Sunray Historic District
- Sunray Historic District Map
- Post Office: Chesapeake
- Zip Code: 23321
The Sunray Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [‡]
The Sunray Agricultural Historic District (Sunray Historic District) is characterized by planned rural land tracts and a village center situated at the intersection of the main entrance road, Hertz Road, and the abandoned Virginian Railroad tracks. The planned rural landscape is situated south of the abandoned railroad tracks and has a grid pattern divided by handmade brackish-water tidal ditches. The plan is similar to urban planning ideas of the 19th and early 20th century and applied to an agriculture setting. Early 20th century vernacular farmhouses are located throughout the Sunray Historic District and are characterized by architectural styles and trends of the early 20th century. Agricultural buildings are clustered around the farmhouses and are found in the agricultural fields reflecting the function of the area. Institutional and religious buildings are situated on the main road leading into the agricultural community at its intersection with the abandoned Virginian Railroad line. This area provided a congregation point for the residents of the agricultural community providing a school and church. The district retains its integrity and reflects an early 20th century immigrant farming community. The Sunray Agricultural Historic District is eligible for the National Register for its association with agriculture, community planning and development, a designed landscape, and ethnic heritage from the period 1908-1956.
Detailed Architectural Description
The Sunray Agricultural Historic District is characterized by flat lands divided by north-south and east-west oriented roadways. Lining the roadways are single-family dwellings dating to the early 20th century interspersed with mid-20th century dwellings. The roadways are paved asphalt flanked by brackish-water ditches. Concrete or wood bridges, or earthworks facilitate access to properties from the roadways over the ditches. The roadways are elevated from the agricultural fields and house sites. There are no curbs. Evidence of the original condition of the roadways can be seen at the current eastern terminus of East Road and Peach Road. The roads are unimproved, with an elevated sand and gravel bed exhibiting parallel, depressed tracks and an elevated, grassy center.
Tree stands, roadways and ditches divide the agrarian fields, which are rectangular in shape. Those south of the railroad line follow the original 1908 plat of the Southern Homestead Corporation and are oriented north-south. Some have been subdivided. The primary crops grown in Sunray are flowering bulbs and soybeans.
Houses line the roadways and are mostly clustered in the northern part of the district, north of Sunray Avenue. South of Sunray Avenue, open fields and outbuildings surround the houses. The houses are set back approximately twenty-five feet from the road and are separated from the road by ditches. Houses constructed after 1950 retain similar setbacks, but in a few cases the houses are set farther back from the roadway.
By 1920, there were approximately forty houses in Sunray. Most were modest single-family houses of one-and-one-half or two stories and constructed of wood. Siding is wood weatherboard and original roof treatments are standing-seam metal. The foundation of the dwellings is brick piers. An example of a simple farmhouse can be found at 321 Hertz Road. This house was constructed in 1923 for an immigrant farm family. The house incorporates turned porch posts, and cornice and window details. The centrally placed, intersecting gable on the facade emphasizes the building’s three bays, and facilitates lighting of the upper story.
Carpenter, Michale Pavlovetz, designed his ornate house at 604 Homestead Road. It is a culmination of his woodworking ability and creativity, which can be seen in the patterned parquet floors and symmetrical facade with low-raking gables articulated by semi-circular windows. It is the most ornate and one of the larger houses in the district. Its prominence is reinforced by its location adjacent to the village entrance and railroad tracks. Pavlovetz also provided his amateur architectural services and carpentry services to other members of the community in the construction of their dwellings.
Another prominent house in Sunray Historic District is 545 Homestead Road, which is a two-story, three-bay, hipped roof farmhouse south of the railroad tracks near St. Mary’s Catholic Church. It is one of the earliest dwellings in Sunray. It retains its original outbuildings and integrity.
The Biernot Farm, 4333 East Road, is a good example of a larger agricultural property in Sunray. The dwelling is two-story and was constructed in 1912. It has a three-bay facade with Colonial Revival details. To the rear of the property are open agricultural fields. To the immediate west are outbuildings that support the farming and dairy process. There is a barn with vertical wood siding and a standing-seam metal, gable roof. In addition there are a silo and other smaller farm-related buildings. Most are in a deteriorating state.
In addition to residential dwellings, there are institutional buildings clustered at the entrance of the Sunray Historic District on Homestead Road at the Virginian Railroad tracks. The location of this group is directly related to the access of transportation to outlying communities, including Bowers Hill, to the immediate north, and Portsmouth, Norfolk and Suffolk via the railroad.
The Sunray School (621 Homestead Road) was constructed in 1922 in response to a need for public education in the area. It is a one-story brick building with a gable roof and Craftsman details, which includes brackets under the eaves and exposed rafters. There is a brick circular vent (now filled) in the gable. Windows are grouped in three on the side elevations and occupy most of the wall plane. The entrance incorporates double-leaf, multiple-light doors. The design of the building was standard and developed by the Virginia State Board of Education in the 1920s for smaller school buildings.
