Down Memory Lane on the James River

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By: Keith Martin and Kathy Leipman

It seems like I have known of Virginia’s James River Plantations for my whole life.  My knowledge was not based on the historical importance of the great plantations, but on my mom’s fond memories of spending time amongst them when she was a teenager. She had a friend whose parents lived there and she frequently got to visit. Here is the story in my mom’s own words:

“Often we would go to Anne’s home in Charles City.  Her parents rented a house that had been the caretaker’s residence on the Westover Plantation.  They couldn’t buy the house because it was in the middle of the plantation but they didn’t want to live anywhere else.   Anne’s mother was the one that introduced me to cream cheese and olive sandwiches.  I love them still today.

I used to love to go to Anne’s.  Her house was just across the road from the big plantation house.  The big house faced the James River, surrounded by tall trees and separated from the river by a lush, green lawn that stretched all the way to the water’s edge. The James was really wide and flowing in this area and I loved to sit on the massive green lawn and hear Anne tell the story about a Southern Belle who lived on the plantation and died of a broken heart.  Anne would point at the river and say, “That’s where people have seen her walking in her long, white gown.”  She was evidently still waiting for her unrequited love.  I don’t know if the story was true but I bought it hook, line and sinker.

I loved the Westover Plantation.  During the time that I visited there, it was not open to tourists because the elderly lady that owned the plantation was still in residence.  To be honest, I was only in the big house once that I recall.  I remember meeting the lady that lived there and feeling rather awed in her presence.  How wonderful it must have been to live on a property that was so peaceful and beautiful.  Even the river seemed so calm, compared to the rapids further up stream, which was where many of Richmond’s teens hung out.

I’ll never forget the first time Anne led me over to the fence that lined the plantation.  She called the horses and they came running over to greet her.  I was quite amazed when she grabbed the mane of one of the horses and hopped on its back.  Then she told me to do the same.  I actually managed to do so and we rode bareback through the pastures to Berkeley Plantation.  It was an amazingly free feeling to ride with the wind blowing my long hair behind me as we rode through the pasture.  I was most amazed by the fact that I actually managed not to fall off.

Anne was a good friend of the son of the owners of Berkeley Plantation.  We would play hide and seek in the basement of the plantation.  The windowsills were so wide that we could hide behind the curtains and not be seen. I don’t remember much else about the basement except that it was large and dark. It was a lot of fun. We would also swim in the pool.  Then we would ride the horses back to Anne’s.”

I have always loved hearing that story and imagining what the plantations were like.  I could see the grand homes and the rolling plantation grounds and the lovely river. The mental picture I built from the story has always served as my idyllic rural countryside setting and I was finally going to get to see the plantations with my own eyes and my mom was going to be there with me!

I was in the Richmond area with my mom, my stepfather, my sister, and my niece for a long overdue family reunion and we had a free afternoon. When we were thinking of ways to spend our time I brought up the idea of visiting the James River and seeing the Berkeley and Westover Plantations.  It wasn’t so far away and my mom was excited to take a walk down memory lane, so we set off toward the river. The plantations were a lot closer than I had imagined and we were there in less than an hour.  As we got closer, we left the suburbs of Richmond behind us and entered the lovely countryside – It was more or less how I had imagined it. We came to a stop in the parking area of the Berkeley Plantation and we set off to explore.

We paid our admission fee and we signed up for the next tour of the house and then we stepped out to see the grounds. I was amazed with the landscape and with the house.  I had expected to find a southern style Greek-revival plantation house with giant columns sitting there, my mom had never really described the looks of the houses, after all, but what was there was even more grand.  The main house, which was built in 1726, was a red brick Georgian style house with simple lines and it fit well into the lush landscape. My mom pointed to a flat piece of ground and said that the pool she remembered had been there.  Before the tour started she asked the guide what had happened to the pool and the young lady said she had never heard of a pool being there – Later, the guide asked another person working there who confirmed that the pool had been taken out since it wasn’t historically accurate, but that it had been where my mom remembered it.

