Virginia's Lost History

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"LET me get up out of here," said Captain Red, rheumy, slow moving, a snowy thatch belying the nickname of his youth.

Captain Red scraped his stool back from the counter at the Car Wash Cafe, a modest restaurant in a former Shell station, placed two fives by the register and gave the waitress a wink.

"See you in my dreams," Captain Red said.

"Those will be good dreams," Cynthia Henry, the waitress, coolly replied.

"O.K., Sweetie," Captain Red said.

"Drive fast and take chances," Ms. Henry added as Captain Red shambled toward the exit, probably unaware that he'd been punked.

That was in July. Now it's October. Captain Red has been taking few chances on the highway. Here he is again at the counter. And here is Cynthia Henry serving fresh-brewed coffee with sass on the side.

I am back on the Northern Neck of Virginia, a region where it begins to seem that I've been pitched by fate. Two years ago I'd never heard of the place. Then a friend invited me to his farm on a bluff overlooking the Rappahannock River for a visit, later lending me the house while he was away as somewhere to regain my bearings after a series of sudden and unexpected deaths.

In the middle of last summer, another good friend, a director of the association responsible for preserving Stratford Hall, the historic Robert E. Lee birthplace and plantation, proffered an invitation: Would I like to use her cabin there as a place in which to start work on a book?

And so it was that I passed the shank of a blistering Tidewater summer amid 1,900 acres set on high bluffs at the northern limit of the Neck, swilling iced tea as squirrels pelted the roof of my tidy and well-appointed cabin with acorns. Writing from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., I set out in my car every afternoon to travel down empty roads en route to seldom visited precolonial homesteads; parking at the edges of steep shore-side cliffs framed by vast marine skies a friend termed "deluxe"; wandering down a time tunnel into a past that, to renew an overused paraphrase of Faulkner, is not dead and not, for that matter, even past.

My American history, in the manner of a solipsistic generation, has tended to begin and end with myself. I had never bothered to learn much about the people who produced me; I had paid even less attention to the circumstances that created the nation or the colony in which they got their American start. Fear not: the history lesson will be brief.

Sleepy and rural, gently undulating, known variously as "the garden of Virginia" and "the Athens of the New World," the Northern Neck is a 61-mile peninsula bracketed by the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.

Originally settled by members of eight Algonquian tribes, it was scouted in the early 17th century by Capt. John Smith, the English explorer, and eventually settled by planters whose impressive wealth derived mainly from stoking a global demand for a modish new stimulant: tobacco.

The British historian Arnold J. Toynbee once wrote that never was there a crop of genius such as was produced here in the colonial era. For the production of genius, it seems, Northern Neck soil was especially rich.

George Washington was born here near a bend of pretty Popes Creek, and so in other nearby towns were James Madison and James Monroe. Among other early colonists who got their start in life on the Northern Neck were the brothers Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee, both signatories of the Declaration of Independence, and their descendant, the Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

The Lees' ancestral great house -- an imposing H-shaped structure noted for its elegantly laid brickwork facade, high chimneys and a cube-shaped great room acknowledged as among the handsomest chambers in the United States -- was built on a rise commanding a broad and strategic view of the Potomac, and was just a short walk along a farm road from my cabin in the woods.

There are many such houses here, salted away on the Neck, and seemingly forgotten by all but their caretakers or inhabitants. There are scruffy graveyards scattered with the tumbledown headstones of neglected worthies. There are remnants of terraced boxwood parterres and early brick orangeries. There are poplar groves surrounding historic temperance camps and churches of such refined severity that architects from around the world come to study them. There are wineries, too, because the Northern Neck is a developing winemaking region, but these I never saw because day drinking is something a writer on his own is well advised to avoid.

Despite or perhaps because of its historic import, the Neck is largely untrammeled, its monuments scarcely visited, the rural two-lane Historyland Highway bisecting it empty of traffic as often as not.

Why so few visitors make their way to places like Stratford Hall, in my eyes one of the architectural wonders of the nation, is a source of bafflement. Maybe it is because we are becoming, as David McCullough said, a nation of historical illiterates. Or perhaps it is because, as locals improbably assert, the Northern Neck is so hard to reach, although the peninsula lies no more than two hours by major Interstate from the capital of the nation and an hour and change from Richmond, the capital of the state.

