Kilmarnock: The Hub of the Northern Neck
Drive down Kilmarnock’s Main Street, and you’ll get an idea of what Small Town Virginia is all about. Besides a Main Street that looks like it could be a movie set, Kilmarnock offers virtually anything you might hope to find in a 21st-century small town… and much more.
Kilmarnock has long been the hub for shopping in the Northern Neck, says Carroll Lee Ashburn, chairman of the board at the Kilmarnock Museum (76 N. Main St.). When the area was first settled nearly 400 years ago, it was known as “Crossroads.” Two Indian trails intersected at the point where the town now stands. Those two trails take somewhat the same paths of what are today Routes 3 and 200.
In the early 1700s, William Steptoe began to operate a storehouse and ordinary at the crossroads so that the crossroads came to be called “Steptoe’s Ordinary.” And in 1764, Robert Gilmour, an agent for a mercantile firm based in Glasgow, Scotland, was instrumental in giving the name “Kilmarnock” to the location. Gilmour, it is believed, owned property in Kilmarnock, Scotland.
Through the years, the town has been the place where locals came to shop. True, big box stores on the outskirts of town have made headway, but for a unique experience, you really need to take a stroll down lovely and lively Main Street. Anne Paparella, executive director for the Lancaster by the Bay Chamber of Commerce, describes Kilmarnock’s Main Street as offering, “great boutique shopping with fabulous businesses that you just can’t find in other places.”
When asked about her favorite shops, Anne laughs and says, “Every one of my chamber members is my favorite.”
Even though she won’t pick favorites, she does tell me a little about what’s in store when you shop Main Street. “There are great little gift and furniture stores and cute little women’s boutiques for every price range,” she says.”
Susan Cockrell, the deputy town manager, shared some of her Main Street favorite finds: “Kilmarnock Antique Gallery has an amazing collection of oyster plates. These plates were all the rage in the late 19th and early 20th century and are beautifully decorated. It’s worth a visit for oyster afficianados or history buffs.
“A stop at Papaterie brings you to really fun and creative stationary wares,” she continues. “Writing seems to be a lost art but this store will put you back in the mood for correspondence. Alaina, the owner, is wonderful and will help you find the exact item.”
Anne mentions another plus that comes when you shop on Kilmarnock’s Main Street, “Almost every shop is operated by the owners.”
Fred Burke, whose parents opened Burke’s Jewelers in 1969, is a good example of the type of folks you’ll meet — folks who’ll take the time to stop and chat. I wanted to meet Fred and his wife Karen as they advertise in this magazine. I was quite impressed with the selection offered in the store, which rivals any jewelry shop you might find in the finest malls. Fred says he started working in his parents’ store when he was 12 years-old. “I started off sweeping the floors and cleaning the bathrooms.”
Both Fred and his parents hail from Kilmarnock. He’s lived here most of his life – all but about nine years when he moved to Richmond and worked in a couple of jewelry stores. “When I was 20, I couldn’t wait to get out of here,” Fred says. “When I was 30 I couldn’t wait to get back.”
He explains that the thing that drove him away is the thing he most appreciates today…the people. “[Back then] I felt like everybody knew my business, that they were looking over my shoulder.” With age comes wisdom. Fred says that now that he’s older he realizes how important it is to have neighbors that look out for one another. He describes the residents in the area as “compassionate towards their neighbors.”
Anne agrees in that assessment. She acknowledges that when her parents retired and moved to the Northern Neck, she wasn’t excited about the move. She was a senior in high school at the time. “If you moved here from outside the area, you are called ‘Come-here’s,’” she says. “I tell people I was dragged here.”
Today, she has a greater appreciation for the locals, describing them as “kind, loving, forgiving, helpful.” She also brags about the “laid-back pace” you’ll discover when you visit. That’s not to say that there’s nothing to do. “There are a lot of really cool things to do,” Anne says. “Water is the appeal. There are beautiful rivers and creeks. If you love the outdoors, this is a wonderful place to come.”
