BY ANNE BRIGHT
PUNGO — In early 1984, after many rounds of speculating on the possibility, local residents and business operators conceived a plan to capitalize on the major cash crop of late spring while enlightening the rest of the city about the south end of Virginia Beach and its attributes.
“Let’s have a festival,” they all agreed.
Traditionally, the summer began with Memorial Day and the opening of the amusement park at the Oceanfront, but, as tourism reared its head along “The Strip,” rural families increasingly stayed away from the crowds and activities of Atlantic Avenue.
Longing for the days of family oriented entertainment, such as carnivals, crafts, parades and 4-H activities, this group of local citizens developed the first Pungo Strawberry Festival. They never dreamed it would last 32 years.
In addition to representing the crop of strawberries, the planners saw an opportunity to draw attention to outstanding members of the community who selflessly donated their time and resources to the betterment of the area of Pungo and south to the North Carolina line.
They also highlighted local history and the story of Grace Sherwood, the only woman tried and convicted of the practice of witchcraft in old Princess Anne County and the colony of Virginia.
Public schools were bowing to pressure and omitting this historical event documented in the Princess Ann County Courthouse because it smacked of the occult – a fact almost as provincial as the beliefs of the late 1600s and early 1700s that led to Grace’s conviction.
Generations of children had taken field trips to the old courthouse to see the records of Grace’s trial displayed there under glass, but times changed, and suddenly it wasn’t the thing to study.
So festival organizers brought history back to its rightful place by selecting a local woman to be the honorary witch of Pungo at the festival.
A word about Grace Sherwood: She was a beautiful, somewhat nonconforming woman who was much ahead of her times. She was not content with the role of docile housewife. She preferred, quite literally, to wear the pants in the family.” She not only dressed in men’s trousers to do her outside chores, but she also entered into business transactions with her neighbors, a role not generally afforded to women of her time. You see, Grace could read and write while her husband James was not so blessed, so it was logical that she might conduct the business affairs of the family.
Filled with a sense of humor to accompany her beauty, Grace took great delight in shocking her neighbors with tales of sailing to England in an egg shell and bringing back flowers that were not native to this area. Consequently, she became an object of envy and scorn in her neighborhood.
Anyone who has ever uttered under his or her breath that a cantankerous neighbor or a teacher is a witch might marvel at how literally such a charge was taken in Colonial days when belief in witchcraft offered explanations to the uneducated for phenomena that scientific knowledge or common sense of the day seemed to lack.
As long as her husband lived, he protected and defended Grace by countersuing anyone who spoke against her. Upon his death in 1701, she had no male protector, so the charges of witchcraft brought by her neighbors became more serious. In February 1705, the Luke Hill family brought formal charges of witchcraft to court. A group of women was summoned to search Grace’s body for any telltale sign such as an unusual mole believed to indicate a witch.
Forewoman of the group was Elizabeth Barnes, whose family had previously sued the Sherwoods on grounds that Grace’s spirit had attacked her in her bed and then exited the room through the keyhole. The examining group had no trouble finding signs, and Grace was in deep trouble.
In July 1706, Grace agreed to trial by ducking, a procedure in which the accused was cross-tied – left hand tied to right foot and right hand tied to left foot – and thrown overboard. In their infinite wisdom, jurors believed that if a person tied in this manner floated, he or she must be a witch.
If they drowned? Whoops. The jurors made a mistake.
Grace floated, so she was sent to jail for nine years before being released to live out her days in the area south of Pungo until she died in 1740.
Many areas claim her. Muddy Creek Road is supposedly where her farm was located, but the area where Creeds Elementary School stands has historically been called Blossom Hill in tribute to those flowers that Grace brought home from England in her eggshell trip. On the day of her ducking, Grace demonstrated her “powers” for her audience when she predicted a worse drenching for all of the spectators than she had received.
True to her word, as Grace was being delivered back to shore to be carried off to jail, the gloriously sunny day turned dark as pitch and a fierce storm deluged the crowd. Today, Witchduck Road and Witchduck Point in the Pembroke and Independence area bear witness to these events of history.
In addition to honoring the Witch of Pungo legend, the festival committee also honors people of the community who make positive contributions to life in our area.
Also honored are an honorary mayor and first lady chosen from members of the community and a grand marshal from the public or political scene who lifts this community in a positive way. If you would like to “lead the parade” at the Strawberry Festival, get involved and work for the betterment of our community.
When I was honored as the Witch of Pungo in 1998, spectators often asked, “Why would anyone want to be a witch?”
Beauty, brains, a wonderful personality, willingness to work in the field beside your husband and help him to conduct business for your family, a sense of history in your community – what’s not to like?