Originally known as Windmill Point (not to be confused with the one in Lancaster County), Reedville is located on a peninsula of land between the two branches of Cockrell’s Creek. A lone windmill once stood on the point here, hence the name Windmill Point. When Elijah Reed arrived here the area was sparsely populated and extremely rural. The only industry to be found was predominantly agriculture or water related industries.
It is easy to see why this point of land was selected for the construction of a windmill. The strong breezes on this portion of the bay are often quite steady and strong, making this the perfect location for one. Today on any given weekend or weekday for that matter the horizon is often dotted by great sailing yachts and sailboats taking advantage of the wind power generated here.
Enter Elijah Reed of Brooklin, Maine
In 1874, a Sea Captain from Maine, named Elijah Reed sailed into the Chesapeake Bay in search of menhaden. He had been in the business with intermittent success in other areas. Upon seeing the area known as Windmill Point, he purchased it and 33 1/3 acres of the peninsula for $1000.00. His successes and failures told him that this place was perfectly situated for menhaden fishing and processing. His hunch would prove to be correct and his success greater than he or anyone could have imagined.
On March 2, 1874 Elijah brought his wife to Virginia to see the point of land he had recently purchased. The cold on the water in early March must have been bone chilling. Tragically, just two days after arriving Mrs. Reed became ill and died. This must have been an enormous blow to Elijah Reed, who had no choice but to go on.
George Reed, Elijah’s son wrote, “There being no cemetery in this section at the time, my father and I came to Windmill Point, which had been recently purchased by my father and selected a burial ground in the center of the tract of land and buried my mother.”
Today in this same area a tall marble obelisk stands as a memorial to Elijah Reed and family. It is surrounded by a lovely decorative wrought-iron fence and stands as a reminder of the man who had lost and gained so much.
At one time or another in our lives, we are all acquainted with grief. Even the best and most accomplished among us are no strangers to suffering and loss. Elijah Reed’s loss in the face of his hopes and dreams makes him seem more approachable and real as a person who lived a truly remarkable and intriguing life.
Following the death of his wife, Reed built his own house on the point and lived there until his death. By 1875 Reed had successfully established the first menhaden factory on the point. Many of the town’s early structures were also built by Reed to house his workers and some of his own family members from Maine. A native New Englander it was no surprise that the style he preferred for these vernacular houses was a simple New England style.
Elijah Reed was reaping the rewards of continuance in the face of the setbacks and obstacles he had endured elsewhere in the bay region. Every great inventor, leader and successful individual will attest to the fact that success comes by way of failure and that learning how not to do things is essential.
Reed eventually had five profitable fishing seasons back to back, which enabled him to purchase the very first steam powered fishing vessel on the Chesapeake Bay, known as the “Starry Banner.” His success at the point created quite a stir in the menhaden fishing community, both in Maine and among the natives at Windmill Point. Soon others began setting up their own operations there as well.
Elijah Reed had blazed the trail for all those who would follow him. Prior to Reed there had never been a successful menhaden enterprise operating in Virginia!
During the same year of Elijah Reed’s death, his son George Reed was appointed Postmaster at Windmill Point. As a way to honor his father’s memory and the contributions he made to both industry and community, he changed the name of the village from Windmill Point to Reedville, which was a fitting tribute for both the man and the place.
By 1885 there were fifteen menhaden factories operating on Cockrell’s Creek. With improved techniques for the extraction of fish oil from menhaden, Reedville was instrumental in satisfying America’s growing dependence and consumption of oil, for personal use and manufacturing. Although whaling had supplied much of America’s oil in the past, menhaden had taken over as the preferred source, for a variety of reasons.
After the extraction process, the left over fish by-products were used to make other products. Nothing went to waste. The left over scrap was spread out on the docks to be dried by the sun and used in products such as organic fertilizer.
Reedville Enters the Twentieth Century
With the dawning of the twentieth century Reedville had become the home of one of the most profitable and well run industries in the nation. By 1900 it is recorded that twenty steamers fished the waters around Cockrell’s creek. The massive homes and brick structures still standing in Reedville attest to this fact. The strong New England values of community and place brought here so many years ago with the coming of Elijah Reed and others, are still part of the fabric of this special place on Virginia’s Northern Neck.