The original church in Sunray is St. Mary’s Catholic Church (540 Homestead Road). The church was constructed in 1915-1916, and dedicated in 1916. Gothic Revival in style, this church incorporates a prominent, projecting, square tower on the facade containing the entrance and is surmounted by a pyramidal roof. Window openings on the side elevations have pointed arches. The church has an open plan with a balcony on the east end and pulpit on the west end. Flanking the church is the church parish and rectory. The rectory (536 Homestead Road), to the south, is a two-story, Colonial Revival dwelling with a hipped roof and cross-shaped plan. It retains its original standing-seam metal roof. The parish house, to the north of the church (544 Homestead Road), is an elongated one-story building with a gable roof. There is also a cemetery on site, which is located to the south and west of the church and rectory. There are a few simple stone markers near a stand of trees.
During the mid-20th century, numerous houses were added and larger parcels were subdivided to provide house sites and smaller land tracts for family members and descendants of the original settlers. These buildings are most commonly characterized by Ranch style and Colonial Revival houses constructed during the post-World War II boom. They are primarily located within the interior of the district along the roadways to maintain the agricultural fields. The lots range in size from one or two acres. Another example of the subdivision of lands is the Compaz subdivision of 1952 situated along Compaz Road. It subdivided a large agricultural parcel into housing lots at the southwest corner of the original 1908 Southern Homestead plan. This provided residential growth for the community while maintaining the original plan and maximizing the agricultural lands. These buildings reflect the growth of the community in the mid-20th century.
The Sunray Historic District is characterized by agricultural fields and single-family dwellings. The institutional core of the district is confined to the entrance of the district on Homestead Road at the Virginian Railroad Line. To the north of the Sunray Historic District lie properties associated with the now defunct village of Bowers Hill and are not associated with the Sunray district. The Sunray Historic District boundaries reflect the plan of the original Sunray community.
The Sunray Agricultural Historic District (Sunray Historic District) is a planned agrarian community of Polish immigrants dating to the early 20th century. Poles who immigrated to the United States were encouraged by prospects of work in industrial centers, mining colonies and agricultural communities from New York to Chicago. The land on which Sunray is located was purchased by a real estate developer, and in conjunction with shipping agents out of New York City who assisted with the relocation of Polish immigrants, they created a Polish agricultural community on undeveloped tidal marshes of the Great Dismal Swamp. The plan of the community is based upon traditional grid planning concepts common to the 19th century in urban areas. The colony thrived from its arrival in the 1910s, draining and farming the land, building a church and school, and forming a community organization to protect residents’ interests. Located between Portsmouth and Suffolk, access to these major cities was via railroad connections located to the north. The community retains its Polish heritage and agricultural function. The Sunray Agricultural Historic District is eligible for the National Register for its association with agriculture, community planning and development, a designed landscape, and ethnic heritage from the period 1908-1956.
Statement of Significance
The area of the Sunray Agricultural Historic District was formerly marshland located just north of the Great Dismal Swamp. The property was part of a 4,890-acre tract of land owned by Joshua Fort, which he purchased in 1805. Fort owned much of what was Sunray and Bowers Hill at the border of Norfolk and Nansemond Counties, and his lands became known as “Fort Land.” After his death in 1855, his property passed through various hands before being trusted to John R. Kilby. Kilby sold the property to Enoch Ghio and Robert J. Neely in 1867.
Robert J. Neely was a prominent lumber merchant who was born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He and his brother, William, moved to Southampton County, Virginia in 1855. They formed a lumber business under the firm name, R.J. and W. Neely, and operated a plant in Franklin, Virginia. During the Civil War, both men served the Confederate military in Richmond. At the close of the war, both men returned to Franklin, but soon relocated their business to Portsmouth, Virginia. The brothers purchased two wharves on the Portsmouth waterfront and operated a lumber business at the corner of Crawford Street and London Boulevard. In addition to selling lumber, they also sold doors, sashes, blinds, and other assorted wood products provided from the “Fort Land.”
The “Fort Land” was later sold to Oliver D. Jackson and his wife Jennie. With a $5,000 debt looming over the property dating to the 1867 purchase, the property was sold again in 1899 to the Franklin Land and Lumber Company of Franklin, Ohio with offices in Norfolk, Virginia. They agreed to pay $10,750 and the remaining payment of $4,750 still owed on the $5,000 debt. Most of the directors of the corporation resided in Columbus, Ohio, except for O.D. Jackson, who was the initial grantor of the property. The primary function of the company was to produce timber products and sell off the land.
The connection between Franklin Land and Lumber, and Oliver D. Jackson derived from Jackson’s origins in Akron County, Ohio. Jackson was a native of Ohio and began in business owning the Akron Iron Company. He sold this business in 1882 and began to deal in coal mining property. He was responsible for establishing coal mines in Jacksonville, Athens County, Ohio. He later relocated to Columbus, Ohio and sold $3.4 million in mining property. In 1895, Jackson moved to Norfolk County. He established O.D. Jackson Realty in 1898, housing his office in the Monticello Hotel. The primary function of his business was to promote the South and industrial enterprises in the region. A major element of his business was the brokering of large suburban tracts, timberland, and agricultural tracts. In addition to lands in Virginia, he also brokered land sales in North Carolina.
