Imagine going to the same summer camp with the same group of “kids” for fifty years. Some of the long-time participants at the Burkeville Lodge for the Blind certainly can. Hilda Baughan, now ninety-six years old was in the first group through the door on June 6, 1960, when Burkeville Lodge opened. She is still at the Lodge almost every time the doors open, to everyone’s delight. Burkeville Lodge is much more than a resort geared for people with visual impairment. Over the years it has become as familiar to its guests as their own homes, and as easy to navigate. The people who gather here again and again have become extended family.
Ann Eliza Alexander, Dot Woolcott, and Lydia Blake met as six-year-olds at the Virginia School for the Blind in Staunton. Now at eighty-four they room together at Burkeville Lodge for events held throughout the year. Burkeville Lodge’s golden anniversary makes us all appreciate the continuity that has built a strong and loving community.
Mr. L. L. Watts was the first commissioner of the Virginia Commission for the Blind, now known as the Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired. He held that post for many years, and during his tenure the idea of a vacation spot adapted for the blind was conceived. Many personal friends of Mr. Watts became financial patrons of the lodge, most notably Eleanor Frye, a well-known teacher of dance in Richmond, and Garland Hood, a prominent florist. Eddie Schmidt, a Richmond Host Lion, gave an interest-free loan to buy the property that has evolved into Burkeville Lodge today.
The Lodge was originally called the Vacation Cottage for the Blind. The land, with the original cottage and the pool already built, was bought from a Mr. Bradshaw by the Virginia Association of Workers for the Blind, as it was called in the late 1950′s when the Lodge was purchased. The same group was originally formed in 1919 as the Virginia Commission for the Blind.
That first summer, five decades ago, only eight guests could be accommodated and only female guests were allowed. The very first group consisted of Hilda Baughan, Bernice James, Virginia Diggs, Phyllis Green, Katherine Virts, Phyllis Lawrence, and Lola Wimbish. These hardy pioneers sat in the cottage and talked long into the night without air conditioning or ceiling fans.
For the first two years the cottage was the only building, and all meals were prepared and eaten in the kitchen. The third year Mr. Watts put electricity and running water into an old white farmhouse that was on the property. He added a screen porch onto it, which was the spot for many a good chat.
The pool was the main attraction in those early days. There was no fence around the pool back then. Hilda reports that Bernice James fell in wearing her church clothes and hat and Thelma Biddle, a professor at VCU fell in backwards. No casualties were reported. The pool was originally lit underwater, but a lightening strike shorted out the lights, which have never been repaired. Ed Phillips started hiring lifeguards. The previous system involved a hook and a rope. Sounds like a good decision on Mr. Phillips part. After a couple of years, a piano and organ were donated and singing and dancing came to Burkeville Lodge.
The first caretaker and cook, Mr. and Mrs. Crouch lived in the cottage. They were replaced by Mr. and Mrs. Ward, who were called Pop and Reenie. The Wards worked at the Lodge for about ten years while living in their own home in Burkeville. This freed up space for more blind people to come and enjoy the Lodge. The Wards had twelve children who were a pleasure to the guests. One of those children, Dick Ward, married Betty Burnett who is the daughter of long-time Burkevillians, George and Ruth Ann Burnett.
In 1963 when men became regular guests at Burkeville Lodge, the pond became a popular place for fishing and paddleboats were the hot new thing. At first, there was a wire through the middle of the pond, and a farmer watered his cattle on one side. A contractor was hired to build a pier, which was later enlarged. The final version was built by Wally Williamson. The walking trail around the pond was built in 2001.
In those early years there were swings in the backyard near the pool and a breezeway leading from the cottage to the pool. There was a double garage next to the breezeway where Hilda says “a lot of courting went on.” That area was enclosed to form a bedroom which is now Mickey Atkins room.
After the Wards left, the Ivy’s became the caretaker/cook duo for about two years. When they left, there was a steady stream of short-timers in the job. The next pair to stay long enough to make an impression was the Watts. They were retired and had formerly owned a restaurant in Northern Virginia.
In the late 1970′s the kitchen and dining room were moved into the former farmhouse, giving more room to the women in the cottage. In the early 1980′s the white farmhouse was condemned and a new kitchen and dining room were built at that point, with dormitories attached. The men and women were separated into dormitories which split the married couples, but did allow more people to come and enjoy the lodge.
For many years the Lodge was only open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. A group from Northern Virginia would come one month and from Richmond another month. For many years it was like homecoming. People would meet who went to school together and then not see each other until the next summer.
From 1985 to 1991 Ed Phillips and his wife ran the lodge. Mr. Phillips was the President of VAWB. He donated the fountain on the lawn in honor of his wife Frieda. The ashes of Frieda’s dog, Midge, are buried beneath the fountain. Ed Phillips’ own ashes were scattered at the edge of the stand of pines. Between 1986 and 1990 the building which houses rooms 5 through 12 was completed. This building is referred to as the Phillips building. Each room has a bath and the married couples were reunited.
