It’s summer in pre-World War II Virginia, and life is hot and easy.
Where do you go to escape the heat?
The popular swimming hole just off US Route One between Richmond and Petersburg, it was the most refreshing refuge from the humid and sweltering dog days west of the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. It was a mecca for locals seeking a few hours of relief for the injured and a major vacation destination for tourists from across the state. People were drawn to its huge sandy beach, water slides, high diving board where the girls giggled to watch the boys show, and the adjacent ballroom that filled the night air with tunes from Big Band. Everyone who entered the bathhouse was given a distinctive pin, which they later used to retrieve their clothes after swimming. Today, brass pins are prized by many veterans who wear them as lapel decorations.
Tommy Crump, whose parents bought the lake and surrounding cabins after working for several years for RD Moore, the original owner, recalls hundreds of families from as far away as North Carolina returning year after year. People driving from the north to Florida soon realized that it was the ideal stop for the night both on the way there and back. For the locals, Moore’s Lake was the place to be and be seen. It was inevitable that sunny afternoons and moonlit nights were responsible for countless romances. Many flourished in marriage.
The stout brick and stone cottages Moore built in 1929 were the epitome of luxury when George and Lena Crump took over the business. They quickly modernized them further by adding bathrooms. As the Depression abated and tourists clamored for their comforts and jungle surroundings, they built more cabins throughout the fragrant woods until they reached 38. By 1941, they had erected a restaurant and their own comfortable brick home on the the property.
When World War II broke out and Camp Lee in nearby Petersburg was reactivated (it was renamed Fort Lee in 1950), some of the servicemen stationed there brought their families and housed them in cabins on Moore’s Lake. Several of his wives found work as waitresses at the busy restaurant that served three meals a day to lodge guests, local residents and defense workers commuting to jobs at nearby military installations. To defray the costs, the eldest sons of service families staying there contributed to the war effort by making themselves useful as busboys, dishwashers, gardeners, and lifeguards.
Tommy Crump, now 68, was a little boy then. He was closely supervised by a babysitter as he rode his trike along the picturesque lanes to claim a tasty treat from the kitchen of the restaurant serving guests at Moore’s Brick Cottages and Moore’s Lake. Growing up in the spacious home his parents built, he learned to swim in the lake and to appreciate the beauty and unique setting of the property. It was natural that he never strayed, but he decided to stay and raise his own children there.
In 1970, he and his wife bought the cabins, the adjacent gas station, and the restaurant. Renamed Sylvester’s, the restaurant was destined to become the most popular for miles around. Along with a delectable rib dinner that drew crowds, the menu featured succulent seafood, savory soups, croissant-wiches, stuffed potatoes and delicious homemade desserts, including a double chocolate silk cake and a hot fruitcake.
Moore’s Brick Cottages prospered until the construction of nearby Interstate 95 lured cars and trucks away from the venerable Jefferson Davis Highway, cementing the fate of the operation. With the advent of high-speed highways across the country, families discovered the allure of the open road. No longer content with vacationing just a short drive from home, tourists traveled from Boston to Miami in a fraction of the time it would take to travel the outdated two-lane highway. As large motels and hotels sprang up along the interstate to serve long-distance travelers, it wasn’t long before Moore’s Brick Cottages became redundant. The buildings fell into disrepair and those who came to swim took their chances without a lifeguard on duty. Today, the lake is little more than a neglected neighborhood swimming hole.
Sylvester’s, however, continued to thrive. It served a loyal local clientele until December 2004 when Tommy Crump sold the property to a developer. The office park and retail businesses springing up on the razed land will serve the City of Chester. Tommy watched through tearful eyes as all but two of the quaint cabins were demolished and their rubble used as parking lot fill.
“I feel an obligation to save these last two as part of the story,” he says. “I’m keeping one for myself and moving it to my property along the James River. I hope someone, or some interested organization, will take the other one and keep it for posterity.”
With no takers yet, time is running out. Soon, only the ghosts of the halcyon days of the past will haunt the property that is still protected by gigantic, scented trees waiting to be destroyed in the name of progress.