Origins: Virginia Beach - #107

Every place in the world has a series of things that give that spot a special character... and make it different from every other place.  When you look at the ORIGINS of these things, you often end up with a better appreciation of the territory -- and that makes it a lot more interesting to visit.  And sometimes, these ORIGINS help us understand why we live the way we do.

When we look at the history of the first settlers in what became the United States of America, more often than not the theme of the story is the search for political and religious freedom.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  That was certainly true for many of the colonists. But there were also hundreds of people who crossed the Atlantic and settled in because they thought they could make a buck.  And many of those people were employed by corporations that were in the business of setting up colonies purely for profit.  One of those corporations was known as the London Company.

On the 26th of April, 1607, one hundred and five of the London Company employees arrived here on the coast of what eventually became the city of Virginia Beach. They explored the area for four days, then moved inland and started the settlement at Jamestown.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Archaeologists point out that a number of distinct civilizations have been living in the Virginia Beach Area for over 11,000 years.  The Spanish were exploring the spot in the 1520’s.  But the first Europeans to actually settle in and become residents were the guys who worked for the London Company.  They had spent their first four days here wandering around these beaches in an area which eventually became known as Princess Anne County.

It was named after England’s Princess Anne, who became England’s Queen Anne in 1702.  She was a good queen and she made a nice chair.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  When the English government decided to try and recover some of the money that it had invested in the development of the colonies, plus what might be described as an overall management fee, the people of Virginia began to play a very active role in the Revolution.

One of the first things that George Washington did after he became President was to authorize the construction of the first federal lighthouse. You can still see it in the First Landing State Park.


During the late 1800s people began to appreciate the value of the seaside resort. In those days guests usually came for the day and rented their bathing suits.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  An early indication of the popularity of Virginia Beach can be found in a newspaper article of the time reporting that on a particular Sunday so many people had showed up at the hotel that all the available bathing suits had been rented.

Today Virginia Beach is the largest city in Virginia with nearly 500,000 residents. And over two million visitors stop by each year to enjoy the beach.

As you travel along the boardwalk, one of the buildings that you will pass is the DeWitt Cottage.  It’s the last surviving turn-of-the-century Virginia Beach oceanfront building, and it has been restored as a wildfowl museum. Visitors get a short lesson on coastal birds and decoy carving.  By the end of the 1800s the Back Bay area of Virginia Beach was a paradise for duck hunters. There was even a train called the “Sportsmen’s Special” that brought hunters down from the Northern states.

BILL JOHNSON:  As it became more and more known that the birds were here in great numbers, to the point even where they say they darkened the sky, when they flew, when they’d get up in the morning flight, so the afternoon flights coming back to roost they would “darken the sky,” quote-quote.  The people who enjoyed the shooting sports and could afford to travel and actually have lodges did that.  They built lodges here, big hunt clubs here.  Those hunts clubs had to have caretakers, they had to have guides, they had to have boats built, they had to have decoys -- functional objects that were made for the purpose of bringing game in range of the shotgun.  Today we look at those functional objects as art objects.

BURT WOLF:  And the ducks really thought that these were real....

BILL JOHNSON:     The ducks, the ducks actually... I think the ducks are dumber than we think they are, frankly.

BURT WOLF:  It’s quite a collection you have here...

BILL JOHNSON:     Oh, thank you.  This is, we love this museum, we try to preserve the heritage of the hunt club era, the old decoys, the art of the decoy, that’s what our purpose is; basically, to show the folks what it was like and to show them the art of the decoy, both old and new...

BURT WOLF:  You also had some really interesting models that I liked.  I’m a big fan of models like this... what’s that?

BILL JOHNSON:     This is a unique invention that was called a sink box because if you’ll notice the box underneath it is shaped somewhat like a boat or a little coffin...


BILL JOHNSON:     And it’s basically designed for a man to lie down in and be at the same level as the water.  In other words, if his head were popping up, it would look like a duck’s head.  And it was designed with flexible wings on either end on the sides that were hinged, and their purpose was to float with the waves so that it would not take any waves in the box.  Literally, from a low angle where birds would be approaching it would look like a dark spot on the water to them. 

BURT WOLF:  What an amazing piece of equipment. What’s happening around here these days?

