Welcome to Kilmarnock
by Audrey Thomasson
Kilmarnock epitomizes small town America with quaint shops nestled along brick-edged sidewalks and evenings lit by turn-of-the-century styled street lamps. Flags mounted to storefronts wave in a breeze that carries the flavors of local restaurants—steamed shellfish, grilled steaks, or barbecue—and mixes with the salty air of surrounding creeks and the Chesapeake Bay.
Along Main Street visitors can sit a spell on a park bench and watch the red trolley pick up passengers for a 25-cent ride to White Stone, Irvington and the Tides Inn resort.
First Friday Walkabouts in the downtown Steptoe’s District offer art, entertainment, restaurant specials and after-hours shopping.
Mention a parade and the local Scotsmen will be the first in line wearing clan kilts and playing bagpipes or beating drums. Firemen, school marching bands, artists, crabs and kids are the features of many events, including the popular Christmas parade.
Take a casual stroll through town and you’ll find a variety of eateries, antique malls, clothing, furniture and specialty shops. Stop in the Kilmarnock Museum for an in-depth look at local history. Don’t miss the new Kilmarnock Entertainment Center for fusion bowling, video games, movie night, party space and dining.
Stray a few steps off Main Street up Waverly Avenue to the town playground where kids can climb over a giant crab, up a rock wall, down a variety of slides, or swing to their hearts content. Beyond the playground are the carnival grounds which will rev up in late July to celebrate the 75th anniversary as a fund-raiser for the all-volunteer Kilmarnock Fire Department. Waverly ends at Indian Creek where boaters can dock at the Chesapeake Boat Basin and either bike to town or catch the red trolley.
Church Street features, what else, a variety of churches as well as the Kilmarnock Inn which honors seven Virginians who served as U.S. presidents. Lancaster Middle School (aka the county’s emergency shelter) is on School Street. Its 500-seat theater accommodates visiting professional groups and showcases local talent. Further up the road you’ll find the Lancaster Community Library, hosting programs for all ages. There’s also a fire house with a lineup of fire trucks sure to impress any young dreamer.
Kilmarnock, with over 1,200 residents, holds the honor of being the largest commercial center on the peninsula.
Situated on the southern end of the Northern Neck between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers, the town’s roots date from the early 1600’s when Capt. John Smith explored the region occupied by Native Americans for centuries. In those days, Kilmarnock was where Indian paths converged at a crossroads of what is now the intersection of Routes 3 and 200 in the center of town.
While the land passed between several settlers in the first half of the century, it wasn’t until 1682 that a former British indentured servant, Anthony Steptoe, purchased some 278 acres of land that straddled Lancaster and Northumberland counties in what was referred to as the Crossroads. About 1735, his descendent, William Steptoe, acquired the land and established the first businesses, a store and ordinary. The area came to be called the Crossroads at Steptoe’s Ordinary.
In 1772, William Steptoe sold two-and-a-half acres to Robert Gilmour, a businessman from Kilmarnock, Scotland. The first documented reference to the town’s name change was after Gilmour’s death in 1782, when his will referred to the property as Kilmarnock, Virginia. After that, county records show property deed transfers in the area using the new name.
During the 1890’s, with the development of the menhaden fishing industry and graineries serving area farming, the town prospered adding a hotel, livery stables, mercantile shops, a town hall, physicians, several churches and a bowling alley.
The Hazel Building was built in 1919 on the northwest corner of Main and Church Street. It was so immense, the third floor featured a 500-seat Opera House for the performing arts and “moving pictures.” Families flocked to town to watch a silent film then stayed to eat or shop in stores that remained open until folks went home—about 10 p.m. weeknights and midnight on Saturday. The fact that most retail business took place in the late night hours was reflected in postcards from the era that described the town as “the New York of the Northern Neck” and Main Street as “Broadway.” A popular hangout for young people was Dreamland, a dance hall which opened on West Church Street in 1934.
The St. Patrick’s Day fire of 1952 destroyed the Hazel Building and eight other business establishments on North Main. Two previous town fires in 1909 and 1915 razed many buildings and homes and changed the face of the town. Yet after each event, citizens regrouped and rebuilt a better and stronger community.
In 2006 a revitalization of Main Street was completed by a diverse and active population including descendants of the first settlers and a wave of newcomers looking for a safe haven with small town charm. During the ‘facelift,’ a piece of history was restored when the central business area was named “Steptoe’s District.”
Kilmarnock’s mild climate, rural setting and abundance of outdoor activities make it an attractive place to live and visit. Endless breezes help to keep things cool in the summer and warm enough in the winter to quickly melt what little snowfall occurs. The area is surrounded by creeks, rivers and the bay, attracting those who love to boat, sail, fish, crab, kayak, canoe, swim or just kick back and relax.
- Kilmarnock Farmers‘ Market: Fourth Saturdays of each month, May through October, 9 a.m. - 1 p.m. Monthly features include: Corvettes in May; Wine Day in June; and a Motorcycle Poker Run in Sept.
- First Friday Walkabouts: First Fridays of each month, May through October. 5 - 8 p.m.
- May 22: 5-K run and kids 1-K fun run (mothers with strollers included)
- July 29-August 7: Kilmarnock Volunteer Fire Department’s 75th annual Firemen’s Festival
- September 24 & 25: Northern Neck RiverRide - Family bike event.
- October 30: Kandy for Kids.
- December 10: 32nd annual illuminated Christmas Parade.