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:

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Jamestown Settlement

Alright, let's conclude this trip to Jamestown Settlement. I also had been to Yorktown Victory Center with my mother, which had a decent museum and a very disappointing (but others were impressed) living history area. So, my hopes were in the middle for Jamestown. With the anniversary of the 400th year since settling Jamestown, I knew they had upped the ante (the Queen visited after all...) in design and renovations...

As previously mentioned, I had made it as far as the Powhatan Village at the Settlement. After passing the totem circle and learning about Native interpreters at the site (or lack there of) I headed into the heart of the village, where their reed covered homes were dispersed in a similar style seen in White's drawings and in John Smith's journals.

"This watercolor by John White depicts the village of Pomeiooc in the North Carolina coastal plain. It was this image that was used to create the computer-rendered village. The structures in the village are also similar in design to those that are reconstructed at Jamestown as a Powhatan village. It is very likely that the Indians of eastern North Carolina had contact with the Powhatans." (From Disappearing Indians?)

The structures, as mentioned in the caption, were reconstructed at the Village at Jamestown Settlement, not necessarily in a circle. The were beautifully constructed and reflected a theory based on John Smith's writings, Powhatan oral history, and anthro/archeo work done on Southern Woodlands communities.

I was disappointed that grouse weren'tt represented and mainly Anglo style chickens seen on Old MacDonald's Farm were, I'm not sure about chicken ancestry in America though. (How nerdy is that?)

The homes were quite nice, and well put together - I was curious how frequently they replaced the materials, they were in great condition and seemed to lack any type of deterioration. The object to the right of the home in the chicken photo is an infamous corn pounder. It seems to be the children and birds favorite hang out - any chance to violently smash corn into bits appeals to the children and the treat it provides appealed to woodpeckers, blue jays and common little scavenger birds alike.

The interior of the homes featured plenty of birds and furs alike, as well as space for fires.

Sorry for the slightly blurry interior shots. I like the gull that's been pulled in two. The interior descriptions are primarily based on anthro/archeo research and Capt. John Smith's infamous journals about his experiences at Powhatan's village. There were no interpreters inside the buildings and there were more deerskin to choke a horse. The shots above are from the main meetinghouse.

Well, that was that. There was a small area, which featured a non-Native third person interpreter cooking fish and they had stations of tightened deerskin for children to try their hand at "skinning." I meandered through a beautiful wooded area towards where I could see the ship's masts - I'm sure that pirate films and the overall coolness of big glorious ships made this a hot spot, and it sure did (for young boys especially! Seems young girls liked the Indian village and young boys preferred the glamour of ships..)

I learned from some of the signage and from individuals at other museums that the ships were made in Maine and made the trip down the coast to the docks of the Settlement. These ships were also used in the film
The New World. I even felt myself getting giddy as I headed towards the dock, the boats were beautiful.

The masts of the larger ship the Susan Constant.

Two were available to explore, Susan Constant and I believe Discovery. There was some nearby signage discussing the journey from England to Jamestown and a costumed interpreter did first person acting discussing his travels on the ships much to the enjoyment of adults while their children went wild on the ships.

Costumed interpreters were on both ships, three total, working in third person. One was from England, which provided "authenticity" to the experience of crawling around on a big meaty ship. I was able to take the ladder below (I don't know ship lingo...even with that trip to the Maritime Museum!) to see storage units, sleeping quarters, and the very fancy captain's quarters (the only private sleeping space on the ship it seemed!). Some areas were blocked off, which featured movable objects to add authenticity to the ship, bust most areas were open to the visitor, allowing one to stick your head out the windows, pose for photo ops, imagine what it'd be like to shoot a cannon and to pull that whole Leonardo DiCaprio stunt from

The Discovery from the deck of the Susan Constant.

Giant wooden bust which sat on top of pulleys for the ropes.

Captains quarters.

The interpreters seemed impatient and anxious. It was lunch time in Jamestown Settlement, so staff members were coming and going, relieving one another of his ship duty to go eat. They'd stop working with visitors to declare lunch time and ignore any questions as they scurried off the ship. I wasn't impressed with the information provided and was left rather clueless on how some of the ship's tools and tracking devices worked, the men seemed more interested in the specials in the dining hall. But, the ships were beautiful objects, well put together and well curated. It is quite a lovely experience to overlook the James River from these boats on a beautiful sunny day. I could only imagine the first site of the land when the original settlers arrived..

Conservation work was being done on the boats - lacquering, paint detailing and general duties to help maintain the quality appearance of the ships. The nicest staff members I encountered were the ship conservators (they travel all over the coast).

After exploring the dock, I headed to the fort of Jamestown on the property. This was a space I remembered as a child, where my mother took a photo of me wearing giant pieces of period armor (And I saw other parents doing the same to their children). Interpreters were more active here, discussing in third person the experiences and hardships of the settlers. The buildings were beautifully put together, and despite being in such a small area it was easy to explore and not feel to confined, it was quite crowded though. I visited a storehouse, a kitchen, the guard house, school house/church and some other random generic buildings. There was one female interpreter, cooking, and the rest (two-three) were men discussing the art of warfare. The blacksmith was no where to be found much to the disappointment of the youngins.

As you can see, the buildings were great. The colors, the techniques used to get the textures and the craftsmanship was wonderful. This was the busiest area on the grounds, which did cause problems due to the space constraints and the layout. But, it was well maintained - gritty and worn, and beautiful at the same time.

Costumed interpreter (3rd person) discusses the art of warfare in 17th century Virginia. He had the most impress costuming out of any interpreter on the grounds.

Lunchtime at the Blacksmith shop. It's not a living history museum without a blacksmith.

After spending about 20 minutes in this area I had to start heading back to Colonial Williamsburg to finish my day doing some research on treaties. I decided to head back to the visitor center/museum and check out the gift shop on my way out. It was appalling.

The majority of the objects for sale were cheap, made in China toys of "Indian princesses" and "little braves." You could buy costumes to dress your daughter up like a princess, bows, arrows, cheaply made dream catchers and more t-shirts then you can shake a stick at with tacky one-liners like "The original - Jamestown." I bought a few postcards and watched the children rampage the cheap toy section. Oh, I also scored a sweet Pocahontas crossstitching design which I'm making my stepmother stitch for me.

They had two gift shops, both were filled with crap made of stereotypical truck stop Indian wetdreams.

Smaller gift shop, I've seen my fair share of "Indian" themed dream catcher's at truck stops across the US, as seen here.

The main gift shops plethora of cheap "Indian" dolls and toys.

After that whirlwind, I headed back to work. Another fascinating museum experience in Virginia. A few things to summarize my experience...

  • Visitors were more interested in the living history aspects of the museum.
  • The African experience area of the museum was impressive and offensive at the same time and was largely ignored by non-black visitors. There were no African American intepreters on the grounds.
  • The Native exhibit was also impressive yet offensive. I really wish we could move beyond tacky mannequins.
  • A really impressive building and center with more information than an average museum goer can handle.
  • The cafe wasn't bad and the prices and taste wasn't too shabby.
  • Beautiful surroundings.
  • Fun experience for kids, as long as parental units are willing to educate their children about the difference between a white person dressed up like an Indian and a real Native person and how life wasn't all ships and blacksmiths.
  • Worth visiting the National Park site about a mile away especially if you're in a party of only adults.
Alright, time to go enjoy the last Saturday I have in DC, and perhaps another entry tonight!