Laurel Mills’ landmark, on the block

Mary Frances Fannon, a fixture herself amid the enduring fixtures of the Laurel Mills Store, kindly interrupts some paperwork for a pesky newspaper photographer. Photo by Walter Nicklin.
Mary Frances Fannon, a fixture herself amid the enduring fixtures of the Laurel Mills Store, kindly interrupts some paperwork for a pesky newspaper photographer. Photo by Walter Nicklin.

It’s been almost a quarter of a century since Mary Frances Fannon took over the Laurel Mills Store on the banks of the Thornton, but next month this Rappahannock County institution faces an uncertain future.  At 11 a.m. Aug. 11, the historic store, on Route 618 roughly midway between Ben Venue and Castleton, is scheduled to be put on the auction block.

In the meantime, business is brisk at the landmark store, particularly this summer with all the comings and goings at the nearby Castleton Festival. Mrs. Fannon has herself taken time away from the store to attend many of the Castleton performances, about which she has nothing but high praise.  Whoever assumes her place behind the counter as owner of the store will take over what promises to be an ever-growing business, as the Castleton Festival becomes an enduring tradition much like the store itself.

A cornerstone at the store is dated 1877. Once a thriving wool mill, it is one of the only surviving brick-and-stone stores in the Virginia Piedmont as well as one of the oldest stores, still in use, in Rappahannock County.  Between the store and the river are the stately ruins from other mill buildings, which lend an air of romance to the site.

Though born in Big Washington, Mrs. Fannon has deep roots in Rappahannock. Her great-grandfather was Posy Wayland, superintendent at the county poor farm. Her mother was from Culpeper County and her father from Madison County.

Mrs. Fannon moved with her husband, Bill, to Laurel Hill, across the river from the store, in 1967. Also along the river is a polo field that they created. A native of Alexandria, Bill is well known along the East Coast as a horse enthusiast.

“The store was always here,” she said in an interview with the newspaper in 1991. She recalled the nights she would dash in at closing for a loaf of bread or a bottle of milk. But the store’s new owners in 1987 threatened to renovate the store into apartments.

“I just couldn’t see the place go,” she said. So within the year Mrs. Fannon was the newest owner.

She promptly began renovations – replacing rotten beams and flooring, adding new plaster and landscaping as well as new gas pumps.  

The Laurel Mills store. Photo by Walter Nicklin.
The Laurel Mills store. Photo by Walter Nicklin.

For many years, Mrs. Fannon also operated an antiques shop in the basement of the store. There is a two-bedroom apartment upstairs. The land on which the building sits is about an acre.

The store, with its wide front porch, has plenty of space for sitting and talking, which is traditionally what old-fashioned country (or general) stores offered as much as the goods for sale.  From the time she bought the store onward, a large group of regulars always has shown up every Sunday morning.  Mostly men, they discuss the latest news and philosophize about things more lasting than news.

This gathering on every Sunday morning, Mrs. Fannon recalled in a 1995 interview, “started when The Washington Post would not deliver beyond the store.”  So the men would come into the store to buy The Post – and start talking.

Once the weekly gathering became a ritual, even when The Post started home delivery, the men would still come into the store – if not to buy the paper, to talk. Now the Sunday New York Times is offered as well, and the men, even if formerly strangers, have become real friends.

Another ritual for which Laurel Mills Store is uniquely known happens every New Year’s Day, when countless Rappahannock residents and visitors stop by for a taste of black-eyed peas and the resultant good luck they are said to impart.

For more information about the upcoming auction, contact Pangle Real Estate & Auction in Woodstock at 540-459-2113 or visit www.pangle.com.