Franklin Land and Lumber Company made the Ohio Trust Company a trustee in their endeavor to sell property within the now unnamed area, formerly named “Fort Land.” Ohio Trust and Franklin Land and Lumber were directly linked by common directors and officers. Ohio Trust provided loans and guarantees for the property, and listed their primary function as the seller of lands.
Additional involvement in the project appeared in 1907 with the Southern Homestead Corporation, which is also based in Norfolk. The Southern Homestead Corporation was incorporated with the purpose of attracting immigrants to the area, and selling them property to homestead. The naming of the company “Southern Homestead” was most likely an adaptation of the Southern Homestead Act of 1866, in which the United States Congress encouraged the sale of property to freedmen or whites loyal to the Union. Their first transaction in Norfolk County was with Ohio Trust Company in late 1907 for the sale of parcels of land. They also sold a right-of-way to the now defunct Virginian Railway to lay tracks that linked with the Seaboard Airline tracks that traveled through the town of Bowers Hill, located to the north. In 1910, a decree is made giving Southern Homestead a large tract of land belonging to Franklin Land and Lumber Company.
Southern Homestead’s acquisition of the additional land from Franklin Land and Lumber Company led to the creation of a plat south of the railroad, which divided the property into large lots. The lots were connected via slightly elevated roadways, which were formed from the soft earth of the marshlands. The roadways were built by digging ditches parallel to the planned roadway path and using the dirt as a roadbed. The earliest map of the area shows five roadways with parallel ditches used to construct the roadways. There were additional ditches featured on the map mostly to the south of the Virginian railroad line. The roads were labeled “soft roads” that were undeveloped and similar to those found in the Great Dismal Swamp, which is situated to the south of Sunray.
At some point prior to the creation of the Sunray community, a small railroad system was placed on the soft roads that adhered to the R.J. Neely plan. The railroad system provided transport of timber products from the land to Bowers Hill. According to local residents, the railroad system was abandoned during the early years shortly after the first residents arrived and began improving their land for farming. The tracks were located along Homestead Road and Carlisle Road, and are reflected in the 1908 Southern Homestead map.
The plan of Sunray was similar to the ditch plan of the Great Dismal Swamp, which connects the swampland, Great Dismal Swamp Lake, Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal, and the river system of the Elizabeth River. The Plan of R.J. Neely’s Land Near Bowers Hill, Norfolk County, Virginia drawn in 1885 shows the established railroad of the Seaboard Airline railroad and the Norfolk and Western Railroad near the village of Bowers Hill north of Sunray connected via a ditch system that lead from Bowers Hill, southwest through the current plan of Sunray. This ditch paralleled the future Homestead Road of the Southern Homestead Corporation plan of 1908. Additional ditches were seen in the Neely plan including and angled ditch oriented north-south that parallels Carlisle Road.
The current system of ditches was constructed by the early landowners in Sunray. As discussed previously, ditches were dug to form parallel roadways within the swamplands of the Great Dismal Swamp and were used in Sunray to harvest the timber by the earlier landowners. The ditches were excavated and the earth was used to form a roadbed. To make the land suitable for farming the early residents used the same idea to drain farm plots. The early Polish residents of Sunray hand dug the ditches at the lot lines established in the Southern Homestead plan of 1908. The ditches served as property delineators as well as a means to drain the farmland. The excavated earth was used on the future farmland and served as a means of channeling the water from the farmland. Marsh reclamation was found in many areas of the Atlantic coastal region where low lying areas are predominantly marshy. The task of draining marshland was labor intensive as the ditches were dug by hand through the 19th century. The ditches lowered the water table and the areas between them were made suitable for agricultural fields and home sites.
The ditches system pattern was based upon lot lines developed by the Southern Homestead Corporation based upon their 1908 subdivision map. The ditches served two important functions, which was draining farmlands and providing a barrier between property owners. This clear delineation of parcels within the community reflected a typical grid pattern common to 19th century planning ideas. The grid plan provided for maximum land usage and was easy to lay out within a general rectangular shaped land area. Within the grid plan roads were typically oriented north-south and east-west form rectangular blocks. Within the Sunray Agricultural Historic District, there were large blocks reflecting large parcels for farming and house sites. The parcels were generally rectangular in plan and are regularly spaced along the east-west roadways. This adaptation of urban planning concepts to an agricultural community was not commonly seen within the Commonwealth of Virginia as many farmsteads were established in the 17th through 20th century on irregularly shaped parcels. The subdivision of the parcels through the centuries has provided additional irregularly shaped parcels. The influence of traditional grid planning as an adaptation of urban planning ideas to an agricultural setting was not commonly seen in the Commonwealth of Virginia and the planning of a community for immigrants in an area traditionally known for early settlement is also uncommon. This was most likely attributed to the investors in and owners of the land who were from other regions of the United States.
