- Historic Sites
The Town That Stopped The Clock
A noted newspaperman writes of his birthplace, a community in which time stood still—and then started backwards
February 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 2
The total population never exceeded one or two thousand. Nearby farmers came in often to trade or to sit under the trees and gossip on court days. The only other business of the town revolved around the college, with an enrollment of about 150, and the state insane asylum, one of whose more perceptive inmates reputedly observed that in Williamsburg “one thousand lazy live off five hundred crazy.” The old town simply estivated in a long succession of summer suns, content with its past and unenvying of the future.
Then as now, Duke of Gloucester Street was the main artery of the town. Unpaved and unguttered, it was “a mile long, a hundred feet wide and two feet deep.” At one end stood the old college, dating back to 1693, under its canopy of elms that seemed equally ancient. Repeated fires and rebuilding had made something of a monstrosity of its central structure; if a visitor should be so insensitive as to comment upon it, he was tactfully reminded that, alter all, it had been designed by Sir Christopher Wren.
Stretching along on both sides of the street was an architectural melange of the very old, the not-so-old, and the new —all of it in various stages of dilapidation. Here, flanked on one side by Wolle’s meat market and on the other by Binns’ dry-goods store, stood the dormered residence in which John Blair, Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention, had lived. Now one of the town’s spinsters occupied it as a kindergarten in the mornings and as a dancing school for older children in the afternoons. Down a bit on the other side of the street, surrounded by huge, gnarled sycamores and dense mounds of boxwood, stood a handsome, two-storied house, occupied by the Cole family continuously since 1804. And just below it on lhe sidewalk was the equally venerable little shop in which Mr. Den Cole dispensed post cards, curios, stick candy, legal services, and amiable conversation at almost any hour of the day (except, of course, from twelve to two-ish, when a gentleman was supposed to be home for dinner and a nap).
Across the way, looking very much as it does today, stood Bruton Parish Church in its walled churchyard with its crumbling tombstones and old trees draped in thick tangles of ivy and Virginia creeper. William Galt, the aged Negro sexton, was by far the town’s most learned citien with respect to the church’s lore. It was he who conducted the occasional visitors on tours of the premises, and his imaginative embellishments of the past were accepted as gospel by the townspeople, until some fact-happy researchers for the restoration came along to trim them down to size. For a proper consideration Galt could manage to find an ancestor for almost anybody among the faded and indecipherable inscriptions in the old churchyard. He once came to the rector to ask his help in locating the Hamlet family burial site. The rector said he doubted if any of that distinguished clan had emigrated to America. Galt produced his proof, which was an article on the church that he had just read, and there it said in cold, incontrovertible type that, Each in his narrow cell forever laid, The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
Along wilh the tumble-down shanties and the dross of newer buildings, Williamsburg still preserved a lot of open spate along Duke of Gloucester Street. The Palace Green was one such, although the inevitable Confederate monument had been planted at one end and a fiery red brick school had been set virtually on the foundations of the Governor’s Palace, at the other. So, too, had the Court House Green been preserved, but at its lower end, where the reconstructed Chowning’s Tavern now stands, was the rambling, manyverandaed Colonial Inn, the town’s chief hostelry, a vivid example of 1890 gingerbread. Across from the Court House there was a block of contemporary buildings housing the post office, bank, and office quarters for the half-dozen lawyers who genially split up among themselves whatever business came their way. The late Vernon Geddy, who became vice president and general counsel for the restoration, once recalled his days as a young Williamsburg lawyer in the following-words: No one had any money in those days, and no one needed any money. There was about fifteen dollars that would start out on Monday morning and everybody in town would get their hands on it, and it would gel back on Saturday night to the fellow who had started it. … “Polly” Stryker [Dr. H. M. Stryker, now mayor] and I had adjoining offices. Every now and then when lie had pulled a tooth and had all the money he needed that day. and I had written a deed and had all the money I needed, he’d come over to my office and we’d lock the door and start playing checkers, ff we heard anyone coining up the stairs, we’d say. “Keep quiet! Maybe they’ll go away!” … It was a pleasant life.
Also across from the Court House stands the Powder Magazine, which for some reason now forgotten we called the Powder Horn, and which seemed to remain erect only through some mysterious force. Negro shanties, shabby and unpainted, clustered about its far side, and in the early twenties some enterprising capitalist slapped together a corrugated iron garage and soft-drink emporium on its western front, embellished with a huge, hand-lettered sign, TOOT-N-KUM-INN .