Smithfield, Virginia — where ham still rules

Updated: 2014-02-18 09:22

By CHEN WEIHUA in Smithfield, Virginia (China Daily USA)

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This small rural Virginia town was thrust into the spotlight last year when local Smithfield Foods — the world's largest pork processor and hog producer — was bought for $7.1 billion by Chinese company Shuanghui International.

Visitors entering the "Ham Capital of the World" should not be surprised to be greeted by eight colorfully painted and playful life-sized statues of hogs placed along the downtown streets, all created by local artists to reflect the town's culture and legacy.

Aside from bacon and sausage, there is a rich taste for art here too. Sharing the same building with the town's visitor center is an arts center, where several resident artists create and exhibit their work. Among them is Roy Williams, a retired chemistry professor, who dabbles in Chinese ink, one of the few things visitors will find relating to China in this small town.

At the Smithfield Little Theatre, near the Smithfield Foods headquarters, the town's musicians and visiting troupes from afar stage performances from time to time.

As a start to the trip, stopping by the Visitors' Center on the Main Street, grabbing a map and brochures and listening to the introduction by a guy with the first name of Collins is very helpful.

We actually toured the compound of Smithfield Foods headquarters along the Pagan River before heading to the visitors' center. Red brick office buildings, giant sculptures of the company's founders, the Luters, more porcine statues and a wooden boardwalk along the waterfront all make for a pleasant scene against the backdrop of the river and birds soaring and diving.

Founded in Smithfield in 1936 by Joseph W. Luter and his son, Smithfield Foods, a Fortune 500 company, now has 46,000 employees worldwide and revenues of $13 billion.

Yet the town is far more than a ham hamlet, it's also a historic town, as many town folks will tell you. Dozens of well-preserved historic houses of different styles create a unique setting. Gothic cottages, colorful, eye-catching Victorian homes and stately Federalist dwellings are all worth exploring at a leisure stroll.

The small Isle of Wight Courthouse, built in the 1750s, has been restored to its original state. History seemed to come alive as Onycha Bias, the woman on duty that day, told stories of the place in the old days.

The Isle of Wight County Museum, which displays the rich history of Smithfield — agriculture, art, Southern hospitality, and, of course, ham — is also worth a visit.

Historic St. Luke's Church is said to be the oldest existing church of England founded in the United States and the country's only surviving original brick Gothic church featuring a Jacobean interior, 17th-century altar fittings and the world's oldest intact English chamber organ.

You don't want to miss the Taste of Smithfield café and gourmet retailer, where locally made ham, other local food products and souvenirs are sold.

Lunch here is an absolute delight. Most sandwiches, burgers and salads feature the town's unique salt-cured ham, sliced paper-thin and especially tasty.

The Smithfield Inn, built in 1752, is another place to sample the local food where the dining setting is more refined compared to the casual Taste of Smithfield cafe.

It's said that George Washington once stayed here, which is probably why one room is named the George Washington Suite. The price for a suite is $150 or $175, depending on the day of the week.

There are quite a few antique shops and family restaurants to wander around. The Smithfield Times, with a distinctive sculpture of Benjamin Franklin in front of its building, is the town's own paper.

Despite the acquisition by Shuanghui International, now known as WH Group, local folks feel relieved that the deal has not changed the town's flavor.

At the historic courthouse, Bias, the woman on duty, said people had mixed feelings about the deal. On the one hand, some believe that Smithfield Foods, which was born in the town, should not become an overseas company, but others think it's a good thing to broaden the company's business globally.

"It really hasn't changed much. It's still operating very much the same way it was," she said.

Similar feelings were also expressed by visitors at the museum and by Judy Winslow, director of tourism of Smithfield Isle of Wight Convention and Visitors Bureau, who described the acquisition as a "great thing". "We're very excited," Winslow said.

Winslow said she hopes to see more Chinese tourists coming to town. "We'd like them to, we're ready for that," she said, adding that she already has a welcome message translated into Mandarin.

The town, about 30 miles from Williamsburg, gets about 15,000 tourists a year.

"Ham is the No 1 industry in Smithfield. Tourism is No 2," said Winslow.

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