In addition to Southern Homestead Corporation, two patrons of the potential development were Isidor and Rose Herz of New York. They stimulated the project by purchasing land from Southern Homestead Corporation and assisted in the sale of the property to new immigrants from Poland. From mid 1909 to the end of 1909, either Isidor or the couple purchased multiple lots from the Southern Homestead Corporation, and in turn sold them over the next ten years. Isidor was an agent for a local steamship company, which provided transport of immigrants to the United States.
The link between Southern Homestead and the Herzs was through an officer in the Southern Homestead Corporation, Ulysses Truitt, who appears as an officer and director in the corporation. Ulysses Truitt was also a steamship agent based in New York. H.A. Hertz, another officer in the Southern Homestead Corporation may have been a relation or associate, and appears in Norfolk for only a brief period dealing in the sale of real property.
In 1915, Isidor Herz and Ulysses Truitt formed the United States Colonization Corporation. Its primary purpose was to attract immigrants to the area and “colonize” a community of Polish farmers. United States Colonization sells numerous lots to immigrants between 1915 and 1918.
Virginia has one of the smallest Polish immigrant populations, which makes this community’s formation a rarity in Virginia’s history. According to 1910 statistics, most Poles settled in the northeastern states and upper Midwestern states. Of the 3 million Poles that had immigrated to the United States by 1910, Virginia is lumped in with the other 22 states that collectively have a population of 10,000 Poles.
As early as 1864, President Abraham Lincoln encouraged immigration by Europeans to the United States as it pushed its boundaries farther west. The formation of the immigration program was due to a need to populate the west and to stimulate the agricultural economy. The area west of the Mississippi River was largely agrarian, and the only states established were those on the west bank of the Mississippi River, and the west coast states of California, Oregon and Nevada.
Polish immigration to the United States can be traced back to the creation of the Commission of Immigration under the United States State Department that President Abraham Lincoln advocated in 1864. Virginia followed suit in 1866, passing laws to encourage immigration to support its growing and diverse economy. Though immigration until 1890 was slow, unrest in Europe in the late 19th century would accelerate European emigration to such large numbers that the United States government was required to build additional immigrant processing buildings and enact restrictions on the number of immigrants by the 1920s.
The earliest mass immigration of Poles was due to the political state of Poland from 1795 to 1918. The subjugation of Poland by Prussia, Russia and Austria left many Poles without land, employment, and culture. In addition to the subjugation of the Polish state, Poland was an underdeveloped country dominated by a corrupt monarchy, and self-serving aristocracy. Poland was made up of a largely peasant population that was agricultural in nature, with a 70% to 80% agrarian population.
The peasant population held small tracts of land, which did not allow the average Polish family to support itself. Their primitive means of farming also required family members to participate in the agricultural process. The need to focus on supporting themselves led to low production of agricultural goods for sale in urban centers. There were no opportunities to augment their income through additional agrarian labor, such as farming a large estate, since the harvest seasons were the same for all farmers. There was little industrial-related employment due to a lack of development of the cities and of capital to support major industry.
The Polish family structure and traditions in family ownership of lands also precipitated the need for additional lands. Polish families are strongly knit and offspring remain at the family home or close to the family home assisting parents and grandparents with the cultivation of the farm. In many cases, parents subdivided farms to give the male children of the household their own farms. Ultimately ownership of family land was retained as all subdivided tracts remained within the same families. The focus on family and the preservation of family lands within the family also became a burden on farmers as there were no additional lands to farm within Poland with the economic and political climate during this period.
In addition to economic issues, there were between 100 to 200 days of religious holidays depending on the region of the country. These days were reserved for praying and fasting, and work ceased during these periods. The poor peasant class also bore the tax burden of the country due to the tax structure extant in Poland.
Immigration began in the 1870s from Poland due to the poor economic situation and high rate of poverty. What intensified the emigration was the continued repression of the Polish peoples by the immigrants that were occupying Poland from Prussia, Russia and Austria. In addition to this immigration by people from other countries, there was a crop failure in 1876, lockout in the textile industry and intensive persecution of the native Poles and their customs.
While the economic failure and high rates of poverty may have been the catalyst for emigration, the attraction to immigrate to the United States was encouraged by agents of steamship companies, and American companies who sought inexpensive labor. Lucky Polish emigrants also wrote to their native homeland of success in America through the availability of employment and land for farming. Most Poles upon arriving in America had little money and were relegated to working in factories in the east coast cities. Some were able to travel to the mining towns in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. The regular labor and livable wage was an attraction to the Poles, and many immigrated to the United States.
In most cases, single males or married males immigrated first, bringing over family members or wives upon their acquisition of funds to pay for steerage. Many Poles lived in the same areas of a locality, populating a community of their own. Their industriousness led to the establishment of strong communities with churches, schools, and self-sufficient social and economic structures. Status competition was the Poles’ strength and they did not spend their earned income frivolously on luxuries. They sought to be free of mortgages and formed independent organizations to govern their tightly knit communities.
