What White Stone Beach was like
White Stone Beach was one of those charmed places in time, never to be forgotten by those who were there. It was a place for learning to swim; where teenagers danced the night away to the sound of generational music—from the Big Bands of the 1920s and 30s to the Dynatones of the 1960s; and where puppy love and real love often touched the hearts of young girls and boys. Everyone in the community on both sides of the Rappahannock River knew of White Stone Beach and its part in their river summertime experience. During the steamboat era, the steamers landed at White Stone Wharf and vacationers came from far away. Through the Depression and World War II and beyond, it was a constant in the world of turmoil. The beach was a place to go where the river, sand and salty air could for the moment wash away thoughts of the crisis in the world around us. The food was good. The music was good. The water was clear of stinging nettles. Life was good at the beach. Since the beach closed in the late 1960s and went away, memories are all that’s left—but at least we have the memories!
by Larry Chowning
At the turn of the 20th century, three prominent residents of White Stone, Dr. B.H. Hubbard,. W.T. James and George Smith partnered to establish what would become White Stone Beach.
They set out to build a resort to boost the economy of the area. Dr. Hubbard and Smith worked diligently to build the resort while James developed what would become White Stone steamboat wharf and a menhaden factory. Together they petitioned the United Post Office Department in Washington, D.C., to establish a post office there and in 1911 the community of Taft, officially became a post office site.
Dr. Hubbard and James were Republicans in Lancaster, a heavy Democratic county. They requested the post office be named after Republican president William Howard Taft.
In 1916 the beachfront property and menhaden plant were sold to William H. Culver and his wife, Grace Spooner Culver, and they transformed White Stone Beach into a destination for thousands of visitors and guests from all over the state and beyond.
Under the Culvers’ stewardship, the hotel, which had been built on the bluff overlooking the river in 1908, became packed with visitors. They built 13 cottages on piers by the water’s edge. The factory was converted into a dance pavilion.
Over the water they built a restaurant where the cuisine was the pride of the region. The business thrived during the steamboat era as families riding the steamers from Baltimore annually booked a week at the resort. After the steamers stopped in 1937, the resort depended more on local dollars to keep it going.
The Culvers played up Saturday dance night that catered to locals. During the big band era, bands came from large cities to play in the pavilion. Into the mid-1960s, when rock-and-roll came into its own, White Stone Beach rocked with the sounds of the “Fabulous Dynatones,” an eight piece all-black band that played on Saturday nights weekly during the summer to all-white audiences.
Mr. Culver died in 1950 and his wife continued to operate the resort with her son and daughter-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert Arthur Culver. Mrs. Culver died in 1968 leaving the resort to her son and daughter-in-law. By then, times had changed, campgrounds and other recreational facilities had changed the dynamics of vacationing.
The hotel, cottages and pavilion all closed and White Stone Beach passed away—except in the memories of the people who over the years found joy and fun in a day spent at the beach.
Much of this history came from the wonderful story written by Henry Lane Hull in 1992 when it appeared in an annual report of the Bank of Lancaster.
A summer of wonderful memories
This story first appeared in the 2005 Vintage Years special section, a supplement to the Southside Sentinel and Rappahannock Record.
by Tom Hardin
White Stone Beach was a popular destination for Middlesex County residents. The problem was “how to get there.”
The Norris Bridge was not completed until 1957, so the quickest way for Middlesex residents to enjoy the beach party was to travel by water.
“If you wanted to go to White Stone for a dance you’d ask your daddy, ‘Can I borrow the boat?’ ” said Frances Daniel who was 88 years old in 2005. “A bunch of us would chip in 25 to 50 cents for gas and off we’d go. We sang songs going over and sang songs coming back. Those were good times in those days.”
Mrs. Daniel vividly remembers White Stone Beach because she worked there in the summer of 1935. As a 17-year-old high school junior, she ran the beer and soda bar and shared a room on the beach with a maid.
“I made $7 a week plus room and board, and I couldn’t have been happier. It was a great summer,” said Mrs. Daniel, who was Frances Rowe at the time and lived directly across the Rappahannock River at Regent.
“There was nothing for anyone to do in those days so I wrote Mr. (William H.) Culver about hiring me for a summer job, and I got one,” she said.
Mrs. Daniel said young people would pile into fishing party boats for the short trip to White Stone Beach and the popular dances, especially those on Sundays. Others took the ferry, which ran from Topping to Cherry Point in Lancaster on certain days and hours of the week.
The beach had a large pier and “boats would come in from up and down the river and tie up there for big dances,” she said.
The Culver family was from New York and they owned the beach facilities for many years. “Mr. and Mrs. Culver were like a mother and father to me. They were wonderful people.”