BILL JOHNSON:     Well, today, I think, and not just in our area, but I think probably throughout the whole country that the people that do hunt waterfowl, are more into it from what’s called an aesthetic standpoint.  They don’t really care so much about whether they bring back a pile of game -- or “mess of game” is the way we used to say it.  But they go for the pleasure of working with the dog and working with the boat and actually just being outdoors, enjoying, enjoying the outdoors, the whole history of waterfowl and being in Back Bay and being part of that whole scene. 

This is the Adam Thoroughgood House. Today it’s one of the historic houses of Virginia Beach and a good place to take a look at what life was like around here in the 16- and 1700s.

NANCY BAKER:  We have some wonderful lighting devices at the Thoroughgood House --17th Century pieces.  Now, this particular lamp is called a Phoebe lamp or a five wick light, and you know it’s a Phoebe when you see the drip pan underneath because that would take care of some of the drips.  They would put their wicks in each one of the openings and light their wicks, of course the drip pan would catch the drips.  Now it has a sharp point, so they could take that and stick it up into a door frame or ceiling beam or hang it on a nail or peg.  It even could be hung over the back of a chair, so if someone was trying to read, they could hold it over the back of their chair.     Now, the oil was interesting that went in the pot.  They would use fish oil, whale oil -- if they could get whale oil, it was better.  A certain amount of whale oil, when it was burned, would give off as much light as a 60-watt electric bulb we have today.  So you can see why they preferred it. 

Now some of our candleholders that we have, this one is the favorite of everyone, which is the courting candle holder.  Now, when a young man would go to a young lady’s house to court her, her father would bring out this candle holder and set it on the table between the two young people.  He would push the candle all the way down in there and light it.  It depended on how well the father liked this young man how long he would let him stay and visit with his daughter.  So the father would light the candle, and then he would point to a ring on this.  When that candle burned down to that ring the young man had to go home.  So it was sort of like a colonial clock to tell him his time was up. 

I was wondering about the wicks in the 17th century.  They did use cotton, flax, wool, and also in the lamp sometimes they would just put an old twisted rag, so anything they had.  So I found out the wicks in the 17th century would not consume themselves, they just kept burning.  So you had this big charred mass on top of the candle and it would cause a big torch up here, which in turn caused guttering -- gutters of hot wax running down on everything.  So they had to fix it.  Now these were invented, I think they were using them in the 1500’s.  A little scissor device; they would trim off all that wick, it would go in here, and they would throw it in the fireplace.  For some reason, they called the charred mass of the wick “snuff,” so when they invented this they called it a “snuffer.”  The wick would be ensnuffed, so they would cut that off.

BURT WOLF:  “Snuff it out.”

NANCY BAKER:  Snuff it out.  That’s right.  And there was an art to this because you had to try to put it out without putting out the flame.  So you did not want to do that.  Now if they were finished with the candle for the day they would use one of these.  In the beginning it was only a cap, they had to hold it over the flame to put out the candle.  17th century is when they finally got smart and they put handles on them like we have today.  So this is the snuffer to take care of the wick’s snuff, this is the candle extinguisher to extinguish the flame. 

So, Burt, I hope that has shed some light on the subject.

BURT WOLF:  I feel very illuminated.


The years between 1720 and 1740 are often described as Virginia’s “Golden Age.” It was a time of increasing commercial prosperity and intellectual achievement. In 1732, in the middle of this period, the Francis Land House was built. It reflects the elegant lifestyle of the Virginia planters who lived here at the time.  During the summer months there are demonstrations of various household skills as they were practiced during the 1700’s.

VICKI HARVEY:  In eighteenth century Virginia when they wanted to change the color of wool which was white, usually from the sheep on the plantations, they would go out in nature and find things that they could use to dye with.  Many herbs like indigo would give you blue, or they would use something we throw away today, onion skins, and it would give us a nice bright yellow.  And what Susan is doing in the background is using an open fire and an iron pot, which acts as a mordent or a fixative to the cloth, and will also change the color.  Copper will give you a different color.  So what we have done in the very beginning is we have taken the wool from the sheep and we have washed it.  And in washing the wool it gets all the lanolin out of it and it makes it nice and fluffy.  And now we’re soaking it in water in a washtub which would’ve been made by a cooper on the plantation, and she is going to take that out and put it in the iron pot where she has some onion skins that have been boiling in some hot water.  And the color change is almost instantaneous.  These are a couple of examples of spun wool that have been dyed in onion skins.  In one case chrome was added to the water, and in another case there was copper added to the water.  And if you think you’re gonna get a different color from using red onion skins, well, that’s not true.  It’s keratin that’s in the skin and that’s what’s gonna turn everything a shade of yellow.  And any color you want today I can find for you out here on the grounds.

