THE NANCE-MAJOR HOUSE & STORE
The Nance-Major House was built in 1869, by Julia Nance-Major and Edward Major. The adjacent family store was built by in 1872. Both face south across Courthouse Road toward the circa 1750 Charles City Courthouse, and the Capital Trail which was completed from Richmond to Williamsburg in 2015. The general store provided dry goods, sundries, agricultural supplies, and tools that were necessary to support the local rural economy.
MOST WELL-KNOWN & PROSPEROUS STORE IN THE COUNTY
Because of its proximity to the courthouse, the Nance-Major Store was the most well-known and prosperous store in the county during its years of operation. When local citizens came to the courthouse to settle their affairs, they would stop at the Nance-Major Store for food and drink. The store was the place where farmers came to purchase seeds and tools, to transact business, to play cards, and to gamble. In the absence of formal banks, the store served as a “people’s bank” by cashing checks and issuing money orders.
Loose papers located among court records confirm that the store functioned as early welfare agents of the county government. The stores provided food and other necessities on credit to indigent residents. The store was then reimbursed by the county for these provisions.
The shelves of the store are still stocked today with merchandise that was available for sale in the mid-twentieth-century. The items represent an astonishingly wide assortment of goods and supplies typically carried by country stores. Although there are no canned goods left on the shelves, the price-labels are still attached along the bottom edge of the shelf.
A sampling includes small wood bins with nails and screws; India inks and pens; mason jars and canning lids; road maps; gun shells; seeds; paint and glazing putty; a variety of over-the-counter medicines like iodine, tonic pills, laxatives, and emulsions; auto parts and motor oil; lawn mowers parts and belts; plumbing supplies; cigars, cigarettes and roll papers; corn syrup and stone ground flour; and toiletries such as face powder, wave set, perfumes, talcum, and crèams.
SOLD EVERYTHING FROM BIRTH CERTIFICATES TO CASKETS – AND ICE
The high profile and prosperity enjoyed by the Majors was also correlated to the diversity of business operations. During various periods, they operated a blacksmith shop, a livery, a gas station, an automotive repair shop, and an enormous ice delivery service fleet. Country stores were often responsible for issuing birth and death certificates and for selling caskets; Blank copies of birth certificates, dated 191___, from the Bureau of Vital Statistics are preserved between the pages of some of the ledger books. A retired doctor who practiced general medicine in Charles City in the 1940s remembers being summoned to the store to sign death certificates.
The Majors also operated the county’s only commercial ice house and hearse, and, of course, supplied coffins as well. Their coffin sales shop was inside a cinder block garage, located across the road near the courthouse.
In the 1940s, the store apparently acted as an agent for the Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Highways.
PUBLIC PHONES AND POLLING BOOTHS.
Before telephone services were widely available in private homes, most of the stores maintained a telephone for public use. There is recorded documentation that confirms that the Nance-Major Store served all of these functions. A very early oak telephone with an external bell and hand crank is preserved on a shelf in the store today.
Although there is no firm evidence to show that the store served as a polling place, several loose, blank Democratic Ticket ballots survive from the May 28, 1891, election.
An advertisement that was published in the 1926 edition of The Charles Citian, the yearbook for Charles City High School, suggests that Walter Major capitalized on the store’s proximity to the courthouse. The advertisement reads “W.N. Major, The Convenient Store for your Patronage when at the Fair, School, or the Court, Deal With Us.”
A BANK AND A POST OFFICE
The store also provided banking services to the community. A copy of the official Register Book of Money Order Post Offices published in 1901 by the Post Money Order System of the United States lists the Charles City Post Office, at that time located in the Nance-Major Store, as an authorized agent for money orders. Ledger books show regular and frequent entries for “cash” listed with grocery and merchandise purchases that were satisfied by payments on account. A hand-written note dated November 13, 1912, requests:
“Mr. W.N. Major,
Can you please send me $10.00 in cash and I will pay you back soon.
