Several years ago I put together a stickpin map of the three-dozen or so day trips we’ve taken. Easy to see we listened to Horace Greeley’s advice - “Go West young man!”
Tickling our fancy the most have been the mountains and piedmont of Virginia and Maryland. Not afraid to roll the Bay Bridge dice, we’ve also enjoyed exploring the Eastern Shore.
The part of the region we’ve neglected is also easy to see - Virginia’s Northern Neck and parts below. This coastal plain of the Commonwealth, labeled on some maps as either the Tidewater or Chesapeake Bay region, might better be served by naming it the “Peninsula region.” It’s located where the Potomac, Rappahannock, York and James rivers form three finger-shaped peninsulas.
Inspired by H-Net, a network of educators that sends out heads ups about Washington-area events, we finally set the controls for this part of the region. The Menokin Speaker Series reached out about a talk held yesterday at Menokin, the historic home of Francis “Lightfoot” Lee.
I hesitated at first, knowing the drive was two hours each way. Menokin’s story, however, of reconstruction is so remarkable, and the guest speaker – Calder Loth – is such a distinguished preservationist. In his career as a historic resources officer, he helped gain almost 500 historic easements and placed over 3,500 landmarks on the National Register for Historic Places or the Virginia equivalent.
The drive down involved a choice between taking I-95 to Fredericksburg and then Highway 3 to Montross, our first stop, or the 301 Bridge option. For us, this is a no brainer. The latter involves more stoplights but is more scenic and less stressful. This way also takes you across a handful of bodies of water – the Potomac twice, then Upper Machodoc and the Mattox creeks.
There’s also the pit stop at the Sheetz in front of Dahlgren Navy Station, something of a fun must do in terms of people watching and nabbing that second cup of joe to go.
Known more for being the birthplace of Washington and Lee, Westmoreland County offers much more than those two stalwarts.
Our first stop was Montross. Like other small towns in the region, Montross is turning the corner from a Main Street decline in past years. Like some of those places, a center of gravity can be found at the local coffee house. In this case, it’s The Art of Coffee.
Don’t get me wrong; I love Starbucks as much as the next caffeine and sugar fiend, but it’s refreshing to see the anchor and sole place be a mom and pop’s. This place turned a gas station into a fun hangout with an artistic bent.
Westmoreland County Museum
This is what I love about taking day trips. The docent is often a walking encyclopedia of knowledge. Like the Maytag repairman, they love the human contact and sharing what they know.
In this case, Darlene Tallent knew the stories like the back of her hand.
She showed us a copy of the Leeds Town Resolves and then their anchor piece, Charles Willson Peale's 1768 portrait of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham. A Maryland son, Peale was 27 at the time and would go on to fame as a portraitist of George Washington and other historic figures. There’s so much allegory in this full length work that the staff put together a 12 point handout. In his essay, Charles Coleman Sellers wrote that this was Peale’s first commission of public importance as well as the only painting that directly links colonial Virginia with the American Revolution. At Liberty’s feet is a petition against the Stamp Act.
The Westmoreland County Museum was established in 1941 and became the first museum to open regularly in the Northern Neck. The museum was built as a replica of Wakefield, the birthplace of George Washington and as a safe place to display the portrait of Pitt.
It was time for lunch. Our scouting department had found an older trip report in the New York Times, recommending Angelo’s Pizza as having good crab cakes.
We’ve got a file thick with such reports, each one marked – why in the world did I think a pizza place would have good crabcakes?
Well, these guys sure do show it can be done. Pan fried, meaty and tasty.
South of Westmoreland County lies Richmond County. It contains half the population of its sibling, and garners less attention, but Richmond County has some historical aces up its sleeve.
For a town of just 1,500, Warsaw and the area around it packs a punch in terms of historical and natural assets. Of the nine places listed on the National Register of Historic Places for the county, five are found around here.
Located at the crossroads of Routes 360 and 3, Warsaw was so named in 1831 when several places in the United States showed sympathy for Poland.
We did not have as much time as I slotted for, so we missed the Richmond County Museum. It is housed in the county courthouse, built in 1748 in the Palladian style. Evidently, it is the third oldest in Virginia.
Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge
The human footprint has been much softer in this part of Virginia than elsewhere. The population of Richmond County is only 10,000 and big industry has stayed away.
Nevertheless, the watchful eyes must stay vigilant. In that regard, the eagle’s nest is located in the Rappahannock River National Wildlife Refuge. Spread out over 8,000 acres, it is celebrating its 20th anniversary as a place managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the wetland and uplands. Bald eagles and other birds find protection here.
An article at The Wilderness Society points out an overlooked aspect of such protection measures. The national system protects flora and fauna but also historical structures, archaeological sites and artifacts.
Although we did not have time to visit them, the Rappahannock Refuge protects an old piling from the steamship era and the 18th Century Bristol Iron Works. The Leedstown Resolves, a seminal moment during the start of the American Revolution, was signed nearby.
There are several starting points for trails. We chose the Wilna Unit that has their headquarters.
Lovers of history are drawn in to the past in different ways. For me, it is often the place a person or family once lived. If the house is gone, we can lose that connection and motivation to study.
Thankful then, that Sabine Hall survived.
Located a short distance south of Warsaw, it sits quietly looking down on the Rappahannock River. Although the information is dated, the NRHP points out the house has never been out of the possession of the Carter family.
Built in 1739 by Landon Carter, a wealthy planter, this Georgian Manor connects us to not only Carter, but it also can serve as an entry point into some of the story of the American Revolution.