At Stratford Hall, the director explained to me that attendance at historic houses is down everywhere, though Thomas Jefferson's house at Monticello has averaged around a half-million visitors annually. About 25,000 people made the trip to Stratford Hall last year. Those who did found a working plantation, a historic grist mill, a herd of heritage cattle, a flock of sheep (and a sentinel llama), some ornery Nubian goats and a sequence of 100-foot cliffs that date to the Miocene era.

During my days on the Neck last summer I toured the house whenever I could and especially when tours were being conducted by Martha Newman, a docent who has worked at Stratford Hall, as she told me one day, 26 years 3 months and 5 days.

Leading the few visitors there through the chambers of the Great House, Ms. Newman enlivens her tours with quirky factoids, filling up with oddball chatter rooms whose architectural austerity is exaggerated by the paucity of furnishings. The sumptuous antiques donated to the place by a wealthy director in the 20th century were sold off in a historicist purge.

At Stratford, visitors can create a base, as I did, wandering around the peninsula from one town to another, stopping at whim in villages like Reedville, once home to a commercial fishery specializing in menhaden, a small fish whose pressed oil has been used to make everything from crankcase oil to Tender Vittles. They might stop in pokey towns like historic Kinsale, another fishing village now lost to desuetude and year-round "Christmas shoppes," or else at tidy Lancaster, whose fine St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, with its carpenter Gothic fretwork, looks like the original for every gingerbread house ever conceived.

They might stop at Oak Grove or White Stone or Heathsville, ducking down thoroughfares like Good Luck Road or Devil's Bottom Road that seemed as if Eudora Welty named them. They might head north a few miles and stop to see Becky and Lawrence Washington Latane III at Blenheim Farm, the certified organic farm the couple created on land held in the Washington family since Revolutionary times.

In the hospitable and sunbaked Mr. Latane, a direct descendant of George Washington's nephew, it struck me that not all people with great pedigrees are afflicted with snobbish airs.

When I remarked on this to him, Mr. Latane laughed and said, "Well, you haven't met all my relatives."

On a later visit to Mount Airy, a house held in the Tayloe family for 300 or more years, I was shown a family ledger by John Tayloe Emery, the house's current owner and a man who before inheriting the great house worked with Bono on AIDS relief in Africa. Flipping open to a favorite page, Mr. Emery drew his finger along a quotation inscribed by a 19th-century ancestor. "High birth is a thing I never knew anyone to disparage except those who had it not," a 19th-century Tayloe had written, quoting the 18th-century critic and churchman Bishop William Warburton, "and I never knew anyone to make a boast of it who had anything else to be proud of."

A deeper pride creeps up when you spend enough time in places like this, a righteous Woody Guthrie sense of belonging. This is not a sentiment hereditary landowners have a lock on, any more than the one percent does. Sitting on a cliff at Stratford Hall, any citizen watching the American bald eagle, our national symbol, kiting the thermals off the Potomac would be challenged not to be stirred by the bewildering beauty of this land.

It is a little-known fact about the Northern Neck that there you find one of the great concentrations of this once-endangered species; these impressive birds appeared so often on my visit they came to seem common as crows. I scared them up on walks along the cliffs at Stratford Hall, on dead locust trees beside the plantation mill pond and in the Stratford Hall fields, where just after dawn one morning I spotted a fledgling putting on a divebombing demonstration in the company of two adults.

For all its historic dimensions, there is nothing Ye Olde about the Northern Neck, whose communities remain active farming centers, with grain and feed stores, scores of worship places, and farm stands where you can usually find the Hanover tomatoes that Dolley Madison scandalized White House guests with by serving up raw.

