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Carter’s Grove Gets New Lease on Life

The Carter’s Grove plantation in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia was recently sold by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation for $15.3 million, and some preservationists are saying that other failing house museums should pay strict attention. The foundation closed Carter’s Grove to the public in 2003, citing the financial pressures of maintaining the 35-room mansion and its surrounding 400 acres.

The new owner is Halsey Minor, a Virginia native and Internet technology entrepreneur, who plans to develop the site into a thoroughbred horse-breeding center. Minor agreed to conservation easements that preserve the mansion and archaeological sites on the property and restrict development.

A lack of resources and declining public interest in house museums has taken a toll on historic homes. Preservationists have been looking for other solutions, such as converting historic buildings into community centers or office spaces. Private owners who, like Minor, agree to protect the integrity of a historic site are also proving instrumental in preservation efforts.

Proceeds from the sale of Carter’s Grove will benefit Colonial Williamsburg’s educational programs. Carter’s Grove was built for Carter Burwell in 1755 on property purchased by his grandfather Robert “King” Carter in 1709.

Archaeologists Go Back to the Well at Jamestown

In 2006, archaeologist William Kelso’s discovery of a 400-year-old well at Jamestown, Va., shook the history world as it revealed a more detailed look into life in the first permanent English settlement in America.

Recent exploration has exposed a more complex structure that likely began as a large three-floor cellar that included a blacksmith forge. After the Starving Time of 1610, when 154 of James – town’s 214 settlers died, the subterranean structure apparently was adapted into a massive kitchen that helped feed the entire fort population.

Two brick-lined ovens were found embedded in the cellar walls and some of the artifacts recovered thus far include Chinese porcelain and candlesticks that would have belonged to very wealthy settlers. Kelso said he thinks the items may have belonged to Sir Thomas Gates, who was an early governor of the Jamestown colony.

South Carolina’s Problems With ‘Pitchfork’ Ben

A story in the April issue of History, “The Terror American War to Crush Black Liberty,” by Stephen Budiansky, recounted Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman’s role in an 1876 massacre of African Americans in Hamburg, S.C. As that story went to press, some South Carolina lawmakers began debating whether to remove a statue of Tillman, dedicated in 1940, from the statehouse grounds in Columbia. As governor (1890-94) and U.S. senator (1895-1918), Tillman was one of the leading architects of Jim Crow laws, which institutionalized discrimination through segregation and discriminatory law enforcement. Tillman went so far as to publicly advocate lynching as a means of controlling the black population.

A joint resolution supporting the statue’s removal was introduced in the General Assembly’s House of Representatives on January 17. At press time, the bill was being considered by the House Judiciary Committee. State legislator Joseph Neal said he doubts the statue will be taken down and favors a more plausible solution—add a second plaque detailing Tillman’s racism. “What they put on the statue,” said Neal, “was a rewriting of history. A plaque would be a correction. We would put on there what Tillman actually stood for.”

This isn’t the first time a historical tribute has caused a stir in the Palmetto State. In 1962 the Confederate flag was raised over the South Carolina capitol in celebration of the Civil War centennial— and it stayed there for 38 years. Protests against the flag intensified in the 1990s, and in 2000 the controversy grew into a divisive issue during the South Carolina presidential primary. Republican candidates George W. Bush and John McCain refused to back demands for removal of the flag on the grounds it was a state, not a federal, issue.

After he lost the primary to Bush, McCain renounced his earlier neutrality and said the flag should come down. A compromise was reached later that year, when the flag was lowered from the capitol, and a smaller flag was erected on a nearby monument dedicated to Confederate soldiers.

Other Monumental Controversies Across the U.S.

Giuseppe Moretti’s bronze sculpture of Pittsburgh’s native son Stephen Foster, completed in 1900, depicts the composer with a slave at his feet playing the banjo. Some call for the statue’s removal, while others prefer a plaque explaining how once-accepted monuments now may be considered racist.

In summer 2007, the NAACP of Frederick, Md., launched a campaign to remove a bronze bust of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney from the city hall plaza. In 1857 Chief Justice Taney wrote the court’s majority opinion in the Dred Scott case stating that Scott must remain a slave despite traveling into free territory with his master. The city agreed to add a plaque explaining Taney’s role in the case. That wording was still being debated at press time.

For nearly 100 years, a New Orleans monument commemorated the Battle of Liberty Place—an 1874 street battle in which white Demo – crats took back power from a coalition of white and black Republicans. The city temporarily removed the 20-foot statue during street construction in 1989 then repeatedly postponed its reinstallation. It finally was restored in 1993 in a less conspicuous location. A plaque honoring the battle’s victors was replaced with a citation dedicated to the 34 people who died on both sides of the conflict, but the monument still evokes debate.

An arched art installation commissioned by the city of Baldwin Park, Calif., and dedicated in 1993 raised the ire of a group opposed to illegal immigration. In 2005 the newly founded Save Our State held several vitriolic rallies at the monument, which includes the inscription “This land was Mexican once, was Indian always, and is and will be again.” The population of Baldwin Park is about 70 percent Hispanic.

Original San Quentin Found

“May your walls fall and may I live to tell, may all the world forget you ever stood.” Those lyrics to Johnny Cash’s song “San Quentin” rang true when crews began demolishing a group of antiquated medical buildings at the historic California prison to comply with a court-ordered revamping of the medical facilities. Prior to demolition, historians discovered an unknown storage space beneath an 1885 hospital. It turned out to be the original jail, constructed by prisoners in 1854. Built only four years after statehood, the jail is believed to be the oldest public facility in California. Although the 1885 structure will be demolished as scheduled, plans are underway to preserve the original San Quentin.

Pub Plot Remembered

When a windstorm tore the roof from a 150-year-old building in Buffalo, N.Y., the owner used the incident to highlight a little-known episode in American history. In 1866 a group of mostly Irish Civil War veterans, known as the Fenian Brotherhood, met at what was then a German hotel to launch a bizarre plot: Force Great Britain to relinquish control of Ireland by invading British-controlled Canada. The plot failed, but the raids did galvanize support for the Confederation of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia as a self-governing dominion in 1867. In 1913 the building—known then as Quinn’s Pub—had another brush with history, serving as the birthplace of Buffalo’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. Despite the wind damage, the owner hopes to relocate the structure to the terminus of the Erie Canal, commemorating its original use as a canal tavern.


Originally published in the June 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.