County Curiosity: Northumberland
Northumberland County is known as the “Mother County of the Northern Neck.” Originally an Indian district named Chickacoan, by the middle of the 17th century the area was a thriving fishing community. It still is: Reedville is known for its commercial fishing, and Omega Proteins, the nation’s largest maker of fish oils and fish meal, has a major plant in that town. Heathsville is the county seat. With a population under 15,000, Northumberland is a laid-back place—two traffic lights, one car ferry and no traffic, unless you count the occasional (maddening!) backup behind a tractor.
ONE FISH, TWO FISH Thanks to the commercial fishing of menhaden (also known as bunker or pogy), Reedville at the turn of the 19th century was reputed to be America’s second-wealthiest town. Menhaden is still big business. The oil is extracted and used in a variety of products including Omega-3 pills, oil paints and ladies’ makeup, and the fish are cooked into a protein meal for animal feed.
Captain Billy Pipkin, who runs Capt. Billy’s Charters out of Ingram Bay Marina in Wicomico Church, says, “This region also has become famous for its recreational fishing. Striped bass, also known as rockfish, are our calling card here. Other fish that are abundant are bluefish, Spanish mackerel and many types of bottom fish—spot, croaker and flounder.” He says about 50 charter boats work between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers.
FISHY BUSINESS ASIDE You can visit Heathsville’s historic landmark, named Rice’s Hotel/Hughlett’s Tavern. Once used as a court village so miscreants could be housed while awaiting trial, the spot today comprises the old hotel-cum-museum and the tavern (closed but should reopen by the end of the summer), along with the farmers’ market, Heathsville Forge Blacksmith Shop and the quilt and woodworking guilds.
HISTORIC FINDINGS Reedville’s Millionaire’s Row consists of several refurbished Victorian-era homes. The Fishermen’s Museum in Reedville displays two boats recognized by the National Register of Historic Places—the deck boat Elva C and skipjack Claud W. Somers.
SENIOR MOMENT Heathsville is a popular retirement spot for those looking to settle by the water. One-third of the county population is at least 65 years of age.