Store, all once located in Salisbury.

Over the years, every single village operation has closed. The “only thing goin’ ” here now is the impressive Powellville Volunteer Fire Department, started in 1962, and Powellville United Methodist Church.

Powellville was almost a city, compared to the smaller neighboring communities of Ticktown, Friendship, Hungry Town, Hell Town and Mount Pleasant.

Once you are under Powellville’s charm, the place is always in your heart.

“I did get an attitude one time to move to Willards (4 miles away), but I came back,” said native resident and village historian Dwayne Jones, 68. “That was a jump for me.”

Gentle Powellville, a quiet village that is sweet with the fragrance of fresh mowed lawns and nature’s rural perfume.

It has faded, changed by the years, yet its charm remains intact, a small country neighborhood shaped by its history. It is the place where generations came and went. It’s the place where memorable personalities of the village remain, long after their passing.

The community has a dual appeal, said Jack Brittingham, 87, and Frank Jones, 96. They see it so differently than viewed by newcomers and passers-by.

The former St. John’s Episcopal Church, at right, and White’s Chapel Protestant Church, operated independently for decades, but were united and physically joined in 1964 as Powellville United Methodist Church. While the look like double churches, the building on the right is now used as a sanctuary for services and the one at left is used as fellowship hall where the Ruritan Club hosts monthly meetings.

Brittingham, who lives down the road a piece, worked for Perdue Farms for 38 years, retired years ago. Yet he still is an active Saltwater Cowboy of 40 years, helping to round up wild ponies in the summer for the annual Chincoteague Pony Swim.

Jones, the oldest lifelong resident here, lives just down the road from the center of the village, and not far from Ticktown. “Ticktown wasn’t much of a place then, even less today,” he said.

A dynamo of energy and sharp in memory, Jones can rattle off Powellville history and secrets. He is still an active farmer and drove a school bus for 32 years. He’s taught Sunday School here for 40 years. He still farms, drives, and still mows and tends his spacious yard.

He and his wife, Emily, recently celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary – a modern record for Powellville. She was raised down the road aways, in the area folks called Friendship. “Mother knew Frank Perdue because he was from there, too. She said he was so poor he didn’t even have shoes as a boy,” said daughter, Sara Jones, 73.

Jones is the keeper of the “tater house,” a brick and wood structure that remains a lone monument to the day when potatoes, like strawberries, were ag crops that once reigned supreme in rural Wicomico County.

It’s a lone survivor of a way of life here a century ago, an aging curious link to the past with its brick first floor base and wooden second story.

Jack Brittingham, left, 87, and Frank Jones, 96, Powellville’s two oldest residents and village historians, stand in front of Jones’ “‘tater house.” Once used to store potatoes, the village icon was a hit with youngsters who roller-skated on the wooden floor on the second story. It is one of the few surviving structures of its kind on the Shore.

“Kids from everywhere came to our ‘tater house to roller skate on the wooden floor,” said Sara.

It’s a wonder the icon still sands because “progress” came close to tearing it down.

“In 1954, plans were afoot to put a four-lane highway smack dab through the heart of Powellville,” said Mildred “Ducky” Miller, 84, who lives next door to Jones, her brother. Houses were moved and some buildings burned to clear a path.

“The highway never came, but the state still owns property on both sides of the road,” she said. “When I graduated from high school in 1953, all the stores and other places were still open. I thought it was a booming town.”

Yet it was ever so slowly declining, Jones said. After World War I and II, the once predictable, traditional, laid-back country lifestyle of the village was changing as many folks simply moved away.

 Back in his father’s day, Jones said, Powellville was home to about 500 people, almost all farmers. By the mid-1950s it was home to about 340. Today, it’s probably less than 97.

“Powellville started dying long before I was a boy,” Jones explained.

Jones has seen it all: the factories, businesses, grist and saw mill operations, the country store packed with farmers who didn’t take a backseat to anyone when it came to serving up delicious, saucy gossip spiced with taboo language and secrets of village folks and self-styled country heartthrobs who promised young ladies the moon but delivered homemade whiskey and a romp in the straw. 

In his outbuilding “man cave,” working farmer Frank Jones, 96, has a 1945 refrigerator, that recently died, and a working portable black and white TV from the late 1950s. The storage and work area also has decorative wall panels and a dirt floor.

Generations of the rich and poor, the smart and the lacking, the saint and sinner, were all dropped into life’s martini mixer, given a few quick shakes, and splashed across the face of Powellville. 

There is some unseen power about the past that somehow keeps a grip on Powellville. To Brittingham and Jones the past is so real, so fresh, they can almost, almost, touch the elusive soul of the community that once was in the corner of Wicomico County. It’s not just nostalgic – their words about the ghosts of the past, and the shops that were, make the Powellville of almost a century ago as real and vivid as yesterday’s fresh memories.

Perhaps none are held by the nostalgic spell stronger than former resident Bill Palmer, 3,500 miles away in California.

Palmer, 89, hasn’t lived in Powellville since he was 17, yet it’s the love of his life. Over the years he has narrated a DVD, even written a book, filled with recollections of the village that shaped his life.

In a lulling, comforting voice, brimming with the softness of butter and the polish of pearls, Palmer, 89, shares the history of the village on a DVD. In a voice made for narration, he walks leisurely down memory lane, chatting to the listener.

