Carlyle Ford sat at a small wooden table in the corner of Au Bon Pain in Lightfoot, resting his elbows on the edge of the table as snow lightly fell outside the window.
Under the navy blue brim of his baseball cap, his bright blue eyes scanned the quiet row of Williamsburg Pottery storefronts across the parking lot.
“I remember when all of this was built,” Ford, 85, said, gesturing to the multicolored buildings. “And across the street, that was a dairy farm.”
Since 1941, Ford has lived, worked and served the James City County community. He has seen an abundance of change, from the construction of the Anheuser-Busch brewery in 1972, to the development of the Kingsmill resort.
Ford has embraced all of James City County — the historic, the old and the new — but still holds on to the community and stories he first fell in love with as a child.
But most of all, Ford is proud of the place he lives.
“I’m blessed to live in James City County, and blessed with all the friends I’ve made,” he said.
Connecting with a ‘sleepy town’
Originally from Minnesota, Ford moved to James City County as a child in 1941.
Ford’s connection to the area, however, dates back over a century. Ford said he is full-blooded Norwegian, and his ancestors helped settle Norge — named after the Norwegian spelling of “Norway” — in the early 1900s.
“When we first moved, people could tell we were not from here,” Ford said. “But then I listed off all the people I was related to… and they said ‘Well, that’s half the town.’”
At age 22, Ford enlisted in the U.S. Army for 8 years, working in supply management. After his time in the Army, Ford moved back to Minnesota. The move only lasted four years, and Ford returned to James City County in 1970.
Then, Ford got back in touch with the community, working as a manager at a local restaurant, Lum’s.
“It was a gathering place for some people,” the 85-year-old said.
Ford started to see a change in James City County around same the time he managed Lum’s in the early 70s. In 1972, the county welcomed Anheuser-Busch, bringing hundreds of jobs to the area.
Soon after, Anheuser-Busch developed Kingsmill Resort, making room for the “sleepy little town” population to grow.
Preserving the beauty of the county
1983 was Ford’s year.
Having never held an elected position before, Ford ran for the commissioner of the revenue seat, and won. The election was the start of a 16-year tenure of leadership in the county’s government, collecting taxes and keeping operations running smoothly.
“There weren’t 25,000 people in James City County at that time,” he said. “There were times people would ask me why taxes were due on Dec. 5, and I explained to them the primary industry in the whole state is farming. When do farmers get their money? In the fall.”
As time went on, Ford picked up other responsibilities, including putting properties into James City County’s Agricultural and Forestal District (AFD).
People who put their properties into the AFD agreed to four years of no development, Ford said, preserving rural lands in the county. Over 17,676 acres of land in the county have been preserved under the program during Ford’s tenure.
And, as commissioner of the revenue, Ford was also tasked with collecting rollback taxes if landowners pulled their properties from land use taxation or the AFD.
In the county’s land use program, land designated for forestry or agriculture use is assessed at a lower value, so property owners pay less in taxes. If they pull their property from the program, the owner must retroactively pay the full tax rate for the previous five years.
The site of New Town, which used to be a parcel of empty land in the land use program, was one parcel Ford collected rollback taxes for in the 80s.
“The two boys [who were affiliated with the New Town development] fought hard against that, but ended up paying,” Ford recounted.
“As an elected official, I was bad because I didn’t take a lot of gruff,” he added with a smile.
Celebrities and more
In his 76 years in Williamsburg, Ford has memories linked to nearly every corner of the county.
The 88-year-old still excitedly recalls the time he saw Sonja Henie, a popular Norwegian figure skater, emerge from a Lincoln Continental parked on Duke of Gloucester Street.
Ford also met his wife, Katherine, at a local bowling alley.
“I finally got my wife to go out with me, and she fit in with the group I ran with like an old shoe,” Ford said. The couple has been together for 44 years.
Katherine is also from the area, and carries her own connections. She was born in Bell Hospital on Cary Street, which is no longer open.
Between the two of them, the pair knows James City County inside and out.
“You’ll see he knows a lot of people — and can talk for days about it all,” Katherine Ford said.
As years have passed, Ford has watched the county’s population increase exponentially — to more than 75,000.
In 1940, one year before Ford arrived in James City County with his family, the county’s population was 4,907, according to data from a U.S. population website.
But Ford doesn’t blame people for moving here.
“So many people came here for the war, then came back because they liked it,” Ford said.
For now, Ford enjoys keeping connections with old friends.
Every second Thursday of each month, Ford gets together with members of his high school class at the Williamsburg Golden Corral — making sure to reminisce about the “good old days.”
“It was one of the most wonderful places to grow up,” Ford said.
Fearing can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.