Anne slips and lets me in on a little secret when she says, “One of the best things you can do here is walk on one of the most pristine beaches you’ve ever seen.”
I immediately had to know where this beach was. “It’s our best kept secret,” she says, “Hughlett Point on the Chesapeake Bay.”
While I’d never heard of Hughlett Point, I did a little research and found out it’s a state Natural Area Preserve, located about 10 miles from downtown Kilmarnock. The state’s website describes it as offering “exemplary undeveloped beaches, dunes and upland forests.”
Everyone I speak with during my visit raves about the water-related activities. Jameson Crandall, who’s in his mid-twenties and works in the jewelry store, adds that there are also a lot of activities for young people. “Summertime here is a lot more fun than wintertime,’’ he says. “There’s boating, fishing, tubing, skiing… lots of public beaches. The water is the biggest attraction.”
There’s another attraction – the newly completed Town Centre Park in Kilmarnock. Susan had told me about the park when I had met her several months previously at the Oyster Academy at Tides Inn resort in Irvington, just five miles from Kilmarnock. “Our park has an outdoor amphitheater, the Half Shell Stage,” she had told me at the time. “Music on the Half Shell Stage is our summer concert series with everything from dance music to country. We have local bands plus a regional headliner every month from May to October. The park is a great place for families, including a children’s playground area called ‘River Play’ that features swings and slides and the region’s only splash pad. Our Farmers Market is there on every fourth Saturday from May to October too. It is a huge hit and right in the center of Kilmarnock.”
Susan describes Kilmarnock as “amazing because it is a small Mayberry-like town, where you do know your friends and neighbors. Even visitors quickly feel like they are a part of the community. Friendliness really does come naturally here.”
She’s right. Kilmarnock is indeed a cool, little town. “It’s a great place for foodies,” Anne says, adding that there seems to be something going on all the time. For instance, on June 30, the Chamber will be sponsoring Rhythm & Brews by the Bay (call 804-435-6092 for more info), and mid-November brings the annual Taste of the Bay at the Tides Inn.
When you come to Kilmarnock, you truly have come to the crossroads of the Northern Neck. It’s time to share the secret: this place has it all.
Hit the Hot Spots
- Kilmarnock Inn (34 E. Church St.; 804-435-0034) Featuring a main house and seven guest cottages. Just steps from Kilmarnock’s quaint and picturesque Main Street.
- The Tides Inn (480 Kings Charter Dr., Irvington) Just five miles from Kilmarnock, The Tides Inn is in a league of its own.
- Kilmarnock Museum (76 N. Main St.; 840-436-9100) The museum is filled with photos and artifacts telling the history of the area. The main attraction is Mr. Carroll Lee Ashburn, the chairman of the museum’s board of directors. The 80-something Mr. Ashburn makes the history of the town come alive.
- Car Wash Café (481 N. Main St.; 804-435-0405) Famous for their blueberry pancakes, sandwiches and sweet tea.
- Chao Phraya (45 S. Main St.; 804-577-4261) Authentic Thai cuisine, Sushi and premier local Seafood off the grill.
- Lee’s Restaurant (30 S. Main St.; 804-435-1255) Comfort food. Don’t miss the fried chicken.
- NN Burger (62 Irvington Road; 804-577-4400) Gourmet burgers, shakes, craft beers and live music.
- Burke’s Fine Jewelers (86 S. Main St.; 804-435-1302) Specializing in custom-made designs inspired by the local rivers and bay.
- Cathy’s Unique Pursuits (234 N. Main St.; 804-435-1388)
- Northern Neck Popcorn Bag (50 Irvington Road; 804-577-4200) Featuring over 50 flavors, all made right in the store.
- Papeterie (24 N. Main St.; 804-435-1125) A paper and gift shop, specializing in weddings and parties.
- Weekend’s Fashions (125 S. Main St.; 804-577-4041) Men’s and ladies’ boutique located in a former Sears Roebuck house that was built in 1904. On the cutting edge of fashion with style and distinction.