Thursday, July 7, 2011

My Rural Travelogue (Part XIV): The Northern Neck of Virginia

A couple of weeks ago, my family traveled to the Northern Neck of Virginia for a few days of rest and relaxation with long-time friends who own a second home near Remo, which is near Wicomico Church, which is near Kilmarnock. The area is quite rural (three of the counties are rated 9--the most rural--on the USDA ERS rural-urban continuum), and its residents self identify as rural. Note the rather defensive bumper sticker we saw on a car in the parking lot of the Tri-Star Grocery in Kilmarnock.

For those of us in the west, national news about Virginia often seems dominated by the Washington, DC suburbs that comprise a great deal of northern Virginia. Of course, the state (actually "Commonwealth") is also known for scenic rural regions such as the Shenandoah Valley and other Appalachian reaches farther into its southwestern corner. But I had never heard of the "Northern Neck" until our friends bought this property about five years ago. I understand that many affluent folks from Richmond have second homes in "the neck," and it is also home to The Tides Inn, a posh resort. Otherwise, the area doesn't seem very affluent, with an economy based largely on agriculture and fishing (photos of crab shack and farm near Remo). The region also boasts its very own wine appellation, though we didn't get a chance to sample its bounty. We found the area to be a lovely, historic place (home, for example, to George Washington's birthplace), with welcoming (mostly rural!) residents and good food--a nice place for a lazy vacation.

The "neck" is the long-standing local name for the land that extends out into Chesapeake Bay, between the Potomac River to to the north, and the Rappahannock River to the south. It includes four nonmetropolitan counties: Lancaster (population 11,408), Northumberland (population 12,330), Westmoreland (population 17,454) and Richmond (population 9,254) counties. The largest cities are Warsaw at on the western end of the neck, at just 1,228 and Kilmarnock, at the southeastern end, at just 1,560. Kilmarnock looks like a boom town relative to the other tiny population clusters, with a relatively new Wal-Mart, a small hospital, and lots of high-end stores and restaurants to cater to the week-enders. Other towns--even county seats--are really small, including Montross at 334 and Heathsville at 142 (a Census Designated Place only as of the 2010 Census). Tiny Lancaster, an unincorporated community, is the county seat of Lancaster County; because it is not even a Census Designated Place, no population figure is available.

Somewhat surprisingly given their very rural character, poverty levels in most of these counties are on par with the national average. Northumberland's County's is 13.6%; while that for Lancaster is 12.7% and Westmoreland, 14.1%. The poverty rate in Richmond County is quite a bit higher, at 19.3%, putting it right on the cusp of being a "high poverty" county. Still, signs of thrift abound throughout the region, including the flea market in the photo at right, near Rehoboth. Richmond, Northumberland and Lancaster are all are rated 9 on the USDA ERS rural-urban continuum (which spans 1 to 9, with 1 being most urban). In addition, Richmond is the county with the highest percentage black population, at 30%, but that percentage is not substantially higher than Westmoreland at 28% and Northumberland at 25%. Generally speaking the counties do not feature highly diverse populations. Latina/os make up about 5% of the population of Richmond and Westmoreland counties, less in the others. None of the counties has a significant Asian population.

In a future post, I will discuss some of the issues featured in the Northern Neck's local newspapers. In another, I will showcase photos of some of the area's striking and historic churches.

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