Friday, January 28th, 2022

Shopper Client Stories


Where history, commerce, and community blend beautifully

by Rob Lauer

Mention Great Bridge and many Hampton Roads residents will think of the drawbridge that daily allows 35,000 vehicles traveling along Battlefield Blvd to cross the Intracoastal Waterway. A common assumption is that this marvel of modern technology-constructed in 2004 by the Army Corps of Engineers and preceded in 1943 by a two-lane swing bridge-is the landmark from which this area of Chesapeake gets its name.

But over 200 years before the completion of the Intracoastal Waterway, there was, along the site of present-day Battlefield Boulevard, a village known as Great Bridge.

"Two hundred and fifty years ago, this road was the only land route from North Carolina to Norfolk," Elizabeth Goodwin, Executive Director of The Great Bridge Battlefield and Waterways History Museum, explains. "The waterway and draw bridge weren't here at that time. The original bridge was a wooden structure about a block north, where Battlefield Boulevard now crosses the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River. Because the Intracoastal Waterway now gets so much attention, most people drive over the original bridge's site without even noticing it."

Due to extraordinary political events in 1775, Great Bridge became the site of a pivotal early battle of the American Revolutionary War.

In April 1775, following the Battle of Concord in Massachusetts, a nervous Lord Dunmore-the royal governor of Virginia-ordered British forces to remove the gunpowder from Williamsburg's storehouse. A confrontation between royal and colonial militia forces ensued. The incident ended without violence, but Dunmore left Williamsburg in June 1775 and placed his family aboard a British Navy ship docked at Norfolk.

The British military stationed in Norfolk saw the road going through Great Bridge as essential in getting needed supplies from the south. In December 1775, Dunmore sought to protect this supply line from the south by fortifying the bridge across the Elizabeth River in the village of Great Bridge. A small stockade, Fort Murray, was built on the Norfolk side of the bridge, armed with two cannons and between 40 and 80 men.

In response, Virginia's assembly ordered its militia troops to march on Norfolk. The Second Virginia Regiment advanced toward Great Bridge with 100 riflemen from the Culpeper Minutemen. On December 2, they set up a camp south of the bridge across from the British fort. More Patriots joined the effort. By December 9, when the British attacked, the militia had grown to nearly 900 men.

The Patriots won the Battle of Great Bridge in a mere 30 minutes. Six months later, inspired by the victory, the Virginia Convention in Williamsburg sent a proposal to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia stating, "these colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states." That proposal resulted in the writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence in July 1776.

Despite its pivotal early role in the Revolutionary War, after the United States won independence, daily life in the village of Great Bridge continued quietly.

A small group of local Methodists (then a tiny new religious movement) had been meeting in the small frame house of Great Bridge resident Daniel Cutherell since 1770. There they would hold Methodism classes and worship services complete with lively singing. Eventually, they built a small meeting house near Daniel's property. The church became known as Oak Grove Methodist.

Forty years later, the meeting house was moved by mules, on rollers made of logs, from its original location to a parcel of land, less than a mile away, at what is now the busy intersection of Battlefield Boulevard and Kempsville Road.  Around 1850, a new Oak Grove Methodist Church was built on the site, and this is the same structure that thousands of drivers pass daily.

Just down the road from the church, the Albemarle and Chesapeake canal-part of the Intracoastal Waterway-was constructed in 1859 with a new bridge built over it. The bridge was short-lived. When the Civil War erupted two years later, the bridge was destroyed.

"During the Civil War, the Union Army took control of the Oak Grove Methodist Church and used it as a hospital," church lay leader Bette Price explains. "The pews were torn out to make way for hospital beds, and then they were burned in the center of the room to warm the building. If you look up, you can still see the lines where they cut a hole in the ceiling for the smoke from the fire to rise through." If visitors to the church's historic sanctuary glance upward, they will see the circular outline of the hole in the ceiling.

Following the Civil War, the bridge crossing the canal was restored, as were the gentle rhythms of rural life in Great Bridge.

When the Intracoastal Water Way was completed in the 1940s, with a new swing bridge erected across the canal in 1943, Great Bridge saw an increase of nautical traffic as boaters could now navigate an inland route connecting the Gulf Coast of Texas to Maine. Travelers along Battlefield Boulevard soon became accustomed to stopping for bridge lifts as vessels of all types sailed through the canal.

200 years before the completion of the Intracoastal Waterway,
there was, along the site of
present-day Battlefield Boulevard,
a village known as Great Bridge

Following World War II, life began to change in Great Bridge. Suburbs and housing developments began to appear across the entire Hampton Roads region to accommodate an influx of military families and the overall population surge due to the Baby Boom of the 1940s and 50s. This same period saw an uptick in vacation travel to North Carolina's Outer Banks: Battlefield Boulevard was the quickest, most direct route there. With the growing population and increase in traffic, the road became a prime location for commerce.

