"Why do people go to a place just like the last place they were?"1
church tower for 300th
anniversary in 1907
monument for 350th
anniversary in 1957
signs with interpretation
Jamestown Settlement -
next to Glass House
(click on images for larger versions)
Most Virginia communities highlight the historical associations that make nearby places "special." Some historical sites are clearly significant, a "must-visit" place for tourists in the area and even a destination attracting tourists from overseas.
Most homes of the Virginia-born Presidents have been converted into house museums, and the preservation of Mount Vernon triggered much of the American movement to save historic sites.
Of the many presidential homes in Virginia, only the Oak Hill residence of President Monroe in Loudoun County is still closed to public access. Most Americans may not remember that "Tippecanoe and Tyler too" were both born in Virginia, but drive along Route 5 and you'll quickly discover that Berkeley Plantation and Sherwood Forest are open for viewing...
The local history of many Virginia communities may also have nationally significance - though many such sites across Virginia have not been preserved.
The first southern rebel killed in the Revolutionary War died at Kemp's Landing, in what today is the City of Virginia Beach, during a skirmish in November, 1775. The site is also has significance for civil rights. After his victory in the "battle" of Kemps Landing, Lord Dunmore publicly announced his plan to free slaves who fought for the Loyalist side, and to create the Ethiopian Regiment to fight for the British. Later, the courthouse for Princess Anne County was built there, since it is the watershed divide between the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River and the North Landing River.
Places change over time, and "old" Kempsville disappeared as suburban sprawl altered the area. Nearly 250 years later, the integrity of the site had been altered so significantly by modern development that Kempsville did not qualify for designation as an official Historic District.2
historically-inaccurate image of Pocahontas as a Great Plains princess is reflected in statue at Jamestown
When the Bicentennial was celebrated in 1976, John Warner (later elected to the US Senate from Virginia) convinced communities across America to celebrate their heritage even if the area was unsettled by Europeans until long after the Revolution. With some creative thinking, places like Van Buren, Missouri discovered that they could recreate the initial journeys of William Henry Schoolcraft, early explorer of the Ozarks, even though the first European exploration occurred there 40 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed.
Few Virginia localities had a problem identifying that they had significant moments in colonial history. A substantial number of Virginia sites, not just Williamsburg, had some Revolutionary War tie to commemorate:
At South Boston in Halifax County, there is a historical marker on the south end of town overlooking the Dan River. The Bicentennial gave local residents a chance to remember that their town was named to honor the patriots who started the ruckus in Boston. In 1781, the war came to them.
General Nathaniel Green and the American army crossed the Dan River there, ending a retreat from Lord Cornwallis across North Carolina. The Americans outran the British, and seized all the boats after crossing the Dan; that blocked Cornwallis from destroying the small remnant of the Continental army in the South. Most of the army, including the Virginia Line, had been captured in the fall of Charlestown in 1780 - but what remained was able to get reinforcements, recross the Dan River, and fight Cornwallis at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse.
Of course, not all Virginia locations could celebrate where Lafayette rode (there's still a "Marquis Road" in Louisa), or where the British cavalry captured supplies during the Revolutionary War (such as at Five Forks on the James - and numerous other locations downstream to Norfolk). Roanoke, for example, was just a salt lick at the time of the Revolution and the 1861-65 Civil War.
Virginia's heritage was not purely patriotic in the Revolution, either. Montgomery County sided more with the Loyalists, and the Wilderness Road across Cumberland Gap was busy with those fleeing to the Kentucky frontier to avoid the draft and the economic disruption. Norfolk residents had their own conflicts to resolve in 1976 - honor the Virginia patriots that established independence, or blame them for burning the town almost to the ground at the start of 1776 to keep the British from using Norfolk as a base of operations.
In Northern Virginia, President Madison and his wife Dolly retreated from Washington to Northern Virginia in 1814 when the British burned the capital. McLean residents know the story of how Dolly Madison rescued the Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington. Local history highlights that she delivered it to a still-existing McLean home for safekeeping, but commercial tourism businesses lead guided tours to Arlington Cemetery and other famous locations rather than the home where a portrait of Washington spent the night.
Many old-line Virginia families know their American history and Virginia geography in part through their family genealogy. The Lees and Carters and Byrds and others who kept sending generation after generation to the House of Burgesses, and who developed the intellectual rational for the American Revolution, bought great tracts of lands and built huge mansions on their Tidewater plantations in the 1700's. The main houses were intended to be showplaces.
