Exmore, Va. used to be a ghost town—or close to it.
Set on Virginia's Eastern Shore, a landscape of farming land that stretches for acres surrounded by the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean—Exmore was once a bustling market town, supplying vegetables to the entire Eastern seaboard.
But by the late 1960s, competition from Mexico and southern U.S. states forced a change that would push the region into an economic spiral that left the town one of the poorest in Northampton County, the second poorest county in Virginia.
The farmers switched to growing grains, but that failed to help the town's economy much, as those crops also faced competition from other states. The final straw that sealed the town’s financial decline was the construction of a shopping center along the bypass for U.S. Route 13 in the early 1990s. Twelve businesses closed their doors forever.
The impact of those decisions can be seen driving along the 20-mile stretch of Charles M. Lankford, Jr. highway to reach Exmore. Abandoned, boarded up buildings have almost been overtaken by tall grasses.
But drive off the main highway and into Exmore and the scene changes. Several bright white buildings with crisp blue awnings dominate the small town. A handful of stores are still doing business. Ten minutes east, the Exmore Diner remains a mainstay among the locals.
Here, two decades ago, Sara Baldwin came to town with a dream to build a company.
Baldwin grew up on the Eastern Shore not far from Exmore. Her parents had met, married, and raised a family here. She spent two summers teaching art to local children when she was an undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania.
When she returned to the university to get a master's degree in fine arts, her plans were to become a fine arts painter. Baldwin never thought much about returning to the Eastern Shore.
During her second year of graduate school, Baldwin took a trip up to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Instead of focusing on the art on the walls she found herself captivated by the art on the floor—an ancient mosaic. She was drawn to the beauty made by putting stones and gems together in intricate shapes. Baldwin knew she had found a new passion.
After graduation, she moved to New Orleans to teach art, but still the mosaics stuck in her mind. Struggling to make ends meet in the Big Easy, and increasingly yearning to be closer to family and her roots, Baldwin made a huge life decision. She packed her bags and headed home to the Eastern Shore.
Two years after seeing that mosaic, Baldwin started New Ravenna Mosaics—paying homage to Ravenna, Italy and its thousand-year-old mosaic art—in her parent's Virginia living room. She was on a deadline—her parents had given her one year to live with them and get her business off the ground. If she couldn’t make it work in twelve months, she’d have to find another way to pay the bills. They supported her art and entrepreneurial spirit, but they weren’t going to support her financially.
In that first year, Baldwin learned to make mosaics that were both decorative and utilitarian. You could use them in kitchens and baths even though they were works of art. Baldwin now had the skills, but she still needed customers.
Back in the early ‘90s, the biggest buyers of decorative tile mosaics were churches and cathedrals. Baldwin did some research and learned the biggest trade show for these customers took place once a year in Minneapolis. So she packed up her samples and drove more than 1,200 miles to Minnesota. As it turned out, the convention was a bust, and Baldwin failed to drum up any business.
Before leaving town, she remembered a name she’d heard back during her grad school days—Fantasia Tile Showroom. On a whim, Baldwin looked up the business in the local yellow pages and set up a meeting with a company representative. It was a meeting that would change the course of her life. Fantasia loved all of the New Ravenna samples and immediately placed an order. Fantasia remains a client to this day.
By 1999, New Ravenna had moved to Exmore. But the company needed a lot more space to expand its operations. Exmore had more than its fair share of empty buildings so she bought the town's old post office and a shirt factory for $55,000. Five years later, she bought an old movie theater and two other buildings for $28,000 that now house a studio used to shoot promotional photos of New Ravenna’s product as well as her future office and a showroom.
New Ravenna has transformed the town, and Baldwin also has changed the lives of the 115 people she employees, all of whom live in the surrounding towns. “I’m so blessed with the team that I have,” she says. “They’re all so talented. I can’t believe they all ended up on the Eastern Shore.”
“I’ve been married to New Ravenna longer than my husband,” jokes Danielle LaBreck, 38.
LaBreck, a native of Northampton County, wanted to be an artist growing up. But she lost her financial aid before she could finish college. She didn't know what she was going to do next until she heard about jobs at New Ravenna. “It was a necessity for me to find something in the art field,” she says. The company offered her that without having to leave the Eastern Shore, a place that holds onto its people with its natural beauty and tight-knit communities that go back generations.
Since 1996, when she joined the company, LaBreck has worked as a mosaicist, pre-production worker and designer.
“Losing my financial aid for college was a blessing in disguise,” LaBreck says. At New Ravenna, she uses everything she learned in school and on the job to help bring new designs to life.
It’s easy to look up to Chris Harmon, and not just because he’s 6’4”. Harmon, 42, is one of New Ravenna’s best-known and beloved employees. Like Baldwin, he has roots on the Eastern Shore—his family has called it home for three generations.
Up until 12 years ago, Harmon has worked at the Perdue Chicken Plant, one of the few large-scale employers on the Eastern Shore. But he yearned for more.
The job working at the chicken processing factory was stable, but Harmon knew it was taking him nowhere. When he saw an ad for New Ravenna, Harmon was intrigued. After learning more about the company, Harmon was convinced New Ravenna had a bright future and would allow an employee like him to grow. One day after applying for a job cutting stone, he got the call for an interview. Less than a week later, he had the job.
Affectionately known as “Mr. New Ravenna," Harmon has worked his way up from gang saw technician to now managing the material preparation department. He remembers his first job, feeding slabs of marble and stone, through a massive saw. But where others may have seen monotony, Harmon was eager to learn a new craft.
“The hardest part of the job is learning all the colors,” he says. “You’re on your feet the whole time you’re working on the gang saws. The hardest part is walking from one end to the other because you have to feed it and catch it. You have to have attention to detail when you’re operating the gang saws, because if you don’t, you’re going to cut something wrong.”
New Ravenna has afforded Harmon more than just career opportunities; it’s also impacted his personal life. “Mr. Ravenna” met his wife, Roz, while working at the company. Roz, a former nanny from the Caribbean who Baldwin helped immigrate to the Eastern Shore, works in sales. Harmon and Roz worked together for years before a romance began, but now they are married with two young sons.
Years after applying for a job at New Ravenna, Harmon now has a career, not just a job, that can support his family. Today, it’s Harmon’s responsibility to make sure everything comes together perfectly to make a mosaic, which can include thousands of pieces of stone and marble. By the time a piece of stone makes it to the mosaicist's table, it has been sanded, cut, honed, tumbled and dried many times.
But the final work is as inspiring as the ancient mosaic Baldwin saw more than 20 years ago. As one New Ravenna employee puts it: "What we're helping to create are real masterpieces."
Chris Williams is a freelance writer based in Fredericksburg, VA. His work has appeared in numerous outlets such as The Guardian, The Atlantic, Salon, The Huffington Post, EBONY, AOL Music, Wax Poetics, among other publications. He's also written liner notes for Sony Legacy Recordings and covered the White House beat for the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA). You can follow him on Twitter @iamchriswms.
Photography and Videography by Kory Smith