Sunray’s residents can be traced back through this type of immigration and the community is an example of this common type of community development. The community was formed by agents and real estate developers who sought to profit from new immigrants by either providing for their immediate relocation or by attracting those who had arrived, but wished to acquire land for farming. Since most Poles were farmers, the attraction of inexpensive land was great. A family history of this type of Polish immigration can be traced through one such Sunray resident of the early 20th century, Mary Barnak. She was born Marya Barnak in Austria-Poland and immigrated to the United States from Polska Ostwiva. She traveled on the ship Kaiser Wilhelm Der Grosse out of Bremen, Germany, and arrived on New York’s Ellis Island October 21, 1903. She was 26 years old and was traveling with her infant son Franz. Her intention was to meet with her husband, Josef Barnak, who had immigrated to the Untied States earlier that year and had settled in Fayette, West Virginia, most likely working in a coal mine. She arrived with $5.00 in her pocket and began the long trip to West Virginia. The couple reunited and had three children in West Virginia before settling in Sunray.
The first appearance of the Barnak family in Sunray is a land sale in 1910. Joseph Barnak purchased land from Franklin Land and Lumber Company and the family relocated in Sunray. They purchased additional parcels of land between 1910 and 1917 amassing a substantial land holding in Sunray. Barnak became a community leader along with other large landholders. Franz (Frank) Barnak would later operate Sunray’s only store at the intersection of Sunray and Homestead Roads in the middle of the district.
The Sunray community was additionally stimulated when Portsmouth Suburban Water was given a right-of-way in 1909 to lay water pipes to the area. In addition to infrastructure stimulus, the sale of a right-of-way to Virginian Railway would assist in marketing the property to transport agricultural goods directly from the Sunray community. The town immediately to the north was Bowers Hill, which was connected to Suffolk and Portsmouth via the Seaboard Airline railroad. The sale allowed the Virginian Railway Company to lay track at the north boundary of Southern Homestead’s land tracts, which would give the residents a direct connection to Norfolk. The Virginian Railroad was a major contribution to the settlement of Sunray in the 1910s. The Virginian Railroad was a “dream” for former Standard Oil magnate, H.H. Rogers. Rogers was a New Englander who made his first millions affiliated with John D. Rockefeller in the investment of the oil fields in Pennsylvania. Rogers associated with Colonel William N. Page of West Virginia to form the Virginian Railroad, which connected the coal mines of western Virginia and West Virginia to Sewalls Point (currently Sewells Point) in Norfolk, Virginia. This connection provided a means of shipping coal via the coal piers at Sewalls Point.
The Virginian Railroad was formed by a merger of the Tidewater Railroad and the Deepwater Railroad in 1907. The Deepwater Railroad was begun in 1898 by Colonel Page in West Virginia to facilitate the transport of goods from Page’s lumber business. The railroad was comprised originally of a 4 mile spur that connected to the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad from Deepwater, West Virginia. In 1902, their charter allowed them to extend to the Virginia coalfields.
Colonel William N. Page began the Tidewater Railroad in 1904 with financial backing from H.H. Rogers. The goal of the railroad was to run a track from Sewalls Point to the coalfields in western Virginia, which would eventually connect with the Deepwater Railroad. In March 1907, Tidewater Railroad was in the process of laying 330 miles of track from Sewalls Point to western Virginia, when the Deepwater Railroad merged with it. The two became the Virginian Railroad in 1909 when the track had been completed and the railroad opened.
Passenger service began July 12, 1909 on the Virginia Railroad stopping at stations between Sewalls Point and Deepwater, West Virginia. One of the stops along the route was Sunray Station, which was a daily stop on the railroad. The station was located adjacent to the church on the south side of the railroad tracks. The station was a small platform, according to local residents.
In 1925 Rogers agreed to lease the Virginian Railroad to the Norfolk and Western Railroad for 999 years due to Norfolk and Western’s interest in acquiring the lines from the coal piers on Sewalls Point. Permission was denied by the Interstate Commerce Commission due to the concern over the monopoly of the coal piers and shipping from Norfolk. In 1959, permission was finally granted and the Virginian officially became Norfolk and Western’s line. It was closed shortly thereafter since established routes to the western part of the state were already in possession by Norfolk and Western. Sunray no longer had an active railroad traveling through its community.
In 1912, the Franklin Land and Lumber Company sold a parcel of land adjacent to the railroad tracks to the trustees of the St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church. The property was located on Homestead Road and was comprised of approximately six-and-one-half acres of land. The trustees of the church were Julius Symansky (Szymanski), John Zawada, Stanley Jaskowiak, and W.D. Brickell (one of the officers of Franklin Land and Lumber from Columbus, Ohio). This premium site was sold for $1 for a “church, school, and cemetery.” The community constructed the buildings on site from 1915 to 1916.
Religion was an important part of Polish life. As discussed previously, Poland was a religious country dominated by a strong belief in the Catholic faith. The need for a church was not just based in religion. The church and its grounds provided a source for communal space, where the community could congregate and was the center of the community structure. The church building grouping is typical of a Polish community. The need to provide just a meeting place was not the only motivation, but also a location for the education of the community children. The school provided education based in religion, strong moral values, discipline, and Polish heritage, which was lost in public schools. Though the school was constructed, it only served the community a short while as the community was petitioning for a public school at the same time as the church school was being constructed.