In eighteenth century Virginia the colonists had to make everything from nature and even their clothes.  And one of the crops grown here at The Francis Land House was flax.  And flax was used in the production of linen cloth.  If you have anything made of linen at home, it started in somebody’s field as the flax plant because you cannot get it anywhere else. 

SANDY CRAIG:  This is a flax break, it’s used to soften the stalk and break it up.  The fiber grows around the stalk on the outside of it and you can see the little tiny white pieces of stalk or “boon” on the table now.  Now we’ll go to the skutching board.  This skutching board is English style, the people who lived here were English, and this is how they would have used it.  The skutching is a good beating given to the flax to further soften the stalks and then the skutching knife scrapes the little bits of stalk that are left in the fibers.  Now we heckle the fiber or comb it.  See how the flax is getting combed as we go to the finer heckles.  This is now ready to go to the spinster, and the minute it passes from her hands onto the wheel it will become linen.  It is no longer flax.  It’s the only natural fiber that changes its name in its processing.

VICKI HARVEY:  Francis Land House has a lot of different kinds of gardens, a vegetable garden, and an herb garden and a formal garden.  Of course the vegetable garden this time of year would have great bounty for the colonists to use.  Things like marigolds which you might not think you’d use to eat with, but they did sprinkle them on their food.  And they also would begin the process of storing food.  This is the time they’re thinking about the winter and how they’re gonna keep the food preserved for those winters ahead.  From the garden they would get lots of green beans, and they would take those beans and string them on string, hang them up on the hearth, and all throughout the winter time they would be drying, and then when they got ready to use them they’d reconstitute them in water and they’d have green beans in their stews or whatever they were eating.  They would call them leather britches.  We don’t know why, we think maybe they looked like, they thought they looked like leather britches when they dried.  But they were just a very good way of preserving the beans through the winter.

And speaking of food, let’s check out some of the restaurants in Virginia Beach.  This is a picture of Angelo Serpe when he first started eating at his father’s restaurant in Italy. Clearly his father was a good cook.   And this is Angelo today cooking for his wife... his children... his grand-children... and his customers.  His restaurant is called Pasta e Pani -- Pasta and Bread -- and it has become well-known along the Virginia coast for good food and an atmosphere that makes you feel that you are in a family restaurant... which is, of course, precisely where you are.  Part of Angelo’s fame comes from a dish he calls Fettucine Hunters’ Style.  He prepares it on a wheel of cheese.

ANGELO SERPE:  I’m gonna put some garlic... some olive oil... get it a little slightly brown.  Okay, I put in the portobello mushroom... I’m gonna let it simmer for a few minutes... next will be the Marsala wine... next will be the tomato... now gonna go in the sundried tomato... gonna go in with some salt and pepper... have already the pasta... let it go for a couple of minutes... then I’m gonna go on the wheel.  Now I am gonna add some cheese.  While I’m turning the pasta, I’m scraping the cheese.  The heat from the pasta is melting the bottom and it blends in.  Now at this point I would like to put in the basil, which I’m gonna break with my hands which I feel gives better taste and it keeps nice bright color.  Okay, toss a little more... I go to dish it out...

BURT WOLF:  And that’s it: Fettucine Hunter’s Style!

And at a restaurant on the beach called Timbuktu, Chef Willie Moats is making his famous seafood cakes.

WILLIE MOATS:  Okay, we have lobster here, we have gulf shrimp and we also have the lump crabmeat. 

BURT WOLF:     All cut up.

WILLIE MOATS:  All cut up, all chopped, ready to go to make potato-chip-encrusted crab cakes.

BURT WOLF:     Show me what you do.


A half-cup each of pre-cooked crabmeat, lobster and shrimp go into a mixing bowl, followed by a tablespoon and a half of mustard... two and a half tablespoons of mayonnaise... a quarter of a teaspoon of dried parsley and a half tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce.  The next ingredients into the bowl are a half teaspoon of Tabasco sauce... a tablespoon of horseradish and a little salt and pepper.  There’s an optional moment here where some pre-packaged seafood seasoning and a Cajun spice mix are added.  If you’ve got ‘em and you like ‘em -- use ‘em!  Then an egg and four tablespoons of bread crumbs go in.  Willie is using Japanese bread crumbs, which are bigger and crispier than the standard crumb, and if you can find Japanese bread crumbs in your market, I think you’ll enjoy them.  Then everything gets mixed together... shaped into cakes that are about two inches in diameter, and rolled in flour.  The special touch is a final coating of crushed potato chips.  At which point the cakes are pan-fried in vegetable oil that has been heated to 350 degrees.  They’re cooked on each side for a few moments, and then they’re ready to serve.