Since 1806 there had always been a strong Methodist congregation at Windmill Point/Reedville. With the influx of new wealth and a community that was literally multiplying, a larger church building was required. A contractor from New Jersey was engaged to design and build the new church in the Gothic Revival style that was so popular during this period in America’s industrialist history. In 1899, the cornerstone of the church was laid, with the structure built of special bricks transported by three-mast schooner from Baltimore which was the hub for everything that took place on the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. The dedication of the church took place on June 30, 1901. With no expense spared it is said that the new church was the costliest building to have been built in all of Eastern Virginia during that period.
The interior of the church is lovely with dark wooden paneled walls and intricately carved architectural accents. The equally lovely stained glass windows were added about 1950. The cost of construction was a mere ten thousand dollars, a pittance by today’s standards.
The Reedville Masonic Hall was also built around the turn of the century in a Colonial Revival style with brick laid in Flemish bond and jack arches over the windows. Greek revival elements were also present on the front façade of the structure. These two very interesting structures had nothing in common architecturally, but were built to
illustrate the wealth that demanded their construction.
Indeed 1901 was a year for big changes in Reedville, as the first banking institution opened its doors here, along with a host of other businesses.
Things You Might Not Have Known About Reedville
Did you know that some of the most sought after domestic caviar on the east coast, came from Reedville? The McGill-McNeal factory shipped local caviar to Baltimore via steamboat to be sold by a distributor in Baltimore, from 1903–1912. Due to a decrease in native sturgeon the practice was discontinued, however for a time this was a very lucrative enterprise that catered to the palette of the discriminating Baltimore set.
Almost every little town or wharf that was supported by local agriculture had a tomato cannery. Reedville was no different from the others and from 1902–1903 had its own cannery.
The construction of a marine railway used for boat repairs also grew up out of necessity in Reedville.
Reedville boasted several fine hotels and boarding houses, however there were no saloons or enterprises of ill repute. The town was as tidy as could be. The founding fathers of Reedville were certainly motivated in their pursuit of wealth however they were equally prim and proper in their outward behavior.
Reedville’s shops sold everyday goods and groceries, building supplies, coal, house wares, ladies apparel and even specialty items like furniture and buggies could be ordered for delivery by steamboat.
The Great Fire of 1925
In 1925, the menhaden industry entered a period of decline and eventual halt. The menhaden factories that once dominated the point had all but vanished, due to the great fire of 1925 and other issues that forced their closure. The fish factories destroyed by fire were never rebuilt on the point.
Omega Protein still continues the menhaden tradition that made Reedville the icon that it has become. It is the largest employer in the area with their fleet of ocean going vessels that still harvest menhaden with the support of spotter aircraft. In the tradition of Reedville’s Founding Fathers, Omega continues the legacy of strong community presence and support. The recent Save the Stack campaign has enjoyed strong support from the community, the Reedville Fisherman’s Museum and Omega Protein, who is a major sponsor in “saving the stack.”
For more on the fishing industry in Reedville and the stack that remains on the waterfront at Reedville, see our article entitle Saving the Stack, in this issue.
For more information about Reedville, Virginia and her rich maritime history the Reedville Fisherman’s Museum is a must see! On permanent exhibit are the skipjack Claude W. Somers and the deck boat Elva C. These two boats are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and are well worth seeing. The museum itself covers the role watermen have played in the bay for hundreds of years and the subsequent menhaden barons and industry that changed the course of Reedville forever. You can visit the museum online at www.rfmuseum.org. They can also be reached by phone at 804-453-6529.
Today’s Reedville is as charming as ever and includes fine bed and breakfasts, an amazing museum, several outstanding full service marinas, sport fishing charters, sight-seeing cruises to Tangier Island and Smith Island, numerous dining establishments, seafood companies and so much more. If you have not visited Reedville before, autumn is the perfect time to do so as the leaves are changing, the air is brisk and the bay takes on the jewel toned quality of sapphire against the aquamarine sky.
If you have been to Reedville, you know why some who come here can never leave and why those who choose
to visit — visit often.