The Town That Stopped The Clock

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My home town is probably the most regressive little city in the United States. When I left it thirty-five years ago it was as typically twentieth century as any post-war Gopher Prairie on the map. Some new store fronts—the first in my lifetime—had sprung up on the main street. The old knitting mill down by the depot, long in disuse, had been turned into a smoke-belching power plant. Mr. Fred Kelley had closed out his livery stable to give full time to selling Ford automobiles, which was making him rich. There was enthusiastic talk about a new outfit called the Chamber of Commerce, which was going to do great things about holding onto the war-induced prosperity which had come to the town. My father, winding up his affairs, thought long and hard before he sold the extra lot he owned over near the insane asylum. “There’s going to be a lot of progress here one of these days,” he mused. But he sold the lot with its beat-up clapboard house —nobody knew how old it was—for $800, playing it safe.

 

But the old town really never got much farther into the twentieth century than that. Instead, it turned abruptly on its heel one memorable day and plunged 150 years backward in time. Down came those modern store fronts and up went stately Georgian buildings such as Tom Jefferson. Patrick Henry, and the British royal governors had known. The power plant was banished utterly, smoke and all, and the Palace Gardens were reconstructed on its site. That old shack my father had owned changed hands again for $4,500 and became a historic shrine. The Chamber of Commerce men and their ladies, happily forgetting all about progress, donned tricorn hats and crinolines—some literally, and all of them figuratively—to take part in an epic of historical make-believe the like of which had not been seen before. The name of my native place, as the reader may by now have guessed, is Williamsburg, Virginia.

Williamsburg, the restored capital of colonial Virginia, is about as lamiliar a phenomenon in America today as Niagara Falls or the Washington Monument—a sort of altruistic tourist mecca to which close to a million visitors are attracted each year. Along the mile-long axis of Duke of Gloucester Street, from William and Mary College on the west to the Capitol building on the east, scores of buildings and gardens dating back to pre-Revolutionary clays have been retrieved from the ignominy of neglect and decay. Through a prodigious combination of philanthropy and scholarship (plus a judicious touch of schmaltz), a vital segment of this nation’s past has been brought alive and made meaninglul, not only for our contemporary generations but for those yet to conic. No text or pictures can speak so convincingly of the drama of eighteenth-century America as this.

As a native, I knew the old town in its shabby, somnolent and yet proudly aristocratic pre-restoration days. I was christened in Rruton Parish Church by the Reverend W. A. R. Goodwill, whose obsessive dream was materialized by the prodigal benefactions of the Rockefeller family. I remember something of the astonished disbelief of the townsfolk when the first word of this Midas-like miracle leaked out: of the avarice of some and the outrage of others over this intrusion of Yankee gold and Yankee influence. A few are holdouts to this day.

For in the midst of all its poverty and decadence, Williamsburg had always remained conscious of its iraditiotis, and families like the Christians, the Tuckers, the Garretts, and the Mercers spoke as familiarly of their Revolutionary forebears as of their neighboring cousins. Special services used to be held regularly in Bruton Parish on May 13 to give thanks to the Anglican deity for the safe arrival of the original colonists at nearby Jamestown on that date in the year 1607. The Tylers and the Harrisons, both descendants of nineteenth-century Presidents. preserved a stiff and contemptuous rule of mutual nonrecognition. There were occasional cases of destitution among some old families, whose menfolk could not bring themselves “to go into trade,” and the ladies of the town, when they called, discreetly left a dollar or two peeping out lietween the pages of a book as they departed. The few remaining landmarks, such as the Wren Building, Bassett Hall, the Blair House, and others, were all revered for their antiquity and their architectural grace. They were not monuments or curiosities to us; they were lived in and used just as they had been for a century or more. But it was considered preferable to let them slowly crumble away rather than to deface them with new roofs or joists or plumbing—besides which, no one had that kind of money.

 

There was a tranquillity to Williamsburg life in the decades before the restoration that must have resembled the long quietude that prevailed between the time it was abandoned as the capital—1779—and when it came alive again during the Civil War. Situated on a narrow peninsula between the York and James rivers, it had forfeited cco nomic growth and political prominence to Richmond, fifty miles to the west, and the port city of Newport News, thirty miles eastward. There was not much reason for anybody to come to Williamsbiirg and—except for a few dedicated antiquarians—hardly anyone ever did.