2006 Garden Week tour of Mt. Airy on the Northern Neck,
home of the Tayloe family for 250 years
They still are, and are open for tours as modern tourist attractions. An amazing number of buildings that were central to the Virginia gentry have been preserved. Route 5 between Richmond and Jamestown is the site of numerous historic residences that are open to the public. Historic homes are concentrated in Tidewater - but they are not limited to that area. In Loudoun County, you can tour Oatlands, the home of George Carter. In Montgomery County, the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) keeps Smithfield Plantation, Col. William Preston's home, open as a house museum.
The mansions are well worth visiting, but of course the preserved homes are only part of the story. Virginia is littered with sites that are mentioned in American history textbooks, such as Jamestown and Appomattox, plus a few that are discretely omitted.
What's missing? The slave quarters, housing the laborers who made the gentry so wealthy, were intended to be out of sight, back of the "big house." Only now are the visitors to the historic homes being offered a chance to learn about the other residents on the plantations, and to see archeological excavations of the foundations of the other structures so the people whose houses are now "out of sight" won't be "out of mind."
think slaves got
slave quarters with interpretive sign
at Bacon's Castle (Surry County)
Historic sites associated with women and minorities and the laboring classes are rarely listed on the brown signs posted along the interstate highways. Two relatively well-known "black history" sites in Virginia are the Booker T. Washington home in Franklin County and the Maggie Walker house in Richmond.
Former Governor Wilder tried to establish a museum of slavery, and a museum in the former Prince Edward County high school tells the story of the county that closed its public schools for four long years to block desegregation. A number of local historic sites, such as the Manassas Industrial Institute school foundations in Manassas and a similar "institute" in Christiansburg, are being preserved as Virginia communities recognize the whole breadth of their cultural heritage.
Only in the last 50 years have social historians explored, in depth, the lifestyles of all classes in the past. Archeologists who recover animal bones, small beads and other "material culture" from slave quarters excavations can help interpret the eating habits and religious practices, but the documentation of Virginia history is heavily slanted towards the lifestyles of the rich and famous. As a result, it's likely that future tourists will learn about Virginia slaves, poor farmers, and women through expanded interpretation at the mansion houses more than at sites focused exclusively on women and minorities.
Why? Some of the changes reflect cultural shifts, with a greater interest in women and minorities. In addition, recruiting visitors requires tourism site managers to cater to a broader audience. More people visit places like Mount Vernon and Monticello, which have dramatically increased their descriptions of life outside of the "big house" in the last decade.
Small operations, such as a museum of tobacco farming life in South Hill in Mecklenburg County, focus on more that "dead white males" but attract fewer visitors. Perhaps an exhibit at Potomac Mills would reach the largest number of people. Local Prince William officials once advertised that it was the most popular "tourist" site in Virginia in 1999, attracting 24 million visitors. Even when statistics distinguish between local residents vs. tourists who travel at least 50 miles, Potomac Mills still remains one of the most-visted tourist destinations in Virginia.3
25 most visited Virginia tourism sites in 2007-08
Source: Virginia Tourism Corporation Travel Data, FY2007-2008 Profile of Leisure Travel in Virginia
Virginia communities highlight sites associated with the Civil War, of course. There was a dramatic revival of interest in "the late unpleasantness" after the broadcast of The Civil War by Ken Burns on public television. Extraordinary amounts of private and public money have been spent to preserve battlefields, and it's easy to find a "sacred" site in virtually any Virginia county that some group now wants to preserve.
eastern edge of Mosby Heritage Area, on Manassas National Battlefield Park
Some places played, at best, a minor role in history. Prince William County purchased Rippon Lodge, the oldest (or second-oldest) home in the county, for $1.2 million in 2000. George Washington did sleep there - but not much else happened to make the house special, except in that one county nearly all the other houses from that time have been destroyed over the years. The county will be hard-pressed to attract enough visitors, or earn enough revenue from other activities at Rippon Lodge, to repay the debt.
In a more quirky circumstance, Stonewall Jackson's arm was amputated in 1863 at Chancellorsville and buried in the cemetery at Elmwood in Spotsylvania County. The site is now visited regularly by Civil War "buffs," in addition to his grave in Lexington. The new Denver International Airport has a map of all the states, with one item highlighting what makes each state special. Guess what is highlighted for Virginia...
the Virginia Tourism Corporation used the 150th sesquicentennial of the Civil War to encourage tourism across the state in 2011-15
There are plenty of other sites where soldiers killed time rather than each other, such as the campsites around Centreville in Fairfax County. Nearly all signs of the time that Confederate and Union soldiers were stationed in Centreville have been destroyed by suburban sprawl, so there's a push for preservation of the remaining few trenches.
