Smith River Small Towns Business District Revitalization Project

Bassett landmark gets second life

Bullocks Service Station once was a landmark in Bassett, a full-service station offering gas and gossip. Now, the building has been renovated to house the Smith River Outfitters LLC and signal the start of the Smith River Small Towns Business District Revitalization Project between Bassett and Fieldale.

“I have older folks who came by and say they want to see” what has been done to the building that once was a community hot spot, said Brian Williams, owner and operator of the outfitters.

And there is a lot to see. The building at the intersection of Fairystone Highway and Bullock Road has been completely remodeled by its owners, Bassett Furniture LLC, Williams said. What once was the service station office now is the outfitters’ office. Two bays where cars once were serviced now hold racks of kayaks and life vests. A grease rack that once raised vehicles off the floor now is the pedestal for a table and shelving made by the nearby Bench Made line of Bassett Furniture.

Smith River Outfitters also is “the first piece of the puzzle” that is the Smith River Small Towns Collaborative’s revitalization project for the “Fifteen Magical Miles” that include Bassett, Fieldale, Koehler and Stanleytown.

The project has been in the works for several years. It aims to tap the river’s potential as well as make physical improvements to the corridor to support existing businesses and residents and attract new ones. Its first phase, scheduled to be put out for bids in mid-October, includes improvements to the outfitters’ building, the Reed-Stone block and the former train depot in Bassett along with facades and recreation center grounds work in Fieldale, according to Mary Ann Mason, grant administrator for Henry County.

The $3.2 million estimated cost of the first phase is being funded by Henry County, The Harvest Foundation, Appalachian Regional Commission, Bassett Furniture Industries, Eastman, the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp., the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, Dan River Basin Association (DRBA) and The Garden Club.

The outfitters’ business was among the first goals of the collaborative, according to Williams and Jeb Bassett, the Bassett co-chairman of the collaborative. It also is the most visible part of the project to be completed, Williams added.

“People needed to see something happen,” he said. “That’s why this building is important.”

Earlier attempts at operating an outfitters service for the Smith River were unsuccessful because the water flow was too low to attract kayakers and canoeists, Williams said. But that started to change as the flow improved, he added.

As paddling increased, river accesses were created by Henry County and support grew for businesses tied to river use, said Williams, who operated an outfitters service from his home for three years at that point. He also works full-time as program manager for the Dan River Basin Association.

Then Bassett approached Williams about moving the business to the former Bullock’s Service Station. Bassett agreed to remodel the building, which took two years, Williams said.

Work included a new roof, updated facade, new wiring, new windows and doors as needed, HVAC, ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act)-compliant rest rooms, paint and more, according to Bassett. A grease pit has been covered so it could be used again in the future, he added.

The outfitters business leases the building from Bassett Furniture LLC and is open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and other times by appointment. It rents 17 kayaks, six canoes and a whitewater raft and sells T-shirts and hats, some fishing equipment, artwork and other items.

On an average summer weekend, Williams said he rents more than 30 kayaks and canoes to paddlers, some of whom come to the area to camp at local lakes and for activities at the Smith River Sports Complex. Rentals nearly double for special events, such as the Smith River Fest and the Bassett Family Float. The outfitters’ parking area often is full, and he hopes to add parking spaces.

Evidence of the increased interest in the river can be seen throughout the community. Williams said a local sporting goods store sold 300 kayaks last year, and at area restaurants it is common to see kayaks strapped to vehicles during the summer.

“It’s not about this business making money; it’s about promoting the river,” Williams said of the Smith River Outfitters. He added that he has to cover expenses such as utilities and insurance year-round, and then any profits are invested back in the business.

Smith River Outfitters also partners with Hamlet Vineyards in Bassett for Wine & Water events as well as other area businesses for promotional activities, Williams said.

In the future, Williams said paddling could — and should — be expanded to 12 months to help make the outfitters more profitable. He also said a campground is needed on the river.

Paddlers and fishermen should work together “for the good of the river and the lake,” he said, adding that he teaches paddlers how to avoid disturbing anglers. “It doesn’t have to be a battle” between the two, he said, adding that with improved water flows, the river is healthier and the fishing is better.

Williams also is looking ahead to the next phase of the Small Towns Collaborative project since it takes years to get government grants for such work. “We’re talking about it now,” before much of the first phase has even begun, he said.

But the outfitters service is a good start, he said.

Bassett, who paddles on the river about once a month with his wife, agrees. He grew up near Bullock’s station and used to go on the Smith River as a teenager with the Boy Scouts. Now, he said he is enjoying the river’s natural beauty, making new friends and seeing people return to Bassett for paddling, canoeing, biking, the cruise-in car shows and other activities.

“It’s starting to click and it’s rewarding. You have to start somewhere. Brian is great to work with. He’s knowledgeable, and passionate like no one else for the river, whether it’s paddling or fly fishing. We’re fortunate to have something like that in the area and DRBA,” he said.

Looking back at Bullocks Service Station

When C.B. and Tom Bullock Jr. talk about the service station their father ran in Bassett for decades, the picture they paint is one of a local gathering spot in a simpler time.

It was a time when furniture factory workers would stop by Bullocks Service Station after their shifts ended. In the summer, they would sit outside, perched on wooden Coca Cola crates, and eat Nabs while they caught up on the day’s news as delivered by other customers of the station.

