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Hinton Hurff, keeper of history

Story by Phyllis Speidell

Photos by John H. Sheally II

From Hinton Hurff’s living room, you can see Bennett’s Creek and its smaller streams branching off to meander through the marsh. Hurff’s creekfront property has been in his family for five generations. As he recollects that history, the family connections meander like the creek, linking with other families who were early settlers around Bennett’s Creek, including the Ameses, Eberwines, Everetts, Crosses, Gaskinses, Harrells, Dardens and Nurneys.

Mention a local name and he likely can reel off whose grandmother married who and where they lived — and may have been buried — along the creek. He holds the history of the area as close as a legacy.

Familial history comes naturally to Hurff, who has spent the major part of his career owning and managing cemeteries in the North Suffolk and Western Branch communities. This spring, he decided to retire as president of Greenlawn Memorial Gardens, a decision that came about 30 years later than it does for most retirees. Hurff will turn 93 in September 2020.

“If I want to know some history of the area, Hinton is one of my main go-to-sources,” said Cindy Eberwine, a Bennett’s Creek resident and longtime friend. “I have often wondered if that could be the result of the way his genealogy is so entwined with the old Suffolk, Bennett’s Creek and Driver families.”

Diane Davis, who now lives in League City, Texas, lost track of her relatives in Driver years ago when her mother died at an early age. She credits Hurff, his knowledge of the area and his contacts there with helping her retrieve that heritage.

“Thanks to them, I got my family history back,” she said.

The Hurffs emigrated from Germany in the 1700s to settle in Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey, with some establishing the town of Hurffville, N.J. According to family lore, Frank Hurff, Hinton Hurff’s grandfather, left New Jersey in the 1870s with a cousin to farm near Edenton, N.C. On their way to Edenton, the two men were to change trains in Suffolk. The cousin, however, fell critically ill in Suffolk and was carried to the Rose Hill farmhouse to recoup. The cousin died, but Hurff fell in love with Rose Hill, bought it a few years later and lived there with his bride, Emily Darden, who came from near Edenton. Hurff developed a large farm along both sides of what is now East Constance Road as it runs from Wilroy Road toward North Main Street.

Of the couple’s 10 children, five survived, including Hinton Hurff’s father, Walter Hurff, who was born in 1881 and grew up in the farmhouse, which is now a two-family home on Parkway Drive.

Walter followed his father into agriculture and ran a 200-plus-acre farm in Bennett’s Creek that had been handed down to his wife, Lillie Mae Everett Hurff, from her maternal grandmother. He and his father also owned and ran a men’s shop in downtown Suffolk.

But Hinton Hurff’s heart has always been in Bennett’s Creek. He was the kid brother to Ann Hurff Ballard, an athletic tomboy and free spirit, according to Hurff, and Frank Hurff, who he described as a typical “mean big brother.” The three grew up in the brick farmhouse their parents built on Bennetts Pasture Road not far from the creek and within walking distance of the Driver village crossroads.

Acquaintances remember that the Hurffs were relaxed parents, and it was not unusual to find the children playing ping-pong on the mahogany dinner table or for a young Hinton Hurff to spend the night by himself in an old Boy Scout cabin on the creek.

Both Ann and Frank were pilots.

“My brother flew jets in the Air Force and taught me to fly a small plane,” Hurff said. “After 3 ½ hours, he turned me loose — I was 17 years old.”

Hurff, a lifetime member of Beech Grove United Methodist Church, worked at both Arthur’s and Brinkley’s stores on the Driver crossroads while he was at Chuckatuck High School. He graduated in 1944 in the wake of D-Day and the Normandy Invasion and enrolled at Virginia Tech that summer when he was 16. He was ready, he said, and the high school only went to 11th grade.

At 17, he volunteered for the Navy. He served for 8 ½ months and, war over, went back to Virginia Tech on the GI Bill, switching his major from aeronautical engineering to business.

While he was at Virginia Tech a young woman from Churchland, Peggy Savage, invited him to a dance at Madison College, now James Madison University. The romance flourished.

“She was 21 and I was 24 — and scared — when we got married,” Hurff said. “We lived in the Colonial Manor Apartments in Portsmouth, but then Mom and Dad gave us this lot down the lane from them on the farm, and we built a four room house in 1953 and kept adding to it.”

The couple had two children, Hinton Jr., and Margaret Duke. Hurff worked for the National Bank of Commerce, the Virginian Railway and U.S. Plywood. Then a friend suggested a partnership to build Meadowbrook Memorial Gardens on a plowed field off Shoulder’s Hill Road in 1960.

Harbour View, Hurff remembers, was developed on farmland dotted with family cemeteries, and at least one complete cemetery was moved to Meadowbrook.

After 21 years, the partnership dissolved, and Hurff left the business. To celebrate, he and his wife sailed with friends for an extended vacation in Florida. On their return to Suffolk, Hurff agreed to serve as president of the Greenlawn Memorial Gardens and Chapel Mausoleum.

People, Hurff said, are curious about cemeteries, but “It’s like any other business and quite interesting, you meet a lot of people and make a lot of friends. There is a tremendous satisfaction in helping.”

Along the way, in addition to his career and love of boating (his favorite boat was named Riverside after a cemetery in Norfolk), Hurff also served on the city planning commission, helped manufacture thousands of chocolate Easter eggs for the Beech Grove UMC Easter Egg Factory fundraiser, and, in 1976, helped to launch the North Suffolk Rotary Club.

Closest to his heart, however, is his family and the family ties that have buoyed his life. His home, the same one he and Peggy built almost 70 years ago, is filled with treasured family photos and family heirlooms — including that mahogany dining table with the dented top.