The Mystery of Our “Ethels” in Riverview is SOLVED!!

Soon after I moved to Colonial Place/Riverview (Norfolk) in March 2007, I heard the story about the little bungalows in Riverview that (allegedly) had been moved there from The Jamestown Exposition (1907). According to the local legend, the houses had been built for the Exposition (at Sewell’s Point in Norfolk), and later moved to Riverview.

After looking at the bungalows on Ethel Avenue, I seriously doubted the veracity of the Exposition story. The build-date for the “Ethels” (our pet name for the bungalows) felt wrong. The houses looked like they’d been built after 1910.

And that’s how it all began.

For the last three years, David Spriggs (Norfolk), Mark Hardin (Hopewell) and I have been researching this story, and it’d take a full book to review the sum total of what we learned along the way. (And within the next few months, that book should be finished. More on that later.)

Looking back, it’s fun to see the progression and evolution of our thought processes. At first, I suspected the “Ethels” were from Aladdin (a kit home company). After all, when you’re a kit house historian, that’s your natural default. Despite lots of digging through lots of old catalogs, I couldn’t match them up.

Our first big break came when Mark Hardin discovered our Ethels out in Dupont, Washington and Ramsay, Montana, the site of two DuPont World War One-era munitions plants. The houses had been built there in the 1910s, to provide housing for the workers at the DuPont plants.

Penniman (about six miles east of Williamsburg) had been the site of DuPont’s 37th munitions plant, and it had closed down after The Great War had ended (November 1918).

Could our Ethels have come from Penniman?

Our next big break came when Norfolk historian Robert Hitchings said that there were several houses on Major Avenue (a Norfolk neighborhood known as “Riverfront”) that had been brought in by barge. Within about six weeks, Robert gave us a 1921 clipping from the Virginian Pilot, showing a barge bringing the houses down the York River. Read more about that here.

Break Number Three was also from Mark Hardin. He found an article in a 1938 Richmond newspaper, detailing the fascinating history of the “ghost city” of Penniman, Virginia. At its peak, the village boasted of 15,000 residents. It had its own bank, post office, YMCA, hospital, and schools. A grainy picture from the Richmond paper showed several Penniman houses, at Penniman. Those were the same model houses now sitting on Major Avenue. More on that here.

With that 1921 Virginian Pilot article in hand, David was able to find a local descendant of Mr. Hastings (a local stevedore who’d brought the houses into Norfolk by barge). I sent the descendant a note and she contacted me. She was able to fill in a lot of blanks, and tell us where even more of the Penniman houses were located (in Willoughby Spit).

And yet, we didn’t have any pictures of our Ethels on barges or at Penniman. We had a barge-load of circumstantial evidence that these houses came from Penniman, but we wanted more.

Digging for information on Penniman was very challenging. We searched and searched, and found bits and pieces here and there, but nothing substantive. When “The War to End All Wars” finally ended, all traces of Penniman went with it.

And then finally, after three years of research, I hit the Mother Lode.

Hagley Museum and Library (in Wilmington, DE) is a 235-acre site that is home to the original DuPont estate and gardens. According to Wiki, Hagley Museum and Library “tells the story of the people who worked for the DuPont company in the 19th Century.”

And fortunately, those folks kept good records. After a few emails and phone calls to Hagley, I learned that Hagley had many photos of Penniman. I literally jumped in the car and drove 483 miles (round trip) to look at those photos.

And let me tell you, it was worth the trip.

On October 25, I spent several hours at the Hagley Museum and Library, learning all about life in Penniman in the late 1910s. It was quite a thrill to look at the 100+ photos of a place that was now all but forgotten. It was remarkable to look into the faces of the men and women of Penniman, working assiduously to “stuff one [shell] for the kaiser,” and doing their part to win “The War to End All Wars.”

And best of all, I spotted the Ethels in their natural habitat.

As an architectural historian, I can tell you, that was a very happy memory that I won’t ever forget.

Three years of searching. Hundreds of  miles traversed. Countless hours of research. Mystery solved.

Below are a few photos that tell the story of our Ethels, and where they came from and where they landed.

Thanks so much to David Spriggs and Mark Hardin for helping solve an architectural mystery!

There is one more piece of the puzzle we’d really like to solve. We’re told by long-time Riverview residents that there is a picture of The Ethels, fresh off the boat, being rolled up Lavalette Avenue on pilings or logs. There has been a whole slew of us (David Spriggs, Milton Crum, Bill Inge and more) methodically searching the local papers for this photo, but we’ve found nothing. We’d love to find it!

If anyone has information on where we might find this photo, we’d be grateful to know.

Travel back in time and see the Ethels (in the 1940s).

To read Part I of this story, click here.

To read part II of this story, click here.

To read part III, click here.

To read more about Old Hickory (another DuPont plant with the same houses), click here.


The Ethels have been a  mystery

The true source of these "Ethels" (as we call them) has been a puzzle for many years. Here are three in a row on Ethel Avenue in Riverview (Norfolk). The tax records give a build date of 1918, which (to my amazement) is right.These houses were built at Penniman in Spring 1918, and sometime in late 1923 or early 1924, they were floated down the York River to Lafayette River and into Riverview. According to DuPont's literature, this particular model was called, "The DuPont." Sadly, one of these old Penniman houses was torn down about 2008.


Highland Park

There are two Ethels in Highland Park (49th Street) in Norfolk, side by side. Despite the oversized addition on the second floor, this house is in wonderfully original condition. (Photo is copyright 2009 David Spriggs.)