Most of the new inhabitants of Sunray could read, and there was no public school in Sunray, though there was a church school associated with St. Mary’s Church. A desire for a public school was the impetus for the sale of a tract of land for a school building. In August 1916, the Franklin Land and Lumber Company sold a parcel to the School Board of Deep Creek Magisterial District, No. 2 of the County of Norfolk for $1 to construct a public school. While the land was sold in 1916, the school was not constructed until 1922.
The 1908 Southern Homestead Corporation part of Property Plat 1 shows 18 buildings on the roadways that had been developed. (The buildings were added after 1908, but reflect the early building in the area.) While the founding of the community was settled by 1909, purchasing of the land by new immigrants was not common until 1911. Between 1911 and 1915 most lots were bought and sold in Sunray, and by 1920, there were almost 200 people living in Sunray in 39 head of household families.
Most of the families were of Polish descent and had immigrated to the United States between 1900 and 1915. From Census records, most of the children were born in Virginia, while some older children were born in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York. Mixed within this predominantly Polish community were a few families of English descent, who occupied land closer to Bowers Hill. Though near Bowers Hill, the Southern Homestead lands were officially called Sunray Village, not incorporated, by 1920.
Though none of the current citizens recall why the community named itself Sunray, that name appears as early as the 1920 census. It appears from early records that the community named itself Sunray informally, but considered itself part of Bowers Hill. This is concluded from a number of documents produced during this period. Members of the Polish community had formed the Farmers Political and Industrial Association of Bowers Hill, Virginia, which changed its name in 1935 to the Sunray Farmers’ Association of Bowers Hill, Virginia. The Sunray Bulb Farm incorporated in 1923 and the 1920 census refers to the Sunray Village.
The name “Sunray” most likely had a religious connotation. Poles and the residents of Sunray were Catholic and had a strong religious background. The sun is a symbol of Christ, and “a woman clothed in the sun” is believed to refer to St. Mary the Virgin. It also may have reflected the fertility of the soil and the ability to grow most any crop in Sunray.
The road names in Sunray reflect the developmental and ethnic heritage of the community. Homestead Road is the main entrance to the community, and was named in honor of the Southern Homestead Corporation. East Road leads east of Homestead Road. Carlisle Road and Hertz (Herz) Road still remain. Herz, now Hertz was named in honor of Isidor Herz and his wife, and/or H.A. Hertz of Norfolk. Franklin Road, for the Franklin Land and Lumber Company, has been renamed Sunray Road. Sondej Road was laid east-west just south of the railroad tracks to the Sondej property to the west of the church. Biernot Road was named for the Biernot family who owned property of the east side of Sunray. Truitt Road was named for Ulysses Truitt, director of Southern Homestead and United States Colonization Corporations.
In 1921, a small group of Sunray residents formed the Farmers Political and Industrial Association of Bowers Hill, Virginia. Their primary function was to “�advance, promote and protect the interest of the residential farming, and commercial community situated at Bowers Hill�” Another function of the group was to create and maintain a cemetery at Bowers Hill. Five local truck farmers; John Cichorz, Joseph Biernat (Biernot), Frank Dragon, John Zydron, and John Dragon were the initial officers and represented the approximately 15 truck farmers of the area. At the first election held, officers are listed as Frank Dragon, president; John Dragon, vice-president; Joseph Shemenshy, recording secretary; B. Sondej, financial secretary; Joseph Janusz, corresponding secretary; Anton Sondej, treasurer; and John Zydron, doorkeeper. In 1935, the association changed its name to the Sunray Farmers’ Association of Bowers Hill, Virginia, distinguishing them among the growing Bowers Hill area.
Though their primary function was to advance, promote and protect the community, they also served other functions. According to their bylaws, they served as a mediation service or local “court” for residents in case of disputes. Disputes could range from land-related, such as clearing ditches and the impact to neighboring farms to gossiping. The community-group met monthly and collected dues. It has evolved into a group that primarily “advances, promote(s) and protect(s)” community interests of a typical civic group. The Sunray Farmers’ Association constructed a community center in the 1950s on Hertz Road in the middle of the district. The association is still active today, though focuses on the stability of the community and impact of modern intrusions.
The organization was formed with the assistance of a Polish-immigrant attorney from Richmond. According to documents of the Sunray Farmers’ Association, Joseph Janusz was the attorney of record for the group and helped them organize. He assisted them with the creation of their bylaws and organizational structure. He is thought of as the “founder” of the Sunray community.
This type of organization was typical of the Polish communities in the United States during the early 20th century. American-immigrant Poles were very politically knowledgeable, which was encouraged by organizations such as the Polish National Alliance (PNA). The Alliance was formed in 1880 to assist new Polish immigrants acclimate themselves to their new American home. They were well known in the Polish community, and published annual calendars distributed nationwide and the constitution in both Polish and English. As early as 1910, they provided reception homes in cities where new immigrants landed, such as New York. This allowed immigrants to have a temporary home prior to their migration to other parts of the United States, or to assist immigrants in acquiring permanent lodging. The PNA also formed a “Colonization Commission” to assist new immigrants with the acquisition of employment or relocation to areas with employment opportunities. The assistance of this organization was widespread and it created an organized political atmosphere in Polish communities in America.
