by Henry Lane Hull
From the end of the 19th century well past the middle of the 20th, the Northern Neck was virtually the tomato capital of the Commonwealth with farms producing great quantities from King George to Lancaster. Tomato canning factories were in production every few miles and the packaged cases were on their way first by steamboat and then by truck to Baltimore, Washington and Richmond.
In Westmoreland County Mr. Otho Sydnor operated a large factory that produced canned tomatoes that had been grown mainly on his own farms near Hague. He and his wife raised 12 children, most of whom continued to live in the vicinity. Indeed, South Hague could be renamed “Sydnorville.”
The Sydnors’ oldest child was Hester, who remained the matriarch of the large family after her parents had died. Hester attended Farmville State Teachers College, which now is Longwood University, after which she returned to Hague. She spent her early career teaching school and working at the Farmers Bank of Hague, a building that still stands.
The latter institution, along with many banks up and down the Northern Neck, was the result of a young man from the Eastern Shore, H. W. B. Williams, leaving his native area to work for the L. E. Mumford Banking Company with the task of establishing banks to serve our local population. Mr. Williams stopped his journey at Colonial Beach where he founded the Bank of Westmoreland in 1904, and later built the New Atlanta Hotel.
Back at Hague, Hester married Robert Gawen with whom she had two children, Betsy and Robert, and then she sustained the loss of her husband. As a young widow, Hester subsequently married his best friend, Calvin Sanford. Together they raised her two children and had a son of their own, Garner. They owned the local grocery store, which ended its days as the Hague Supermarket, all the while Calvin also served in public office, first as a Westmoreland County supervisor and later as the Northern Neck’s delegate to the General Assembly in Richmond.
Calvin was the classic example of the citizen/representative. He abounded in common sense, which he applied to every bill that came before the House of Delegates. Once when asked why he did not introduce more legislation, he responded by saying that too much legislation already came before the General Assembly and he saw his duty to be to weed out that which should not be enacted.
Hester was by Calvin’s side for all of those activities. They built a new home on Cople Highway, where the citizenry always was welcome to come to discuss issues before the House and where Hester also could offer comments from her store of wisdom. Calvin’s frugality with spending the public’s money earned him the respect and admiration of citizens from all across the Commonwealth. He served eight years, then, as he promised upon his election, he returned home, having set his own term limits.
Calvin died in 1997, and Hester continued on, surrounded by her large family. Her brother, Billy, succeeded Calvin on the Westmoreland County Board of Supervisors where he served for over 20 years, most of which he spent as chairman. Hester remained politically astute, offering her sage advice to citizens and politicians alike.
For many years Hester and her sisters, Lou, Emma and Effie, enjoyed preparing the monthly dinner for the Northern Neck Christian Men’s Group that meets at Carmel United Methodist Church south of Hague. One of their specialties was their own concoction of greens, which to me still is memorable after many years. After the meal Hester enjoyed staying for the program, another manifestation of her lifelong interest in learning all that she could about the topics that interested her.
Last Tuesday Hester died a few weeks after her 92nd birthday. In her own right she remains one of the illustrious figures of the Northern Neck in our time. She was the quintessential well-informed, gracious personification of a great Virginia lady, who brilliantly and steadfastly combined the roles of wife, mother, hostess, citizen and friend to everyone she met. She is one who left the people of the Northern Neck with a debt of deep and sustaining gratitude for her life among us.
Hester Sydnor Gawen Sanford, February 21, 1925 – March 14, 2017. R.I.P.