Today Great Bridge is a central hub of Chesapeake business and municipal life. Chesapeake's City Hall is in the area, as is Chesapeake General Hospital and a diverse array of new and established businesses. Many are small, locally owned businesses, offering unique goods and services that attract customers from across Hampton Roads.
Great Bridge Frame and Art has been serving the entire Hampton Roads community since 1978. Owner and master craftsman Dave Reifel promises his customers: "If you want something presented on your wall in a way that highlights its uniqueness and beauty, I can put a frame around it. I really love the challenge of creating a frame where the piece takes center stage, and the mats and frame complement its expression."

The woodworking and glass-cutting skills that Dave offers in Great Bridge were honed 40 years ago when he lived in New York."The process of framing a piece is something I continue to enjoy even after all these years," he says. "Again, the challenge is to add to the presentation without taking any interest away from the piece itself. I do my best to find out what my customers really want, and then use my skill and knowledge to ensure their ultimate satisfaction."

Satisfying customers was the entire reason that Tony Johnson and Jeff Jechura founded their Great Bridge-based business-Family Flooring. After years of working for other companies, they saw opportunities for better customer service. They envisioned Family Flooring as a local family-owned business that would give the community more beautiful homes and offices. Sixteen years later, that concept still influences every decision Jeff and Tony make.

"For many customers, the first visit to our showroom is to discover the huge variety of products in our selection," Tony Johnson, co-owner, observes. "We made a decision when we began not to offer low-end products that we knew would not stand the test of time. We enjoy getting to know a customer's individual needs and offering high-quality products guaranteed to meet those needs. Helping families feel more comfortable in and proud of their home is why we started this business."

When it comes to high-quality, one needn't look any farther than Long Jewelers in Great Bridge. Steve Long-the plainspoken, no-nonsense owner-set out thirty years ago to make the upper echelons of the diamond market directly accessible to local customers. No endless stream of middlemen, no confusing jargon, and, most importantly, no settling for whatever diamonds just happen to be available. Instead, Steve takes annual trips to Antwerp in northern Belgium-the fabled city where the art of modern diamond cutting was introduced. With access to the most beautiful gems on earth, Steve returns with pitch-perfect diamonds that are sure to win the praise of his customers. He insists that seeing the face of a young newlywed light up with joy more than compensates for the bustling negotiations in Belgium.

"It's my great privilege to help them make my customers' dreams come true," Steve says. "I go to Antwerp and negotiate with their best interests in mind and bring back to them a diamond with a story. I've done this for many years now, and I'm proud to say my customers are never disappointed."

Esprit Decor Home Furnishings is another Great Bridge area business that has been satisfying Hampton Roads customers for 38 years. This award-winning, locally owned, family-run furniture store offers name-brand furniture, mattresses, and one-on-one design services. With an enormous range of products and design styles to cater to all types of renovation projects, Esprit stocks the big brand names that customers crave as well as the hottest trending products and styles. As a result, Esprit attracts loyal customers from across the entire region-from the Peninsula to the oceanfront to northeastern North Carolina.

"Our business is relationship-based," co-owner Ricky Christian says with a smile. "It's about listening to the customer to find out what they need and then helping them find it."

Sometimes people need help in finding the perfect way to express their feelings to a loved one. One long-time Great Bridge business has been helping people do that for 42 years. In 1979, former nurse Connie Huston Tucker bought a tiny gift shop in Great Bridge Shopping Center. Little could she have known that Ann's Hallmark Gold Crown Store would become a revered Great Bridge landmark decades later.

By consistently providing high-quality products and heartfelt neighborly service, Ann's Hallmark has a loyal following. It outgrew its first retail space and then its second, finally landing in a spacious location, still in Great Bridge Shopping Center, where the children and grandchildren of its earliest customers now come to shop. Connie's daughter Terrie Walsh watched through the years as their commitment to quality and service continued to bring success. When she moved into ownership in 1999, she promised her mother that this commitment would never change.

"We have generations of local families who've come to depend on us," Terrie says. "When they need a gift or card for a life event, this is where they turn. We feel a huge responsibility to make sure that we take care of them."

Last but not least, in November of 1981, a magazine entitled The Great Bridge Shopper was first delieverd to homes throughout the community. That magazine, today known simply as The Shopper, is now delivered to communities across Southside Hampton Roads. Subtitled "Your Hometown Magazine," The Shopper is in its 41st year of introducing its tens of thousands of monthly readers to the individuals and families behind the businesses in their communities.
Community spirit. Taking care of others. One generation connecting the next. A present and future that maintain their links to the past. For over 240 years, these values have been central to life in Great Bridge-a place where history, commerce, and community blend beautifully.

The Shopper

133 Kempsville Road
Chesapeake, VA 23320