Nestled a few hundred feet back from Route 30 in Toano, the Dzula farmhouse sits atop a rolling hill, flanked by aging trees, large farm fields and several barns.
A small farm stand sits at the edge of the road under a green metal canopy, supervised by the house on the hill. Next to the farm stand, a sign with the words “DZULA FARM, WALTER & DEBBIE” hangs from a dark green post.
Inside the house, traces of Walter Dzula Jr., 71, are everywhere.
Dozens of Coca-Cola collector’s items line kitchen shelves, matching the room’s red checkered curtains. In the living room, a prize-winning taxidermied deer mount hangs next to several photos of Walter Dzula with the same deer in the back of his red truck. A white ribbon hangs from the almost 30-inch-wide antlers.
Behind the house, a well-worn dirt driveway connects several barns and sheds housing farm equipment, John Deere collector’s items and antique and modern tractors.
For the Dzula family, Walter Dzula’s belongings and the stories behind them are what keep the patriarch’s memory alive. In the family’s living room, conversations often begin with “Remember when…” and end with laughter.
Walter Dzula died on Dec. 5 after a year-long battle with lung cancer.
Near the road, the family’s farm stand serves as a reminder to passersby of the man who spent endless hours in his fields, riding a tractor or driving a red truck.
“Most everybody knew him,” Debbie Dzula, 62, Walter’s wife, said. “He’s lived here his entire life.”
The Dzula Farm legacy
Dzula Farm is hard to miss.
The family-operated farm is the last property in Toano in James City County before the New Kent line. With 26 rolling acres, the Dzula land has grown sweet corn, watermelons, pumpkins and other types of produce since 1930.
The farm has been a family operation, with daughters Kathy, 43, Beth, 27, and Peggy, 43, as well as son Walter III “Trip,” 46, helping their father through the years.
The farm stand has seen many repeat customers over the years. Debbie Dzula was usually the face of the operation at the farm stand, but many customers knew Walter, too.
“Our family has been so connected to this small town,” daughter Beth Dzula said. Walter Dzula grew up in the house next door to the farm, and only ever moved next door.
Besides fresh produce, Walter Dzula also had a knack for attracting attention to his farm.
At Christmastime, Walter Dzula would park a tractor near the road, rig up moving Christmas lights around the wheels, and put Santa Claus in the driver’s seat. In the fall, the family would also put up a huge pumpkin sign, which locals were welcome to sign.
The family said the farm is unlikely to grow or sell much this year, except for some of Beth Dzula’s blackberries.
“Maybe in the next few years we’ll grow more, we just need to figure it out,” Beth said. “But this year we’re going to take a little break.”
Walter Dzula didn’t mince words.
Walter “Frog” Crowe, 83, worked with Walter Dzula for 35 years at the West Point paper mill on one of the large machines.
Crowe remembers Walter Dzula as a “nice” man who was “straight on his work” but unafraid to “say what he needed to say.” Dzula was also a U.S. Army veteran who served as a military police dog handler and trainer from 1966 to 1968.
Walter Dzula retired from the paper mill in 2012 after 48 years of employment. For Dzula, sick days and days off did not exist — he worked at the mill and tended to his farm full-time.
“He couldn’t stand to sit,” Crowe said.
Even after his stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis, Walter Dzula didn’t slow down or complain.
A litter of piglets was born on the farm the day after Walter Dzula had brain surgery, and he was on the phone with his family almost immediately. The cancer was diagnosed at stage 4 and had traveled to his brain, where he had two tumors.
“He’s in critical care the day after his surgery, and he’s asking me about the piglets and telling us how to take care of them,” his stepdaughter Peggy Bryant said. “That was just how he was.”
When Walter Dzula did have time off or went to visit anyone, he always had a gift in hand.
“If he was invited to dinner somewhere, he absolutely had to take them something,” Beth Dzula said. “Vegetables or a dozen corn straight from the farm.”
It could be a gift for the doctor’s office, or the dentist. In the last year of his life, Walter Dzula also brought straight-from-the-farm produce to his oncologist.
One day, Walter Dzula asked his family to bring a sweet potato pie to his oncologist. They did, expecting a confused reaction from the doctor’s staff.
“They just said ‘Oh, it’s from Mr. Dzula! We’ll put that in the fridge,’” Beth Dzula said. “I was so embarrassed in high school, but I understand why he did those things now.”
And Crowe never left the farm empty-handed, Beth Dzula said.
A love for children and teaching
Walter Dzula’s love for children was lifelong.
As a high-schooler, he drove a school bus for New Kent County schools. When his children were in school, the Dzula Farm hosted field trips and had classes come to the farm. The field trips included a small tractor obstacle course, ice cream and Smokey the Bear.
When children visited the farm stand, Walter Dzula would invite them back to see the rest of the farm. Even in the age of video games, Dzula made it his mission to show children the farm way of life.
“Dad didn’t care if the kids were interested or not,” Beth Dzula said. “He was going to bring them up to the farm and teach them something.”
And in his own children’s eyes, Walter Dzula lives on in each of them. Beth Dzula shares her father’s work ethic and desire for someone to keep company with. Walter “Trip” Dzula III has his own small-scale farm. Bryant lives by her stepfather’s morals and wisdom.
“Farming is definitely in our blood, in all of us,” Beth Dzula said. “There’s no way for him not to be with us.”
Fearing can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org