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In 1784 George Washington went before the Virginia Assembly to argue in favor of an ambitious project: a canal to connect the James River and Kanawha River in southwest Virginia. If successful, the completed canal would link Virginia industry to the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, providing access to the limitless resources of the American West.
The laborious work, complicated by floods and technical challenges, plodded on for more than half a century, into the 1850s. By then, rail lines were being laid on canal towpaths first carved for oxen and men—the economic viability of canals had vanished in the white plume of a steam locomotive.
A century later, construction workers layered interstate highways over still-active rail lines; within decades, drivers’ horizons were perforated by passenger jets slicing in and out of billowy clouds.
Progress never comes without casualties. Essential businesses become obsolete, demand disappears, and companies relocate, sell out, or fall victim to mismanagement.
This narrative of progress—and its casualties—is well understood but still foreign to Richmond’s oldest businesses. These companies have upended existing business models to align with new technology, endured local, national, and international economic crises, and retained a commitment to the Richmond community that surpasses odds and expectations.
Some have been around long enough to watch the transition from water to rail to road and sky. Others have pushed forward those very changes.
The oldest business in Richmond is Sands Anderson, which began its legal practice as the sibling partnership of Sands & Sands in 1842.
For many Richmonders, Billups Funeral Home, which opened in 1850, typically tops the list. (The Richmond Daily Dispatch was also founded in 1850 but did not become the Richmond Times-Dispatch until merging with the Richmond Daily Times in 1903.) Billups is one of five funeral homes that opened in Richmond in the nineteenth century and remains open today.
There are ample reasons—and hackneyed jokes—that suggest why funeral homes are an enduring presence in Richmond and many other cities. Death, one of life’s two inevitabilities, generates a consistent demand that does not face the same peaks and valleys of other consumer purchases.
But funeral homes frequently are family businesses, too, providing a continuum of ownership and responsibility. They manage emotionally delicate moments in human life, and the trust they build translates forward to future generations.
Jewelers are often a family enterprise as well, explaining their early and lasting presence in Richmond industry. Cowardin’s Jewelers was the first, opening in 1865, the final year of the Civil War, and was followed by Bachrach’s Jewelers in 1887.
An enduring trait of Richmond’s oldest businesses is the close connection between a brand and the surname of its founder. Each of the 15 oldest businesses in Richmond is named for its founder. The Jefferson Hotel, established in 1895 by Lewis Ginter, was the first to survive after breaking this trend. Ginter relied on the venerated name of one of Virginia’s most famous sons to do so.
The list of consumer products and services broadened in the early twentieth century, a reflection of the growing complexity and size of the American economy.
In Richmond, the list of businesses that emerged during this period ranges from the industrial exploits of Strickland Machine Co. (founded in 1900, now Strickland Foundry & Machine Co.) to the veterinary practice of Farmers Veterinary Hospital (1929) to Whitten Brothers (1920), purveyor of that revolutionary invention of the early twentieth century, the personal automobile.
The diversity of Richmond businesses continued as the twentieth century progressed, with new companies sprouting even during the Great Depression: Capitol Awning (1930), Strange’s Florist (1935), and Hertless Brothers Roofing (1935), for example. While innumerable businesses failed in the 1930s, those that opened amid dire economic circumstances undoubtedly carried lessons in efficiency and frugality into subsequent decades—a boon for longevity.
The post-war years were a time of tremendous population and economic expansion throughout the United States, and Richmond was no exception. The population of the city grew by more than 19% between 1940 and 1950 and by 13.5% between 1960 and 1970.
Simple life in a Southern city was now more complex, and businesses formed to meet new demands of modern suburban life. The Fin & Feather Pet Center, Inc. opened in 1959, James River Air started serving Richmond in 1967, and Richmond Olympiad Gymnastics opened its doors to the next generation of Olympic champions in 1970.
They are three of 20 businesses that opened their doors in the years after World War II and stayed open for more than 40 years since.
Sustaining a business—beyond the managerial, technical, and financial hurdles—requires relationship building that inspires generational loyalty. It demands a level of consumer trust that weakens the allure of big-box invaders and communicates the value of personal, local human relationships, whether the decision is how to remember a lost loved one, which car to drive off the lot, or where to get advice on the best food for your new best friend.