Early residents of Sunray were mostly farmers. They grew crops for their families and surrounding families either working on a barter system or selling goods to adjacent farms. In addition to being a self-sustaining community, they also sold their goods at market. According to Frank Zydron, his grandparents took excess crops to the Portsmouth market via horse and buggy. They also placed agricultural goods, such as strawberries and white potatoes, on small boats at Williams Spring Farm nearby on the Western Branch of the Elizabeth River that would be taken to Portsmouth and loaded on a bay liner that would transport the goods to Baltimore or other ports north.
Within the community also resided a carpenter, Michale Pavlovetz. Pavlovetz constructed a prominent house for his family at the entrance to Sunray across from the Sunray School. Most residents were laborers for the farms within the area. There were a few residents who were employed outside of the community, such as an apprentice for the U.S. Shipyard (Norfolk Naval Shipyard) in Portsmouth or factory workers.
The onset of World War II provided outside employment for many of Sunray’s residents. The need for laborers on the local military installations provided opportunities for skilled and unskilled labor. The employment rate at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard doubled during this period. During World War II, the Norfolk Naval shipyard employed numerous Sunray residents. To facilitate transport of the residents to the yard, which was approximately 8 miles from the community, there was a daily bus that ran between Sunray and the shipyard.
Families retained their property throughout the 20th century, subdividing lots for family members. Common to Polish heritage, the patriarch subdivided his lands for his children and set aside a portion for the continuation of the agricultural process by the family. The intention of the subdivision would allow for the future generation to maintain the family land for their subsistence and the retention of the lands within the family. Ideally lands were added, but as in Poland, land was not infinitely available, and additional farm parcels could only be obtain from adjacent landowners. Within Sunray, the descendents of the original settlers were deeded a small parcel along the roadway in an effort to maintain the larger farmed tract. Subdivision of the large agricultural parcels was sensitive to maintain the agrarian character of the community. Descendents of the original farm families still reside in Sunray and some still maintain their farms or adjacent farms. This practice of farm ownership and retention is rooted in the cultural practices of the Poles. The subdivision of lands was common in the 19th century, which was implemented in the Sunray community. Though farming means have changed and many residents sought outside employment, offspring continued to reside near their families within the Polish community.
In the 1950s numerous children and grandchildren of the original immigrants and landholders came of age and small parcels were subdivided along the roadways for the erection of houses for the growing families. This is evident within Sunray as the roadways are lined with houses dating to the 1950s and 1960s. In addition, the early farmhouse was many times demolished to make way for a modern house. Recollections of descendents of the original settlers note that the early houses erected within the community were small due to financial limitations of the earliest settlers. As the property was passed to the following generation, the “old” or original house was demolished to make way for a new or “modern” house.
In addition to the removal of early houses and subdivision of farmsteads for houses for the original descendents, changes in the economy of the 1940s and 1950s prompted new opportunities for the second and third generations of Polish immigrants. Outside employment that had burgeoned during World War II provided the younger generations with new employment opportunities than the agrarian heritage of the generation of immigrants. Many of children of Sunray’s original farmers held outside employment in Portsmouth and Norfolk, while their parents continued to farm the family lands. The subdividing of parcels of land for descendents was commonly practiced in Poland to retain family ownership of land, and this tradition continued in Sunray.
The most evident pressure to accommodate the growing adult population of Sunray is seen in the Compaz subdivision of 1952. This subdivision is situated at the southwest corner of the original plan and adapted an original parcel into smaller residential tracts. As with the subdivision of house parcels along the roadways to retain the agricultural lands, the Compaz subdivision created a series of smaller lots at the edge of the community in an effort to retain the larger tracts for farming. This subdivision reflects the changes to the landscape of the agrarian community to adapt to the changes in employment and increase in the community’s population.
Through the last half of the 20th century, the agricultural process continued on the large agricultural tracts within the Sunray community. The tradition of the subdivision of lands along the main roadways also continues as families grow with the numerous descendants of the original settlers of the community. The subdivision of lands to retain the agrarian heritage and character of the community is significant to the present characteristics of the community. While opportunity has arisen for the conversion of the community for modern suburban development, many of the original landowners who are descendents of the original settlers have been taught to the importance of land ownership and the retention of the community character. Today only a small percentage of the current population maintains the farmland, but most of the occupants within the community are descendents of the original settlers. The community still retains its community organization, which is managed by the area farmers and original settlers’ descendents in an effort to retain the heritage of the agricultural function of the community.
The Sunray Agricultural Historic District is an example of an early 20th century Polish-immigrant agricultural community. It retains integrity in terms of form, planning, and development. It meets National Register criteria for is association with Agriculture and Ethnic Heritage — European, and also for its association with community Planning and development, designed landscape, and architecture.
- According to descendent residing at 344 Hertz Road, 30 January 2002.
