Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Bacon's Castle and Smithfield, VA - Short and Sweet

Back in May I visited Bacon's Castle and Smithfield, VA while I was working at Colonial Williamsburg. On an early Saturday I took the Jamestown-Scotland ferry over the James River to, well, Scotland, located in Surry County. Sadly, I rode on the Surry Ferry, not ferry named Pocahontas.

I followed Rolfe Highway (named after John Rolfe, of course) into Surry, then cut over on Highway 10 to Bacon's Castle (a town name and historic site). Surry is a classic small town - main street, a few shops, diner, etc. I stopped by the courthouse for a shot of this:

This figure is of a young Confederate soldier, a bronze statue dedicated by the county to the young soldiers of the South. Unveiled in 1910 the inscription on the side states "Our Heroes -1861-65" This is the south, after all. You can read a bit more here.

Alright, back on track. So, after a brief stop by to see our young Southern friend I headed about 15 minutes through beautiful lush green views of the James River and farmland to Bacon's Castle. The "Castle" was built in 1665 and is the country's oldest brick home. With a nice large plot of land surrounding it, gardens and some original buildings, the Castle certainly isn't a castle when you first arrive at it, but, it's history is that of the tales of the great mansions of Europe.

Owned by Preservation Virginia, an amazing non-profit that goes to great lengths to preserve, protect and celebrate Virginian properties and historic sites, it is well maintained and provided me with the best home tour I have ever been on. If you live in Virginia, APVA is well worth supporting, and affordable for many budgets!

Bacon's Castle is one of the few Jacobean architecture marvels in America. It's age is a marvel in itself, and the preservation work has been quite an achievement. The house was built in the 17th century by a planter named Arthur Allen, and despite being technically Allen's Castle the name Bacon's Castle stuck due to rebels from Bacon's Rebellion kicking him out and taking over the home for a time period in 1676. I was not allowed to take photographs inside the home so sadly it's hard to comprehend the home tour itself, but it is worth experiencing.

This is not your typical home tour - "Ooh, look at the beautiful paint job, furniture, novelty, fancyness," this is a history tour. Two rooms, the parlor and Allen's bedroom, do feature furniture, many beautiful period pieces and some original to the Allen family, but, the rest of the rooms of the house have no furniture or decorations aside from what are original to the house.

My favorite area was the basement which served as an extremely large kitchen and storehouse. The cellar was there too, where Mr. Allen kept his vast wine collection. It was noted in his diaries that when he returned to live back at his home, after Bacon's rebels took it over, the largest amount of damage was in the cellar and that no wine was left drinkable. Archeologists from AVPA have found wine bottles broken in fireplaces and areas around the backyard where bonfires took place. They have amazing examples of these bottles reconstructed that are made by the fine people at the Jamestown Glasshouse.

Our docent was a brilliant 17 year old homeschooler. He had a strong passion for history and showed it through his tour of the house. He was honest - he didn't shy away from any topics (including slavery/women's roles in the house) or questions and got everyone excited (I was the youngest person, everyone was 60+) about the history of the site.

Another fascinating aspect of the property featured the gardens, which were believed by oral history and light documentation to be at one place, but, after APVA had the grounds scanned from the sky with radar/satellite photography they came to find the remnants of a garden hundreds of yards from where they believed they were. The gardens flourish today raising crops and flowers similar to what Mr. Allen would have grown himself (he was quite the gardener).

I'm not giving Bacon's Castle the credit it deserves, but, it delivered an honest, passionate and strong history of an amazing home in early America and breaths fresh air into plantation tours and a region that relies on Colonial Williamsburg and historic Jamestown. Don't forget to check out the home's website too.

The smokehouse at Bacon's Castle is one of the original buildings on the property (it has been moved from its original spot and I believe it dates to the 18th century).

The smokehouse exterior.

Bacon's Castle Exterior

After the delight known as Bacon's Castle I headed to Smithfield, home of the famous Smithfield Ham. It's sort of like champagne - it's a law that no other place in the world can call its ham Smithfield Ham, it can only be made in one county, and that's Isle of Wight County. This wasn't my main agenda though, and sadly I didn't eat any ham while there. My main agenda, however, was to check out the town of Smithfield, a historic town surrounded by amazing waterways and then drive up through Norfolk, Hampton Roads, and back to Williamsburg. Well, I did just that. Sadly, I didn't document enough through photographs, but the trip was "okay," it wasn't as exciting as websites and travel documents made it out to seem, but perhaps I'm too demanding on small town attractions.

Heading to Smithfield proper, I passed by Poole's Funeral Home which, according to historic signage sponsored by the state, is the oldest black owned business in the county of Surry dating back to 1890.

Poole's Funeral Home

Lovely old home in Smithfield. (Not the funeral home)

I went to the Isle of Wight Historical Society which had a young woman who for sure had to be a museum studies major working there. (She was young, smart, friendly, and almost seemed hiply out of place for this small town....) It was in a historic building (a bank) in downtown Smithfield and featured exhibits on the oldest cured ham (Smithfield!), the oldest peanut (on display from the 1800s!), some archeological objects from Native people in the region, and an exhibit about the world's largest ham biscuit that was constructed in Smithfield a few years ago. They also have a collection of duck decoys. My attention span catered primarily to the Ripley's Believe it or Not style exhibits and this bizarre general store room featuring two creepy mannequins:

They had a great little gift shop that featured stuffed animal pigs made with Smithfield Ham cloth bags (I bought one for a gift) and awesome postcards, books and other crafts from the county. This historical society was one of the better county societies I had been in. Decent exhibits, hands on activities, and topics that can appeal to all types of people (from war to peanuts).

I walked a block down the street to the old courthouse which was built to reflect the courthouse at Colonial Williamsburg. A delightfully manicured main street featuring quaint shops, homes, restaurants and galleries. However, no time to spend money - I headed straight for the history. No 18th century courthouse is complete without these, of course:

Another APVA owned property they had an informative Elder docent who talked about the dramas that erupted, the final use of the courthouse and how the courthouse provided the soap opera for towns people when it was in session.

Isle of Wight historic courthouse

A really crappy photo of the interior, it looks 95% identical to CW's.

After that, I headed out of town and to the shore area to the military mania part of this daytrip, which will be covered in the next blog.

  • Bacon's Castle provided one of the best home tour's I've ever experienced. A passionate docent staff and a focus on history, not just interior design, is what made this stand out from the rest.
  • A unique history on beautiful grounds, Bacon's Castle is worth visiting for lovers of history, architecture, and gardens.
  • Smithfield and Isle of Wight County features a fascinating little Historical Society with strange facts that we hold dear in these small non-profits. A delightful visit, and free!
  • A nice little quick afternoon that could be topped off with some good southern cooking at one of the well reviewed restaurants in the area.
Awesome tree in Colonial Williamsburg:


  1. Just a note re: Bacon's Castle; the 1st frame structure is actually the unrestored slave quarters behind the brick mansion, not the smokehouse as captioned; the next picture IS the exterior of the smokehouse...otherwise great blog! The inside has the original charred rafters above.

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