One of the regulars was A.L.Philpott, a Democrat and delegate who rose to the position of Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates. He stopped by when he came home to the town of Philpott and his Bassett law office next door to the service station at the corner of Fairystone Highway and Bullock Road. Puffing on his ever-present pipe, Philpott would recount the news from Richmond, from the General Assembly and from the Democratic Party that he helped lead. And sometimes, the political talk turned heated.

Today, Bullock Service Station has been transformed into the home of the Smith River Outfitters, serving kayakers, canoeists, anglers and others drawn to the Smith River in its back yard. But a few decades ago, Bullock Service Station was the unofficial political headquarters of Henry County, said C.B. Bullock of Collinsville, one of two sons of the station’s owner, Thomas Edison Bullock Sr.

Tom Bullock Sr. and A.L. Philpott grew up together and were lifelong friends and fellow Democrats, according to C.B Bullock’s older brother, Thomas Bullock Jr. of Bassett. The Bullock brothers also have a sister, Anita Sparks of Martinsville; their mother was Estelle Bullock, who was the secretary of the service station. Both Estelle and Tom Bullock Sr. have passed away.

The Bullocks’ history with the full-service station began in the early 1950s when Bullock Sr. quit his job at Bassett Furniture Industries and bought part of the station from Roy Anderson, according to C.B. Bullock. Bullock Sr. later bought the rest of the station and operated it until the 1990s, C.B. Bullock said, although he and his brother both were uncertain of the exact years.   

“I grew up there,” C.B. Bullock said, recalling how “there was always something going on. Characters came down there every day, all different types of people.”

His brother described it this way: “A lot of different people, from rich to destitute, hung out there. The full diversity of culture of Henry County came through there. People would come in and hang out and drink Coca Cola and eat Nabs. They’d argue about politics a lot,” Tom Bullock said.

“When Mr. Philpott would come in from Richmond, he would come by, pull Dad off to side and find out what was going on in Henry County. A lot of information flowed through that service station,” Tom Bullock recalled. His brother said their father also drove Philpott to Richmond occasionally.

C.B. Bullock also recalled a man named Taz Hodges, who painted houses for a living.

“He would come every day. He … acted like a big Republican. He would come down and get the biggest argument started. He couldn’t stand (President) Jimmy Carter. After Taz died, his wife came down and told us he always voted Democratic. He just came to get the argument started,” Bullock recalled, laughing.

Another regular was H.E. Barnes, a plant manager at Stanley Furniture, C.B. Bullock said.

“He had his chair he used to sit in,” Bullock said, adding that others would yield that chair to him when he arrived at the station. “His wife would drop him off and he would sit in his chair and smoke cigarettes, one after another. He done that thinking his wife didn’t know (that he smoked). He just came to smoke cigarettes.”

Many of the regulars continued to go to Bullocks after they retired, C.B. Bullock said.

“Most all of these guys, when they retired from the furniture factory, they still got up every morning and they still had a place to go,” he said.

At Christmas, milk cans were filled with egg nog at a local dairy and then spiked with alcohol, Bullock said. “All the little old ladies would come down” to the station and have their paper coffee cups filled with the spiked egg nog, he added, again with a laugh.

“I miss those days; I do,” he said. “It was a simpler time.”

Bullocks started as an Amoco station, the brothers agreed. In the ensuing years, it sold a variety of gas brands, including America, Pure, Pure Firebird and Union 76, they said. Before it closed, it sold BP gas, the brothers agreed.

Bullock Jr. worked at the station “several times,” probably starting when he was about 12 years old pumping gas. “Through high school that was my job,” he said.

After school, he worked as a mechanic in Roanoke for a while and then returned to Henry County to work at the Budd Co. trailer manufacturer until it closed. He came back to Bassett and intended to take over the service station when his father retired, but he was injured in a motorcycle accident that ended his career as a mechanic. He later got his associate and bachelor’s degrees and worked as a state probation officer until he retired two years ago.

C.B. Bullock said he began washing windshields at the station when he was 8 or 9 years old. He said he probably would have kept the station going but “Daddy had a motto that the customer is always right. I was young and didn’t see it that way. I probably just couldn’t run it like that. He would open at 5 in the morning,” and serve customers before they went to the factories at 7 a.m., during their lunch break and then after work. Sometimes he worked until 7 p.m., his son recalled.

Instead, C.B. Bullock went to work at Bassett-Walker in Bassett when he left the service station, and then worked at the Budd Co. He later worked at West Window Corp., his brother said.

Doug Foley had begun working at the station in the mid-1980s when he was about 14 years old, C.B. Bullock said. Foley later bought half the station and it was called Bullock and Foley Service Station. Eventually, Foley bought the entire station from Bullock Sr., C.B. said.

Now, housing Smith River Outfitters, the service station was one of the first projects in the Smith River Small Towns Collaborative initiative that seeks to improve the “Fifteen Magical Miles” between Bassett and Fieldale.

The building still resembles a service station, with a canopy over the area where the gas pumps once stood and bays where cars were serviced. Kayaks and canoes now sit in those bays, and another contains souvenirs, maps and other items for sale to tourists visiting the area.

C.B. Bullock has visited the outfitters and called it “real nice,” especially with the addition of air conditioning.

“I’m glad it’s being used,” he added of the building.

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