By Henry Lane Hull
To place Virginia Kelley in context is first to note that she was born before America entered the First World War, before the Russian Revolution, before Mussolini’s march on Rome, before Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch and before Warren Harding became president of the United States. At the time of her birth Woodrow Wilson, with whom one of her younger brothers shared a name, was president, and Harry Byrd was not yet governor of Virginia.
Virginia was the fifth of 10 children, born in her family homeplace near Remo where her brother, J.P. Conley, and his family continue to live. Today at 100, she remains an oracle of her family’s genealogy, and a repository of all, and I mean all, of the local history of the century that she has lived. For 40 years her older brother, Sam, and his wife, Snooks, operated what is now the Corner Market in Wicomico Church. During their tenure the sign read, “S.G. Conley, Gen’l Mrchdse’, and the establishment was a genuine old-fashioned country store.
Last week at the celebration of her centenary she was answering questions about the past with the speed and accuracy of a college student. I was the purveyor of many of those inquiries, not to gain information for this column, but rather to learn more about what for nearly a half-century has been our homeplace, the house on the hill, which for the first third of the 20th century was the home of her maternal grandparents, the Delanos.
My good wife has been urging the Conleys to apply to have their farm designated a Virginia Century Farm, an official recognition manifesting that the same family has owned it for over 100 years. Thanks to Virginia, in their case the designation would have special significance, in that now one member of the family has lived through more than a century of the Conley ownership.
Virginia continues to live in her home overlooking Chesapeake Bay outside Kilmarnock. For many years she hosted the annual Bluff Point Community League picnic on her spreading lawn. There, when asked, she would regale the guests with her stories of the past, leaving the listeners anxious to hear more, for she has a great talent in making the past come alive.
A few years ago Virginia stopped driving around town, often in pursuit of antiques, the collection of which was her longtime hobby. She likes to know what shops are offering and enjoys speaking of antiques as much as she does genealogy and history, for indeed to her antiques represent the visible evidence of the past.
Virginia’s late husband, James, and her two sons, Jimmie and Tommy, long have been prominent in the Northern Neck seafood industry, thus the Kelley family merges the two iconic heritages of the Northern Neck, namely, farming on the Conley side and seafood on that of the Kelleys.
Having known Virginia now for almost half of her life, I can say quite honestly that she is one person who remains the same across the years. Her interests and her knowledge continue to abound, and the pleasure she obviously gets from recounting the past with her extraordinary degree of accuracy is always impressive. To speak with her one realizes that the past is present and the future is a marvel yet to behold.
Scarlett O’Hara was correct in seeing the land as a binding tie among people. Today with three generations of our family having lived for nearly 50 years on the traditional Delano land in the old family homeplace, growing a garden and raising animals where they did, and with our fields still being farmed by J.P. and his son, Steve Conley, we have built ties with the progeny of those who preceded us on this hill, called “Mount Pisgah.”
Virginia is one of those ties for which we are abidingly grateful.
Happy Centenary, Virginia. Truly, you are at the peak of youth.