In the Phillips building many of the rooms were financed by donations and dedicated to people important to us at the Lodge:
- Room three is dedicated to Bruce Branham who ran a concession stand at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and was tireless in presenting Burkeville Lodge’s cause to Lions Clubs all over the state.
- Room four is dedicated to Jack Stamper, a member of the Burkeville/Crewe Lions. He is still very active in promoting the Lodge; in fact, he is helping with our anniversary celebration. His Lion’s Club meets at the Lodge twice a month.
- Room seven is named for Bill Smith, who came to the Lodge for many years. He met and married his wife Cora at the Lodge. He was also a generous donor.
- Room eight was donated by Don Kanuk in memory of his dear friend Stuart Baber, who was also dear to many others at the Lodge. It was originally a much larger room but was later divided to create room 9.
- Room nine was donated by Lt. Col. James R. Dawley. His wife asked that it be named in his honor as he passed away before the renovations were completed. Lt. Col. Dawley was physically disabled and room nine is fitted for wheelchair accessibility.
- Room ten was given by George and Ruth Ann Burnett in honor of Anne Diggs who was the secretary and bookkeeper of the VAWB, and Virginia Diggs who was a rehabilitation teacher. These two ladies were not related to one another.
- The dining room is named for Lion Louis Bridgeforth, the contractor who built it.
Our gazebo was built and dedicated in 1986. It was financed by Stella Virts and built by the Hopewell Lions Club in honor of Clifton Virts. Mr. Virts was the first blind graduate of UVA Law School and a long-time Maryland legislator. The ramp on the gazebo was built by Wally Williamson to accommodate Stuart Baber’s wheelchair. That gazebo is the first thing that comes into view at Burkeville Lodge. It is our symbol and focal point. There are always good stories being told and interesting opinions being offered at the gazebo. Our more prolific raconteurs, like Richard Stone and Woody Barry, hold forth long into the night.
The last major acquisition for the Lodge was the Payne house. It was bought by the Association in 1995 and is primarily used for overflow housing or larger groups who want to stay together. Once again, Wally Williamson’s skills were put to work building an additional pier near the Payne House. This project was financed by Joe Rogers.
Also, in 1995 a separate house was built for a caretaker/groundskeeper. Harold Wagstaff is the only one to have lived there, and he is still on the job. One of his duties is to maintain the pool. Ironically, Pop Ward spent a lot of time chasing a young Harold Wagstaff out of the pool, when no guests were at the Lodge.
In 1994 Burkeville Lodge found its “jewel” as Hilda has named her. Betty Meredith was hired to keep the books and manage the office of the VAWB, but she redefined her job to include everything from cooking and transportation, to laundry and yard work. Betty has put an indelible stamp on the Burkeville Lodge, and she means a great deal to all the “regulars.”
Betty is tireless and manages to keep her great sense of humor through any form of chaos. She has vastly expanded the calendar of events at the Lodge and made it a year-round affair. We now have parties and events for New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, Spring Fling in March, Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day, Halloween, and Christmas. Betty never fails to decorate creatively for every holiday. She hires musicians to play for our functions. Betty always provides the most delicious food (and even homemade ice cream). Her very sweet sister, Mary Garter, sometimes helps her out, and she is a dear as well.
A big part of the history of Burkeville Lodge is our relationship with Lions Clubs throughout Virginia. The many donations of time, labor, and financial help from the Lions have been essential to us. Many of the people who frequently stay at Burkeville Lodge are Lions themselves. Some of the Lions Clubs who have helped us in the last five decades are: The Burkeville Crewe Lions, the Richmond Host Lions, Powhatan Lions, The 24B Lions Clubs, South Hill, South Boston, Hampton Phoebus, BAM Lions, Danville Host, Farmville, Highland Springs/Sandston, Richmond James River Lions, and the Charlottesville Lions among others. We appreciate you all.
The Richmond Host Lions sponsor an annual Christmas party for the blind, which began in 1930. Starting in 1930, only female guests received a gift of cash. This was later changed to wrapped gifts and the men were included. This party is not exactly tied to the history of Burkeville Lodge, but it is attended and appreciated by many who are guests at Burkeville Lodge, and an example of the good work of the Lions. We wouldn’t be Burkeville Lodge as we know it today without the generosity and service of all the participating Lions Clubs.
Burkeville Lodge is guided by a dedicated Board of Trustees. Among the most faithful and long-serving board members are Ralph MacMillan, Carlton Wingfield, George Burnett, and Christie White Barringer. The Lodge is indebted to them for their loyal service over the years.
The Lodge also helps to sustain itself with semi-annual yard sales and an annual silent auction. These have been very successful through the years. The yard sales are captained by Mary Niklewski and Charlene Rogers. They deal with the setup and all the items other than clothing. They price, arrange, and collect for all the donations, with the help of their hard working husbands, Nik and Joe. Teresa Smith is in charge of the crew who sorts and sells the clothing and accessories. The bake sale is run by Betty Williamson.
