Sunday, September 30, 2007

Prestwould Plantation, Mecklenburg County, VA


Sir Peyton and Lady Jean Skipwith and their plantation offer a glimpse into the life of grace and elegance of the few in Virginia who owned most of the land. An appreciation of the plantation comes from the diligence of Lady Skipwith in writing about life in that time and her sense of the land and the people working there. Sir Peyton Skipwith, Baronet, was born in the United States where he acquired large tracts of land on the Roanoke River.His acquisitions were attributed to gambling, specifically, a three—day poker game with William Byrd III. The story is a reasonable legend, the gentlemen having not only card house son their properties, but card tables with special storage space for casks. Sir Peyton was married with children, but lost his wife in childbirth. He attended her family, the Millers, in England,and eventually married his sister-in-law, Jean, with whom here turned to Virginia. The remarkable Lady Jean, who had four children after the age of 40, managed the grounds of the plantation, established a 300-volume library in her home, and kept impeccable records of all of the activities and gardening. Her notes on the gardens of Williamsburg helped restorers plan the grounds. When Sir Peyton died, Lady Jean managed the over 10,000 acre plantation, including its ferry service across the Dan River on the banks of the property. Prestwould is unique in its use of native stone, since many homes at the time were constructed of materials shipped from Britain. Research indicates that Sir Peyton planned his home for thirty years, and may have completed the construction begun in 1794 by master builder Jacob Shelor. The house stands on a hill over looking the confluence of the Dan and Roanoke Rivers, now the reservoir, Buggs Island Lake. The copper-roofed house has a central hall and large rooms complete with the original wall-papers ordered by Lady Jean. Scalamandre provided wallpapers for the restoration, and the web site illustrates the incredible result. The wooden outbuildings include a school house, playroom, weaving room, office, ice house, dairy and smoke house, card house, and slave quarters. The plantation was like a medieval village surrounded by stone fences. Sir Peyton and Lady Jean’s graves in the plantation cemetery are engraved only with dates and the Skipwith family crest. The gardens of Prestwould include a giant oak believed to have been witness to meetings of the Occoneechee tribe. The tree, over 300 years old, along with Magnolia grandif lora, Buxus, pecan, and pear trees over 200 years old, frame garden plots set out by Lady Jean. As noted by E.F. Farrar and E. Hines in their book, Old Virginia Houses, Lady Jean “meticulously recorded everything that was planted, what seasons it flowered or produced, its description, and where she had obtained the plants or seeds.”Her journals are invaluable in restoration of Prestwould. Of interest is the early purchases of furniture from various Petersburg craftsmen, Samuel White and Joel Brown. The distance to this plantation in Mecklenburg County, VA off route I-85 from Petersburg, is about 85 miles, shows how much reach the early 18th century urban center of Petersburg had on its outlaying regions. Prestwould is open for afternoon tours until October 31.

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