‘Every community needs a museum’
By Selina Foreman
Just the term “general store” has an outdated feel to it. Purveyors today strive to create unique experiences for customers, often specializing in just one item. There are cupcake bakeries, taco joints and food trucks that only sell lobster rolls.
But, once upon a time, folks met all of their needs in one neighborhood general store that often also functioned as a post office.
“Every neighborhood had a post office and a general store,” said Poquoson Historical and Cultural Museum Foundation President Paul Whitlow. “There used to be tons of little family run businesses.”
In 2003, the family who owned the Odd Post Office, also known as the Tom Hunt Store, donated it to The Poquoson Museum. At issue: how to move the building a little less than a mile to join the 15 acres that make up the historical campus of the museum.
Just 16 years and several miles of red tape later, on Nov. 24, the Odd Post Office traveled not quite one mile to its new home next to the Poquoson Museum.
The move was held up for years due to various factors. Paperwork issues, economic downturns and more contributed to the delay.
Most of these structures, which had been so essential at one point, are now non-existent. However, the little ramshackle building that had resided at the very end of Odd Road has endured, and Whitlow is trying to bring it back to life.
Built in the 1880s, according to Whitlow, the structure, known alternatively as Odd Post Office and as the Tom Hunt Store, was in continuous operation until the mid-1960s. Poquoson resident Sarah E. Hunt was appointed postmistress in 1904 and was married to John Thomas Hunt. The couple shared the building, which functioned as both post office and general store for years.
The structure was bought in the late 1960s by Poquoson residents and longtime antiques collectors Charlie and Georgia McDaniel. The store was given status as a historic Virginia building, and, thanks to the McDaniels, it is full of original merchandise as well as pieces that came out of other old houses and stores in Poquoson.
“I had been in that store when it was operating as an antiques store,” Whitlow remembers. He moved to the area in 1961, when he married his wife, who can trace her family roots in Poquoson back seven generations.
His vision is to restore the modest building, recreating what it looked like when it played a principle role in the Poquoson community.
“We want to put it back,” he said. “It’s just another piece of the puzzle.”
The Poquoson Museum hired the same company that recently assisted in the move of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, Expert House Movers of Maryland. Exhaustive pre-planning and surveys preceded the move, which was extremely smooth, according to Whitlow.
“We only had to pull up a couple of mailboxes and move a few street signs,” he said. “It went very well.”
The Poquoson Historical and Cultural Museum Foundation is a labor of love for Whitlow. The all-volunteer staff runs the organization based solely on membership dues and donations.
“Every dime that we get goes back into the museum,” he stressed.
A VDOT grant that facilitated the move of the Tom Hunt Store does not meet the full cost of the move, according to Whitlow, and they are looking for corporate donors to help fill in the gaps and make the complete restoration of the building a reality.
“It creates a sense of belonging,” he said. “The preservation of historical buildings builds community spirit.”
The museum itself strives to build that same community spirit by providing a place that caters to many needs of the community. The foundation purchased the former 15-acre Dryden farm tract on Poquoson Avenue in 2003, and those 15 acres have been transformed into a unique historical campus. The campus consists of the circa 1910 farmhouse (now the museum building), the circa 1940 “Miss Becky’s Store,” a circa 1930 building once used as a polling place and several other significant agricultural outbuildings.
In 2013, the museum dedicated its Marsh Walk Nature Trail, a one mile loop down to Topping Creek that includes several boardwalks and observation decks that provide views of the salt marsh and Back River. They also partnered with the York-Poquoson Master Gardeners to establish a learning and demonstration garden.
“Every community needs a museum,” Whitlow said simply.