But Gloucester Courthouse, just north of Williamsburg and Yorktown on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, has had a less fleeting existence than any movie set.
Settlers arrived in the area in the early 1600s, not long after the establishment of Jamestown. In 1651, the Virginia General Assembly carved Gloucester County out of York County, and Gloucester Courthouse became the county seat in the 1700s. Today, the building for which it’s named is part of the Courthouse Circle landmark, which the town likes to call “the oldest living village in Virginia.”
Before our visit, I’d imagined Courthouse Circle as something along the lines of Colonial Williamsburg, minus the people in silly hats and the throngs of tourists. I was right about the second part, anyway. The scale was rather smaller than I’d envisioned, though perhaps with no less brick.
My husband and I walked around the circle, which consists of a debtors prison (circa 1810), two clerk’s offices (1823, 1896), the courthouse (1766) and the old jail (1873). One of the clerk’s offices has been furnished as an interpretive restoration, but most of the buildings are now used as county office space.
We let our imaginations do most of the work, as no one was around at the visitors center to let us into any of the buildings.
Down the street, what had started as a pre-Revolutionary tavern — and welcomed guests until well into the 20th century — is now the Gloucester History Museum. Much of its collection came directly from community donations, with exhibits rotating every few months. It was fun to try to guess what all the old-fashioned gadgets were. Without the labels, though, I doubt that I would have identified the chicken catcher.
Other displays humbly placed Gloucester in the context of larger historical events. The Oct. 3, 1781, Battle of the Hook began after British troops under Cornwallis ventured from nearby Gloucester Point on a foraging expedition, desperate for supplies as the American and French bore down upon them. A little more than two weeks after the cavalry clash, the British surrendered at Yorktown.
Then there was the story of Irene Morgan Kirkaldy. In July 1944, she was 28 and recovering from a miscarriage. Leaving Gloucester on her way home to Baltimore, she boarded a Greyhound bus. When she refused to give up her seat to a white person, she was arrested. Her case ended up in the Supreme Court in 1946 and established that seating on interstate bus lines could not be segregated. It was nine years before Rosa Parks’s similar act of defiance on a city bus in Montgomery, Ala.
For all the old buildings that remain standing and intact in Gloucester Courthouse, one very significant structure a few miles away no longer does.
Beginning in 1725, the Page family spent more than a decade building Rosewell. In its heyday, people considered the mansion one of the finest in the Colonies. The Pages themselves were prominent, but the home also attracted its share of famous visitors: John Page, a Virginia governor in the early 1800s, counted Thomas Jefferson among his closest friends. Legend has it that Jefferson may even have composed a draft of the Declaration of Independence at Rosewell.
In 1916, a fire devastated the house. “Let it burn,” said the descendant of a slave who worked there, according to a display at the site’s visitors center. Today all that’s left is a brick shell.
We spent some time at the visitors center before exploring the ruins. A model of the house depicts it pre-fire. Supposedly inspired by similar residences in and around London, Rosewell looked as though it could have been lifted from a 18th-century novel. There were plans to make it even grander, but the two-wing addition never came to be.
My husband and I took the short walk down the rutted lane to the ruins, past fields of corn and soybeans. As we arrived, a group of people — some in period dress — were just wrapping up a croquet tournament. I couldn’t decide whether it was perfectly appropriate or perfectly comical.
Even in deterioration, Rosewell awes. (Preservationists are fighting a constant battle to make sure that it doesn’t further fall apart.) It’s remarkably tall. Chimneys at all four corners still proudly reach for the sky, each pockmarked by a series of fireplaces. Staircases on the front and back futilely lead to nowhere.
As I imagined guests in their finest sweeping into the great hall, I was reminded of a sign gracing an exhibit in the history museum. “Ah, those good old days.” Indeed.
Inn at Warner Hall
4750 Warner Hall Rd.
Elegant bed-and-breakfast on a 17th-century estate. Rooms from $190.
Wild Rabbit Cafe
6604 Main St.
Soups, salads and sandwiches from $5.49.
6724 Main St.
Great Thai food with live music some evenings. Dinner entrees from $13.95.
Main Street in Gloucester Courthouse
Take a self-guided tour of the group of historic buildings with a brochure from the visitors center.
Gloucester History Museum
6539 Main St.
Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to
3 p.m. Free.
Old Rosewell Lane, off Route 644, Rosewell
Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m. $4, children $2.