- According to local residents, Michale Pavlovetz assisted other members of the farming community with the construction of their houses. The specific houses are unknown to current residents.
- Norfolk County Deed Records, City of Chesapeake, VA.
- Steward, William H., History of Norfolk County and representative citizens, Chicago, Biographical Publishing Co., 1902, 537-538.
- Norfolk County Deed Records.
- Virginia State Corporation Commission Records.
- Stewart, 1021.
- Virginia State Corporation Commission Records.
- Lanza, Michael L., Agrarianism and reconstruction politics: the Southern Homestead Act, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1990, 6.
- Norfolk County Deed Records.
- Map of Southern Homestead Corporation, Norfolk County Clerk’s Office.
- Map of Southern Homestead Corporation, Norfolk County Clerks Office, and interview with Gary Szymanski.
- “Plan of R.J. Neely’s Land near Bowers Hill Norfolk County VA.” May 1885. Bascom Sykes, Surveyor of Norfolk County Area, Norfolk County Clerks Office.
- Interview with Frank Zydron and Gary Szmanski.
- Norfolk County Deed Records.
- New York City Directories. 1905-1920.
- Norfolk City Directories. 1908-1915.
- Norfolk County Deed Records.
- Fox, Paul, Poles in America, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1970, 62.
- Wytrwal, Joseph Anthony, America’s Polish heritage; a social history of the Poles in America, Detroit: Endurance Press, 1961, 119-120.
- Fox, 36.
- Ibid, 38.
- Ibid, 39-41.
- Ibid, 40-41.
- Ibid, 41-42.
- Ibid, 59.
- Lopata, Helena, Polish Americans, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1994, 53.
- Ibid, 54.
- Ibid, 56-57.
- List or Manifest of Alien Passengers of the U.S. Immigration Officer at Port of Arrival. SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse sailing from Bremen, October 13, 1903 Arriving at the Port of New York, 1903. List 3, Lines 1 and 2.
- 1920 Census, Deep Creek Magisterial District, Supervisor District 2, Enumeration District No.129, Sheet 16A and 1930 Census, Deep Creek Magisterial District, Supervisors District No.14, Enumeration District 65-3, Sheet 14A.
- Norfolk County Deed Book 417, page 280. August 8, 1915.
- Interview with Gary Szymanski and Paul Zydron.
- Region known as Bowers Hill presently.
- Prince, Richard W., Norfolk & Western Railway — Pocahontas coal carrier: precision transportation, Millard, Nebraska: R.E. Prince, 1980, 261.
- Ibid, 261.
- Ibid, 262, and interview with Gary Szymanski.
- Ibid, 261-265.
- Norfolk County Deeds.
- Fox, 92-93.
- Norfolk County Deeds.
- United States Census, 1920.
- State Corporation Commission Records.
- Metford, JCJ, Dictionary of Christian Lore and Legend, p.234.
- Sunray Farmers’ Association Bylaws.
- State Corporation Commission Records.
- Documents obtained from Gary Szymanski of the Sunray Farmers Association, including letters and record books.
- Wytrwal, 192.
- Ibid, 196-199.
- United States Census Records, 1920 and 1930.
- Interviews with Gary Szymanski and Paul Zydron.
Chesapeake City Directories.
Fox, Paul. The Poles in America. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1970.
Hening. Statutes. Volume III.
Lanza, Michael L. Agrarianism and reconstruction politics: the Southern Homestead Act. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1990.
Lopata, Helena. Polish Americans. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1994.
Murdzek, Benjamin P. Emigration in Polish social-political thought, 1870-1914. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.
New York City Directories.
Norfolk and Portsmouth City Directories.
Norfolk County, its history and development. The leading county of Virginia. April 16, 1907. Norfolk, VA: Press of Tidewater Publishing Company, 1907.
Norfolk County, Virginia Deed Records.
Personal Interviews, 2002: Gary Szymanski; Frank Zydron.
Prince, Richard W. Norfolk & Western Railway — Pocahontas coal carrier: precision transportation. Millard, Nebraska: R.E. Prince, 1980.
Stewart, William H. History of Norfolk County, Virginia and representative citizens. Chicago: Biographical Publishing Company, 1902.
Sunray Farmers Association. Bylaws. 1921, updated 1955.
Virginia Department of Historic Resources Files.
Virginia State Corporation Commission Records.
Virginia State Department of Education Architectural Drawings.
1920 United States Census, Norfolk County, Deep Creek District.
1930 United States Census, Norfolk, County, Deep Creek District.
Whichard, Rogers Dey. The History of Lower Tidewater Virginia. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1959.
www.ellisisland.org Digital database of passenger lists.
Wytrwal, Joseph Anthony. America’s Polish heritage; a social history of the Poles in America. Detroit: Endurance Press, 1961.
‡ Kimble A. David, architectural historian, Sunray Agricultural Historic District, City of Chesapeake, Virginia, nomination document, 2006, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
Biernot Road • Carlisle Road • Compaz Road • East Road • Hertz Road • Homestead Road • Old State Road • Peach Road • Seldon Road • Sondej Road • Sunray Avenue • Truitt Road