The tour started with a video that was shown in a small theater that had been set up in the basement of the big house.  We went in and the first thing my mom said was, “ I remember the windowsills being larger.” By that point my mom had told her story about playing hide and seek in the basement to the tour group and a few of the people laughed.  The windowsills were definitely deep enough to hide in and it was fun to think that my mom had played there when she was young. The video taught us the story of Berkeley Plantation that I had never heard. The grounds served as the site of the first official Thanksgiving celebration in 1619 and, during the Civil War, the song “Taps” had been composed there. The house itself was built in 1726 and it served as the home for Benjamin Harrison, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. It also served as the home of William Henry Harrison, the ninth President of the United States and had been visited by many of the country’s forefathers. When the video ended we left the basement and headed into the main house for our tour.  My mom never mentioned the inside of the house in her stories, other than the basement, so I had never built a mental picture.  Nothing I could have imagined would have matched the grandeur inside the house. The architectural details were ornate with arches and lovely plasterwork and paint.  The antiques and the lovely fireplaces all told a story and our guide filled in the rest.  Apparently Thomas Jefferson, who was an architectural genius, had suggested a few of the features that were incorporated into the house.

When the tour was over I decided to walk around the grounds for a while with my stepfather, while my mom, sister and niece sat on a bench beneath the trees and took in the scenery.  We walked through the large fields and gardens until we reached the James River. The different gardens flowed down from the house to the river’s edge and large hedges of trees separated the different sections into smaller box gardens. The golden pastures surrounded the gardens and made for a beautiful rural scene.  When we reached the river we walked over to the First Thanksgiving Shrine and then we walked back along a tree-lined alley.  We met up with my mom, sister and niece at the edge of the fields that separated Berkeley Plantation from Westover Plantation.  I paused for a moment to picture my mom on horseback riding through the fields in her youth – It must have been an amazing place to visit!

We left the Berkeley Plantation and we drove two miles down the road to the Westover Plantation. Along the way we drove through a narrow alley of trees, which was beautiful, and then we found the parking area. My mom was exhausted so she and my stepdad stayed in the car with my niece, and my sister and I set off to explore the plantation grounds.  My mom wasn’t able to remember which of the houses around the parking area had been her friend’s home, but she was fairly certain that it was the one we had to walk past to enter the plantation grounds.  We paid our fee at the fee station and we looked at the map to get our bearings.  Once we passed through the massive hedge we could see the plantation house in all of its glory.  The huge trees and the steep bank that led down to the river were beautiful and perfectly framed the large brick plantation house, which was built around 1730 by William Bird II, the founder of Richmond. The beautiful scene matched my mom’s description, though I had errantly placed columns on that house, too.

The house was built in the Georgian style, and was considered one of the best examples of that style in the country. Originally two separate buildings flanked the main house, like the current layout at Berkeley Plantation, but during the Civil War one of the buildings, the one that contained the once-famous Byrd Library, burned to the ground. When the building was rebuilt the two buildings were connected to the main house as wings.  The house itself was still a private home, much like when my mom had visited, and was not open to the public.  The grounds were open and we spent about an hour wandering around. We explored the riverbank where the ghost of the southern belle from my mom’s friend’s story would have been and we found the entrance to one of the secret passages that had been built as an escape route from the hostile Indians.  On the side of the house that faced away from the river there was a huge ornate iron gate that was decorated with large eagles and other symbols of power and hospitality.  There was also a walled garden that served as a graveyard for some of the plantation’s early inhabitants – Perhaps one of them was the ghostly southern belle of lore.

Once we had taken in as much as we could we headed back to the car and shared what we had seen with my mom. She seemed to have enjoyed her trip down memory lane and we definitely enjoyed seeing one of the prominent settings from some of my mom’s amazing stories of her youth.  We took one last look at the James River and then we headed back out into the countryside and all the way back to Richmond.

This entry was posted in North America, United States of America.

One Comment

  1. Lynn Martin Badger February 25, 2015 at 5:53 pm #

    This is a beautiful, well-written story. I enjoyed it immensely, and am glad you and Kathy collaborated on it.

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