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Urbanna visitor’s Center opens

Town employee Kurt Hugo (above), along with Billie Eubank, are interpreters at the Urbanna Visitor’s Center/Museum in the historic Old Tobacco Warehouse, which is a colonial structure that was built in the 1700s as a Scottish “factor’s” store where retail business was conducted. The Urbanna Visitor’s Center opened last weekend and will be open on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through the summer and fall from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Photo by Larry Chowning)

by Larry Chowning

Even in modern times, mystery has surrounded the old colonial building on Virginia Street in the Town of Urbanna that for decades has been called the Old Tobacco Warehouse.

No one can recall when the building was not referred to as that, but what was it really? In the 1930s, a tobacco company approached the owner of the building about purchasing the structure, dismantling it, and setting it up as an exhibit on the history of the tobacco trade in America for the 1939 World Fair in New York. At the time, the building was being used as a rental home and in need of major repairs.

The idea of dismantling it and taking away one of the oldest buildings in town brought out the vinegar in several local women, who felt it needed to stay where it was. They launched an aggressive campaign to keep the tobacco company from purchasing it.

That group of women were members of the Middlesex County Woman’s Club and they encouraged the club to get involved. Their efforts to stop the acquisition led to the creation of the Ralph Wormeley Branch of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA).

The local APVA purchased the building and over the next 20 years it was sparingly maintained as funding was scarce. In 1958, funds were found to sponsor a “Report On A Building At Urbanna, Virginia” to evaluate the historical significance of the old structure. The project was conducted by professional historians and archeologists. The object of the report was to determine the building’s “place in the history of Virginia and its connection to the tobacco industry” and if it was, indeed, worth restoring. 

Dr. Wesley Newton Laing, an experienced university professor of history, was hired to oversee the report. He concluded the building was built in the colonial period and used as a Scottish merchants store that dealt in a variety of goods, including tobacco, but that it was not a warehouse for the storage of hogsheads filled with tobacco. Laing determined the building was built between 1763-1767 and was one of the oldest buildings of its kind in America. He encouraged the APVA to restore it.

During the 18th century when currency was being established in America, a trade pattern of exchanging tobacco for various items imported from Europe was used. Tobacco growers could trade their tobacco at a store, such as the one in Urbanna, for goods from England. The tobacco was stored in hogsheads (large barrels) weighing over 1,000 pounds when filled and was housed in warehouses where they sat until ships from England picked them up.

Dr. Laing’s report stated the building was once owned by James Mill & Co., a Scottish merchant. “The Scots merchants and their stores of the colonial period have not to our knowledge been given their rightful place in colonial history,” the report stated. “Along with the planter, the lawyer, the clergyman and the soldier, these merchants formed a tough sinew of colonial economy.

“They performed the beginning of the banking structure, they imported and sold everything from pills to plows and petticoats, shoes, saddles and stationery, and were places of assembly and gossip,” the report stated.

Restoration of the building began in 1964 and, upon completion, the Urbanna Town Library, forerunner of today’s Middlesex County Library, was moved from the Woman’s Club building to the restored mercantile store.

In 1997, the Town of Urbanna acquired the building from the APVA and had a second restoration, making it handicapped accessible and converted into the town visitor’s center.

The facility is now open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Saturday through the fall, and interpreters are available to speak on the history of the building and the town, and answer questions from visitors.

posted 04.24.2013

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