Truly yours, L.M. Clark”
AUCTIONS AND HANGINGS
The front porch of the Nance-Major Store served as a theater for public assemblies that took place outside of the courthouse. Citizens would buy food and drink at the store and sit outside on the long wooden benches on the porch to view community events. Public auctions were held regularly at the courthouse throughout the period of operation of the store.
Until 1906, public hangings were carried out in front of the Courthouse, directly across the road from the Nance-Major Store. The public gallows and a large tree called “the lynching tree,” located on the hillside below the clerk’s office, would have been visible from the store.
An oral history of the Nance-Major Store was communicated during an interview with Charles Haupt, a life-long resident of Charles City County and proprietor of the G.C. Haupt & Son Store, located approximately a mile west of the Nance-Major Store. The Haupt family operated a general merchandise store in Charles City since circa 1796. The first Haupt family store was the New Hope Store, located diagonally across Route 5 from the circa 1893 G.C. Haupt & Son Store. Mr. Haupt and his wife operated the circa 1893 store until approximately 2010.
Mr. Haupt had not only a general knowledge about stores that operated in the county through the years, but also an intimate knowledge of the Nance-Major Store. His mother was a Major, and she was born in the Nance-Major House. According to Mr. Haupt, the Nance-Major Store was the “best store in the county.” He emphasized that the Nance-Major Store had a county-wide reputation for their supply of high-quality fresh meats. The store’s geographic proximity to the courthouse assured both public visibility and a steady stream of customers who frequented the store before and after attending to their affairs at the courthouse.
Vernon McCrae, who grew up in Charles City, remembers stopping at the Nance-Major Store to eat watermelon. He recalls that when he was a little boy, the store was a popular place for family refreshment.
Mr. Haupt also remembers that the ownership of the Nance-Major Store passed out of the family only once, for a period of approximately two years. After the death of the first Walter N. Major, the store was operated first by his wife Velma and then by their son Walter. He operated the store for only a brief time before he sold the business, but neither the land nor the building, circa 1952, to Ludwig Johnson. Mr. Johnson sold the store back to Walter just two years later and moved out west.
When John Major, Walter Major’s cousin, was defeated in his re-election to the General Assembly in 1954, he took over the operation of the store until it was closed around 1963.
Another oral history of the Nance-Major Store was conveyed by Beverly Mauck, the husband of Louise Meriwether Major Mauck, whose grandfather Walter N. Major was the last operational owner of the store. According to Mr. Mauck, the store was operated by Edward Major (and John Nance) between 1872 and 1910; then by Edward Major’s son Walter from “the teens” to 1948; then by Walter’s wife Velma “for a while.”
Mr. Mauck also remembers that John Major, the last person to operate the store before it closed, lived in the apartment above the store. Mr. Mauck recalls that in addition to the prosperous store, Walter Major operated a livery, an ice house, and a funeral business on the property. The Maucks possess the old Regulator clock that hung in the store for decades and the license plate from the hearse that was owned and operated from the store by the Major family.
Mr. Mauck recalls that the store had a contract between circa 1915 and 1948 with the Charles City Courthouse to supply mid-day meals on court days. In 1963, when the store was finally closed, most of the contents of the store, the tools and the equipment were auctioned from the front porch.
The last of the Major family to own the house and store complex were Ann Weaver Major and Edward Major, who acquired the property in 1987. They lived in the house for nearly two decades, but the store was used only for storage. Edward Major was born in the first floor bedroom in 1920; he died in the same room in 2000.
THE NANCE-MAJOR HOUSE AND STORE TODAY
In 2005, Ann Major sold the house and store complex to Jim Danielsof Chesterfield, Virginia. He in turn sold it in 2018 to the Whittaker family, who now operate the Nance-Major House as a bed & breakfast; they also now operate a popular local restaurant in the old store, Cul’s Courthouse Grille.