Can I call it a ghost town if people live there? I don’t know, but it creeps me out and keeps me interested.
Dendron sits in Surry County, Virginia and, as of the last census, has a population of 297 people. Yep. That’s it.
I suppose it means that everyone living in the 3.6 mile town recognizes every face and every vehicle. I definitely stood out. While snapping pictures for this post, each car that passed slowed down. Curtains were pushed to the side and windows were peered out of.
The name of the town comes from the Greek word for tree. It got that name in 1896. That makes sense, seeing as how the Surry Lumber Company swooped in and took over. That mill, and the railroad that would come a few years later, built the town. In less than ten years, over a thousand people had moved to the place.
They built two schools, two banks, an ice cream parlor – it was a thriving community. Of course, when I say, “they built,” understand that this stuff was built with factory money. Housing was creating for the factory workers. Everything was built to keep the company’s workers happy and, more importantly, keep them in town.
There were eighteen company stores – eightfreakingteen – in this small area. Company stores were jacked up institutions that often screwed over the workers. In some places, workers were paid with script instead of cash. That script could only be used at company stores or company housing units.
Freaking crazy, right?
Plusses of company stores? Well, they were there. I mean, in a time when few people had cars, the company store provided workers and families with food and fun and basic necessities. They also allowed workers to buy things on credit against their incomes.
Sermon in a sentence: You earn money from a company, paid to you in company script, that then goes back to the company when you buy something (sometimes at inflated prices) from a company store… and then you take those goods back to your company housing, where you pay rent to the company.
Annnnnnnyway, the lumber company was super good at cutting down trees. Like, so good that they cut down all the trees. Way to go, guys.
By the mid-1920s, the primary forest was wrecked. Before the decade was out, the lumber company left.
The company stores and housing were whisked away. The comany just wrecked them. The railroad was still there, but it was also managed by the company. On the short side of a year, the schools, the banks and most of the stores were shuttered. Soon, Dendron wouldn’t have access to electricity, water, or other basics of city life. Eventually, even the railroad stopped running.
And then, just because fate is an evil SOB, a fire came through in 1931 to wipe out what was left. Very few of the old buildings stand today.
So here’s the freaky part. I let my mother know that I was going to try to find this place. I couldn’t think of the name, but I described it as best I could.
Me: There’s this place I read about…I think in Sussex or Surry….an abandoned rail town and –
Her: Are you talking about Dendron?
Me: What the freak?
Her: Over there in Surry?
Me: Seriously, how in the world do you know this place?
Her: I just do and I actually think I remember how to find it. Are you up for a road trip?
For that, here’s my mom being awesome. She’s cute, right?
She vividly remembers an old school there called L.P. Jackson, named after historian Luther P. Jackson, who worked hard to establish black schools in the south. Only the foundation is left of the school, which taught grades 1-2 and 5-12 in separate buildings. A new school in Surry carries the name today.
For lunch, we stopped at Virginia Diner in Wakefield, which looks just like you’d expect a place called Virginia Diner to look. I went for the grilled cheese and what was meant to be a Waldorf. It was not.
It was a quick trip and I’m glad I went! There is something dark, haunting, and wildly beautiful about these old towns. I’m always on the lookout for them. If there are some can’t miss ones in your area, please let me know in the comments below. If you want to find Dendron, point your GPS to 37°2′40″N 76°56′5″W. Happy travels!