LOOKING BACK: Lee Lafayette Thorpe – farmer, businessman

Published 7:00 am Friday, March 8, 2024

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Fifty years ago, in recognition of National Peanut Month, the March 7, 1974 edition of The Tidewater News featured an article about the Thorpe family of Statesville, Virginia. Specifically, focus was placed on Lee Lafayette Thorpe of Statesville, then 82 years of age, a prominent peanut farmer and businessman. 

During an interview with Tidewater News reporter Robert L. Duke, Mr. Thorpe proudly recalled the history of his family, a hardy line of people who, for centuries, farmed the soil in the vicinity of Statesville and Sands – two tiny communities in the southernmost part of Southampton County across the North Carolina state line from the Como area. He is descended from a long line of Thorpes who were residing in that area going back to the 1700s.  Lee Thorpe proudly commented on the overall Thorpe family’s heritage in the area: “The Thorpes started farming between Statesville and Sands long before George Washington became president of the United States. One of the family’s houses was built in 1772, years after the first Thorpes in this area began to till the rich sands of Sands.”

In 1974, things had changed a great deal since Thorpe started farming peanuts in 1914 – with mules and horses, a five-hoe cultivator, and a Stonewall plow. “One man’ll do more now with modern equipment than eight or ten men could do in the early days,” he estimated. 

Thorpe began his early peanut exploits farming roughly ninety-seven acres of peanuts. In 1974, he supervised 177 acres of peanuts and owned all but thirty-eight acres of that respectable total. 

In addition to planting and harvesting peanuts, Lee Thorpe worked widely in other areas of the peanut business and, indeed, business in general.  He bought peanuts in the county for several years and ran the Columbian Peanut Company mill in Boykins for about eighteen years. 

On a state level, Thorpe helped found the Virginia Farm Bureau and served as the first president of the Southampton County Farm Bureau. He worked to start the Virginia Farm Bureau Peanut Committee, out of which evolved the Virginia Peanut and Hog Growers’ Association.  Mr. Thorpe served that organization in many capacities, including that as its president. He was a member of the Virginia Peanut Commission since its inception in 1954.

In 1944, he became a director at Meherrin Valley Bank in Boykins – one of the predecessors, in 1963, of Virginia National Bank; he continued to keep his business acumen sharp as a bank director.

It was widely known in Southampton County – and probably throughout Virginia – that Mr. Thorpe received many credits and honors over the years – many more than he ever admitted to. The Statesville “statesman” was listed in Who’s Who in Commerce and Industry (1964-1965) and Who’s Who in the Southeast (Volume 7). During the 1974 Tidewater News interview, Mr. Thorpe was asked to list additional accomplishments and committee standings, etc. With a characteristic nod of his head, he said with a twinkle in his eye, “Son, I’ve given you enough for today right now. I don’t want to tell you too much. Come back to see me later, and we’ll talk peanuts again.”

When you talked with Lee Thorpe, you got a first-hand view of life and history – from peanuts to business theory.   

NOTE: Lee Lafayette Thorpe passed away in 1983 at age 90. Following his death, daughter Lynda Thorpe Updike, her husband, Glenn Updike, and their children Lee John, Kelley, and Jennifer carried forth with the Lee Thorpe farm.  And today, Lynda Updike and several Thorpe cousins – operating separate farms – are continuing the Thorpe farming tradition in Southampton County, Virginia.

CLYDE PARKER is a retired human resources manager for the former Franklin Equipment Co. and a member of the Southampton County Historical Society. His email address is magnolia101@charter.net.