Velatis In The News - Richmond Times Dispatch

Richmond Times-Dispatch, your section WEST
September 15, 20
Quiet Hamlet
By Jim Mason

It’s painful ecstasy for the Goochland first-graders, watching Bill Servais pour a fresh batch of chocolate chewy caramels from a cooking pot onto a cooling table.

“Ahhhhhh! Mmmmmm!”

Their mouths ajar, the 40-some students watch intently, occasionally posing questions.

“How much candy do you make in a day?” asks Goochland Elementary School pupil Robert Brown.

“Oh, about 500 pounds,” Servais says, smiling.

Next, the first-graders get a treat – Velatis caramels, already cooled from an earlier batch.

“It tastes wonderful!” first-grader Rebecca Carlton says.

◊ ◊ ◊

Welcome to Maidens, a hamlet roughly 25 miles west of Richmond, and home to the only candy factory in rural Goochland County.

Maidens nestles downhill from U.S. 522, a city block south of the traffic light at the Route 6 intersection. And a loop-road descends to Maidens’ “downtown,” which consists of a single, one-story brick building facing CSX railroad tracks and the James River.

The building houses the candy factory, a post office and Goochland “Gourmet” Deli and Sub Shop. A general merchandise store, A.G. Smith Junior & Co., with a post office inside, occupied the building until the store’s closing in 1998.

Years ago, when people rode the train to vacation in the country, Maidens boasted its own train station and a hotel, too, but both the station and hotel are long gone.

“It’s a unique place even though we are nothing more than a dot on the map,” says postmaster George Smith, 63, A.G. Smith’s son and a lifelong Maidens resident.

Except for a freight train rumbling past now and then, Maidens remains a quiet, peaceful village of rolling woodlands and hilltop homes hidden from view. Most of the residents are middle-aged or retired.

Flying over Maidens, “you only see what’s left of the general store,” said Isabel Duke, 77, a retired county school administration secretary.

Lifelong residents like William T. “Billy” Tucker, 74, wouldn’t want to live anyplace else. Asked why he likes Maidens, Tucker said, “It’s home.”

Maidens, with a population of about 50, covers maybe two square miles, Smith said.

In contrast, he said, the Maidens ZIP-code area has a population of about 4,000 and covers about 16 square miles, stretching north from the James to Hanover Country, and from east to west, between two prisons.

Virginia’s Correctional Center for Women off Route 6 at Goochland Courthouse marks the western boundary. Beaverdam Creek at the State Farm prison complex near Crozier is the eastern boundary.

◊ ◊ ◊

At the Velatis candy factory, Servais, 67, a James Taylor look-alike, and wife Carol cook up caramels, using an original recipe that came from northern Italy to Richmond in the 1850s.

In 1866, the Velatis candy maker moved to Washington, D.C., and Velatis became a favorite around Washington for more than 115 years. In 1996, however, the candy maker went out of business.

The Servais family bought the recipe for the caramels and resumed making the candy, first in Florida, and since 2002, in Maidens.

Why did they come to Maidens?

“We wanted to get back closer to where the making of the candy started,” Servais said. “This space was available at a reasonable price to keep our overhead low, and we love the country. We live only a mile from here.” Velatis caramels in various-sized boxes up to a pound, are sold at the Maidens store and at various stores in the Washington, D.C., and Richmond areas. Some customers phone in their candy orders. The Velatis store’s telephone number is (804) 556- 5977.

Next door to Velatis caramels, Matt Yeshitela and his wife, Mebrat, both in their 20s, run the deli and sub shop. They live in Henrico County. “But we’re hoping to move out here one of these days,” Yeshitela said. “I love it out here. It’s heaven.”

The couple bought the Maidens deli business from a woman in June. “We wanted to find a business away from the hustle and bustle of the city,” Yeshitela said. “Business is improving steadily.” Customers may sit inside or out on a patio, which has umbrella-shaded tables. The deli’s telephone number is (804) 556-8100.

◊ ◊ ◊

Maidens used to be best known in Goochland and Powhatan counties for the general store that used to be there. Smith, the postmaster, recalls those days. “My dad, brother and I ran the store, which was a general merchandise store, just like Wal-Mart is today,” Smith said. “We stocked groceries, hardware, men’s work clothes, boots . . . the same as Wal-Mart’s got now.”

“We all have our identity and we all have our history, and Maidens is not different,” Smith said.

“They say this was originally called Maidens Adventure,” said the postmaster, who related the story of how Maidens was named – the way he heard it.

Indians used to live along both sides of the James River. A brave on the Powhatan side would swim across the river to be with a maiden where the hamlet is today.

“One time he was swimming across to see his girlfriend and he drowned, and this place came to be known as Maidens Adventure,” Smith said. “A pursuit of romance resulted in tragedy.”

Over the years, the word Adventure was dropped and the place came to be known simply as Maidens.

Smith said his late brother, Mason Smith, and wife Thelma had three daughters and the family lived in a brick, tri-level behind the general merchandise store on a hill overlooking the spot of the legendary drowning.

For years, Mason Smith wanted to name their home Maidens Adventure. But he decided to wait until after all three daughters had married and moved away.

“He didn’t want to have a Maidens Adventure at his house,” George Smith said with a grin.

◊ ◊ ◊

The biggest things to happen in Maidens over the past half century were floods. “The three biggest I can remember were in 1969, 1972 and 1985,” Smith said.

The floods never threatened the people living in Maidens because their homes are up on hills above the river bed.

He said floodwaters in 1969 reached up to an elm tree about 20 feet in front of the general merchandise store. Flooding in 1985 didn’t come that close to the store.

By far, the biggest of the floods came in 1972 when heavy rains unleashed by the remnants of Hurricane Agnes sent floodwaters rising up to two feet inside the store. But before the river flooding, people from all around rushed to help evacuate the store.

“It was a mess,” Smith said of the flooding. “But being a rural community, the people who shopped with us came to help us move everything out.”

After the river receded, the same people came back and helped move the groceries and merchandise back into the store.

“We were back in business in 24 hours,” Smith said. “We have a close-knit community. People help each other . . . they are just good country people. This is a great place to live.”