Friday, September 14, 2012
Fifty years ago, a benevolent boss helped make it possible for his employees to own property on the Blackwater.
The late Frank Clement was president of Shenandoah Life Insurance
Co. from 1960 until 1972. Clement purchased land on the Blackwater in 1962, divided it into 17 lots and offered it to some of his employees at cost.
Numbers were marked on 17 pieces of paper, and a select group of employees drew lots. The year was 1962, and Joe Himes, an assistant controller at Shenandoah Life Insurance Co. in Roanoke, was thrilled to pull out number 11, his wife, Erma, would later recall. The proud new owner of 19,000 square feet of prime farmland near the Blackwater River had only one problem: informing his pregnant wife of his $900 purchase.
Decades before falling stock prices threatened the company's nearly century-long existence, Shenandoah Life Insurance Co. was like an extended family, according to Lois Peterson of Roanoke.
"Everyone knew everyone, and it was a wonderful place to work."
Peterson was a valuation clerk in the early 1960s, computing dividends and policy reserves using pencil and calculator in the basement of the Shenandoah Life building. She said Shenandoah's corporate culture was fostered by the late Frank Clement, who assumed the company's presidency in 1960 and served until his retirement in 1972.
Clement, who died in 2001, gained a reputation for civic-mindedness. He served on a committee in the 1960s to oversee the smooth desegregation of Roanoke city businesses and in 1983, terminated his relationship with Roanoke's Shenandoah Club in response to its policy at that time of excluding Jews from membership.
Clements' commitment to others extended to his employees.
Clement purchased a peninsula of land on the Blackwater River in Wirtz, which was divided into 17 lots. He made the parcels available for purchase at his cost to Shenandoah Life management, as well as employees of the television station WSLS, which was owned by Shenandoah Life.
"He made no profit on it," said Peterson, who purchased Lot 9 from another Shenandoah employee a month after the original sale.
The new development was named Shenandoah Shores, and lot owners divided the cost of digging the communal well and laying Clement Drive, named in honor of their boss and benefactor.
Peterson's property faced the Blackwater River, and there was a corn field where the dock now stands, she said.
Himes recalled there was a hog pen on her property.
Joe Himes visited the property every weekend to witness the progression of the lake. Occasionally, his wife would accompany him.
Smith Mountain Lake, formed to generate electricity for Appalachian Power Co., reached full pond in 1966. From then on, the rural area, once a weekend destination for campers, began to grow and develop into a recreational haven.
"I could see the trickle coming," Himes said. "It was amazing."
Subdivision bylaws from 1964 state that lots in Shenandoah Shores "shall contain only one detached single-family dwelling not to exceed two stories in height."
Work was started on the Himes' cottage in 1965 and took nearly a decade to complete. Joe, without experience in carpentry, performed most of the construction of the three-bedroom, two-bath house.
The rough wooden railings of the staircase were made from logs he collected from a local creek, and the mantel in the downstairs living room was a beam he salvaged from a demolished barn.
Except for the electricity and plumbing, Peterson and her husband completed most of the work in their three-bedroom lakefront home.
One word described the lake in those days: "Quiet," said Himes.
The region was heavily rural with minimal services. Peterson and her family would bring supplies from Roanoke, and if extras were needed, a drive to Rocky Mount was made. Himes remembered the drive from Roanoke to Smith Mountain Lake to be a long, uncomfortable ride.
"It was hot," Himes said. "It took us an hour to get here and an hour to get back, with a new baby."
Summers at the lake houses became a ritual for both the Himes family and Peterson. Erma and Joe would load up the girls, Kendall, the oldest, and Kerry, and spend the entire summer at Smith Mountain Lake. The Petersons would drive in on the weekends.
The nearby W.E Skelton 4-H Educational Conference Center had recently been built, and Himes was able to commission its lifeguards to teach her daughters how to swim. Sometimes Peterson's daughter, Vicki, would drop by to play with Kerry.
But children grew up, and the lake houses became more of a burden than a blessing.
Peterson retired from Shenandoah in 1994 as a second vice-president in corporate security. Now a grandmother of two, she kept the Shenandoah Shores property until its upkeep became unmanageable, and sold the home later that decade.
Retiring from the company as controller in 1985, Joe's health has declined over the years. To Himes' knowledge, the couple are the last holdouts of the original Shenandoah employees, but the 47-year-old cottage has not been without its offers, Himes said.
For five years, a man from Greensboro, N.C., approached Himes about purchasing the property. Each time, Himes refused.
"Joe loves it so, and I couldn't do it," she said. "I told Joe [in 1962], 'I hope you know what you're doing.' But it's been a good investment."