Historic Garden Week in Virginia....It Can't Come Soon Enough!!!
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Saturday, April 21, 2018, marks Day One of Historic Garden Week in Virginia. There are eight areas around the Commonwealth with locations available for touring on Saturday. I have chosen to focus on the Gloucester-Mathews area, mainly because I noticed this morning that our Daffodils here in Weston, MA are finally starting to emerge. And when I think of Daffodils, as a native Virginian, I naturally think of Gloucester!
Daffodils Lead the Way
The Daffodil has long held a distinguished place in the history of Gloucester. Brought over by the settlers as remembrances from home, these bulbs were planted and shared, and they eventually started to spread, growing wild and popping up here and there, often without having anyone tending to them. Over the centuries, the county became what I have always thought of as “The Home of the Daffodil.” But don’t take my word for it. Carol Ray and Denise Rhea Carter, along with members of the Daffodil Festival Book Committee (1991;updated 2010), have written the definitive guide to the history of the Daffodil in Gloucester County. Their well researched and fascinating piece covers the arrival of Daffodils in Gloucester and explores the people who cultivated them, tended them, sold them, and, of course, loved them. Though you will have missed the Daffodils in all their glory by the time Garden Week rolls around (next year, head to Gloucester in March for the Daffodil Festival to catch these beauties at their peak!), never fear.
You will still be able to check out Brent and Becky's Bulbs, the farm and shop owned by noted educators, horticulturalists and Daffodil experts Brent and Becky Heath. Their farm and shop will be open for visitors on Saturday from 1:00PM-3:00PM. Stroll through the trial gardens at their farm and home. The cost is $10 per person, and reservations are required. Grab your spot by calling 804-693-3966. Fortunately, if you get hungry, Brent and Becky’s Bulbs is one of the luncheon destinations for the day. Please see the Guidebook for further details. (Times provided here for Brent and Becky’s are based on the company website information. The Guidebook lists additional times and activities available at the site.) While we’re on the topic of Gloucester-specific history, I should really tell you a little bit about the other location where box lunches will be available. Yes, because it's important to know exactly where you might be able to eat, but also because it's important to know about it and its history in terms of understanding and putting the larger area around which you will be touring into context. I know it sounds strange, and I promise we’ll get to the three main properties on the tour shortly, but Gloucester holds so much history that I would be remiss were I not to at least mention it.
Nuttall Country Store really is a must-see in Gloucester. Not because it’s some beautiful landmark property in and of itself, but because the store has been a community meeting place and business hub that has served Ware Neck, Gloucester since at least 1875. Its importance to the community has been established through written records--of receipts, notes, lists--discovered in the mid 2000s (well before the store was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.) The receipts so recently discovered on the second floor of the store were incredibly well preserved, and they came from all over--from companies based in Richmond, Baltimore, New York, Maine and Hampton, among other places. Because these items were saved (and fared so well during the 100+ years that they waited to be discovered), we, in 2018, have records of how people lived, where they did business and how they did business from their little corner of the world. It is clear that the rural Ware Neck community relied on Nuttall Country Store to be its link to the outside world. And the handwritten lists, notes and requests that were discovered at the same time serve to highlight the sense of familiarity that so often existed in the small, rural towns early in our country’s history. Though now known as Nuttall Country Store, the store was originally known as the Arthur Tabb Store. Later, once two local brothers purchased the store and brought a post office into Ware Neck, the world was Ware Neck’s oyster. Ware Neck was no longer as isolated as it had once been.
Business could be conducted much more quickly and efficiently, and the community could interact as it desired with the outside world. The feeling of community that had always surrounded the Store continued even when the Store changed hands again and was purchased by Randy Nuttall. (For more on the Store and its history, please see Mark St. John Erickson’s 2012 piece in the Daily Press) Sometimes, the little things give the most fascinating and telling insights into the lives of people from a different era. So both of the stores that will have lunch available for purchase on Saturday hold much more than food (or, in the case of Becky’s, bulbs!!). They hold and represent the past and the present of the community you are about to explore. And if you’re in the mood for even more reading, this is a great article about Nuttall Store written by someone who spent his life riding his bike to and from this living landmark. Definitely worth a read! Oh, and I also found a great little “history” of the area on the website for what looks like a beautiful place, The Inn at Warner Hall.
Built by Dr. Henry Wythe Tabb on the North River and completed in 1824, Auburn Plantation, located at 11 Old Auburn Road, is a three story Federal style home that sits atop an English basement. It is featured on the cover of this year’s Guidebook. The home was once owned by Charles Heath (Brent Heath’s grandfather), who moved down from New York City to grow and cultivate cantaloupe, as the story goes, but ended up instead turning Gloucester into the “go to” town for Daffodils. He loved their beauty, and he started importing them from Holland, thinking (correctly!) that if the Daffodil (both cultivated and wild) did so beautifully in the Gloucester soil, which was sandy loam soil and which stayed cool because of the proximity to water at every turn, then Dutch bulbs would certainly thrive. Soon, Heath was growing flowers from the Dutch bulbs and creating new varieties of the flower, and his adopted hometown became known as the “Daffodil Capital of America.” It was only much, much later, in the late 1970s, that Auburn earned itself another badge of distinction. It was purchased by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who also purchased the nearby Poplar Grove. Unfortunately, Lennon was shot and killed before he had the opportunity to move into the home. Yoko Ono gifted Poplar Grove to a boys’ home, and in 1985, a private buyer purchased Poplar Grove. To find out more about these real estate transactions, check out this article by Ben Swenson, upon which I relied for information regarding the Lennon connection to the area.
