|The Zuni Indians (pronounced Zoo-nee)
are a southwestern tribe that once inhabited the area now known as Arizona
and New Mexico. Zuni, Virginia (pronounced Zoo-nigh), is a small village
on the edge of Isle of Wight County, abutting the Blackwater River that
serves as a boundary with Southampton County to the north and west.
If you drive up Route 460 past Suffolk
through the town of Windsor, the next place you come to is Zuni. Take a
diagonal left off the main highway just before the curve in the road, you’ll
ride down a street with a few houses, a Presbyterian church, a dental office,
and an old peanut storage facility whose silo still sits partially collapsed
from a fire forty years ago that ended its useful life.
Take a left at the end of that road,
go through a narrow one-lane railroad underpass, and follow Thomas Woods
Trail to the Zuni Presbyterian Homes, a facility offering training for
mentally challenged adults in a residential setting. You’ll also find the
Zuni Gourmet Peanut & Plant Shop, which employs those residents and
sells locally grown peanuts and peanut brittle. You’ll think you’re in
the middle of nowhere, and you won’t be far wrong.
Zuni supposedly has about 120 residents,
but no one knows exactly where the city limits are. Although Zuni has some
notoriety among giggling teenage boys as the home of White Tail Park, the
“southeast’s premiere clothes-free resort” is actually two miles up the
road in Southampton County, on the way to Ivor.
Folks in Zuni are friendly. Beth Swartz,
whose father, Dr. J. R. Hager, practiced dentistry there for 37 years until
his retirement in 1997, remembers her father and his partners being paid
with farm products.
“The dentists knew they couldn’t afford
full dental care,” she recalls, “so they would honor fresh eggs, fresh
vegetables, tomatoes in the summer. One guy was so thankful he brought
in chitterlings. Of course, that made for a little fragrance in the office.
“People would just walk in and say ‘I
have a toothache, I need it pulled.’ We used to get some of those patients
[from White Tail Park] in there too. We kind of joked about it because
we couldn’t help but notice they were sweating. We said it’s just because
they were wearing clothes.”
Zuni was also a major center for gun
sales in the 1970s. The Blackwater Trading Post was a huge firearms retailer
until its owner was shot and killed in an attempted robbery in 1979. And
in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, Wright’s Barbecue
a must-stop spot for north/south travelers before Interstate highways took
them away from Route 460.
Norfolk resident Jerry Butler grew up
in downtown Zuni. He says the village has changed since the days of his
youth, especially after the 1999 flood rampage created by Hurricane Floyd
along the Blackwater River.
“Everybody lives out in the country
now,” he says. “There are very few people in Zuni itself. Thanks to Floyd,
a lot of the homes are gone. The gun shop is gone. That end of town is
His 87-year old father still lives there.
“My dad told me that when he was growing
up, Zuni was the hub of Isle of Wight County. Zuni had a bank, a couple
of hotels, a blacksmith shop. It was really more of a center than Windsor
or Smithfield. It was a busy stop for the railroad.”
These days, the trains just keep on
chuggin’ past this quaint little hamlet. The once-grand hotel building
was washed away by the floods of Floyd. There’s no longer a full-time dentist
in town. And Wright’s Barbecue is only a memory.
But, as Beth Swartz concludes, Zuni
remains a special place: “There’s just nothing like the people out there.”