By John M. Thompson
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Waiting one bright spring morning for the Jamestown-Scotland ferry, I felt as if I were embarking on a real adventure. Once we were out on the sun-spangled water, gulls and terns trailed our wake and a cool breeze chopped the surface. Although it takes only about 10 minutes to cross Virginia's James River, the ferry is still a big, 50-car vessel, and the river is wide here not far from the Chesapeake Bay.
The short voyage makes for a great way to start a tour of the south side of the James. In the springtime people flock to the stately mansions lining the north shore of the river east of Richmond -- Shirley and Berkeley plantations, to name two -- yet few venture to the river's quieter side. Over in rural Surry and Prince George counties stand several plantation houses open to the public, their architecture and gardens every bit as impressive.
One of the houses, Bacon's Castle, the oldest documented house in Virginia, is a national historic landmark that dates to 1665. Even so, I have to say that one of the most impressive things about the tour was my guide. I could have sworn that Josiah Barrett was at least a graduate student. He knew every facet of the house's history and architecture, from the curvilinear gables to the chamfer-and-lamb's-tongue molding. It turns out he was a high school junior, in his third season here as a guide.
Josiah showed me how the oldest part of the house was built along a cruciform Jacobean plan (rare on this continent), how everything from the diagonal chimneys to the front and rear towers lend a pleasing symmetry to the overall design. In 1676, during Bacon's Rebellion, some 70 followers of wealthy planter Nathaniel Bacon ran the house's owners out while they pillaged the countryside in a feud with the Colonial governor. Because of Bacon's exploits, his name became attached to the house rather than that of builder-planter Arthur Allen.
While many rooms have period furniture, others are bare, allowing one to concentrate on details of construction: the heavy beams, the local bricks, the 10-pound sandstone shingles that once covered the roof.
Up the highway and then off on a side road leading toward the river stands Chippokes Plantation, named for an Algonquin chief. A working farm since the early 17th century, this large property is now a state park with hiking and biking trails. An 1855 Italianate mansion and museum document life of a later era than the other plantations.
Nearby Smith's Fort Plantation features a mid-18th-century Georgian-style house, which was last privately owned in 1928. The owner, Bowling Morris, was descended from area slaves who may have been owned by descendants of the plantation's first owner, Jamestown settler John Rolfe.
It was Rolfe who married Pocahontas in 1614; as a wedding gift, her father, Powhatan, gave the couple the 2,000-acre property on which the plantation sits. Pocahontas never lived here, but Rolfe farmed about 400 acres of it with indentured servants.
As I walked through the house, guide Ed O'Neal told me he loves the bucolic atmosphere of the area. "A few years ago they were planning to put in a bridge where the ferry is," he told me. "If they had, there would be shopping centers and all sorts of things now."
In 1609, Capt. John Smith did some developing here on the bluffs above Gray's Creek when he started a fort to serve as a defense against the Indians and Spanish. Though the fort was never completed, the plantation was later named for the famous explorer. I drove a bumpy half-mile road down to the remaining earthworks. The bluff here offers a lovely view of the sinuous tributary.
Not far upriver was the most spectacular find of the day.
To get to Brandon Plantation, you have to drive about six miles down a narrow, pine-lined road. At one point, a wild turkey crossed in front of me, at another a hound stood in the middle of the road like a security guard. Finally I arrived, the ample front lawn spreading like an oasis with tall oaks and tulip poplars just beginning to leaf out.
Thomas Jefferson designed the neoclassical mansion about 1765 for his friend Nathaniel Harrison, father of future president William Henry Harrison. The riverside portico has scars from both Revolutionary and Civil wars: Ships took potshots but did no real damage. The estate, now at 4,500 acres, has been owned by the same family since 1926.
Here on the river side, which in the old days of river traffic was the front side, lies the gem of the plantation: an extensive garden, which was abloom with azaleas, camellias, daffodils and Virginia bluebells. Along the edges, shade trees were coming back in pastels of pink, yellow and green.
As had happened all day, I had the place to myself. The only other person about was caretaker Philip Smith, who was trimming the lawn with a gasoline-powered push mower. He told me he prefers the old rotary mowers, but the job would take too long. I told him that I loved how the garden was both informal and elegant at the same time. "It's not Mount Vernon," Smith said, "but it's nice."
It's more than that. A final bit of lawn sweeps from the garden to the river's edge, offering a splendid view up and down the undeveloped James. Water laps the cypresses and sandy shore, and the peace and beauty are a gift from another age.