South Boston, Virginia

Historic District Walking Tour

A brief history:

It was not until 1884 that South Boston was incorporated, but as early as 1796 there were a few houses and a general store at Boyd's Ferry on the Dan River. There is a marker at The Retreat To the Dan Memorial (located on Broad Street in Downtown South Boston overlooking the Dan) that tells of the campaign of 1781 and refers to Boyd's Ferry.

Campaign of 1781
During the American Revolution, the strategic Retreat to The Dan of February 1781 is now regarded by most historians to have been the real turning point in the war.

Boyd's Ferry and Irwin's Ferry, located farther west on the Dan River, were the sites of General Nathaniel Greene's retreat while being pursued by General Cornwallis during the Revolutionary War. Between 1779 and 1781, Cornwallis' army had taken Georgia, Charleston and Camden, South Carolina, and was defeated at Cowpen, South Carolina and King's Mountain, South Carolina. Greene managed to avoid Cornwallis, at the same time wearing down his troops and drawing him away from his supply base. Corwallis burned his own baggage and destroyed his rum ration in order to move faster. Greene did not have enough manpower to confront and fight the much larger British force, so he transported all of his men and equipment across Boyd's Ferry (upstream of the current railroad crossing of the Dan ) and Irwin's Ferry (a few miles farther upstream) and pulled the boats ashore. "Light Horse" Harry Lee (Robert E. Lee's father) was in charge of the rear guard action during this crossing. Cornwallis turned back and went to Hillsborough, North Carolina in February 1781. After new recruits almost doubled the size of Greene's army, he fought Cornwallis at Guilford, which is near what is now Greensboro, North Carolina. Cornwallis claimed victory, but lost many men, especially officers, and exhausted his supplies. He was never able again to mount an effective offense.

Anyone who is interested in further information about these events is referred to The Retreat to the Dan, by W. Carroll Headspeth and Spurgeon Compton.

First South Boston Chartered in 1796

Boyd's Ferry was one of the earliest river crossings established in Halifax County. In December, 1752, the year the county was created out of Lunenburg, John Boyd appeared at Court and produced an order, dated July 4, 1749, from Lunenburg Court, authorizing him to keep a ferry at his home over Dan River. The ferry crossed about where the Norfolk-Southern Railway bridge crosses the river today. The ferry's importance lay in part in the fact that over it passed the road from the south to Charlotte and Prince Edward Counties, Petersburg and Richmond.

As the ferry's importance grew, a few families moved in, and in 1796 it was decided to attempt the establishment of a town. On December 8, the General Assembly passed the following Act:
"Whereas it has been represented that 40 acres of land, the property of George Carrington in the County of Halifax, lying at the place called Boyd's Ferry on Dan River, are conveniently and advantageously situated for a town, and on which there are valuable buildings erected, and divers inhabitants of the said County have made application to this Assembly with the consent of the said George Carrington to pass an Act for disposing of the same land by lottery, so as to raise the sum of two thousand pounds to be paid to the proprietor and to establish a town thereon, BE IT THEREFORE ENACTED that it shall and may be lawful for Berryman Green, Daniel Bates, William McCraw, William Terry, John B. Scott, Jacob Faulkner, Isaac Oakes and John Faulkner, Gentlemen Commissioners, or a majority of them, to dispose of the said 50 acres of land by lottery in lots of half-acre each, with convenient streets, so as to raise thereby the sum of two thousand pounds and pay the same to the said George Carrington or his legal representatives, the lots so laid off shall henceforth be established as a town to be called and known by the name of South Boston..."

The infant town did not grow as it was expected to, and the sale of lots by lottery was not successful. "The scheme of which has failed," it was written in Shepherd's, Statutes, and on June 2, 1799, authority was granted to sell lots by public auction. If the situation was not improved in seven years, the lots were to be sold again and funds used to build streets. Additional Commissioners named were Richard Dawson, Charles Meriwether and Samuel Hobson.