Dupont Mark

Mark Hardin found The Ethel in several other DuPont towns, such as DuPont, Washington, where they have more than 100 of these houses, lined up - one after the other - like little soldiers. In fact, Mark found that there's a "Penniman Street" in Dupont, Washington. The house shown above is in Dupont, Washington. (This photo is courtesy of Mark Mckillop and may not be reproduced without written permission.)


Penniman houses 1938

One of our big breaks was when we found this in-depth story about Penniman in the Richmond News Leader. The article was dated June 1938, and gives an amazing insight into life in Penniman.We'd love to find Dick Velz' family and find out if they have any more information on Penniman. It's a long shot, but it's a shot.



At its peak, there were about 15,000 people working at DuPont's 37th munitions plant in Penniman. The houses were packed in there pretty tightly. Most of the houses had "rubberoid exteriors." In other words, they were pretty primitive. The Ethels were the better houses, and had a little bit of space around them. At the back of the photo you can see the "better class of houses" and the York River. (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)


house house

Close-up of those finer homes at the back of the photo. The houses in the foreground were pretty simple dwellings, and most didn't have wood exteriors, but "rubberoid" (not unlike tar paper). (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)


house native

Another panoramic shows the Ethels in place within Penniman. (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)


house house

The Ethels sat down by the York River for the first few months of their young lives. Five or six years after they were built, they were moved to Norfolk, Virginia. The two-story houses were "Miltons" and were moved - with the Ethels - to Riverview. There were more than 40 Penniman houses which were moved to Major Avenue and Glenroie Avenue (Riverfront area) in Norfolk. (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)


house house house Penniman

Three little Ethels in a row in Penniman. Check out the board walk. The houses were probably built on brick pillars, and the planks were added around the foundation to keep out the wind and the critters. (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)


house penniman

The two-story house facing the York River is what we call "The Milton" and it was also moved to Riverview - with the Ethels. There were 20 "cottages" according to contemporary newspaper articles, 18 Ethels and 2 Miltons. (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)


Another big break came

Another big break came when Robert Hitchings found this article in the Virginian Pilot (date December 1921). Warren Hastings moved at least 60 of these Penniman Houses to Norfolk. A man named George Hudson *apparently* moved our Ethels to Riverview. In October 1923, George Hudson bought the lots where the Ethels now reside, and like Hastings, Hudson owned a stevedore business (barges).


Riverview front

Several Penniman houses landed on Major Avenue and Glenroie Avenue in Norfolk. The house on the left is a vintage image of a DuPont design, known as "The Haskell." The house on the right is on Major Avenue. It apparently survived its trip down the York pretty well.


Houses in Willougby

Thanks to Warren Hasting's granddaughter (still living in the area), we found these Haskells in Willoughby Spit. They were also moved from Penniman by Warren Hastings.


houses in

The yellow Ethel in Highland Park looks like such a happy Ethel.


houses david

A side-by-side comparison of the two little Ethels shows there can be no doubt as to their origins! The house on the right is from Penniman. (Photo on left is copyright 2008, David Spriggs; Photo on right is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)


In November 2013, I went to the city assessors office and saw photos of our Ethels from the 1940s.

In November 2013, I visited to the city assessor's office and saw photos of our Ethels from the 1940s. The quality of these photos was really remarkable - a historians dream!


When these photos were taken, our Ethels were less than 30 years old!

When these photos were taken, our Ethels were less than 30 years old!



There are two of these "Miltons" in Riverview, and we're now convinced that these two-story homes also came from Penniman. One is on Ethel Avenue and the other fronts on Beach Avenue.


Photo in Penniman

We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the forward-thinking people of DuPont, who hired photographers to document Penniman with these oversized panoramic photos the village. These photos (now safely stored in the archives at Hagley) provide an incredible level of detail, showing life in Penniman in 1918. How fun to see our Ethels in 1918! (Courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)


To learn more about this fascinating topic, check out the links below.

To read Part I of this story, click here.

To read part II of this story, click here.

To read part III, click here.

Want to contact Rose, please leave a comment below!

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  1. Charles

    Impressive research and story. Thanks for putting this together.

  2. Sharon McGlone

    Love reading about your research. Thanks for keeping history alive!!!!!

  3. Susan VanHecke

    Great research, Rose and company! Kudos to you for cracking the case of the mysterious Ethels!

  4. Carl Wentzel

    Great job researching this topic!! I used to live on Ethel Avenue in the mid 1980s and always wondered about the origin of the little bungalow houses.

    After looking at these pictures, I realize that a “Haskel” is located on Ethel Avenue also. I lived in the Haskel house and always thought that it was odd that my two-story house was so different from the surrounding bungalows. Now I know that they all had the same origins.

  5. Sears Homes

    Carl, you’re right. That house is also evident in some of our vintage Penniman photos!

  6. Sears Homes

    In fact, we now think that there are more than 20 Penniman houses in Riverview.

  7. Kim Brown

    Rose! So interesting! I live in one of the houses on Admiral’s Row – Naval Station Norfolk, and am doing research to install “memory books” in each house. One of the houses is designated the Cheatham House. We are having a hard time finding its origins. Thought it may have been a Penniman house. Looking at your designs (Ethel, Haskell, Georgia), I don’t think it fits anywhere perfectly. Perhaps I could send you a photo and some of our thoughts to let you weigh in?