Wednesday, August 5, 2009


My family lived in the metropolis of Tappahannock (pop.: 2068) for the last few months. It may seem an odd place for people looking for work, but there was a good reason. My dad grew up there, and some years ago bought a small house (my wife insists that it is a "cottage") there where we could live rent-free until we get permanent jobs. This gave me a chance to explore Tappahannock in a way that I never did when I was growing up (in spite of our frequent visits).

Tappahannock lies, appropriately, along the Rappahannock River, on Virginia's "Middle Penninsula." There are four major rivers that empty into the Chesapeake Bay through Virginia: from north to south, the Potomac, Rappahannock, York, and James. They divide tidewater Virginia into three penninsulas: again starting in the north, the Northern Neck, the Middle Penninsula, and the Virginia Penninsula. (Except for the Northern Neck, which is very old, I'm not sure how long these names have been around; my dad did not grow up referring to his region as the "Middle Penninsula.") The Virginia Penninsula is where the action is: Hampton, Newport News, Jamestown, Yorktown, and Williamsburg are all on it, and Richmond is just a little upriver.

One phone book (and not an especially thick one) covers the other two penninsulas put together, including 10 counties. The Northern Neck is sparsely populated, but it is noted as the home of gentleman farmers, and as the birthplace of some famous Americans: George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, Robert E. Lee, Francis Lightfoot Lee, and Richard Henry Lee. The Middle Penninsula, by contrast, is not really noted for much of anything. Tappahannock is a small town in the middle of nowhere. When I went to find a Pokemon league for my kids, the closest three were all one hour away: one in Richmond, one in Fredericksburg, and one down the penninsula in Gloucester. Our house, in the middle of the largest neighbourhood and only a five minute walk from the town hall (pictured here), does not even get mail delivered -- we have to have a P.O. box. That's not too bad, however, as the post office is just a few minutes further away than the town hall. Ditches by the roadside catch runoff water, but it just sits there for days, as no drainage is provided. There is one high school in the county, one middle school, and one elementary school.

It's not exactly true that everyone in Tappahannock knows everyone else, but it's pretty close; I doubt any inhabitants are more than two degrees of separation apart. The people are friendly, even by Southern standards, but you might have trouble understanding them. They speak with a peculiar Southern accent, probably shared with the rest of the penninsula, that even baffles me sometimes. I will always remember the time when I was young, maybe about 12, and my parents left me with my cousin and her dad for a while. We were having a conservation when the question came up whether I liked cone. I was confused, because I had never seen "cone" by itself like that. I though they were referring to an icecream cone, but they emphatically denied that. We went around and around for a few minutes, becoming a little exasperated with one another, before one of them finally hit on a way to explain it: "you know, like cone on the cob." Ah, good old cone on the cob. I joke about the accent, but I really like to listen to them speak this way. Other peculiarities include calling a dog a "duhg,", and the pronunciation of the most noted restaurant in town, Lowery's, which everyone calls "Larry's."

Tappahannock has its own style of naming people, too. The only two people I've ever known with the first name of "Tallie" were from Tappahannock. One of the big entrepreneurs in town for the last 50 years has been a man named June Parker. And these are real names. Then there are what I presume to be nicknames, such as our next-door neighbour, Pinky; my cousin two streets over, Binky; and one of my kids' friends, Dinky.

Given this penchant for nicknames, one might have expected a more flamboyant name for the town. Tappahannock was originally known as Hobbs' Hole, but the inhabitants changed the name to something more palatable. I'm not sure they did much for their reputation by calling it Tappahannock, which is long and yet too similar to the river on which it sits (both Tappahannock and Rappahannock are variants of the same Algonquin word meaning "where the water rises and falls"). It is definitely a river town, heavily dependent on fishing and shipping. In the spring they now have a town festival with the affected name of "Rivahfest." It's true that people in Tappahannock drop their r's (this is called "non-rhotic" speech and is common along the Atlantic seaboard), but I don't like adopting the dialect into the title; "Riverfest" would have done fine.

Tappahannock is an old town, though not quite as old as the 1608 they claim on their seal (the site was visited by John Smith that year, but no town was founded). It is not, as I thought it might be, a time warp to the past. Its population has been growing rapidly (25% in the 1990's) and recent immigrants have brought typical American accents and attitudes. It is not so much different from elsewhere as simply smaller. There is less of everything, but there is a Wal-Mart and a Lowe's and high-speed internet access and a tiny little public library. Still, if you're not in too much of a hurry, you can catch the slower pace of Tappahannock. It's not the same as the town in the stories from my father's youth, but the people still like fishing and having long talks with neighbours (which is very easy with the small back yards and lack of privacy fences). If you're suffering from the rat race, you would do well to spend some time in Tappahannock.

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