It's summer in pre-World War II Virginia and the livin 'is easy – and hot as blazes.
Where do you go to escape the heat?
The popular swimming hole right off US Route One between Richmond and Petersburg, was the most refreshing refuge from humidity and sweltering dog days west of Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. It was a mecca for locals seeking a few hours of blessed relief and a major vacation destination for tourists from throughout the state. Folks were drawn by its enormous sand beach, water slides, the high diving board where giggling girls congregated to watch the boys show off, and the adjacent dance hall that filled the evening air with Big Band melodies. Everyone entering the bath house received a distinctive pin, later using it to reclaim their clothes after a swim. Today, the brass pins are cherished by many old-timers who wear them as lapel ornaments.
Tommy Crump, whose parents bought the lake and surrounding cottages after working several years for RD Moore, the original owner, recalls that hundreds of families from as far away as North Carolina came back year after year. Folks driving from the north to Florida soon learned that it was the ideal overnight stop both going and coming. For the locals, Moore's Lake was the place to be and to be seen. It was inevitable that the sunny afternoons and moonlit evenings were responsible for untold romances. Many blossomed into marriage.
The sturdy 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 eased and tourists clamored to enjoy their amenities and the sylvan setting, they built more cottages throughout the fragrant woods until they numbered 38. By 1941, they had erected a restaurant and their own comfortable brick home on 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 along and quartered them in cottages at Moore's Lake. Several of their wives found work as waitresses in the busy restaurant that served three meals every day to cottage guests, local residents, and defense workers commuting to their jobs at nearby military facilities. To defray expenses, the older children 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 toddler then. He was closely supervised by a nursemaid as he peddled his tricycle along the scenic lanes to claim a tasty treat from the restaurant kitchen serving guests of Moore's Brick Cottages and Moore's Lake. Growing up in the roomy house his parents built, he learned to swim in the lake and appreciate the beauty and unique setting of the property. It was only natural that he never strayed, but chose to stay and raise his own children there.
In 1970, he and his wife bought the cottages, adjacent gas station, and the restaurant. Re-christened Sylvester's, the restaurant was destined to become the most popular for miles around. Along with a mouth-watering prime rib dinner that drew crowds, the menu offered succulent seafood, savory soups, "croissant-wiches," stuffed potatoes, and scrumptious homemade desserts, among them a double chocolate silk pie and hot fruit cobbler.
Moore's Brick Cottages thrived until construction of Interstate 95 nearby lured cars and trucks away from the venerable Jefferson Davis Highway, thereby cementing the operation's fate. With the advent of high-speed highways nationwide, families discovered the lure of the open road. No longer content to vacation a short distance from home, tourists sped from Boston to Miami in a fraction of the time they could chug along the obsolete two-lane road. When large motels and hotels sprang up along the Interstate to serve the long-distance travelers, it was not long before Moore's Brick Cottages became superfluous. The buildings drifted into disrepair and those who came to swim took their chances without lifeguards on duty. Today the lake is little more than an unattended neighborhood swimming hole.
Sylvester's, however, continued to prosper. It catered to a local loyal clientèle until December 2004 when Tommy Crump sold the property to a developer. The office park and retail businesses springing up on the bulldozed land will serve the town of Chester. Tommy watched with brimming eyes while all but two of the quaint cottages were demolished and their rubble used as parking lot fill.
"I feel an obligation to save these last two as a part of history," he says. "I'm keeping one for myself and am having it moved to my property along the James River. I hope someone – or some concerned organization – will take the other and preserve it for posterity."
With no takers as yet, time is running out. Soon only the ghosts of halcyon days gone by will hover over the property that is still sheltered by gigantic, aromatic trees awaiting destruction in the name of progress.