Achieving that lofty goal surely parallels the sentiment pilots must feel as they fly miles above the canals: transcendence.
|1842||Sands Anderson PC||Legal|
|1850||Billups Funeral Home||Funeral Homes|
|1850||Richmond Times-Dispatch (formerly Richmond Daily Dispatch)||Media|
|1863||Davenport & Co.||Finance|
|1870||Morrissett Funeral and Cremation Service||Funeral Homes|
|1874||Joseph W. Bliley Co.||Funeral Homes|
|1886||C.P. Dean||Sporting Goods|
|1886||Richmond Times-Dispatch (formerly Richmond Daily Times)||Media|
|1887||Charles A. Rose Co.||Real Estate|
|1887||C. F. Sauer Company||Manufacturing|
|1890||Spotts & Carneal Inc. (formerly J.D. Carneal & Sons)||Real Estate|
|1891||National Marking Products, Inc.||Printing|
|1892||Nelsen Funeral Home||Funeral Homes|
|1892||Ruffin & Payne (formerly Fourqurean and Ruffin)||Manufacturing|
|1894||Pollard & Bagby Inc.||Real Estate|
|1895||The Jefferson Hotel||Hotel|
|1897||Noland & Baskervill, now Baskervill||Architecture|
|1897||Bennett Funeral Homes||Funeral Homes|
|1897||McGuireWoods LLP (formerly McGuire & Bryan)||Legal|
|1900||Waller & Company Jewelers||Jeweler|
|1900||Strickland Foundry & Machine Co. (formerly Strickland Machine Co.)||Industrial|
|1901||Hunton & Williams||Legal|
|1905||Woody Funeral Home||Funeral Homes|
|1908||Davis Brothers Construction Company, Inc.||Construction|
|1910||Old Dominion Brush Company||Manufacturing|
|1910||William R. Hill and Company||Manufacturing|
|1910||Scotts Funeral Home||Funeral Homes|
|1910||Agee's Bicycles (formerly West End Bike Shop)||Sporting Goods|
|1914||M. R. Ellis & Sons, Inc.||Plumber|
|1915||Taylor & Parrish Construction||Construction|
|1916||Richmond Ford Lincoln||Automotive|
|1921||Massey Builder's Supply||Retail|
|1923||Southern States Cooperative (formerly Virginia Seed Service)||Agriculture|
|1923||Luck Stone Quarries||Industrial|
|1923||Figg & Sons Insurance Agency||Insurance|
|1924||Volvo of Richmond||Automotive|
|1924||Benj. Franklin Printing Company||Printing|
|1924||Sally Bell's Kitchen||Restaurant|
|1925||Financial Services of Virginia||Finance|
|1926||Christian and Barton LLP||Legal|
|1926||William Byrd Hotel Barber Shop||Barber|
|1929||Farmers Veterinary Hospital||Veterinary|
|1929||New York Deli||Restaurant|
|1933||Chiles Funeral Home||Funeral Homes|
|1935||Hertless Brothers Roofing||Construction|
|1935||Helen's Restaurant (formerly Helen's Inn)||Restaurant|
|1936||H. J. Holtz & Son||Painter|
|1936||Empire Granite Corporation||Construction|
|1940||Smith Iron & Metal Co Inc.||Industrial|
|1942||Hull Street Outlet||Retail|
|1943||Brooks Gray Sign Company||Manufacturing|
|1944||Mitchell Wiggins & Co||Financial|
|1946||The Dairy Bar Restaurant||Restaurant|
|1946||Halls Tire & Auto Service||Automotive|
|1952||Westhampton Pastry Shop||Bakery|
|1953||Morris Tile Distributors||Construction|
|1954||E. A. Holsten, Inc.||Distributor|
|1955||Austin Brockenbrough & Associates||Engineering|
|1958||Adams Barber Shop||Barber|
|1959||Fin & Feather Pet Center, Inc.||Pet Store|
|1960||Mercedes-Benz of Richmond||Automotive|
|1960||Massad Hotel (operated by JMJ Corporation)||Hotel|
|1963||Pearson Auto Group||Automotive|
|1963||S. B. Cox, Inc.||Construction|
|1964||Allied Animal Hospital||Veterinary|
|1965||The Martin Agency (formerly Martin & Woltz)||Advertising|
|1965||Glavé & Holmes Architecture||Architecture|
|1965||Custom Woodwork, Inc.||Manufacturing|
|1966||Light & Raphael||Financial|
|1966||Tour Plan International, LTD||Travel|
|1966||Slurry Pavers, Inc.||Construction|
|1967||James River Air||HVAC|
|1968||Andrew W. Wood P.C.||Legal|
|1968||The Dog & Cat Shoppe||Pet Store|
|1969||E. T. Moore Manufacturing, Inc.||Manufacturing|
|1970||Richmond Olympiad Gymnastics||Athletics|
|1970||HandCraft Dry Cleaners||Dry Cleaning|
|1970||Disco Sports||Sporting Goods|
|1970||Worth Higgins & Associates||Printing|
|1971||Air Conditioning Equipment Sales (ACES), Inc||HVAC|
|1974||Cross Creek Nursery & Garden Center||Nursery|
|1976||Richmond Security (formerly Richmond Lock and Safe)||Security|
|1976||Guirkin Plumbing, Heating, and Air Conditioning||Plumber|
|1976||Hudson Industries, Inc.||Manufacturing|