Funding for historic preservation may be based on tourism, but this can generate conflicts in a community. The tourists may outnumber the faithful at colonial churches still used for worship, such as Christ Church in Lancaster County (built by "King" Carter) and St. John's Church in Richmond (site of Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death" speech). The Warrenton town council debated plans to make Col. Mosby's home there into a public museum, because it would create new traffic that would disturb the residential neighborhood.
a pre-World War II postcard shows the burial site of Robert E. Lee as a tourist attraction in Lexington
Source: Boston Public Library, Tomb of Robert E. Lee, Lexington, VA
Not every Virginian thinks every historic site needs to be protected from change. Fairfax County has approved the development that would destroy the historical integrity of earthworks at Centreville. Adjacent Prince William County rejected the original requests to protect the Bristoe battlefield, where thousands of Confederates died and may still be buried in unmarked graves.
Not surprisingly, some old-line families do not cherish every square inch where patriots rebels in either the American Revolution or the Civil War once trod. To them, it's normal to be surrounded by historical sites that others consider unusual. When confronted with an enthusiastic child gushing over the fact that the Confederate retreat from Petersburg had crossed the old family farm, one Virginia matron remarked casually, "Son, Robert E. Lee retreated all across Virginia..."
The significance of some Virginia sites extends to different eras. Visitors to the place where Cornwallis' surrendered at Yorktown have to recognize which trenches date from 1781, and which trenches were constructed in 1862 during the Peninsula Campaign. Along the Potomac River, the home built by Martha Washington's grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, is now part of Arlington Cemetery. The mansion is surrounded by graves, placed there by a Union general who wanted to ensure it would never be used as a family residence again. However, some colonial mansions are still the home of descendants of the "first families" of colonial Virginia.
Sometimes, historical preservation comes second. Charles Carter at Berkeley raised historical preservation concerns with his decision to allow the James River wharf to be used for transporting garbage (yes, garbage) from barges to a mega-landfill in Charles City County. The amount of land affected is minor - and to the Carter descendant, it does nothing to detract from the colonial or Civil War history associated with Berkeley Plantation. (The bugle tune for "Taps" was developed there in 1862, as the Yankees were preparing to retreat from their failed assault on Richmond.)
Even the Pamunkey and other tribes once isolated on reservations have discovered that tourists are good business, though not necessarily good historians. Virginia's Native American celebrations now include many characteristics of the Plains Indians tribes, because the tourists expect high-feathered headresses and teepees as seen on the old Westerns. If the Powhatan descendants dressed like the natives that John Smith saw, nearly 400 years ago, their rituals might be viewed as obscene by today's standards.
Plans to create museums that would grow into tourism destinations do not always succeed. A tank museum opened in 2003 at a former manufacturing site near Danville, but it failed to attract enough visitors. In 2014, the tank museum relocated to Ohio, near the Lima Army Tank Plant and other military facilities. Danville is not on an interstate highway, and the thinly-populated region did not generate enough visitors.4
Singleton House/Pleasant Hall in Virginia Beach, built in 1779, is an isolated historic site in Kempsville, an area where the rest of the landscape reflects modern development
Source: Library of Congress, Pleasant Hall, Kempsville, Princess Anne County, Virginia
Another museum with a similar target audience, the American Wartime Museum, is planned for a location near the National Museum of the Marine Corps and I-95 in Prince William County. It may generate more visitors, but the facility needs more donors to contribute more funds before that museum is ever built.
Preservation Virginia - formerly the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) - has acquired key historic sites associated with the colonial period. The organization focused on the traditional interpretation of Virginia history, highlighting the role of the gentry. APVA acquired the powder magazine and the location of the colonial capitol in Williamsburg, three decades before John D. Rockefeller started to fund restoration there. It also obtained much of Jamestown Island in 1893, 23 years before the National Park Service was established.
Keeping a historic site open for public visitation can be an economic drain on Preservation Virginia. The organizations owns Bacon's Castle in Surrey County, which was built in 1665. That structure is the oldest remaining brick house in Virginia, and was occupied by Nathaniel Bacon's rebels in 1676. Preservation Virginia keeps it open for 10 months each year, attracting 6,000 visitors - but needs 11,000 visitors per year to break even.5
Pulaski Train Station, built in 1880's and renovated a century later, before it burned in November 2008
Westover was used as a Union general's headquarters when nearby Berkeley Plantation was converted into a major military base (Harrison's Landing) at the end of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign
Source: The Photographic History of the Civil War, Westover House: Headquarters of General Fitz John Porter, Harrison's Landing (p.334)
the 150th sesquicentennial of the Civil War included annual academic conferences at various universities, such as George Mason University in 2014
Prince William County in 1901
Source: Library of Congress, Manassas battlefields in 1901 (by William H. Brown, 1901)
sites related to the Civil War are tourism attractions in Virginia, including Arlington National Cemetery
Source: Library of Congress, Unveiling Confederate Monument, Arlington, Virginia