The Whispering Pines as it stood following the blaze set by arsonists in 2013.

By Charlie Russell

 

Charles Franklin Russell I, grandfather and namesake of Charlie Russell.

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In 1931 Charles F. Russell took a trip to Florida and decided that the Eastern Shore needed a place for travelers to stay and dine.

He saw automobiles were becoming more dependable and traffic was growing on Stone Road, which would later become Route 13.

Despite challenging economic times of the Great Depression era, Russell built a small lodge with seven cabins between Tasley and Accomac and went into business.

Not only did the Whispering Pines survive, it grew. The cabins, some of which survive today at other locations, gave way to more modern motel rooms in the 1940s and early 1950s.

The Pines became a social center often holding dances and served as a gathering place for the community.

Today, the once-graceful facility is a shadow of its former self, and is about to be razed by Accomack County.

The Whispering Pines’ Ralph Powers wing.

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Rich Morrison, Accomack’s deputy director of building, planning and economic development, told the Board of Supervisors that plans are underway to demolish the buildings on the property.

He called the structures “the poster” for dangerous property.

The former motel and restaurant have been in bankruptcy for several years.

Morrison said that the county will make the property safe and demolish the unsafe structures but will not dig up foundations or paved driveways.  The demolition is expected to be complete by late June.

Construction of the Whispering Pines was normal for Russell, a contractor by trade who built, among other structures, the Parksley Shirt Factory, the old Parksley High School and other structures both locally and in Maryland. But the great Great Depression completely killed his construction business.

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Russell had seven children. His two daughters, Mary and Nita, and their husbands, Paul Barnes and Al Dobson, respectively, managed day-to-day operations but his other children and almost all of his 13 grand children were employed at some point — including the writer of this piece, who had his first job there.

At the time, the Whispering Pines was known for gracious accommodations and fine dining.

Lois Parks poses in front of a buffet the Whispering Pines catered at WESR studios.

Local cooks including Sarah Smith and Lois Parks turned out homemade dishes including Whispering Pines clam chowder and Nita’s oyster stew.

Smithfield ham, Chincoteague oysters and other seafood delights served by a gracious wait staff. No meal was complete without Parks’ homemade desert.

The Pines was once a regular stopping point for travelers heading from the New York area to Florida. Countless regular customers planned their trips around a stay there.

Celebrities including Walter Cronkite and the cast of the movie “Misty,” based on the book “Misty of Chincoteague,” were guests. Diana Ross was said to have had lunch there when she was looking at property on Cedar Island.

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An advertisement from 1953 showing the Delmarva portion of the Ocean Highway system and the Whispering Pines.

Russell also founded the Ocean Highway Association, a group of motel and restaurant owners who promoted travel on routes 13 north and 17 south and whose membership stretched from Wilmington Del., to Georgia.

He also was one of the founders of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Chamber of Commerce and was recognized as one of the Shore’s business leaders.

Charles Russell passed away in 1963 and the family continued operating the Pines until 1973. By then it became apparent that it was time for a major remodeling and Russell’s children did not wish to incur the debt such an undertaking would require.

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The “Del-Anne” building at the Whispering Pines.

It was sold in 1973 to Ralph Powers, who built the new section on the north end. Powers operated it until the mid-1980s when he died in an accident on the property.

The Pines continued until mid 1990s under various owners but then began to fall into disrepair.

In 2012, the property was to be auctioned off for back taxes at the Accomack County courthouse but it was discovered three hours before the auction that the entity which owned the property filed for bankruptcy.

In 2013 it was the target of two local arsonists. The wooden structure of the main building was destroyed but the outbuildings survived.

There is still a generation of Eastern Shore residents who still remember when the Whispering Pines was one of the premiere motels and restaurants on the East Coast.