Sandbridge and its ebb and flow
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It was irresistible. A wide swath of crystalline white sand between the blue-green Atlantic and the marshes of Back Bay. It looked like Assateague: windswept, virginal, like a beach out of time. It was the perfect place for a family enclave, a quiet and remote stretch of oceanfront just right for summer gatherings. It was 1952, and Harvey Lindsay Sr. was about to start something big.
Before air conditioning, many families who could afford to escape the summer heat would head each summer for water and a breeze—to a river, a lake, the bay or the ocean. Indie Lindsay Bilisoly, developer and Realtor Harvey Lindsay’s daughter, says that her father knew Virginia Beach would start to develop quickly after World War II, and beach property would become more valuable. “He said people will do anything to get to the beach,” she says. They might even consider a sandy finger of land at the end of a long, winding country road, miles from anywhere. Many would find it paradise.
Take the family of Chandler Story Dennis. After Dennis had an unpleasant encounter with an Ocean View stinging nettle in August, 1949, the family thought the cooler ocean water would have fewer potential natural hazards. Dennis’ father “piled us into our old blue Plymouth, and we rode out in search of the secret Sandbridge Beach that Charlie, a co-worker of Pop’s and an avid fisherman, had said was worth finding.”
Before 1952, it wasn’t the beach but the waters of Back Bay that were the real draw, a pristine place for fishing and hunting waterfowl. A train line called the Sportsman’s Special ran from Norfolk through Princess Anne County to remote Munden Point. From the 1870s to the 1920s, more than 100 gunning clubs are said to have set up along the shores of Back Bay and Currituck Sound.
The Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1938, absorbing the property of a number of these clubs. To protect the vulnerable flat sand ridge separating ocean from bay, the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration created dunes 12 to 15 feet high along the beach. Dune-building continued until 1941, when refuge workers took over.
By 1951, the Sandbridge Gunning Club, founded in 1897, was winding down. They sold 550 acres of the sandy strip for $60,000 to Walter C. Maher, a Norfolk businessman whose father had been president of Norfolk and Western Railroad (a precursor to Norfolk Southern). “Mr. Maher had a coal-trimming company,” recalls Indie Bilisoly, “that spread coal on ships. He was a duck-hunting enthusiast.”
Harvey Lindsay Sr. had an option to buy the whole strip for $100,000. Along with his daughter, Kay, and her husband, Jim Kabler, he went to a few Norfolk friends—Barron Black, Colgate Darden, Braden and Phelen Vandeventer, Hugh Meredith—who each put in some money to buy the first parcel, ¾ mile of beachfront on the north side of Sandbridge Road. “They were brave men, to take a chance,” says Bilisoly.
Lindsay started by building Sandfiddler Road, parallel to the ocean. He shaped the lots like the developments he’d seen in New England, with oceanfront and back cottages staggered so everyone got a view. “They built on top of the dune line so they could see the ocean,” Bilisoly says. “Erosion just wasn’t a word you ever heard.”
Lots were 100 feet wide by 220 feet deep, on a beach 200 feet wide. Oceanfront lots were selling for $2,700, $50 down, $50 a month in October 1953; semi-ocean lots were $1,000, only $15 a month. Lindsay lured son-in-law Kabler to move his family to Sandbridge to market it. “He was called Cue-ball, because he shaved his head in college at UVA,” says Bilisoly. The name stuck.
The first houses were mostly nestled low to the ground, concrete pads with cinderblock walls, flat-top roofs and big screened porches, some painted in Bermuda pastels, some with rooftop decks. A few, like the Snyders’ and Twohys’, were two-story, cinderblock with shingles above. “Sandbridge Road was barely paved, just a country road,” Bilisoly says, that meandered between Princess Anne County farms and stopped abruptly at the ocean. Only sportsmen, county farmers and fishermen knew the beach.
For several years, Chandler Dennis and her family had been taking excursions to an empty Sandbridge to swim, play, picnic and walk. “On a sunny day in the early spring of 1953, we drove down to Sandbridge to show my Uncle Hatcher, who was visiting us, our ‘secret’ find. Much to our surprise when we parked and got out of the car, we discovered three cinderblock houses and a new road, all under construction,” she writes.
“As we climbed over the dune just north of the end of Sandbridge Road, we found a tiny real estate office and, inside, the young sales agent Jim ‘Cue-ball’ Kabler. He was charming and we were fascinated …. Right there on the spot, Dad and my uncle put a hundred dollars down on the smallest of the three houses being built, and we soon moved in to spend our first night. No longer limited to day trips only, our love for Sandbridge really got a chance to grow.”
Adelaide and Charles Snyder had a similar experience. “We went down one rainy day and fell in love with it,” Adelaide says. “We talked to Mrs. Twohy, and she bought a lot, and then to W. B. ‘Witsey’ Meredith, and he bought a lot. Four or five families were building at the same time.” Before the house was finished, she says, “we used to meet down there and take the children swimming and wash them with water from a hand pump.” According to Snyder’s notes, they put in a well 10 feet deep, “primed the pump, worked the pump handle furiously, and presto! There was water, sandy at first, then clear and cold. Water, to wash sandy feet and sandy bottoms and bathing suits!”