Mrs. Daniel vividly remembers White Stone Beach of the mid-1930s. There was a permanent structure that opened up to the water, boardwalk, pavilion, rooms on the beach and a swimming area netted off from the rest of the river “so the nettles wouldn’t get you.”
On the hill above the beach was a hotel where salesmen would stay. Mr. Culver lived in the hotel except in the summer when he moved into one of the beach rooms.
Mrs. Daniel worked at the resort during prohibition and the depression. “The odd-job man was a bootlegger. Back then everybody had to have a drink. People would drink beer and talk or dance. I remember carrying eight or nine bottles of beer at a time to a table, and we never had any problem with the police.
“As far as money goes, I guess it’s like it is today,” she said. “Some had it and some didn’t. If you had it, you spent it.”
The big band sound was in full swing and Mrs. Daniel especially remembers the “Don Warner Band” of Richmond. “There was a jukebox on the dance floor for when the bands weren’t playing or during the week. It was a beautiful dance floor,” she said.
The beach offered Sunday buffets that featured “a variety of seafood, chicken, roast, biscuits, nice salads and wonderful desserts. We had a great cook who was black,” said Mrs. Daniel.
She remembers visitors coming from big towns from all over the east to enjoy the beach festivities. “Couples would walk down the boardwalk arm-in-arm, rent bathing suits and go swimming, dip for crabs, and dance the night away. It was just a wonderful time.”
The following is an excerpt from the book “When Dabba Was Young: Growing up In a Fine Little Town Called Kilmarnock” by Catherine Blake Hathaway (1912-1995). It was published in 1999 by the Kilmarnock Museum Inc. Copies of the book are still available at the museum, 76 N. Main Street, Kilmarnock. Phone (804) 436-9100 for more information.
In Chapter VII titled “Fun Things,” Hathaway has a vivid recollection of what White Stone Beach was like in the 1920s and 30s. “At the top of the hill, on a beautiful site overlooking the river, was White Stone Beach Hotel, a resort hotel frequented by guests who came on the steamers from Baltimore,” she wrote.
“There was a bathhouse on the beach, built for the use of the hotel guests. The public was allowed to use it at no charge. This is where we dressed when we went bathing. I guess that thing caused more giggling and hilarity than anything which I can remember of the old days. It was a shed-like affair with two doors but no windows and was as dark as pitch inside. The reason for the two doors, but no windows, was the partition in the center of the building which separated male and female. It is possible that the whole building contained knotholes, but it would seem that whoever built it selected the knottiest boards possible for the partition. I don’t know how we ever got to the river because the boys spent their time poking out the knotholes and the girls spent their time plugging them up with one thing and another.
“. . . In this bikini age I think it unlikely that anyone would bother to look through a knothole. In the teens of the 20th century, young ladies suits consisted of a dress to the knees with bloomers underneath, long stockings and bathing shoes.
“Around the walls of the bathhouse there were rusty nails on which to hang clothes. Someone had to hold the door just barely cracked so that it was possible to have light enough to dress and undress.
“In the early 1920s Mr. and Mrs. W. H. Culver moved to White Stone from New York City and bought the White Stone Beach Hotel, the Taft Store and the Taft Canning Factory, converting the latter into a resort pavilion. All of the buildings at the beach had previously been painted with red paint containing oakum and fish oil—which smelled to high heaven when first applied—were now painted white and trimmed with green. Individual bath lockers were built down the length of the west side of the pavilion. A sizable dance floor with an orchestra dais was built in the center of the building. Individual tables and benches encircled the dance floor, nightclub style. Rows of long benches ran the length of the building on either side.
“At the river end of the pavilion there was a long soda fountain with counters and stools. Extending from the fountain out over the water the Culvers built a large porch. There were build-on benches enclosing the porch, rocking chairs in a row facing the water, and ice cream tables and chairs to which service was provided to the fountain. Connected to the east end of the large porch, the Culvers built a dining room to serve guests who occupied the long row of cottages which were built west of the pavilion. The cottages were connected to the porch by a boardwalk. Straight out from the porch ran the wharf which ended with an L prong projecting to the east.
“A large portion of the river on the water on the west side of the wharf was enclosed with a net from shore to wharf end. There was a sliding board and access ladder in the shallow end and a cork rope designating the sections for swimmers and non-swimmers. The prong from the wharf was built primarily for tying up vessels. People came from their summer homes to take advantage of swimming in the net—a glorious space uninhabited by sea nettles. Mr. Jim Rew tended the net daily, searching for any nettle that might have found its way into the swimming area.
“The Culvers rented skiffs which they kept moored there and every Thursday night was the big dance night at the beach with orchestras from Richmond.”
These years in the 1920s and 30s as recorded by Hathaway were boom years at the beach. The decline of the steamboat created changes, but the beach survived into the 1960s when it closed about 1968.