Mrs. Richard C. Edmunds traced the town in county tax records. In 1801 there were only six taxable properties, and the town had a physician, two taverns (owned by William Crittenton and Walter Bennett), a store and two other improved properties. In 1802 there were still six, and in 1804 there were seven.

In 1807 only one of six properties were deem worth taxing. Wrote Berryman Green with his report as Commissioner of Revenue for the Southern District: "It is believed that when improved lots in town are wholly unoccupied and producing no benefit to the proprietor such lots ought not to be taxed, except under the value of the land as other lots unimproved. That course has accordingly been passed for the present year."

In 1809 George Carrington still owned four improved lots and Grorge Claughton two. Only the latter are listed in 1810 and 1811, and in 1812, 1813, 1816 and 1817 only Lipscomb Ragland's two lots were listed. Through 1835 only a handful of lots were listed.

Why did the first South Boston fail to develop? Perhaps it was due in part to the destructive freshets on the Dan River which are said to have ravaged the town, this being the cause cited throughout the years.

Whatever the reasons for it's failure to develop, and despite adversities, a few hearty, souls hung on, and the area remained a small trading post, until and past the time the new town began to grow on the north bank of the Dan. In the 1850s the Richmond and Danville Railroad, later the Southern, came through South Boston. By 1858 work was completed by Mr. Traver, a bridge builder from New England, on a covered toll bridge across the Dan. The pillars that held this bridge still stand just east of the present bridge. The downtown area at this time consisted of a freight depot, a passenger depot, a wagon shop, one hotel, and several stores.

In 1870 the Duke family of Durham, North Carolina developed a machine for rolling cigarettes, which had a posifive effect on the growth of the tobacco industry. That same year, the first tobacco warehouse was built, followed the next year by one using the new public auction system. Within four years four tobacco warehouses were in operation in South Boston. By 1907 the town had become the second largest bright leaf market in the United States with over 13 million pounds sold. The first bank was built in 1875 by R.E. and W. L. Jordan. After incorporation by Captain E. B. Jeffress in 1884, the town continued to thrive. Captain Jeffress's property was purchased from Josiah Dabbs, who built Berry Hill Plantation, located on River Road in Halifax County. There was a building boom during the end of the nineteenth century, and most of the downtown was built during a ten to twenty year period at this time.

How did the city get its unusual name?

How did the city get its unusual name, back in 1884? Many stories have been told in the past, most of them having to do, in one way or another, with Boston, Massachusetts, and Capt. Edwin B. Jeffress, called the "father of South Boston."

According to the most frequently heard story, Capt. Jeffress, upon the incorporation of the town by the General Assembly, applied to the Post Office Department to have a post office established in the new town. He wanted to call it Boston, after the northern city, but since there already was a Boston in Virginia, the Department felt it would be confusing to have two Bostons. Another name would have to be selected. Not to be outdone, it is said, Capt. Jeffress decided on South Boston.
Not so.

When present-day South Boston was incorporated by the General Assembly in February, 1884, the name already was 88 years old, having been applied to the town on the south side of Dan River established by the legislature on December 8, 1796.

Tradition has it that the name of the first South Boston was selected by Gen Carrington of "Oak Hill." on whose land the town was laid out, and who is said to have operated a store there. He was much in sympathy with the movement for independence for the American colonies from Great Britain, and was said to have been so moved by news accounts of the Boston Tea Party that he immediately named his store and the surrounding land "South Boston".

Whether this story is true or not cannot now be said with any certainty. It has been repeated so many times for so many years that it may indeed have some basis in fact. Be that as it may, the new town was dubbed South Boston in 1796.

According to a list of Virginia post offices during the years 1798-1859, published in the January, 1973 issue of the VIRGINIA MAGAZINE OF HISTORY AND BIOGRAPHY, there was a post office at South Boston from 1833 to 1837. Post Office Department records indicate that the post office opened on March 20, 1832, and was discontinued on December 29, 1838.

