The Town That Stopped The Clock

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Below the Court House Green on Duke of Gloucester Street the older buildings fared a little better in the competition with the new, for many were still tenanted by families who had owned them for generations—Galts, Mercers, Smiths, Morecocks, Stubbses, Tuckers, and others of like antiquity. But few are easily recognizable today to the returning native. They no longer wear the incongruous porches or lean-to additions that had accumulated on them like barnacles a generation ago; their sagging roofs have been lifted, their patched and weathered clapboards painted. He needs a guide book like any shirt-sleeved tourist to recall that where the stately Raleigh Tavern now stands, the Lane brothers had their general store—one a colonel, one a major, and one a captain in the Confederate Army, and all of them wrapped in an improbable aura of valor and daring. Nor can he be certain in which of these immaculately rejuvenated relics lived Miss Lottie Garrett, whom he was occasionally required—intolerably scrubbed, brushed and starched—to call on with his mother for tea. (The cookies were good, and the kaleidoscope was easily as diverting as “The Lone Ran gcr,” but you caught hell from the fellows next day.)

And then, a block or so farther along, Duke of (Homester Street petered out in a tangle of weeds and brambles in the midst of which a vague, geometrical pattern of old bricks and mortar was discernible. A plaque on a granite boulder nearby informed you that these were the foundations of the House of Burgesses in the Capitol of the Royal Colony of Virginia, built in 1705. Upon this site young George Washington sat as an elected legislator: Patrick Henry made his “Caesar-Brutus” speech; George Mason offered his Declaration of Rights; and here was adopted the first written constitution of a free and independent state of this more perfect Union.

Most middle-aged reminiscences of the old home town are likely to be distorted by sentimentality and by the happy facility of the human mind eventually to erase the ugly, the painful, and the unwanted impressions from its memory bank—an advantage not yet shared by its electronic counterpart. Granting as much, still there was an uncommon quality of simplicity and serenity to life in Williamsburg in the pre Rockefeller decades and—anomalously, perhaps—a sort of gentle urbanity, as well. For we were all immersed in and partakers of the aristocratic tradition; first and fifth generation families alike, white and black, basked impartially in the warm glow of pride induced by our city’s heritage.

There was poverty, and some destitution, but it was the common lot of all, and no one was rich nor tried very hard to become rich—until the war boom, there simply was no way to do it. If there was a “working class” in a town utterly devoid of industry, it wore no distinguishing badge of humility. The man who hauled baggage to and from the depot was one Henni ngham Harrison, the not-to-be-trifled-with greatgrandson of the ninth President of the United States. The most popular boarding house in town was operated by the Misses Cora and Editli Smith in their ancestral home on the Palace Green, now elegantly reincarnated as the Brush-Everard House, twelfth stop on your sightseeing tour. The Negroes undoubtedly had it worst of all, but every Negro family had a claim on some white family in good times and bad, and it would be hard to say which was the more dependent upon the other.

There was a certain snobbishness, yes, but good breeding forbade “putting on airs” more rigidly than it forbade sin. The occasional student who drifted into the college from “up North” was made welcome, but he was unlikely to be invited to join a fraternity until his second or third year.

Such was the narcotic quality of the air we breathed that we could even, on occasion, forget an election, or conclude that it wasn’t worth fifty dollars out of the municipal budget to have the town clock wound and cared for. Upon this theme, the Richmond Times-Dispatch constructed an editorial one day in 1913, which went as follows: Once we wrote of Lotus-lidded Williamsburg, where the drowsy fulk forgot election Day. To forget seemed to us a good way of maintaining the peaceful serenity of life unfettered and unvexed by the drama and trampling of the dynasties. Now the Lotusburgers have come upon a way of solving all their troubles. They have seized upon eternity and hound it captive. In short, they have decided to let the clocks stop. The City Council refuses longer to waste money having the clock in Bruton Parish tower wound. Time has always worried Williamsburg. The people didn’t know what to do with it. There was so much of it: it was so persistent. They tried abolishing the calendar, but time kept up. Now they will kill time by stopping the clock. There is a malicious rumor that the unwound clock has stirred many to fever heal. This is a plain lie. The native Williamsburger never stirs. He never lets his anger be aroused for fear it should arouse the rest of him. He regards a fever as a beach of decorum. No one really believes that this town of twilight and dreams cares for the clock. It has too much sense …

This then, was the scene and the climate upon which the Williamsburg restoration was projected. It inevitably had some rough going, and it took a long time.