Exmore’s beginning is probably best described by H.C. Davis of Willis Wharf, who went to Exmore as a railroad employee shortly prior to the railroad’s passing through the soon to be town, he replied: “It wasn’t known as anything-there was nothing there.” (Dobson) That was not entirely true. There was farmland stretching across this narrow section of the Shore from Willis Wharf to Belle Haven.
The first land patent in Exmore’s vicinity was granted to John and Mary Cobb in 1661. They received 600 acres, 100 of which were sold to Simon Teague in 1687. The next year they bequeathed the balance of their home place to their sons, leaving 299 acres to son Samuel, 150 acres to son Joshua and 150 acres to son Ingould. It appears that either Samuel or Joshua, or both, acquired the tract where Exmore stands today. In 1696, Samuel and Mary Cobb sold 70 acres to John Downing, whose descendants came to own a large plantation in the northeast part of the county.
When the New York, Pennsylvania and Norfolk Railroad (the “Nip ‘n N”) decided to build a line through the Eastern Shore, residents immediately began campaigning to have it built through their communities, hoping to become boom towns. However, “the rail officials were much more concerned with their own economic prosperity, and the decision was made to lay rails straight down the center of the Shore.” (Eastern Shore News, July 10, 1985). Most of the stations that were originally established took the names of nearby towns and villages, although most of them were a mile or so away. When towns and villages were built around the stations, new names became necessary for establishing post offices near the stations. The original stations were (from north to south):
Hallston (now Hallwood)
Metompkin (now Parksley)
Accomac (now Tasley)
Pungoteague (now Keller)
More stations were added later. The railroad was completed on October 25, 1884 and on December 12 of that year a post office opened in Exmore.
There has been some debate over how Exmore got its name. The popular story is that the town was called “Xmore” because it was the tenth station south of the Delaware State line. As legend has it, the theory is that an early railroad-man pulled into the station here, tooted his whistle, and announced “X more to go!” We might wonder why he did not simple yell “Ten more to go!” More appropriately, why wasn’t it named “VII more” (that is how many stations there were to the end of the line in Cape Charles)? The station at Delmar, Delaware, however, seemed to be of significance. Instead of giving the distance to the Maryland line or Philadelphia, the station gave the mileage to Delmar.
Exmore, could have been named for Exmoor in England. Exmoor, England and Exmore, Virginia have little geographically in common, but this never stopped settlers from naming new towns after their native areas. Right in the middle of Exmoor Forest there is a town named Cheriton. Cheriton, Virginia about 25 miles south of Exmore was also created by the railroad, though the name had been in use before 1884. If settlers or descendants from Devon County, England were responsible for naming Exmore, we might question why they changed the spelling.
The first appearance of Exmore in the Peninsula Enterprise, a local paper of the 19th century, was on June 27, 1885. The entry read, “A rumor is current in our community that a party from the North has bought 150 acres of land, part of the farm on which Exmore is located, at $5000.” There are no further entries that disclose who the party was or what they did with the land. They may have been the men described in the Enterprise’s second reference to Exmore on October 24, 1885: “A new storehouse has been recently opened at Exmore Station, by Messrs. Smith and Willis, and the members composing the firm being popular and competent businessmen, their venture cannot fail of success.”
Benjamin Doughty is credited with having been the first to realize Exmore’s possibilities as a trading center and in the 1880’s opened the town’s first store. Ewell Nottingham opened the second business, another store, at approximately the same site now occupied by the former Ocean Bay Mall. Also among Exmore’s earliest merchants were Lewis and Robbins, whose names became synonymous with the town’s early years. During the late 1800’s and 1900’s Exmore became a business and shipping center for area farmers. Farmers depended on the railroad to get their produce to market so the town became filled with wagons and trucks loaded with fresh fruit and vegetables.
The railroad not only carried goods and produce but also was an important transportation line for passengers moving along the eastern seaboard. Hotels were built near many stations. One of the first large buildings in Exmore was Shield’s Hotel. Shield’s was located on what is today the corner of Bank and Front Streets. Originally, Bank Avenue was known as Smith Avenue, perhaps named for the early businessman and was probably the first street in Exmore.
Shield’s Hotel became the Exmore Hotel probably before 1920. The building was significantly enlarged, perhaps to accommodate an increase in travelers. The Central Hotel was located on Willis Wharf Road behind what was Ocean Bay Mall. The Exmore Hotel was torn down in the early 1950’s. The Central Hotel still survives today. It was cut in half and became two houses currently standing on Occohannock Road.
The first post office stood on Smith Street (Bank). It was later moved to Broad Street for a brief period and was then moved back to Bank Avenue near its original location. The first bank was located on the corner of Smith and Main Street, and of course led to the name Bank Avenue.
Churches were organized to accommodate Exmore’s growing population. The Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church was the first church in the area, established in 1846. The congregation in Hadlock never grew very large and the few remaining Trinity members joined the newly formed Broadwater Methodist Episcopal Church (Epworth United Methodist since 1931) in 1892. Broadwater gained members from Pullen Chapel on Hog Island, a barrier island east of Willis Wharf. As Hog Island began to wash away in the early part of the 20th century, many inhabitants moved to the mainland and settled in the Willis Wharf/Exmore area. Broadwater Chapel grew also because the town of Exmore grew. Epworth is today a church of over 400 members, the fifth largest Methodist church on the shore.