In search of Mr. Branch

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 20, 2008

The residents of Branchville held a celebration two weeks ago in honor of the town’s 100th year of incorporation.

There was live music, recorded music and good food. They also had on hand Hank Snow, who lives in the next town over. He showed off his Model-T Ford that is three years younger than the date of the Branchville incorporation.

There was also considerable heat that Saturday, driving people into the more hospitable environment of the air-conditioned community center, where lunch was served and a slide show of old photos flashed on the wall.

That slide show also provided lively conversation for those who hadn’t seen one another in awhile, which is hard to do in a small town the size of Branchville (pop. 123), in the southern end of Southampton County.

The town was named for a seemingly ambitious fellow named Branch — which is hardly a revelation. It was Branch, according to Arthur Harris Jr., the town’s current mayor, who said the community got its start along the banks of the Meherrin River with folks making a living dealing with merchants who followed the water.

Branch, it is said, saw an opportunity when the railroad laid tracks nearby, and built a train station from which he could sell wood to the railroad or get wood delivered to the town’s mill. (I’m guessing the process of building a train station in those days didn’t require a great deal of time before a planning commission grappling with the ethics of growth, as would be the case today.)

So up went the train station along the rail line, the same track that found its way to Franklin and beyond to the north, and to the Roanoke River on the return trip.

Not coincidentally, the station was called Branch’s Station.

By the time 1908 rolled around, somebody made a push to incorporate the community, calling it Branchville.

So, on the weekend of that hallowed anniversary, a logical question was raised. What was Mr. Branch’s first name?

In the preview story published in this newspaper, Mayor Harris was unable to come up with the man’s name. Event organizer Nancy Barrett was also not able to provide a name. Hank Snow wasn’t sure either, he said as he sat in his 97-year-old vehicle.

Neither was Lynda Updike, president of the Southampton Historical Society. The Updikes live in Statesville, not terribly far from Branchville, but information regarding Mr. Branch was not easily attainable. Still, Updike, like any good historian, kept the search alive by offering two other promising resources to ask: Kitty Lassiter, a plugged-in local with a deep sense of history who has twice photographed an egg standing on its edge at the exact minute of the equinox — which has nothing to do with Branchville history, but it’s fun repeating — and Rick Francis, the newly-elected Clerk of Circuit Court for Southampton County.

Both, as it turned out, were stumped by the question.

Umm. In this region of the state where history seems to be a thread that meanders its way through generations, that the first name of a man for whom a small town is named cannot be supplied raises conspiracy concerns in newspaper people. Is there something in this Mr. Branch’s past that needs to be hidden? Did he run off with railroad money? Did he thumb his nose at procedure and bypass the public hearing process to build his train station without a permit?

Turns out the answer is far more benign than what a cynic’s imagination can invent.

Records weren’t that specific then. At least that’s what Mary Ellen Simms intimated. A Branchville girl, Simms had done considerable research to record the Branchville history in hopes of publishing a book. That book hasn’t been compiled yet, but the woman who, as a girl, worked in her daddy’s store in the early 1940s, married Grant at the Branchville Baptist Church in 1948, the same building that is used a community center today. The original church was built further from the road — back “in the pines” — before it was relocated. She and Grant worked for her father on Saturdays for a short time after their marriage. Simms said that Branchville had “nine stores in full operation” then, and that crossing the crowded streets on a Friday or Saturday night was dangerous for those who didn’t look both ways before crossing.

None of which has anything to do with unearthing Mr. Branch’s first name.

Except this: During her research, Simms found some papers in the county courthouse that involved an old piece of property that was of interest to her.

It was signed by ol’ man Branch himself. Can you say Will?

Paul McFarlane is the Editor of The Tidewater News. His e-mail is