South Boston is not named in Martin's VIRGINIA GAZETTEER of 1835; however, it is shown on the map of the state engraved by Young & Dankworth of Philadelphia to accompany the book. Designated as "S. Boston," it is clearly shown to be on the south side of Dan River.

The earliest map showing S. Boston is Herman Boye's 9-Sheet Map:

1827 Herman Boye 9-Sheet Map

Chapin's GAZETTEER OF THE U. STATES, published in 1838, lists "Boston, South," as a "Town, Halifax County, Va., on the south side of Dan River. "

Martin's 1855 GAZETTEER OF THE STATE OF VIRGINIA does not mention South Boston, nor is it shown on the accompanying map.

The Richmond and Danville Railroad was completed to Drakes Branch in 1853, to South Boston in 1854 and to Danville in 1856. The famous covered bridge was completed by James Traver in 1858.

A post office, called "South Boston Depot," was established on June 20, 1855. A site location report at the time placed it at "one-quarter mile north of Dan River." The post office continued to exist past the 1858 cut-off date of the previously cited list.

South Boston is shown on a map of the states of Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, known as Colton's Map of Virginia, published by G.W. and C.B. Colton. 172 Williams Street, New York City, in 1869.

The name of "South Boston Depot" was changed to "South Boston" on February 4, 1884, only a couple of weeks before the Act of Assembly incorporating the new town was passed.

But what about Boston, Virginia? Although it is not listed in any of the three gazetteers named before, it is included in the list of post offices as being in Culpeper County. It was active from 1843 to past 1859. The town is located today on highway 522, almost on the border with Rappahannock County, and still has a post office, ZIP 22713.

History of Boston Depot

By Faye Royster Tuck
Special To The Gazette-Virginian, December 20, 2002

On the north side of Dan River in 1855 James C. Bruce sold one acre of land to Sarah A. Cabiness near Boston Depot. The land Bruce got from the estate of the late John Jeanette. It is said Jeanette had lived on this land.

William M. Cabiness, was born 1810 and his wife was Sarah A. Eldridge, born 1815. She was the daughter of Bowling Eldridge of the Paces - Elmo section of Halifax, County, Virginia. Sarah A. Cabiness and her two children had a trust fund from her parents and they owned certain property near the South Boston Depot. It was a lot of one acre and a house. William M. Cabiness and wife had lived at Elmo and he was in business with Sarah's brothers. They were merchants at Elmo - Pace's community.

William M. Cabiness was steward of the poor at the poor house for Halifax County and he was Commissioner of Revenue at one time.

Mr. Cabiness hired a carpenter named William P. Roark to do carpenter work for the family. Sarah A. Cabiness made a deposition on July 19, 1859 in the court at Halifax Court House. She said that Mr. Roark, the carpenter, worked on the kitchen, which was a log cabin. Mrs. Cabiness said she had it removed from one part of the yard and garden; there was also an office in the yard, which was moved. He repaired the office after it was removed. He weather boarded it and put in a window and six lights. Mr. Roark laid a floor in the cellar under the dwelling house.

Mrs. Cabiness said her husband, William M., expected to engage in the mercantile business at Boston and to live there as soon as he could make his arrangements to do so, but William M. Cabiness died on November 1854. Mrs. Cabiness said Mr. Roark boarded with the family while the work was going on.

Williwn and Sarah Cabiness had two children, William M. born 1840 and Mary E. born 1846.

In the year 1855 Mr. E. B. Jeffress rented the lot and house which belonged to Mrs. Cabiness a part of the year and in 1856 he rented the whole year. Jeffress paid Mrs. Cabiness $50.00 for 1855 and $80.00 for the year 1856. Mr. Samuel Edmondson occupied the house in 1857 and paid $50.00 rent.

There was a Negro woman called Clem who was part of the trust fund. Clem was hired out in 1855 for $50.

