law, memories, nostalgia, YouTube

Repost: Our “senior trip” to the Virginia State Pen…

It’s spring, and when I was in high school, that meant taking field trips. When I was a senior in high school, my government teacher, Mr. Eccleston, took us on a trip to Richmond, Virginia. This was something he did every year, although I’m pretty sure our class was the last one to go to the Virginia State Penitentiary. That’s because they closed the “Pen” in 1991, and tore it down. Here’s a repost of my 2013 blog post about my experience visiting Virginia’s old state prison… Meanwhile, I’m still thinking about today’s fresh topic.

Most high school kids go off to some interesting or exotic place when they become seniors.  I guess, in my case, the place my senior class went for the “senior trip” was exotic and interesting enough, though it wasn’t an overnight trip.  My senior year of high school was actually full of interesting field trips, to include a trip to a local medical school, where my biology classmates and I saw cadavers.  We also went caving, and visited the National Zoo in Washington, DC.  I skipped at least three other field trips because I didn’t have the money to go.  But probably the most interesting of all the trips we took was the one that took us to the State Penitentiary in Virginia.

Here’s an interesting talk about the former penitentiary, which was demolished just after our visit in 1990. If this subject interests you, I highly recommend watching this video. The speaker, Dale M. Brumfield, is very engaging, and this is a fascinating subject.

The Virginia State Pen was a very old structure that had received its first prisoners in 1800.  If you click the link, you can see some photos of the place, which was eventually demolished.  It sat next to the James River in downtown Richmond, Virginia. 

In the spring of 1990, when we had our field trip, the Pen was about to be closed down.  There were still inmates there when we came to visit the place.  I remember how my classmates and I were each frisked, then shown into this huge cell block that had several tiers of tiny cells, which you can see in the featured photo.  The place was painted light blue and there was a smell of human filth, sweat, and detergent in the air.  The building was obviously very antiquated and unpleasant.  It definitely needed to be torn down or renovated.

Gazing up, I could see the huge windows allowed birds to come in.  They flew near the ceiling and probably mocked the inmates with their ability to come and go at will.  On the floor, I spied a dead mouse that looked like it had been there for awhile.  A heavily muscled guy with a mullet wore a wide leather belt with a set of handcuffs prominently displayed in a case as he led us through the facility.  He didn’t wear a uniform, though he obviously worked at the prison.

The inmates were in a different part of the prison when we visited.  I remember looking at the first big cell block, which was apparently vacated as inmates were transferred to other facilities.  We also visited death row, which had also been vacated.  Some inmates were in a yard nearby as we made our way to the death house.  They shouted and jeered at us.  I remember the death row cells were a whole lot larger than the ones in the cell block.  They had bars all around them and a lone television set was mounted on a pole that would have allowed all of the inmates to watch it.

At the end of the hall was the electric chair, which Virginia used to execute a lot of men until lethal injection became the preferred way to put condemned people to death.  Several of my classmates sat on the big oak chair, outfitted with heavy leather straps with big metal buckles.  I remember one teacher actually pretended to strap a couple of students in.  Back then, it was kind of a joke, but today, it seems kind of inappropriate and not that funny.  Virginia is a notorious death penalty state.  (ETA: Thanks to former Governor Ralph Northam, the death penalty was abolished in Virginia last year. I never thought I’d see the day.)

I remember after we saw the penitentiary, we went to Virginia Commonwealth University for lunch.  Two of my sisters are VCU graduates, so I was somewhat familiar with the place.  By then, I knew I was headed to Longwood for college. 

It was an eerie day… and probably the day that I first started to have ambivalent feelings about the death penalty.  

Edited to add in 2022: In his amazing talk in the above video, Dale Brumfield, talks about the kinds of crimes that would land people in the penitentiary. At one point, he talks about how Black men could be arrested and imprisoned for being caught on someone else’s property. They could get up to ten years for just appearing to LOOK like they were going to commit theft. As he was talking about that, I couldn’t help but think about the Ahmaud Arbery case, and how he was gunned down by three White men who thought he was a thief. It’s so sad that we haven’t evolved much since the early days of the Virginia Penitentiary’s history.

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book reviews, business

Repost: Fascinating look at the Thalhimer family of Virginia…

Here’s another reposted book review, which appears as/is, and was originally written on October 6, 2015. It comes up because last night, I was remembering The Sword and the Kilt, and trying to describe popovers to Bill.

Having grown up mostly in Virginia in the 70s and 80s, I often shopped at the Thalhimers department store at Coliseum Mall in Hampton, Virginia.  Since I was a kid back then, I didn’t know anything about Thalhimers or any of the other venerable department stores that were around back in the day.  I just know my mom would shop there with me when I managed to convince her to take me to the mall, instead of AAFES, for my school clothes.  When I got older, I used to go shopping with my former best friend and her mother and we’d have lunch at Thalhimers very cool medieval themed restaurant, The Sword and the Kilt.  It was the first place I ever had a popover.

