A local pigeon-racing social club is migrating west to Goochland’s North Pole.
The Richmond Concourse Association of Pigeon Fanciers, a group that’s raced homing pigeons for sport since 1944, has a new home after purchasing the former North Pole restaurant property at 1558 River Road West.
The move was prompted by the sale of the group’s clubhouse in Glen Allen earlier this summer after developers came through and the area got congested, said association President Hugh Costley. The organization, which has about 20 members, wanted to settle down far from the city.
The old restaurant building is around 3,000 square feet and sits on about an acre.
“Somebody sent us an email about checking out a building in the North Pole, and some of us thought it was a joke to start with,” Costley said. “I looked at it and, I mean, from the outside, it didn’t look that impressive. But then when we looked inside and saw the different levels. It was something that kind of had character to it.”
Homing pigeons are known for their ability to return home from hundreds of miles away and were used in World War I and World War II to carry messages across enemy lines.
The Richmond group holds contests where members’ pigeons are shipped in a trailer hundreds of miles away before they’re released to fly home and timed electronically. There’s a sensor in each loft, so when the pigeons find their way back their times are recorded.
A 200-mile run takes about five hours, Costley said. Members wait eagerly at home for birds to come in before meeting up together to compare times and talk for a few hours.
“When we fly them, they want to come home,” Costley said. “Every time we let them out, we set them free. If they’re not happy there, they can go someplace else. But they want to come home.”
Most races aren’t for money, Costley said, though the group is partnering with the Dixie Southern Richmond Pigeon Association to host a convention and race in November. The entry fee ranges from $125-$300, depending on how many birds are entered, and winning birds will net their owner $8,000.
Costley said he’s had pigeons for over 60 years, since he was age 5.
The retired budget manager said he spends 20 to 30 hours per week caring for his 300 pigeons, adding he bought about 100 for $25-$200 each and bred the rest. He estimates he spends $1,000 per year on food and medicine for the birds and has invested $5,000 in the two years he’s been racing with the club.
“It’s just something that gets in your blood,” Costley said. “Racing pigeons, they say, is the sport of kings.”
Pigeons, which Costley called the poor man’s racehorse, must be trained before they’re ready to compete. The birds must be raised like kittens or puppies after birth, Costley said, adding that he gives them food, vitamins, medicine and a safe place to live.
The birds first memorize their surroundings in the loft, then in a 15-square-mile area. Costley said he releases young birds from one or two miles away, which then progresses to five, 10 and 15 miles.
Costley said about 20 birds per year never come home. Some fall victim to hawks, and others get lost. He said he doesn’t name his birds, but he picks some favorites based on their coloring.
The club has dues of $100 per year and shipping costs of about $200 per season: fall and spring. It paid for the North Pole property through the money it received from selling its old building in May, which Costley said was enough to pay for the building and cover renovations.
The deal closed for $102,000 on July 29, below its listing price of $175,000. The property is a meeting place for people, not pigeons, though it does host 200-300 birds for a few hours once a year at an annual pigeon show.
A contractor is working to renovate the building, and Costley said the work should be done in late October or early November.
Costley said the group had to cancel its spring season in March due to the pandemic, but it has had socially distanced meetings once a month since June.
North Pole Restaurant was a beloved community staple in Goochland for decades, said Heather Placer, a commercial agent for Shaheen, Ruth, Martin, & Fonville Real Estate who represented Costley’s group in the deal. It operated from 1924 to 2010, and was known for its ski lodge atmosphere, seafood and steak.
Richard Rossi bought the joint in 1979, remodeled it shortly after and ran it until he died in May 2010, three years to the month after he announced it was for sale, said James Richmond, director of Goochland County Historical Society. The restaurant then went to his estate and ceased operations, and it’s been dormant for a decade.
The sellers in the deal were Ren Mefford and Chris Tsui of Eat Restaurant Partners, which operates 13 restaurants in Richmond. Placer said the sellers were looking for a quick sale to focus on the group’s current restaurants amid the pandemic.
Mefford and Tsui had owned the property since buying it at a June 2012 auction and had it listed since fall 2016, said their agent Nathan Hughes, a principal broker at Sperity Real Estate Ventures. He said the restaurateurs originally intended to open a restaurant there before getting too busy running their group’s other locations.
While the property finally has a new user, Costley said the longtime North Pole sign that welcomed visitors and still stands will remain.