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Nuttall Country Store: A community gathering place time forgot

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Decades before there were text messages, Facebook friends and Snapchat stories, folks would gather around the stove at country stores to spin tall tales and neighborhood gossip.

It was a simpler time, when every little village across the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula had its own country store, a place to pick up everything from eggs to fishing rods. A place where everyone was welcomed by name, where grandma would send the grandkids by bicycle to buy a bag of sugar. It was a building that housed the neighborhood post office and a place where the owners typically lived in an upstairs apartment or in the house right next door.

There’s still a place like that down a winding road in Gloucester County at the crossroads of Ware Neck Road, Dunham Massie Lane and Hockley Wharf. It’s housed in a plain, white two-story building that may not catch the eye of many visitors.

“Every town in America should have a store like this.”
– Director Steven Spielberg referring to Nuttall Store

Nuttall Store is a rare find, a tribute to yesteryear when people had a lingering conversation in the post office or enjoyed a cup of coffee over a game of checkers with a neighbor. In today’s world of big box convenience stores, where customers grab a bite, a tank of gas and make a restroom pit stop all in a matter of minutes, it’s nice to find a place where the pace is at a crawl.

I grew up less than half-a-mile from a country store, where I’d ride my bike almost daily to get a soda pop and a 25-cent candy bar. The owners lived upstairs, let their two dogs greet customers at the door, operated the post office and even opened the store once in the middle of the night for a crying little girl to retrieve her favorite doll, which I’d somehow left inside the Coca-Cola machine. Those were the days...and those were the days I felt propelled back to a few weeks ago when I walked through the doors of Nuttall Store.

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The lunch crowd at Nuttall Store often includes construction crews working near Ware Neck.

The store is possibly the only one of its kind still operating in the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula. Its operation is truly a community effort. The building and the land are owned by Friends of the Ware Neck Store (FOWNS).

Since 2012, FOWNS has taken on the mission to ensure the Ware Neck Store and Ware Neck Post Office not just survive but thrive. The Ware Neck Store building, which houses Nuttall Store, was placed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places in 2009. Instead of turning the old store into a museum, the way many across the area have gone, FOWNS leases the first floor of the building to Nuttall Store and the U.S. Post Office. Commonwealth Travel leases the upstairs as office space. The store, however, still serves the community in the same capacity it has for nearly 150 years.

Deanna Murphy manages the store and has six employees. Janice Booker is the post mistress, serving the 900, give or take a few, residents of Ware Neck. There are 125 boxes at the Ware Neck Post Office, which is open inside the store from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays.

Ronda Bowden manages the kitchen and deli and cooks up tasty, homemade dinner specials such as chicken pot pie, bacon-wrapped meatloaf, chicken wild rice casserole and asparagus mushroom quiche, just to name a few.

“We’re about the last country store standing,” said Murphy. “It’s a lot of pressure.

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An antique Coca-Cola cooler is no longer in use but adds charm to the decor.

“This little store serves the community. It fills a need,” she added. “And we don’t advertise. Our business comes from word of mouth. We are fortunate we have a strong support system.”

At lunch time, the store is busy. Work crews grab a homemade sub or sandwich. Chicken salad is one of the deli’s speciality items.

“It’s a good meeting place for people to share the news,” said Murphy, as she greeted Keith “Mit” Nuttall at the coffee counter. Nuttall is a Ware Neck native who now lives a few miles away in the Gloucester Courthouse area. His father, Walter Nuttall, purchased the store along with his first cousin Rudy Nuttall back in 1944.

History
Ware Neck Store was built about 1875, during a time when steamboats visited ports all along the Chesapeake Bay region. The original store was known as Arthur Tabb store and constructed as a simple two-story building with single-story wings added for extra store space in 1890. Living quarters were also added in the back of the building for the storekeeper and postmaster.

The Nuttall cousins purchased the store in 1944 and became hands-on managers in 1947. Rudy became the postmaster in 1950.

Walter later sold his share to Rudy and after Walter died in 1997, Keith’s mother married Rudy.

“This store was [Rudy’s] life,” said Keith Nuttall. “This is all he did, all he wanted to do.”

Rudy finally retired and sold the store to investors in 2002. The Ware Neck Preservation Group purchased it in 2007 and it’s now in the hands of FOWNS.

“[The store] stays here because the community wants this. They support this. And it’s great that it’s stayed open,” said Keith Nuttall.

The store
Like most country stores, a front porch and two wooden and glass doors greet visitors at Nuttall Store. Inside, there are high ceilings and a center staircase. The old pine floors are left rough and worn. Oh, the stories the old building could tell.

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Folks can pull up a chair and play a game of checkers.

“They [FOWNS] don’t want to make it all shiny and new. They want to keep things the way they were,” said Murphy.

The right wing of the store houses the post office, book shelves, fishing and tackle items and pet supplies. Along the right wall in the center of the building is the coffee corner and brew station and in the right rear are shelves of wine in The Wine Corner. It’s small but “there’s a mighty selection of everything,” said Murphy, who hosts well-attended wine tastings periodically.

Along the left rear wall are homemade jams and jellies, soaps and lotions and Ware Neck souvenirs and accessories.

A vintage Coca-Cola cooler, that no longer works, sits across from a modern refrigerator which contains soft drinks, including classic Ne-Hi orange and grape sodas and Big Red Soda.

Grocery items sit in front of the deli counter where Judy Doyel serves sandwiches, including bologna, corned beef and chicken salad. Nightly dinner specials are a big draw, according to Doyel.

“A lot of the locals don’t cook dinner. They just come in here. Someone might call up and say I want meatloaf for dinner, so that will be our special for the day, meatloaf,” she said.

An old stove still sits in the center of the store, just in front of a wooden antique post office window with boxes. There’s a table with a handmade checker set on top and two chairs, beckoning someone to play.

Take the drive, a short three-and-half miles down Ware Neck Road, to have lunch, play some checkers and chitchat about the weather. Travel to the time machine that is Nuttall Store.

posted 10.30.2017

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