Friends of Esmont, a nonprofit that was established with the goal of revitalizing the village of Esmont in Southern Albemarle, has presented seven proposals to do just that. The master plan has an estimated cost of $1 million and will take several years to complete.
“It’s time to bring back some of the pride that was once felt in Esmont,” Peggy Purvis Denby, chair of the local non-profit, said. “The village has deteriorated for years and some people refer to it as a zombie town. We want to make the village better than it is now,” she said. “Esmont and its residents deserve that.”
Populated since the 18th century, Esmont was once home to the nation’s largest soapstone quarry, had a depot for the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Railroad, several thriving general stores, and its own bank. At its peak, Esmont was a bustling and thriving town.
Purvis Denby was born and raised in the village in a time of prosperity.
“The railroad was there to transport soapstone and lumber to Charlottesville and beyond,” Purvis Denby said. “When the quarry operation closed in the early 1960s, things started to go downhill quick.”
In 1964 the railroad tracks were removed and the depot was demolished. Abandoned by C&O Railroad, Esmont lost part if its identity, Purvis Denby said.
The effect of that economic downturn was that in the following decades the village slowly deteriorated as a result of a lack of attention from its residents or local officials. While neighboring Chestnut Grove and Porters Road have prospered to some extent, Esmont did not.
Purvis Denby herself wasn’t a witness of what happened to her beloved village; she moved out of the area and spent 35 years in Atlanta. When she came back last year, she was shocked at what happened to her birthplace.
“I felt that something needed to be done. People used to be proud of Esmont, but there not much left to be proud of. I love Esmont, so I hit the ground running.”
Purvis Denby established a nonprofit called Friends of Esmont.
“When I started talking to people with the idea of making Esmont better, everyone was on board. It was just like they were all waiting for someone to take the lead and that happened to be me.”
A year later, Friends of Esmont has a master plan with seven proposals that could restore some of Esmont’s old glory. The group consists of about a 100 people, who are not only local, but live as far away as Illinois, New York and Florida. Projects include rebuilding the train depot, creating a trail on the former Esmont-Alberene Quarry Line for recreational purposes, and publishing a booklet that describes the rich history of the village for educational purposes.
The trail, by far, would be the largest investment. The trail would run between Esmont and the Alberene Soapstone Quarry using the abandoned Nelson-Albemarle rail line, which was used for stone transport. Estimates of the costs range from $500,000 to $1.4 million.
According to Purvis Denby, both Albemarle County and the town of Scottsville would like to see the trail happen. The trail has the potential to connect to the existing southern Albemarle trail system, which would better connect the whole area.
“The town of Scottsville fully supports this effort,” Matt Lawless, town manager said. “There would be a lot of regional benefits to the Esmont-Alberene Quarry Line Trail. Not only is it a great way for people to enjoy nature and raise environmental awareness, it would also be a great way to stay in shape, and would benefit economic development due to visitors coming to the area.”
Scottsville wrote a letter of support, backing the Friends of Esmont’s initial funding request for the project.
The project that will most likely get off the ground first is the rebuilding of the Esmont Depot. Estimated to cost $100,000, the goal is to give back some of Esmont’s character and identity after the depot was lost.
“There are no original drawings of the depot,” Purvis Denby said. “But we do have drawings of similar depots from that era and because of pictures, we have a pretty good idea of what it should look like.”
Currently, as the group is doing for most of its projects, Purvis Denby is applying for grants to acquire funding. It’s also in the process of acquiring the land. If all goes as planned, the new depot would arise on the same spot the old depot once stood.
“Give or take a few feet, but that’s the idea,” Purvis Denby said. According to the proposal, the new depot would also serve as a trailhead for the Esmont-Alberene Quarry Line Trail. The depot would house bathrooms and snack machines and outdoor parking would allow visitors to access the trail.
The third project that could be completed relatively quickly is a history project.
“Esmont has a rich history and deserves to be told,” Purvis Denby said. “But currently that history is documented fragmented. By providing a booklet that tells the story of the village, we can preserve it for the future. If we don’t do that, there’s a chance that our history will be lost forever.”
The other projects that are part of the revitalization plans are the restoration of historic homes, establishing a wildlife refuge along Ballinger Creek, providing better access to 200 acres of land abutting Esmont and restoring the Purvis Store, a historic property once considered the hub of activity in the village.
“It’s the house where I was born,” Purvis Denby said. “The idea is to house a small museum in the historic house, which was built in the early 1900s.”
Friends of Esmont would also like to see a small marketplace return to the house, where local artisans produce and sell their products.
How long all the projects will take to complete is difficult to say, according to Purvis Denby.
“But at least we all know what we want and we’re excited about the future. These projects can bring back some glory to Esmont and that’s something we all would like to see happen. It will never be what is was, but it will be better than it is.”