I learned, of course, the best eating places, and that was not hard because dining choices on the Northern Neck are few. There is Angelo's Pizza in Montross, great for pizza, of course, but also for some of the finest crab cakes in a region where crab is a staple and almost cheaper than hot dogs. And there is the Car Wash Cafe, where you can indeed wash your car or else sit down to a crab meat omelet with grits that many I talked to judged better than Grandma's. There are some fancy spots, of course, but why bother with trumped-up fine dining when you can stop at River Market in White Stone for fresh melon soup (in season) or she-crab bisque year round? True, you can sit on the dock at the historic Tides Inn, savoring grilled oysters alongside Beltway types on golf holidays. Far better, for my money, to brave the grouchy deli counter women at the Tri-Star supermarket in Kilmarnock, who make succulent and peppery fried chicken that I took to eating, napkins tucked into my collar, in the seat of the car.

On my October visit I picked up a box of mixed pieces, light meat and dark, from the Tri-Star and drove north from Kilmarnock to Montross, returning to Stratford Hall for another look around.

The place had gotten under my skin, and at moments of worry I can cast my mind back to a tour I took of the plantation with the farm manager, Thomas Moles. Mr. Moles, who is in his 60s, has managed Stratford Hall for the last three decades and somehow still maintains the nearly 2,000-acre plantation with a three-person staff that includes Bonnie, his wife.

With a weather-grooved face, half an index finger missing from his left hand and political views I sidestepped, Mr. Moles was, it struck me, like so much else on the Northern Neck: an endangered commodity. By this I mean a country man.

"Worser than ever," he said in a regional accent that is all suppressed consonants and rug-muffled vowels. Citified people were infiltrating the Neck, he said when I asked about things in the area, people who know nothing about farming or when a field needs liming or what to do when a cow throws a breech calf or how to feel a horse's fetlock for heat to see if it is coming up lame.

I spotted few city devils myself, though there was one young woman with a telltale pierced septum.

Generally I saw few people at all.

On that day in Mr. Moles's truck, I passed fallow hayfields, cutting into the plantation from its southern corner to rattle through fields where an apiarist had established a little metropolis of white-painted hives. Our destination was the Stratford Hall cliffs, tawny and fragile, a geological wonder: fluted stone curtains striped with deposits of sedimentary strata that form the remaining bed of an ancient sea.

Paleontologists term the cliffs part of the Miocene Chesapeake Group Formations or Calvert Group, the results of erosion along what was once an ocean covering much of what is now Virginia, Delaware, southern New Jersey and Maryland.

When millions of years ago this bay was a shallow-shelf marine environment, it was populated by rays and sharks and dolphins. These and also oceangoing crocodiles colonized the near shores and sank straight to the bottom when they died. In the layered and multicolored bands of rock visible from the shore are deposited fossils, each layer secreting its particular trove.

Though it is forbidden to dig in the cliffs, plenty do it regardless, ignoring the considerable risks of being buried alive to turn up again perhaps in a million years as some future beachcomber's prize.

Scavenging is permitted at Stratford Hall in a designated area; as others do, I spent an absurd amount of time combing the beach for souvenirs I never found. As a consolation Mr. Moles gave me a look at his vast collection, accumulated over decades and stored in drawers and on the walls of his small caretaker's house. There I saw the leftover teeth of dolphins, crocodiles, hammerheads and sand sharks and also of the marine monster known as megalodon.

"This here I found chasing a poacher," Mr. Moles said of one such tooth, its pristine seven-inch surface polished to an obsidian gloss. "When I went to get him, something caught my eye, stuck in a tree trunk. I thought it was a broke tooth, but when I went back later I pulled this here out."

I wanted one, of course, both as a reminder of my time on the Northern Neck and for other reasons. And in the end I tracked some local scavengers down and bought one. It is lying here on the table where my laptop is propped, brown-black and glossy, dense as stone and yet fragile enough to shatter if dropped.

The thing is unlovely and yet I admire it. I like having it near me: a sharp-edged reminder of one's insignificance as measured against the great temporal span.

IF YOU GO

Here's a little secret. That cabin where I stayed at Stratford Hall -- you can stay there, too. Well, not in that precise one, but a number of the cabins are available on a limited basis, and two larger structures on the grounds -- Cheek House and Astor House -- have a total of 20 well-appointed rooms between them, each with private baths and Wi-Fi. (Reservations: 804-493-1968; rooms from $120.)

