Streaks of light drip through willows overhanging the Hyco River, splashing silently on the waters to create an intricate mosaic of greens and gold. A whippoorwill makes one last call to his mate before the heat of day arrives.
Familiar white frame houses, seated comfortably amidst emerald fields dot the roadside like flecks of unseasonable snow, but there is something different happening in the Hyco community.
Each year, new berry-red homes are built for young families that have returned to this pastoral area of Halifax County.
The lure of country quiet and friendly neighbors brings more new families to the area with each new season, older residents say. Youth usually means more community activity…a good sign that the area will continue to grow.
Activity in this community, which encompasses Shady Grove as well as what is known as “Old Centerville,” was once confined to everyday farm chores and church meetings … until the Yankees came.
During the War Between the States, it was not unusual for the men to leave the households and farms to the care of the women, while they rode off to fight with General Lee. Only women, children and old men were left behind.
Towards the end of hostilities, Union soldiers invaded the peace of the Hyco area foraging for food and fresh horses, and the women, now the heads of the households, ordered silverware buried and horses hidden from the hands of the grasping northerners.
All however, did not find ideal hiding places for heirloom silver, and Susan Gravitt was moved to utter her first foul word when soldiers found her great-grandmother’s English silverware under a board near the fireplace.
“Get out of here, you damn yellow-bellied Yankees, or I swear I’ll fight you with my bare hands,” she shouted with a vengeance.
The uninvited guests laughed at the outburst, helped themselves to whatever they could carry and rode off.
Mrs. Gravitt was left with only a few strips of meat and some cornmeal with which to feed her family. She claimed later that she kept her children alive by feeding them greens cooked with meat and corn pone for lunch and leftover corn bread crumbled into turnip green soup for supper.
When breakfast time came, she sliced the boiled meat and fried it over the wood stove.
The community survived the more devastating ravages of the war; and shortly after the cessation of hostilities, Major R. L. Ragland established one of the oldest tobacco seed farms in the country. His brother, Joseph Edward “Ned” Ragland, ran the store and post office located on the banks of the river in 1871.
Ned Ragland’s Store, the hub of the community at the turn of the century, was open until the late 1920s. It was at this time that mail carrier Bob East used to deliver letters via horse and buggy “come rain or shine.”
One native of the area remembers when the seed farm once received an order from China for some 5,000 pounds of tobacco seed. Since the seed had to be shipped in 10 pound bags, only a few could be sent through the mail each day.
“After they had paid for the seed and all,” the man recalled, “we found out there was a typographical error on the order form. It should have been only 500 pounds.”
There was another store up the road from Ragland’s, across the road from a distillery, that also served as a barroom for thirsty men from the fields. A blacksmith’s hammer would ring through the quiet air from the shop located near the old mill on the banks of the Hyco.
The mill, built sometime in the early 19th century, was later operated by W. C. “Clem” Slate. Slate rebuilt the old structure in 1901, adding a story and putting in a roller mill and ran it until the 1920s.
Children would use the mill’s dam as a fish trap and would easily hook fish after fish from the banks. A one-time resident drifted back to the days of his childhood to recall the time he attempted to catch, barehanded, two 25-pound carp in the little pool created by the dam.
“I came out of the water, after much thrashing about, wetter than the fish,” he said.
It is near the river and close to the old mill, now erased by time’s hand, that the source of the community’s name lies. The woods and trees in the vicinity of the mill were a favorite among area buzzards for their annual mating rites, and it used to be not unusual to see the huge birds floating effortlessly against the blue sky overhanging the river.
The river was dubbed “hyco,” an Indian word for “buzzard’s roost,” and the appellation stuck with the community.
The buzzards still glide gracefully over the fields at Hyco, but the distillery, the mill and most of the stores have faded out of the community picture. Only the churches at Shady Grove and Cherry Hill remain.
The Shady Grove United Methodist Church, established with the urging of five men in the community between the years 1830-40, served for years as a schoolhouse during the week and a church on Sundays.
In 1853 there were only 32 members. Today there are more than 400 on the rolls, and the people have not stopped improving the building. The congregation used buildings on two prior sites before erecting a more suitable edifice that was dedicated in 1881.
Through the years the people have enlarged the original structure, removing the partition in the middle that separated the men from the women during Sunday services, and most recently they added an educational wing in 1951.
Back in the 1970s the church was sharing its pastor, the Rev. Lawrence Pritchett, with the Cherry Hill congregation, and was said to be the force that held the people together along with the Hyco Road Ruritan Club.
Today, Pat Neilsen is the pastor at Cherry Hill UMC, and Shayne Estes pastors Shady Grove UMC.
At Cherry Hill, a worship service is held at 10 a.m., and Sunday school begins at 11 a.m., and the building is handicapped accessible.
At Shady Grove, Sunday school meets at 9:45 a.m. with worship service following at 11 a.m.
The Hyco Road Ruritan Club, organized in 1967, now boasts a membership of more than 30 men and women. The community building that was built in the 1970s was undertaken by the members themselves.
The churches and the Ruritan Club members are the active forces visible to an outsider, but all is not hustle and growth in this community.
“Half the people are willing to work, and the other half are willing to let ‘em,” observed one retired resident.
The best places for pasttime in the 1970s were the two stores, Cole’s and Long’s.
It was at these stores that men of the community would inquire as to the veracity of the latest rumors or fetch a cool drink for the field hands on a hot summer day.
Wilmouth Martin built Cole’s Store in 1940 with his own hands and ran a wheelright and blacksmith shop there for several years before selling out.
Later, the old store was torn down and a new building put up at the same location in the fork of the road.
The old building sitting next to the store, once Maple Grove School, had been been converted into a home by that time. In the tranquil evening, men could be found swapping stories on wooden seats in front of the store with the enthusiasm of boys trading baseball cards.
It remains a community where when you need your neighbors, they are always there.