Mrs. Cabiness said Mr. Roark worked on the icehouse and was also building a barn for the Cabiness family. She said also that Roark worked on the opposite side of the road on Richard Bruce's land on an icehouse. (Richard Bruce had been given over 1,000 acres by his father James C. Bruce).

In a letter written November 1859 to Nathaniel J. Green from Jeffress and Dabbs, the heading of the letter was South Boston, Virginia. It was called Boston Depot and South Boston, by both names then.

A deed of 1856 found in the Bruce papers where Richard Bruce gave 1/2 acres to the trustees of the Goodman's Chapel first church in Boston or South Boston. The deed said know all men that I Richard Bruce for love I bear for the cause of Christ convey to William T. Ballou, Sr., Charles A. Ballou, Sr., John M. Hodges, E. B. Jeffress, Samuel B. Major, Joseph W. Martin, Sr. and Nolly Anderson, trustees for one-half acres at South Boston Methodist Episcopal Church called Goodman's Chapel on December 13, 1856.

The Bruces had a Mr. Younger painting and doing repairs on the Goodman's Chapel before the Civil War.

In the year 1863, while the Civil War was going on William Carter was pastor at the chapel. The trustees were Samuel B. Majors, John L. Rogers, Samuel Pate, Edward A. Oakes, Edwin B. Jeffress, Jefferson M. Merritt and John M. Hodges.

In 1859 on a petition of James F. Brooks, it is ordered that John M. Hodges, Parham Moon and John Jeannette do view the way proposed for opening a new road from his ferry (Brooks to Boston Depot through the land of Jeffress and Dabbs).

Jeffress and Ragland got a license to keep an ordinary in 1859 at Boston Depot.

E. B. Jeffress, an agent for Mr. Harvey in Charlotte County, was in business in 1862 with David S. Ligon and John J. Cumbie for distilling corn wheat rye into whiskey at Ligon's Mill for five years.

In 1882, before the town was incorporated, a lawsuit was going on Bates Reed and Cooley VS. Summerfields.

W.H. Shepherd bom 1845 said he was a member of the firm W. H. Shepherd & Co., as a dealer in tobacco. He said he was a member of the firm Edmundson & Shep- herd also. He said he had been in the tobacco business in South Boston about ten years.

E.A. Hunt born 1849, made a deposition and said he was a clothing salesman. He said he sold clothing to the Summerfields (merchants in South Boston in 1881). He said the transaction was made at the Howard Hotel in South Boston Hunt said he sold the goods to Isadore Summerfield. Hunt said he moved to Charlotte Co, in 1880. He worked for the house of J. H. Mann in Baltimore.

R.E. Jordan born 1830, said he was a banker. Jordan said he had lived in South Boston about ten years. He said there were eight white and colored dry goods and grocery stores and several saloons. Some of the saloons were as large as can be found outside of Richmond or Danville. There are three warehouses for sale of tobacco and two factories for the manufacturing.

R.W. Lawson said he was 28 years old and he was a member of the firm of Stebbins and Lawson. He said he came to South Boston on September 1875 and said Isadore Summerfield and he boarded at the same place.

A deposition was made and said that in 1881 there was a severe early frost killing all or a great portion of the tobacco crop in Halifax County, in which the farmers depended in great part for money. The trade of the Summerfield's store suddenly and rapidly fell off.

It was asked who were the leading merchants in South Boston in 1882 and named were W. H. Shepherd & Co., Willingham & Co., F. M. Sibley, Stebbins & Lawson, Brooks Bailey & Co., and J. W. Easley & Co.

Mae Horn made a deposition and said he was age 25 and he was a clerk in the mercantile establishment of J. W. Easley & Co. Horn said he had lived in South Boston five years. He was also well acquainted with both of the Summerfields. "They are Germans as well as myself". Horn said he spent a lot of his leisure time with Isadore & Morris Summerfield. Horn said that the Summerfieds left on the train at five o'clock December 31, 1881, and no one heard from them again.