Palmer’s soothing voice has the power to transport you into an old farmhouse for a glass of homemade iced tea, where you can peer through the screen door to the scenes outside that once were.

From his late mother’s collection of photos, Palmer introduces the faces behind the stories, and you slip deeper into the enticing narrative. They are long-gone strangers, but a century later, they live again through his tales.

There are faces of farm folk, young and old, boys and men who worked hard in the fields with horses and mules or girls and women in the house with wood stoves, hand pumps and washboards. Pictures of strikingly handsome men, beautiful women, potential Hollywood stars held fast to the farms and families of Powellville. Having their picture taken was as exciting as listening to the wind-up Victrola or Edison Phonograph or listening to radio programs between raspy squawks of static. At McClain & Co. in Snow Hill, a customer could get “Penny Pictures, 15 for 15 cents.”

There’s a photo of strawberry farmer Lemuel Brittingham. Brittingham, Palmer said, claimed he was able to load three railroad freight cars every two days with strawberries. Now none are commercially grown in the area.

Palmer can speak with authority about life in Powellville. He remembers stuffing cardboard in his shoes to cover the holes through his soles. He remembers a house without electricity, reading by kerosene lamps, no running water, using the hand pump on the porch, and was familiar with chamber pots and growing up with no home radio or telephone.

Palmer left Poweville in the 1950s, and married while in Madrid, Spain, in 1960. He brought his bride, Ann, home to see the place so dear to his heart. But she was unable to see the Powellville that was in his heart. Her first exposure to American life was a month the newlyweds spent in Powellville.

“It was shocking for me to come from a big city to little Powellville. Many people there had never seen a foreigner before, and were curious, and they were surprised, too, because I was Catholic,” Ann said, laughing, “but they were so kind to me.”

He eventually became a professor at Salisbury University, teaching Spanish for years. He and his wife also owned Classic Oriental Rugs, a shop that operated on Division Street and fronted the Wicomico County Courthouse. After living in Salisbury for 25 years, the couple now lives in California.

Palmer last visited Powellville five years ago. With each visit, a little more of the community that was has vanished.

Oscar Collins, left, laughs as a bevy of Powellville beauties, Evelyn Rayne, Alda Davis, Carolyn Green and Lois Kelley, share a fun moment with Lloyd Davis, on the porch of the famed Bailey’s Store in 1942.

A number of old houses and landmarks remain, but they have become painfully empty shadows.

The post office that shared space in the Powellville Country Store building closed years ago, and the store soon followed. The vintage structure, sagging and rotting, remains, next to the old blacksmith shop.

The Mechanic’s Lodge refuses to yield to the weather and the sturdy grip of Virginia creeper vines that cover it make a green veil with orange trumpet accents. Right on the corner of the intersection and distinct with its “fish scale siding,” probably of cypress and nailed in place 150 years ago, the empty landmark offers a surprisingly comforting visual link to the life that once was here.

“It was falling apart when I went there as a young girl in the 1950s,” said Sara Jones, Frank’s daughter. It’s dark inside, but she can still see the farmers crowded around the potbelly stove, sitting on boards across nail kegs.

Down the street and almost next to the formidable brick building of the fire department is the rambling “old garage,” once operated by Fred Bethards. The unpainted wooden siding turns black with the slightest rain now, and has an almost haunted-house look.

There was a time, too, when a dark cloud hung over the village. There had been a murder or two, or three, and Jones said seven men in the community  — he knew them all — died of suicide. The deaths startled and frightened people, and folks were advised to stay clear of the community

“It was the place where people get killed,” said the late Carrie Jones in an interview years ago. “I was from Whitesville, Del., and my people were very much against me having a boyfriend from Powellville because ‘that’s where they kill people,’ ” she said. “A week after Albert and I were married (1932), Pop Jones (her father-in-law) said ‘Children, get up, Aubrey Perdue was killed here last night.’ ”

A cluster of signs advise motorists which way to turn where Mount Hermon Road dead ends in Powellville. The village has a just one street off the main thoroughfare of Route 354 — “Easy Street.” In 1954, a four-lane highway was planned for construction at this location.

But by the 1960s, the clouds had passed and locals relished living in the area. “Living in Powellville,” it was said, “was a day in heaven.”

There were even T-shirts advertising the slogan “A Little Bit of Heaven, Powellville, Md.”

 The Powellville of old is destined to disappear in time. It seems kinder to let the landmark buildings slip into ruin and decay than smashing and ripping them apart with a bulldozer. With their decline, they become the stuff of great photos and paintings. There are architectural delights to be found in the vintage buildings.

Powellville endears itself to locals and visitors because of an abundance of natural beauty, plenty of open spaces and country appeal. The mill pond offers picture-perfect scenery.

There’s a little parking spot and picnic area by the old pond, so tranquil and scenic. Giant cotton-ball clouds, lush trees and a deep blue sky are reflected on the liquid mirror of the pond. The multi-feet of dragonflies dance on the surface of the warm water, tree leaves dapple light and shadows with each breeze and the paradise that is “A Little Bit of Heaven” is restored.

As your community newspaper, we are committed to making Salisbury a better place. You can help support our mission by making a voluntary contribution to the newspaper.