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Travels with Thad, by Warren M. Billings

Thad Tate

Photo Credit: ©1988 Yousuf Karsh

Travels with Thad

Thad Tate and I shared many things throughout our friendship. Of them the one we both would probably single out as the most fun were our rambles around Virginia. They started in the mid-1980s. At the time, I was in Virginia to do some research and to visit Thad. A rental agency upgraded me to a white Lincoln Town Car replete with a white leather interior, which amused Thad no end. One evening he suggested that we should collect Jim Horn and Mark Fernandez, neither of whom had ever seen much of Tidewater Virginia, and give them a feel for a place they knew only from reading about it. On the appointed day, and riding in style, we set off with Thad as navigator and toured King William, Lancaster, and Middlesex Counties stopping off at the courthouses and the region’s standing colonial churches. We even drove out to Stingray Point to see the place where John Smith got stung in 1608. That section of the country was a culinary wasteland but Thad knew a hole in the wall that provided a tolerable lunch. Afterwards, over dinner, which Thad fixed, the two of us remarked that we ought to do another trip, and during the months that followed we planned the first of what became a series of annual jaunts that continued for more than twenty years.

Those voyages came to follow a set routine. Some lasted for only a day; others were longer. After we determined the part of the state we wanted to explore, Thad would map out our route and things to see in meticulous, written detail. We brought a small library consisting of the WPA guide to Virginia, the Virginia register of historic places, the guide to Virginia’s highway markers, and county maps, and if we would overnight we also stocked a supply of malt whisky. Depending on where we were going we would start out from Williamsburg or his house at Wintergreen. We always avoided the interstates in favor of less traveled highways, tertiary roads, and dirt roads. I did the driving and Thad played navigator, a role he thoroughly enjoyed.

We went to every county in the commonwealth, we saw every early church, we found all seven of the standing covered bridges, we located all of shot towers that dated to the revolutionary war and early national era, and we stood in the same place where William Byrd II marked the dividing line between Virginia and North Carolina. Except for Chancellorsville and Appomattox Court House, we intentionally avoided Civil War sites. The only other deviation was a trek into the area around New Bern, North Carolina. Whenever a trip lasted for several days we booked into some old house that had been converted into a pleasant B&B. Otherwise we ate along our route. Thad had a knack for locating decent meals no matter where we were. Once when we were passing through a very rural section and lunch neared I asked him if we would have to forego a meal. No, he said, just a few miles ahead there’s a service station that serves good barbecue and Brunswick stew. Sure enough, he was right on both counts. (Such was his prowess at finding such places that in the Billings household it was said that he knew the best places to eat in Antarctica.)

Our final journey was to southwestern Virginia. Afterwards, we talked about what we might do next. One possibility involved turning our notes and photographs into an article for a travel magazine. Another was to retrace earlier trips, especially those that took us to the Eastern Shore, the Great Dismal Swamp, Burke’s Garden, and through the Valley of Virginia. Neither was to be.

Warren M. Billings
Distinguished Professor of History, University of New Orleans and
Bicentennial Historian of the Supreme Court of Louisiana