Since its initial construction, which lasted from 1803-1824, Auburn has seen several additions. All have been constructed so as to work perfectly with the early 19th century structure. The current owners have created a wine cellar that sounds like a very cool place. According to the Gloucester-Mathews section of the HGW Guidebook, the wine cellar contains pieces of stone from the Roman Colosseum (I am assuming that these pieces must have been brought over from Rome in the 18th or early 19th century and placed in the walls back during the original construction of the home...) as well as pieces of stone from an ancient Tuscan villa. I would love to find out more about provenance of these Italian gems!! (To me, the Italian stones are the most interesting and intriguing part of the home’s story….but then again, I did take several years of Latin and absolutely loved my first trip, via the QE II, to Europe--and especially to Rome--as a 16 year old….)
On the horticultural front, according to the Guidebook, the home is landscaped with English Boxwood, Azaleas, Crepe Myrtles and Camellias. There are wonderful large trees that likely “came with the house” and serve to provide shade along the entry during the summer months.
Cottage Point and Dunham Massie Farm
In addition to Auburn, there are two other lovely properties on tour in the Gloucester-Mathews area. One is Cottage Point, which is accessible by shuttle, and the other is Dunham Massie Farm. Dunham Massie Farm is located at 7420 Dunham Massie Lane (Ware Neck) and is a 50 acre farm with all sorts of beauty to behold. Please see Karl Gercens’ magnificent photographs of the property in the Dunham Massie album located on his flickr.com page. There are 84 photos with excellent captions and descriptions. Enjoy them before or after your visit!! (Due to copyright restrictions, I am unable to provide even the link to the flickr account...but it is easy to find and worth the search!!!)
One Last Stop Before You Go: Rosewell Plantation
Finally, because I do have such a fascination with ruins and with all of the “wondering about” and resulting research that is associated with them (dating back to a few years before the above photo was taken with my mother in Rome), I have to give you one more property to see while you're in the Gloucester-Mathews area. While this property is not "technically" on the tour, I have always found it utterly fascinating. It was once called Rosewell Plantation and was majestic in view. Now, it sits in ruins. But the Rosewell Foundation exists to provide visitors with a glimpse into the history of the once vibrant house as well as to preserve what is left of this home so important to our nation's history.
In a nutshell, the original plantation house was built back in 1725 by one Mann Page. Overlooking the York River, the house was certainly one of the most elegant and expansive homes of the early colonial period. Interestingly, the "who has the bigger house" game seems to have been alive and well even back in colonial times. Apparently, Mann Page was determined to build a home in Gloucester that would dwarf the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg. He succeeded, even though he died before the house was completed. Built of brick, marble and mahogany, the house was finally finished by Mann Page's son, Mann Page II. It was during the completion phase of the construction on the house that future Virginia Governor John Page was born there. And, as luck--or just circumstance--would have it, the future Governor of VA happened to be in school with a certain Thomas Jefferson at William & Mary. It was during time spent at the house with Mr. Page throughout their years in school that Jefferson had the opportunity to study all aspects of the house. It has been said that he loved the thick brick (made from red Virginia clay, I'd be willing to bet!), the pavilions and the octagonal cupolas that were once part of the house.
As a lover of the University of Virginia, it seems to me as though Rosewell was very much on Jefferson's mind when he designed not only the University, but also Monticello, Poplar Forest and even Farmington Country Club. It is a shame, then, that the Page family sold the house to someone who did not entirely appreciate all of its architectural detail and graceful aesthetic. Instead, by the end of the 1830s, the house became victim to substantial change. Inexplicably, the new owner made major changes to the exterior of the house--to the structure itself, in fact--and he also tore out all of the beautiful mahogany millwork and imported marble. In 1916, after having been through several additional owners, the house was destroyed by fire. What remains today are the ruins of a house that was truly one of the most important houses of its day, for it produced a politician (or two, if one were to count the "college friend", Thomas Jefferson) as well as architectural inspiration for at least one great American architect.
Well, that just about sums it up for Gloucester-Mathews, in my book. It's an area rich in history and one definitely worth checking out on Saturday. You may even pick up some of Brent and Becky's famous bulbs while you're there!! (Material for this post came from various sources, all cited (with links) within the body of the post. But a lot also came from memory. You can take the girl out of Virginia, but you cannot take Virginia out of the girl!!)