No traffic lights, no trash collection, no high-speed Internet. Endless stretches of soybean and peanut fields line the horizon, only occasionally interrupted by modest Georgian-style homes.
Yale, Va. — population 591 — is a long way from Yale University.
In 1882, a University alum who was laying tracks for the Atlantic and Danville railroad in Virginia named the local train depot after his alma mater, and the name came to be used for the surrounding area. Today, Yale is an unincorporated area in rural Virginia that does not qualify as a town. It’s a place whose enduring existence stems only from having its own post office. In fact, the post office’s delivery route — which is 63 miles long — offers one of the very few ways in which to accurately define the geographic boundaries of Yale.
“Some places become towns and some places become cities, but Yale, Va. has no hope for either one,” Sussex County Clerk Gary Williams said.
The front of the post office proudly bears a royal blue sign that says, “Main Post Office Yale, Va. 23897.” This post office and the adjacent Yale General Store are the only two non-residential buildings located in the half-mile area of downtown Yale. The recently revived general store — whose brown wooden sign is etched in an old-fashioned western font — sells gas, food, feed, hardware and tans. For an area where people are accustomed to farmers’ tans, the store’s single tanning bed stays surprisingly busy; in the spring, nearly a dozen people line up every day. Residents of Yale have a long way to go for things they cannot find at the “Yale-Mart” — the closest grocery store is 23 miles away.
Many families in Yale have roots in the area going back four generations, and most residents are over 35. Some left Yale after high school in pursuit of the big city, only to return to a place where rabbits, squirrels, raccoons and possums roam free. Such was the case of Billy Owen MUS ’79, the only Yale resident in recent memory to attend the University.
“In many ways, I felt like a misfit because I wasn’t a typical hunter-farmer boy growing up in south-side Virginia. I was interested in music, arts, theater and that sort of thing,” Owen said. “I wanted bright lights, concrete and I never wanted to see another tree. To be the more sophisticated, educated city-type was an ideal, but as you get older you don’t think that’s the end-all be-all of life.”
Owen, who now returns to Yale, Va., at least once a month to tend to his family’s farm, is one of the relatively few residents to reflect on his hometown’s namesake. Most have followed in the footsteps of their parents and continue to farm the land.
“This town looks the same as when I was born,” said Dallas McGee, 65. “All of the land was owned by farmers.”
But McGee, who with 3,500 acres is the largest landowner in Yale, cites his own experience as evidence of how difficult it has been to sustain a life in agriculture. Nearly a decade ago, when his son wanted to move back to Yale to farm, McGee moved to North Carolina and became a developer “to keep from starving to death.” Farmer Bob Rogers said the economy of the area, which once depended on small family farms, now relies on one-man farming operations that struggle to compete in global markets. In the 2000 Census, the median household income in the area was $32,303. The sign outside the Yale General Store advertises “We accept food stamps.”
“The slice of the pie is getting smaller and smaller,” Rogers said. “Trying to divide the land among family members has become very difficult. You have to be on a very large scale.”
Residents who do not pursue local farming or timber opportunities commute to nearby cities. According to the Sussex County Web site, a hog farm and the Virginia Department of Corrections are the two largest employers in the county, followed by the school board, an oil company and the county government.
Rogers said he believes the shift away from farming has increased the burden on individual farmers and eroded the values of the small town, whose residents once relished helping each other harvest crops before approaching storms.
“I am one of the few farmers,” Rogers said. “When I am out there by myself sometimes, I feel like I am in the Atlantic Ocean — alone. It’s all on my shoulders and there’s a lot of stress to it.”
Rogers said he is frustrated that he does not have as much time as he would like to help other farmers. But unlike in a city, where he felt as if he had to keep his eyes on everyone, Rogers said he knows his neighbors will have his back in times of need. When his own machine broke, his neighbor lent him a $255,000 machine to harvest crops and two additional trucks to haul them away with.
But being a newcomer can be difficult in Yale. Pastor Steve Flowers, who recently moved to Yale with his wife Catherine after graduating from Duke Divinity School, said the community was particularly giving when a young girl who lived in a mobile home had an aneurysm. But on a day-to-day level, Flowers said, he has felt “like an alien” since moving to Yale.
“I would say it’s isolating, geographically and emotionally,” he said.
Once accustomed to studying in world-class libraries, Flowers said he now waits for the bookmobile that comes to the town for 45 minutes a week.
“Catherine mentioned it’s clannish, not in a KKK sort of way, but in a very family-oriented way,” he said. “When I have been invited to people’s homes, it’s been more about church politics than about welcoming me. Part of moving into an area and not having any roots has helped me grow up, toughen me a little bit.”
While Catherine Flowers said she understands that the community may have a difficult time adjusting to Steve as a full-time pastor, as the previous pastor was only part-time, she admits the people of Yale are more reserved than she would have imagined for a small community. It has been tough to break into established social circles, she said, and members of the congregation seem to have kept the couple at arm’s length.
The Flowers have repeatedly invited people over to their house, but only one couple has taken up their offer. When the dinner seemed successful, Catherine Flowers said, “It was like get the word out: We’re normal people!”
Catherine, who is a teacher at a neighboring town’s private high school, said the couple is in a precarious position when addressing the issue of the community’s disappointing hospitality, since members of the congregation select the pastor.
“I had an incident when my cell phone was stolen at church by one of the youths,” Catherine said. “It came out eventually that the people in church wanted to cover it up, and I didn’t feel supported at all.”
But the Flowers’ next-door neighbor, Virgil Robey, a jovial 67-year-old with a short white beard that makes him look like Santa, said he has felt at home in Yale ever since he moved here a decade ago. Robey, who is openly gay and lives with his partner, said the Yale neighborhood has accepted him for who he is, and he has never had any problems living in Yale.
“I had a roommate who passed away several years ago,” he said. “[The] whole community knew we were a gay couple and accepted us like human beings; that made us appreciate the town even more. The blacks, Hispanics, whites, the preacher who lived next door, his wife, children, they all fell in love instantly with the guy.”
Robey, who was once in the army and who was married to a woman for 39 years before coming out, is unapologetic about his sexual orientation, but said he is still careful not to flaunt his sexuality.
“When people look at me, they don’t see someone who is gay,” Robey said. “They would think I am a redneck, but I am a redneck faggot. I don’t mind it at all, because that is what I am. Faggot doesn’t bother me. Words don’t mean anything.”
Robey said he believes in “killing people with kindness to make them sorry with rejection,” and he “doesn’t know any white people in town, because we are all the same color down here.” Steve Flowers said such a loving personality makes Robey — who has mowed the Flowers’ lawn and taken care of their cat while they were on their honeymoon — one of the friendliest people in Yale.
“What neighbors say behind my back — I don’t care, because I don’t hear it,” Robey said. “I will help anybody anytime and the whole neighborhood knows. They come buy stuff from me and vice versa. I am very happy with life.”