The silent auction is also run by Betty Williamson. She secures the donations and publicizes the event. The silent auction is a relatively recent and very successful endeavor.
Both the yard sales and the silent auction have been generously supported by the residents of Burkeville and the surrounding area. Local merchants have donated gift certificates and items for the silent auction, and the people have come in good numbers to be our customers and help us raise money. It’s a wonderful thing, for the Lodge is located in a town of community-spirited people who are just downright nice. Our neighbors in Burkeville have a part in our history too!
Everyone at Burkeville Lodge contributes in his or her own way. Many of the people at the Lodge have musical talent and are able to entertain us. Woody Barry and Carolyn Bowling are well-known musicians with their own bands. Both of their bands will be playing for our 50th Anniversary Celebration. Dot Woolcott, Judy Duncan, and Darryl Eaton are wonderful on the piano and organ and often play after meals, particular hymns after Sunday breakfast. An amazing number of people can sing well.
Another talent essential to the Lodge is administration and organization. George Burnett, John Pleasants, Don Kanuk, Charlene Rogers, and our current president, Art Tyson all are prime contributors in this area. They are likely to be chairman, officers, and committee members. Wynn Meredith is our treasurer and also a fundraiser. He heads the effort to sell baking nuts to support the Lodge and has been very successful.
One of the many pleasures at the Lodge is an extensive collection of audio books, and players which have been collected and may be borrowed. Sandy Gryskiewicz, or as Jane Saunders calls her, “Marian the librarian,” has labeled and maintained them. Her contribution is much appreciated as well.
For many years Mickey Atkins has been Betty’s assistant with bookkeeping, meals, passing out linens, and many other things. Maybe that’s why everyone was willing to give up that “courting
garage” to build her a room. It wouldn’t be Burkeville Lodge without Mickey.
Many longtime Lodge goers love it so much that they have involved their family and friends who are now dedicated to the Lodge as well. Hilda Baughan has given us Happy and Ruth Thompson and her son Roger Wooldridge and his wife Margaret. All four of them have been so kind and helpful. Jane and Joe Saunders are twenty-year veterans of the Lodge. They have brought in new people as well: Evelyn Edwards bringing her famous pound cake, Sarah Mateyka with her husband Eddie sharing his lovely voice, and Ruth Rankin offering transportation and other assistance.
Wally and Betty Williamson and Martha Jenkins are our “townie” members. It’s great to have them build a bridge for us into the community. They do a wonderful job of involving their neighbors and church friends in the Lodge. Not to mention that they are also hard workers and lovely people.
Michael and Julie Triplett, Johnathan, Renee, and Kristi Hudson are among our newest and youngest members. It’s a good thing to get some fresh energy at Burkeville Lodge. Michael and Julie are already involved in committee work and Johnathan is a great help at the yard sales.
There is not one single person at the Lodge who doesn’t make a difference. Every one makes a unique contribution to the camaraderie and spirit of Burkeville Lodge. Everyone gives freely of their time and talents.
During its fifty-year history, three couples have met at Burkeville Lodge and married. They are Betty Burnett and Dick Ward, Mason Armistand and Claudia Wilson, and Bill and Cora Smith. Their happiness is a great part of our history. Of course, as fifty years have passed we have also suffered the loss of people who were very important to the Lodge and the people who love it. Those people are: August Andrews, Gloria Love, Charlene Lacey, Bernice James, Virginia Diggs, Charlene Hawkins, Phyllis Green, Katherine Virts, Phyllis Lawrence, Lola Wimbish, Ed and Frieda Phillips, Ruth Ann Burnett, Bill and Cora Smith, Ron Edwards, Bruce and Irene Branham, Stuart Baber, Clifton Virts, Garland Nicely, Bob and Olive Carpenter, Charlie Wooldridge, Claude Barfield, Will Stone, and Kathy Pleasants. They will always be remembered at Burkeville Lodge.
At this Golden Anniversary, Burkeville Lodge is a far different place than it was on June 6, 1960. Burkeville Lodge has grown and evolved to accommodate more people, and has provided many more opportunities and entertainment. In those first summers, that small group of ladies enjoyed chatting in the heat and walking around Burkeville making the dogs bark. Now people are using an accessible computer and software, reading the latest mysteries from our library, fishing, paddle boating, and enjoying live music, among many other activities.
Despite the changes, the core spirit of the place is intact. Burkeville Lodge has always been a warm community of people who have a great time together and support one another. People come from North Carolina and Pennsylvania to visit. In the course of fifty years the Lodge has become a big part of our lives. It will continue to endure, thrive and work its magic for many more decades to come. Happy Golden Anniversary, Burkeville Lodge!
Burkeville Lodge is available to the public to rent for retreats and family reunions. For more
information or questions visit the website: www.vawb.org or call Betty Meredith at (804) 275-7300.