The Kablers built the first house and moved there in 1953. The handful of early residents put in septic systems and used well water, which had to be treated to drink. Telephone lines were shared with neighbors, and local calls could be cut off by the operator after three minutes. None of the summer homes had heat.
Milk and eggs, bread and ice cream were marketed by a dairy truck. Fresh vegetables from nearby farms came from “the vegetable man,” Cecil White, who sold from the back of his truck. Most of the men commuted to jobs in Norfolk, some returning nightly, others on weekends.
“Our lives down there were about our children,” remembers Adelaide Snyder. “There were between 12 and 20 children, and we all went on the beach between 10 and 12 each morning. We’d come up for lunch at noon, then read or nap until time to go back to the beach between 3 and 5. When the fathers came home from work, it was the adults’ time on the beach,” time for a quiet drink and a swim.
The children would make up plays to perform at night. These were summers of card games and jigsaw puzzles, Pepsi floats and open windows. The only way to cool down was to swim in the sea. Most kids had blow-up canvas rafts—no surfboards or boogie boards then. All that salt water had a lasting effect. “Our children didn’t get sick till April!” Adelaide says. Summer penicillin.
One summer there was a sandbar that sheltered clams. “We’d dig up clams doing the hoochie-koochie dance with our feet! We ate clams all that summer. We soon learned how to purge them in fresh water and let them spit out the sand,” Adelaide says. “We could put out crab pots and have plenty for dinner.”
The Atwood family, farmers and fishermen, had a farm where Lago Mar is now, a few miles inland. “They used to fish with nets at the north end. They’d come on the beach in beat-up trucks, and we all helped them take out the fish,” Adelaide remembers. Chandler Dennis’ mother, Louise Woodhouse Story, wrote about cooking supper on the beach. The children gathered driftwood for an open fire, ready to roast hotdogs and marshmallows.
If the children had been good, Mrs. Twohy hosted popsicle time for everyone. On Sunday mornings, Adelaide Snyder would ring a bell and all the children would come over to the Snyders’ porch for Bible study.
There were dunes on the land side, with wild blueberry bushes for Sunday pancakes and the occasional tick or chigger. Cardboard boxes became sand sleds to slide down the dunes. But the dunes disappeared in March 1962, with the infamous Ash Wednesday storm, which sent 40-foot waves onto Sandbridge with the high tide. All the oceanfront homes were demolished or damaged beyond reckoning. Adelaide remembers coming down with her husband and father, stopping at the Atwood farm to borrow a truck. “My father’s house was back two lots from the ocean and it was OK, but our house was leaning over. We said we’d come back the next day, but nothing was there but a few mattresses.”
“Thank goodness for the Ash Wednesday storm!” says Frank Bilisoly, Indie’s husband and longtime summer resident. “That got the pilings going. After the storm, you couldn’t get insurance unless you built on pilings.” The Snyders were able to rebuild with insurance because they found their blown-off roof intact nearby, proving that the primary damage came from wind. “You couldn’t get money if it was just water damage. Even today, we don’t have anything on the piling level,” Adelaide says. They posted a sign that said “Down but not out” and called their new house Phoenix, with a stylized bird by the front door.
Things changed after the storm; the disaster became a catalyst for growth. All but five cottages were rebuilt. The storm brought people down to see the damage, and they, too, fell in love with the remote beach community and plopped down money to buy lots and build. Skeptics joked that if you want an oceanfront lot in Sandbridge, buy across the street and wait five years. But property values continued to climb despite the storm.
In 1964, the ocean road was extended south and new oceanfront lots were plotted. Kabler, Meredith and others bought land along the bay to build waterfront homes on the west side of the sand strip. Kabler reshaped the marshy shoreline into canals and spaced out lots. The prime ones had glowing sunset views across the shallow bay.
By 1966, Sandbridge had 175 houses, 225 building sites and 720 people. Today, 40 years later, Sandbridge is a mixed community. About half the houses are occupied by year-round residents and longtime summer families, and half are rentals. Two condominium projects, one at the end of Sandbridge Road and the other at the far south end adjacent to the public park, have changed the skyline utterly. Huge homes with 8, 9, 10 bedrooms and baths—the mini-hotels—are taking over. A swimming pool is the new “must-have” amenity, as much a part of the scene as pilings in the ’60s.
Rentals are big business. Everything you need can be rented: surfboards, linens, bikes, chairs and umbrellas. You can even have the kitchen stocked with food or hire a caterer. Shopping centers packed with national chains, grocery stores and restaurants are only 15 minutes away. Some of the twists in the road are being straightened and widened.
And the beach, thanks to sand replenishment, is wide once more. The dunes are healthy and covered with sea oats. Families still come for that dose of summer penicillin, for carefree days in the salty air, if only for a week or two. There are lots of small children on the beach. “Harvey Lindsay Sr. would love it,” says Frank Bilisoly. Sandbridge, after all, was always meant to be a family beach.