In South Boston in 1903, George T. Norwood VS. J. P. & F. W. Davis. George T. Norwood had borrowed money from one David Lawson to go into business (bar rooms) with J. P. & F. W. Davis in South Boston, Virginia.

On Saturday at 1 o'clock a.m., they sold at public auction in the bar room formerly occupied by J. P. Davis & Co. on Main Street, South Boston, the entire stock of liquors.

On Monday, February 23, 1903, at the front door of the Court House at Houston Virginia, they sold two pairs of mules, one fine riding and driving horse, two horse wagons with covers & harness complete. Also 20 gallons of corn whiskey.

J.P. Davis had a distillery erected by him at Rocky Branch near Clays Mill. F. W. Davis had a distillery operated by him near Martin's store near Stovall in Halifax County.

Businesses in South Boston, Virginia

1885 J. H. Franklin & Co. - Steam Planning Mill

1897 A home For The Sick(first hospital -Magnolia Retreat situated in the healthiest and most quiet part of town. B. C. Keister.

1897 Hotel Nichols formerly Hotel Boston - G. Y. Nichols & Son Giles Y. Nichols.

In the Halifax Record of March 23, 1883, it said, last Sunday morning about 2 o'clock, John Lawson, a colored employee at the depot, discovered flames coming from the brick storehouse (a landmarks occupied by Doctor Z. T. Brooks. The alarm was immediately given, and not withstanding the untimely hour, a large crowd gathered at the scene of the conflagration. This happened one year before the town became South Boston. This may have been the first store in South Boston built by Josiah Dabbs. Hall & Norwood & Co. of South Boston, Virginia in 1881 agent for domestic sewing machine, boots, shoes and hats.

In January 28, 1887, Sidney Norwood sold to J. D. Tucker the following property. One lot of land situated in the town of South Boston fronting 30 ft. on the east side of Main Street and running back between parallel lines to Broad Street being one-half of the lot on said east side of Main Street opposite to the new brick building of Edmondson & Shepherd erected on what is known as the Old Flag Warehouse site, which was conveyed by Wilkins Bruce & wife to Hall, Norwood &Co.

Livery Stables run by J.J. Matthews and a hotel on Bank Street.

Notley Jordan who was born in 1797 in North Carolina was a grocer and was in business at Boston Depot with a Charles S. Younger, January 23, 1854. Charles H.Cabiness owned the land at Boston Depot but Jordan & Younger occupied it.

A.B. Willingham, who was born in 1841, in 1860 he was an agent for the railroad. Henry T. Vauahan, who was born in 1832, was an agent at depot.

December 12, 1873 - Flag Warehouse by Shepherd, Carrington & Co. W. H. Shepherd, J. W. Carrington, R. H. Owen and A. C. Glenn.

August 1878, The Flag Warehouse at South Boston was owned by T. B. Powell (Proprietor), J. L. Powell (Proprietor), and T.B. Powell & Bro. J. L. Powell (clerk), T.B. Powell (auctioneer).

At one time there was a candy company at South Boston. Incorporated owing to the large and rapidly increasing trade, the South Boston Candy Co. has been incorporated. W. H. Nichols, H. P. Jordan, R. E. Jordan, of South Boston,Stonewall Jackson of Lynchburg and L.S. Jackson of Drakes Branch (Charlotte Co.) but Jordan & Younger occupied it.

A.B. Willingham, who was born in 1841, in 1860 he was an agent for the railroad. Henry T. Vaughan, who was born in 1832, was an agent at depot.

December 12, 1873 - Flag Warehouse by Shepherd Carrington& Co. W. H. Shepherd, J. W. Carrington, R. H. Owen and A. C. Glenn.

August 1878, The Flag Warehouse at South Boston was owned by T. B. Powell (proprietor), J. L. Powell (proprietor), and T.B. Powell & Bro. J. L. Powell clerk), T. B. Powell (auctioneer).

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