I had certainly heard of Landon’s father, Robert “King” Carter. As pointed out by Encyclopedia Virginia, “Carter, as his nickname attests, was the richest and one of the most powerful Virginians of his day.” He lived nearby in Lancaster County and served as land agent for Thomas, Sixth Lord Fairfax of Belvoir, who owned rights to over 5M acres in the northern part of Virginia.
I guess Landon has suffered that way, the father more famous than the son. It took a bit of searching but I finally found a recent book written about Landon. I was thrilled to see the author is Rhys Isaac, who sadly, passed away in 2010. A story itself, his career took him from his native South Africa, to Australia and then Williamsburg, Virginia. His book, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790, won the Pulitzer Prize for History.
I was able to read some of his 2002 book, “Landon Carter's Uneasy Kingdom: Rebellion and Revolution on a Virginia Plantation.” Issac gives us a wonderful physical description of Sabine Hall and the Rappahannock.
Where Bushy Creek comes down there is still the wide marsh to which Landon referred to in his diary. To the side of the creek’s little delta is the place where once stood the docks of a busy boat landing. Though we are some thirty miles upstream from Chesapeake Bay, and seventy miles from the Atlantic Ocean, the river here is a mile-wide estuary.
In Landon’s time the scene was busy with large and small craft of many kinds. Sometimes tall-masted ocean-going ships plied up and down, sending off tenders to call at Landon’s jetty. At all times, small sailboats, rowboats, ferry punts, and paddle driven periauger canoes would be moving people and cargoes up, down, or across the broad waters. Always, there above, commanding the landscape, presided the old plantation house.
We drove down Sabine Hall Lane, hopeful we would at least get a photo of the historic manor. No such luck. A gate forbids entrance. I respect that, and we owe a lot to the family that has maintained what I am certain is a jewel inside and out.
I wish I had more time for this book, a micro-history of Landon Carter and his transformation from loyal Englishman to a Virginia patriot. We think of American patriots as arriving easy to the cause of liberty, but it was very difficult for some like Carter.
There’s one final stop on our tour, the piece de resistance. We headed down a country road, the kind urban folk see anymore. In fact, our drive along Highway 3 brought me back to the way it was on the roads in the 60s, when a trip to the beach meant having to wait patiently for the broken yellow line to appear and a place where the road was straight. I even remember reading the proper way to pass. Honk your horn, signal, and proceed around the car. Try that today and you might get shot at or rammed.
Preservation of historic homes generally takes the form of trying to maintain the original or some early version of the structure. In Richmond County, in between Montross and Warsaw, you will find a unique and splendid exception to that rule.
Built in 1769, Menokin was the plantation home of Francis Lightfoot Lee (1690-1750). Preservationists with the Menokin Group are transforming the house into what they are calling the most engaging preservation project in the United States. Structural glass will rise up to replace crumbling brick walls. When finished, the refurbished structure will host events and became a center of learning.
Once again, the structure, for me, served as the launching point. Francis Lee, who first made a name of himself in Leesburg, served in the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence. On the parchment was Richard Henry Lee, his brother.
One of eight children on the “Stratford line,” he married Rebecca Tayloe in 1769.
Her father, the wealthy Colonel Tayloe II who built nearby Mount Airy, had no desire to travel the long, dusty distance to see his daughter and son-in-law. Instead, he gave the couple 5,000 acres of his plantation property and financed the building of a two story brick house. (Rebecca’s brother built the Octagon House in Washington).
In his book, “The Lees of Virginia,” Paul C. Nagel tell us Lee was “the sweetest of all the Lee race. Retiring from public service, he and Becky lived peacefully at Menokin.
In January 1797, the two died within a week of each other. The property then returned to the Tayloe family. After a series of owners, Menokin fell into a state of disrepair. In the latter part of the 20th-century, parts of the home slowly collapsed. In 1995, the last owner gave the home to the Menokin Foundation.
Preservationists there have benefitted from a couple of rare occurances. For one, the original plans for the home were found. Secondly, only one minor change – the addition of a portico – was made to Menokin.
The lecture by Calder Loth drew about 30 people. He showed examples of homes and buildings that rose from their ashes with a reconstruction. Loth took many visits to Europe and elsewhere to photograph these restored buildings. Quite a treat to see the before and after, and hear him talk lovingly of their rebirth.
Loth addresses this in a blog post from 2014.
The reconstruction of destroyed historic and architectural landmarks has long been considered as something less than serious architectural expression. The loss of a significant work is usually taken to be an opportunity to rebuild with a structure reflecting a contemporary aesthetic and lifestyle. Many architectural pundits maintain that all new buildings should look to the future, not the past. Nevertheless, a persistent popular sentiment holds that natural or man-made tragedy should not deprive us of important heritage, and that accurate rebuilding of noteworthy lost landmarks is a legitimate activity. Reconstructions serve emotional, patriotic, aesthetic, and educational needs. Moreover, the majority of reconstructions, both here and abroad, are serious, scholarly achievements. Time has shown that few people regret these resurrected landmarks.
Preservationists hope the saving and re-making of Menokin will inspire others to do the same. Maybe it’s just a pipe dream, but I had the thought that Alexandria could get in this game by tearing down those horrible looking replacements put up in the heart of Old Town in the 60s.
All in all, this was one of the most rewarding day trips we’ve ever made.
The only question now is how many pins do I stick on our map?