Perched at the eastern edge of Franklin County, the community of Penhook was long known for commerce, according to resources at the Franklin County Historical Society. From the installation of its first post office in 1854, the community has supported a number of businesses, including Stone & Co., whose proprietor, James Waller Stone, was said to have brought the first car into Franklin County in 1915, along with a well-known saloon. An early 20th century photo from the collections at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture depicts both buildings, as well as a store built by C.L. Carter, which dated to the 1870s.
Other businesses in the area include the stores of Postmaster Edward C. Murphy and B.T. Semones, a bank run by Mssrs. Johnson and Spiegal in the 1880s, a shoe repair service, a tobacco factory and J.W. Perdue’s Pen Hook Supply Company. In the 1920s, the community was known for the Penhook Interdenominational Camp Meeting Ground, where evangelist William J. Craddock and his wife, Elizabeth, hosted three weeklong camp meetings each summer until World War II.
Penhook was a stop on the Franklin & Pittsylvania Railroad, which ran from 1880 until 1932 between Rocky Mount to what is now the town of Gretna in Pittsylvania County. Conceived as a means to haul iron, manganese and baratese from the western part of Virginia to connecting Southern Railway lines, it also became the conduit by which clay from Gretna made its way to Penhook for use in the town’s two pottery shops.
The name Penhook relates to the community’s ties to the tobacco trade and may be influenced by a spelling error. The community featured a large holding pen for tobacco. Farmers would roll their crops to the pen in barrels and tobacco buyers, known as “pinhookers,” would select the tobacco to purchase. When a farmer did not receive the price he had expected for his crop, he would say he had been “hooked.” Murphy, the community’s first postmaster, was charged with sending the community’s name to the Post Office Department, but legend has it that he neglected to dot the “I” in “Pinhook,” and the name “Penhook” was born.
Of course, farming was a major part of the economy in Penhook, and in the 1940s, the shortage of men available to work on the farms led to a surprising solution.
Moneta resident Charles Walker spoke about the farm that belonged to his wife, Lib’s, family. “During World War II, Lib was just a wee little thing, and they had German prisoners of war working in the fields, tobacco and corn, and Lib would take buckets of water out to them,” Walker said. “The trucks took them down to their barracks in Sandy Level in Pittsylvania County, down the road. The barracks had been CCC camps in the ’30s, so that became a prisoner of war camp.”
Indeed, according to a 2008 Roanoke Times/Laker Weekly article, German marinen (sailors) who were housed in the former Civilian Conservation Corps camp at Sandy Level helped cut timber for lumber and pulp wood, worked in a cannery or labored on farms. The arrangement seems to have been beneficial to all involved.
“It is apparent that Virginians got along very well with the enemy in their midst during World War II,” the article said. “There were few protests against coddling of POWs as were voiced in other parts of America. These visitors seemed to be relatively happy, undoubtedly relieved to be far from gunfire and battlefield conditions … But perhaps most important of all, those who remained within the Commonwealth for a year or two filled a very real need: they provided invaluable labor and their help certainly was appreciated by hundreds of farmers and scores of industrialists hard pressed by wartime conditions.”
By 1945, there were around 17,000 Germans living in 27 camps scattered throughout Virginia. Camp Pickett at Blackstone was responsible for branch camps at Catawba, Cumberland, Danville, Green Bay, Radford, Salem and Sandy Level, all of which (except Danville) utilized former CCC camps for housing. Almost all of the prisoners returned to Germany at the close of the war.
Lib Walker’s family played a role in the more modern history of the region as well. “William Emmett Jefferson, Lib’s father, was the one most instrumental in getting AEP and the state to construct the first park and public boat ramp on Smith Mountain Lake in Penhook,” Charles Walker said. “It was constructed in 1968 and dedicated in 1972 with Jefferson family members in attendance. Two of Mr. Jefferson’s granddaughters, Kathryn Jefferson and Juli Jefferson, did the honors at the unveiling of the memorial and plaque. These same two ladies re-created the dedication 44 years later, as the lake celebrated its 50th year.”
Penhook is now known for its beautiful shorelines and lovely homes. It may be that an introduction to the community’s history and the variety of people who contributed to that history make it an even richer place to live.