Sadly, back in the early 1990s, Thalhimers was lost in a hostile takeover.  The May Company, which bought a number of historic department store brands in those days, pretty much ruined Thalhimers to the point at which it was no longer recognizable.  It finally died a pitiful death after 150 years of business, mostly in Virginia and North Carolina.

An interview with Elizabeth Thalhimer Smartt, author of Finding Thalhimers.

I don’t know what prompted me to research Thalhimers, but I somehow ended up finding out about Elizabeth Thalhimer Smartt’s 2010 book, Finding Thalhimers.  I downloaded the book and just finished it today.  I feel like I’ve learned a lot about the history of a local retail giant with a fascinating history.  Reading Smartt’s descriptions of the years when the business was booming made me wish I were older so I could have seen more of it for myself.

As you might guess by her name, Smartt is herself a member of the Thalhimer family, and she grew up watching her dad go to work at “The Store”.  Smartt fantasized about one day being president of her family’s business, but unfortunately, it was not to be.  Discount chains like Wal-Mart, Target, and even K-Mart spelled death for many department stores. 

Finding Thalhimers is about more than just a retail department store chain.  It’s also about the fascinating history of the Thalhimer family, which originated in Tairnbach, a tiny town not too far from Heidelberg, Germany.  Since I am currently living near Stuttgart and have visited Heidelberg, this part of the story was especially interesting.  I learned things I never knew.  For instance, Smartt writes that her family is Jewish and back in the 1800s, Jews were not allowed to have last names.  When the law changed, the parents of the man who would found Thalhimers in Richmond, Virginia, decided to give themselves a name that reflected their origin in Germany.

Smartt then takes readers on a journey across the Atlantic Ocean.  Her ancestors landed in New Orleans and made their way to Richmond, where they would have a profound effect on the local economy and the city’s development.  I enjoyed reading about how Thalhimers had a friendly rivalry with Miller & Rhodes, another venerable Virginia department store institution.  I remember shopping there as a kid, too.  Unfortunately, they also perished just a couple of years before Thalhimers did.

I enjoyed reading about how the name Thalhimer was originally spelled Thalheimer.  Thanks to a sign painter’s sloppy spelling, the brand’s name changed forever.  Smartt’s book touches on so many notable times in history, too.  She writes about an ancestor who spent three months with a friend driving around Europe in his father’s Chevrolet, making sure to avoid the political unrest in Germany that was going on during the 1930s.  The young man visited stores, collected ideas for the business and products to be offered, and had a good time being young. 

Smartt writes about the civil rights era of the early 1960s, when Thalhimers and Miller & Rhodes were targeted for sit ins.  I was impressed by how Thalhimers handled the racial tensions of the times.  And she reminds readers that her family once owned the Golden Skillet fried chicken restaurants that once dotted the land.  I used to love Golden Skillet chicken, though it never ended up being the next KFC as some in the family had predicted.

Smartt also writes about some of the business deals her ancestors made, some of which were very shrewd and kind of fascinating.  As someone who grew up visiting Richmond and the surrounding areas, I was very intrigued by her descriptions of what it was like there as the Thalhimer family built their business.  They made some amazing deals that netted huge profits.  I almost got the sense that things might have been different for the Thalhimer family had they focused on what the Walton family was doing.  But that would have certainly upset many of their loyal fans.

An ad for Thalhimers… I remember when furs were okay to wear.

I could tell this project was a labor of love for Elizabeth Thalhimer Smartt, who is just three years younger than I am.  Her writing style is very loving and warm– almost reverent– and she clearly enjoyed talking to many of her relatives and people who were involved in Thalhimers’ success.  I got the sense that she enjoys a close bond with her family, especially her dad.  I was impressed by how she pieced together her family’s history and was able to trace it all the way to their origins in Germany, which she visited with her parents, husband, and sister.

Overall, I really enjoyed Smartt’s book, though I get the sense that she writes the story while wearing rose colored glasses.  I can’t really blame her, since she’s writing about her family.  But naturally, it’s not the most objective look at the Thalhimer family.  I’m sure there are people out there who might have a different take on some of the stories Smartt shares.  I have no horse in that race, though, so I’ll just say I really enjoyed reading this book and am happy to recommend it, especially to Virginia and North Carolina natives who remember Thalhimers.  It’s also a good read for aspiring businesspeople. 

Edited to add: Elizabeth Thalhimer Smart used to have a Facebook page for this book. I wrote a comment and she was kind enough to respond. It turns out that I currently live not too far from where the Thalhimer family originated.

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