Wednesday, August 22: The history of Marlbank Farms, the neighborhood where I grew up in Yorktown, dates back to the early 1700s. It apparently began as the 500-acre “Wormley Creek Plantation.” On October 19, 1781, while General Cornwallis was surrendering to George Washington in America’s Revolutionary War, Washington’s soldiers were likely foraging through Marlbank Farms for game and other food. The decisive battle that won American independence was fought on the battlefield less than a mile from the plantation.
Nearly a century later, in the spring of 1862, the plantation served as the base for Union forces laying siege to Yorktown. The battle this time was against Confederate forces who were blocking Peninsula approaches to Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy in the American Civil War.
After the Civil War, ownership of the plantation changed. In 1879, it was sold to William Hughes; in 1945, 550 acres were sold to L. R. O’Hara. Mr. O’Hara restored the manor house, named Marlbank Farm, and developed the Marlbank Farms subdivision in the late 1940s. The O’Haras and descendents lived in the house until 1988.
When the manor house was sold and refurbished in 1988, more houses were built close by.
Marlbank refers to the layer of marl (a conglomerate of mud, shells and clay) that lies below the soil surface along the York River. Early settlers used marl as construction material.
My family moved to Marlbank Farms in ~ 1966. At that time, I was in 5th grade and I entered Yorktown Elementary School as the awkward new kid on the block. My friend Louise loves to tell the story about how I arrived in the middle of the school year wearing a plaid crinoline dress, lacy ankle socks and patent leather shoes. Yorktown was a different world from where I lived my first 11 years in Newport News. I remember thinking I had moved out to the country from the big city, although that was far from the truth.
Our family bought a two-story Colonial where my father still lives to this day. Seven of us lived under that roof during those years: my mother and father, me as the eldest, Stephanie, Joan, Brian and Robbie. I made the closest friends of my life in that neighborhood: first Martha, Melissa and Nancy; later Rosie and Louise.
I’m filled with nostalgia for my Marlbank years. In junior high school, Martha and I spent endless hours playing horses in her backyard, setting up an impressive array of jumps and having jumping competitions on the course. Indoors, we sent colorful marbles racing down a multi-tiered plastic marble racetrack; each of our marbles was lovingly named after horses from Triple Crown races; many names we concocted ourselves. We kept notebooks with descriptions of the marbles and their respective horse names.
In my high school years, I practically lived in my friend Rosie’s house. We played Yahtzee, watched TV, made tuna fish and olive cheese toast, and lounged around daydreaming about boys.
We spent our days riding bikes around the neighborhood, swimming on the Marlbank Mudtoads swim team, flirting with the lifeguards, and playing Marco Polo in the deep end of the Marlbank pool.
We went to dances at the Marlbank Recreation Association (MRA) building where we danced to songs like “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” by Iron Butterfly. At slightly over 17 minutes, that song occupies the entire second side of the group’s 1968 In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida album. I remember wishing certain boys would ask me to dance to that song. When they didn’t, and I was stuck dancing to it with someone I didn’t like, the song seemed interminable.
Sometimes, when I felt sad and wanted to escape the hubbub in our boisterous house, I rode my bike to the pool and swung on the swings, even in the dead of winter. The swings there today are a newer version of what was there in the 1970s.
Some of my friends had waterfront property, or access to docks, on Wormley Creek. We went crabbing off those docks, tying chicken legs or wings to string and catching crabs with nets. On hot & humid summer days, we walked through the woods on a trail at the end of Wormley Creek Drive to the creek itself. There, the creek widened and fed into the York River. We held our towels over our heads and swam across the creek to a sandy beach on the other side. Sometimes Martha brought her little outboard motorboat and pulled us behind the boat on a rope dangling from the back.
Nowadays, waterfront homes have been built at the end of Wormley Creek Drive, blocking all access to the creek. 😦 In my view, there should still be a trail down to the creek between the properties.
We did so many fun things over our childhood years; these are memories I will always cherish.
One of the boys, Michael Sim, had a pony he kept at his grandfather’s stable near the end of Wormley Creek Drive. The pony’s name was Maybe; maybe he’d buck you, maybe he wouldn’t. This fickle and feisty little pony did whatever he felt like doing. We used to ride him and jump him over low jumps in the big yard. The quest was to stay on Maybe through the jumps. Sometimes, while he was in the air, I lost my balance. As soon as he hit the ground, he took advantage of my imbalance and started bucking. Several times I remember hanging on to the saddle for dear life from the underside of his belly! Another time we took Maybe to the Yorktown Battlefield. I rode him as he galloped across a wide expanse of grass. Suddenly, he stopped and put his head down, sending me flying off to land belly-down in the grass. That pony was crazy, and we were equally crazy to ride him!
Today, 45 years after we moved to Marlbank, I visit my father and his wife Shirley, who, throughout my childhood, was our next-door neighbor. I take a long walk through the neighborhood, which has changed yet somehow stayed the same. Mostly it looks overgrown and shabby. Most of the old-timers are still living here. Maybe they are too old and just don’t have the energy to keep up their yards like they used to. Many of the houses from the late 1940s and 1950s are looking a little worse for wear. No matter. Marlbank will always be home to me.