On the corner of Routes 200 and 360 in Burgess stands the venerable Downing Store that operated for decades serving the needs of both locals and visitors.
The store was a relic of earlier days with wonderful displays of a variety of scales, barrels, jars, boxes, and, most memorable for me, a penny candy machine. When the cost of candy came to exceed a penny, Mrs. Downing would let children continue to use the machine, and then pay a penny over the counter for a total purchase amounting to two cents. The ambience was that of the quintessential country store.
Behind the store is a gracious frame dwelling that also has been the home to the Downing family for over a century. Until last month the house was the lifelong residence of Frances Downing Hurst, as it had been for her late sister, Betty Covington, and their husbands, Carroll Hurst and Roland Covington, the latter of whom served for many years on the Northumberland County Board of Supervisors.
Frances was a war baby, not in the usual contemporary meaning of the term, as she had not been born during World War II, but rather during World War I. She and Betty went through the Northumberland County school system, and then matriculated at Mary Washington College, at that time known as Fredericksburg State Normal and Industrial College for Women. Upon graduation, both ladies came home to Burgess to begin their teaching careers, each of which surpassed 40 years.
As the decades passed, Frances’ memory not only did not fade, it seemed to continue to advance. She was a living resource for anyone seeking answers to questions about Northern Neck history and genealogy. She could remember every friend’s birthday, and in the cards she sent, she would include descriptions of the individual’s family ties. When she attended meetings of the Northumberland County Historical Society, other attendees would gather around her to ask questions. On most such occasions, she was asked more questions than the event’s speaker.
If anyone ever merited the description of being a Virginia Lady, Frances was that person. Last month, at the age of 103-and-a-half, Frances died in the home in which she had been born, leaving a rich legacy to all who knew her.
Frances Downing Hurst, February 17, 1918 – October 26, 2021. R.I.P.
Today, many families and homes in the Northern Neck are the beneficiaries of the tireless labors of the Reverend Gayl Fowler, who also died last month. Gayl was a native of Port Angeles, Washington, who came to live near Heathsville over 40 years ago. She quickly became a vibrant part of the community in which she recognized the needs of the less fortunate, and she set out to do all that she could to meet them.
Gayl’s contributions had a far-ranging impact toward improving the quality of life of the neediest members of society. She particularly focused on working to making clean water available to low-income families and individuals. In 1989, she founded the SAIF program through which she explored every possible avenue to obtain grants and donations to bring wells up to approved standards. She correctly understood that safe water was a basic human right and need.
She attended governmental board meetings on a regular basis, never with an accusatory approach, but rather in an effort to explain the plight of those living in substandard housing, particularly focusing on homes without sanitary or adequate water supplies. As a result of her work, many people in our community enjoy a higher standard of living being able to drink, cook and wash with clean water in their homes.
Gayl was a kind and gentle person, but one rooted in firmness to do what she knew to be right. She asked nothing for herself, but the opportunity to improve the lot of others.
Gayl Ardine Fowler, June 4, 1941 – October 25, 2021. R.I.P.