There are many other places to stay on the Northern Neck, ranging from motels with parking lot pools (Whispering Pines Motel, 226 Methodist Church Road, White Stone; 804-435-1101; doubles from $65) to high-end golf resorts (Tides Inn, 480 King Carter Drive, Irvington; 800-843-3746; doubles from $195) and an upscale bed-and-breakfast (Hope & Glory Inn, 65 Tavern Road, Irvington; 804-438-6053; doubles from $205).

But what better way to dive into this region than to range out by car from the Lees' ancestral home? From there you can make day trips to the George Washington Birthplace National Monument (1732 Popes Creek Road, Colonial Beach; 804-224-1732), as well as to the nearby Blenheim Organic Gardens (737 Popes Creek Road; 804-224-7039), on land held by Washington descendants since pre-Revolutionary times. Eat breakfast either at the Stratford Hall dining hall or at the Art of Coffee (15722 Kings Highway; 804-493-9651) in nearby Montross. Like so many businesses on the Northern Neck, this small gallery and eating place is in a repurposed filling station.

For dinner on this particular stretch of the Northern Neck, I like Angelo's Pizza in Montross, a much better restaurant than you'd guess from the name or from its American Legion hall ambience (15835 Kings Highway, Montross; 804-493-8694).

From Stratford Hall, it's about a half-hour by car to Mount Airy, the Tayloe family house and plantation, where private or group guided tours can be booked by reservation (804-301-7976; 804-333-4930). Nearby lies Menokin (4037 Menokin Road, Warsaw; 804-333-1776), the remains of Francis Lightfoot Lee's house, saved from ruin by the Menokin Foundation, which is now putting in place an innovative plan by the architects Machado and Silvetti to encase the remains of the house in glass, somewhat in the fashion of the Skilcraft toy Visible Man.

Farther south along Route 3 lie the towns of Lancaster and Lively, the former worth visiting for the integrity of its brick federal buildings and the Mary Ball Washington Museum (8346 Mary Ball Road, Lancaster; 804-462-7280) and the latter for the Old Farm Truck farm stand (5388 Mary Ball Road, Lively; 804-314-3648), open in season, and for Epping Forest Antiques, an Aladdin's cave opened in 1953 and named for Martha Washington's birthplace (5299 Mary Ball Road, Lancaster; 804-462-7960).

Many spur roads lead from Route 3, the Historyland Highway, to historic or waterside towns like Heathsville or Reedville and invariably loop back to the main road. Tucked in among the shops selling bowling trophies and $10 hoodies in the middle of Kilmarnock, the Northern Neck's funky commercial center -- Dollar General or Nail Trix, anyone? -- is a cluster of unexpectedly good, high-end antiques stores (Lewis Trimble, 15 North Main Street; 804-435-7771; Comer & Co., 21 North Main Street; 804-435-2100; Kilmarnock Antique Gallery, 144 School Street; 804-435-1207) where, if you can't find something to buy, you are not really trying.

Also on Main Street in Kilmarnock is the Animal Welfare League Thrift store, where oddities routinely turn up, like the 1800 Limoges cabinet plate featuring saccharine putti warming themselves by a log fire that I bought for $7 (75 North Main Street; 804-435-0822).

Among restaurants, my own quirky favorite is the Car Wash Cafe in Kilmarnock (481 North Main Street; 804-435-0405); for takeout, the deli counter at the Tri-Star supermarket has superior fried chicken (81 Irvington Road; 804-435-3800). From Kilmarnock it's a short drive to historic Christ Church (420 Christ Church Road, Weems; 804-438-6855), high on the list of architectural marvels studding the Northern Neck.

Significant portions of the Rappahannock River National Wildlife Refuge lie on the Northern Neck (great swaths are across the river on the so-called Middle Peninsula), and there are also five state parks and natural areas that include Caledon Natural Area State Park, Bush Mill Stream Natural Area Preserve, Dameron Marsh Natural Area, and Westmoreland and Belle Isle State Parks.

GUY TREBAY is a reporter for The New York Times.

travel

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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