Throughout its history, the development of Virginia Beach has been dominated by its relationship to the sea.  One of the ways that Virginia Beach pays tribute to that relationship is the newly expanded Virginia Marine Science Museum -- a mixture of hands-on interactive exhibits...  live animal habitats... and a 300,000 gallon aquarium.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Because of the reduction in financial support from governments, many educational institutions in the United States have been forced to reduce their staff and accordingly their educational programs, but that’s not been the case here at the Virginia Marine Science Museum.

They’ve been able to come up with a system that allows them to run the facility with a staff that is sixty percent unpaid volunteers, and it works extremely well.

C. MAC RAWLS:  We utilize on a regular basis this time of year about 325 people a week who come in and give us four hours of their time here at the museum.  Most of the things they do are to offer services to visitors out here on the floor.  It’s easy to get a smile out of a volunteer, it’s easy to get a volunteer to be excited about this place and they do a good job of selling as well as educating people.

The northern shore of Virginia Beach borders on the Chesapeake Bay.  It was the spot where in 1781, a French fleet inflicted so much damage on the British Navy that the British were unable to support the English army at Yorktown -- a tactical situation that led to the colonists winning the American Revolution.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  It’s also the place were in 1910 Eugene Ely flew an airplane off a cruiser and inaugurated the age of Naval aviation. Today the shores of the Chesapeake are home to the Oceana Naval Air Station... the United States Navy’s Master Jet Base.

In 1940 the federal government purchased a little swampland... and set up an auxiliary airfield. During the Second World War the base tripled in size. A list of the aircraft stationed at Oceana reads like a history of Naval Aviation. Their family album includes just about everything the Navy ever put on board a carrier.

Today Oceana is home base for the world’s most advanced naval aircraft and some of our nation’s most sophisticated pilots.

LT. STEVE KOEHLER:   Well, this is an anti-G suit and all the tactical jet guys wear this.  They’re filled with bladders actually... you put this on here, this plugs into the airplane and as you pull G, as you increase your, your turn and get more force of gravity, this will fill up with air and then the whole point of it is to keep the blood in your head, so rather than have it as you’re sitting down pool in your feet, you pull this, this expands and it keeps more blood in your head, keeps you awake. 

This now is the actual harness that hooks you into the ejection seat, so if in fact you do have to eject and the parachute opens this will be like a parachutist’s harness. 

And here these coat fittings is what they’re called, they hook into the top of the seat.  And those then become your risers, so this would be hooked into the parachute as you were coming down if you had to eject. 

This thing being the next piece of gear which basically has all the survival equipment in it.  This has the flotation device.  When it hits seawater, it’ll open up.  So if you’re unconscious as you hit the water, pull this bladder here and these bladders right here will inflate, and, uh, it’s supposed to keep you so that you don’t end up face down.

This thing obviously is the oxygen mask, you use as you fly, it’s also the way we communicate, the microphone’s in there as well.

LT. PAT PERRY:  So all of a sudden you’ve got about 30 pounds, maybe 20 pounds of gear which for a hot day makes it interesting.

LT. STEVE KOEHLER:  Kinda hot.

BURT WOLF:  Are the cockpits air-conditioned?

LT. PAT PERRY:  They are once you get the motors on-line, but there’s a ten minute, fifteen minute period where during the start period you’re pretty much underneath that glass and it gets pretty hot until you get everything on-line. 

LT. STEVE KOEHLER:  And that’s followed by a helmet with a visor and you’re set.

During my early twenties I served with the United States Army, but I never actually saw any combat. The only life threatening situation was the daily morning service at breakfast of chipped beef on toast. But I never forget that my right to practice whatever religion I choose, to educate myself the way I wanted to be educated, and to work every today in what is truly a free press comes directly from the men and women of the military who defend my constitutional rights -- constitutional rights, by the way, that to a great extent were written originally by people from Virginia.  So I particularly enjoyed my visit here.  And I hope you enjoyed being here with me, and that you will join us again next time as we travel around the world looking at the ORIGINS of the things that surround us. I’m Burt Wolf.