February 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 2
A noted newspaperman writes of his birthplace, a community in which time stood still—and then started backwards
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.
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 .
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.
Its beginning goes back to 1902 when William Archer Ruthcrfoord Goodwin came as a young minister to Bruton Parish Church. Like many old buildings, this one, dating back to 1715, had undergone many cycles of decay and reconstruction, each taking something away from its original beauty and charm. He set out to restore the church —only its interior had been affected—to what its colonial builders had intended it to he. The success of this undertaking led him to fascinated speculation on what a similar effort might accomplish with the Wren Building at the college, the George Wythe House, and certain other monuments still standing from the colonial past. Such scheming was obviously, however, just a lot of moonmist in an impoverished little backwater like Williamsburg, and it was filed away for reference in an indefinite future when Dr. Goodwill moved to Rochester in 1908.
In 1923, he came back to Williamsburg, this time as a teacher and director of a hoped for endowment fund for the college. What he saw shocked him. Not only had many of the older build ings he remembered fallen into further decay, but the war boom had put an appalling overlay of tawdry modern buildings and cheap housing developments upon what was left. Duke of Gloucester Street had been paved to let the army convoys through, and down its center marched a line of black telephone poles festooned with a tangle of wires. Greek restaurants, Chinese laundries, pool rooms, movie palaces, and Riling stations blatantly crowded the graying old homes and their mutilated gardens into shamed oblivion. The prosperity of the war years had, of course, passed on. But its legacy of trash and decadence was everywhere.
The canvas of Williamburg’s past glory, Dr. Goodwin once wrote of this period, “was coming to be little more than a thin fabric of dreams; the frame that held it together was falling to pieces. It was evident that unless something was done there would soon be left in Williamsburg nothing but memories of what was no longer there, and regret for the loss of the tokens and symbols of a glorious past.”
His immediate job as an official of the college was to find the money to restore its older buildings, but the larger dream that had come to him twenty years earlier surged through his mind. In 1984 he attended a Phi Beta Kappa dinner in New York, and there met for the first time John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Hopefully, he turned his persuasive talents on full force, but Mr. Rockefeller was not interested: the family already had a sufficiently long string of college and other benefactions to worry about. His only concession was a promise to visit Williamsburg sometime when he was down that way, to look over both the town and the college.
That same year, in what must have been a frenzy of desperation, Dr. Goodwin wrote a letter to Edsel Ford, son of Henry, neither of whom he had ever laid eyes upon. My dear Mr. Ford—Seriously, I want your father to buy Williamsburg, the old colonial capital of Virginia at a time when Virginia included the land on which the Ford factory is now located. It is the only colonial city left, until recently unchanged by time … Unfortunately, you and your father are at present the chief contributors to the destruction of this city. With the new concrete roads … garages and gas tanks are fast spoiling the whole appearance of the old city, and most of the cars which stop at the garages and gas tanks are Ford cars. …
There was never any answer to this letter, but its full text turned up not long afterward in the Detroit Free Press and other papers as a laughable example of how punchy some southerners can get over their history. “Dollars cannot bring back the glory of a day that is dead,” the Baltimore Sun editorialized. “The spectacle of the Old Dominion huckstering off her ancient capital to an outsider, in order to get a flivver imitation of a departed glory, would bring a blush of shame to the pale cheek of her mighty shades.”
One day in 1926, Mr. Rockefeller, his wife, and two of their sons did come to Williamsburg, on their way north from a Florida vacation. Dr. Goodwin, the president of William and Mary College, and a few other leading citizens gave them the most royal welcome of which they were capable. The result was that John D., Jr., contracted a quite mild and tentative case of restoration fever—only enough, in fact, to lay a few thousand dollars on the line for the work at the college and to promise rather indefinitely to think about the rest of it. He nodded his head noncommittally when the eager parson assured him that the whole of the old city could be bought for five to six million dollars. (The tab has since run to ten times that amount!)
But Goodwin seized his slender advantage like a missionary going after his first convert. In less than a month he sent an urgent telegram to New York saying that one of the choicest old properties in the city, the Ludwell-Paradise House, was about to come on the market; that if they moved quickly, it could be had for $8,000; that even if Mr. Rockefeller agreed to pick up this prize—quietly and confidentially—it would imply no commitment to proceed further until and unless he was ready to do so. The stratagem worked; Dr. Goodwin was given the money to buy the house in his own name, and Mr. Rockefeller, still in a state of comparative innocence, was hooked as the backer of one of the greatest historical projects of the age. (His full capitulation came a little later.) The critical date was December 7, 1926. For the next couple of years, Williamsburg seethed in a mounting frenzy of gossip, curiosity, and speculation. Here was Billy Goodwin padding around quietly as a cat, and with a smile as enigmatic as the Sphinx, buying up first this old house and then that. No one knew where his Midas touch would strike next, and they knew even less where he was getting the money. Every so often the bank’s deposits would bulge as he put an anonymous out-of-town draft or cashier’s check for $100,000 or so to his credit, and took title to his purchases in his own name and with his personal checks. To the poverty-stricken city this sudden flow of gold was like the Cinderella fable come true. Here were the Casey brothers, owners of a general store on the corner by the college and some other nondescript properties nearby, getting a stupendous $265,000 for their holdings. And here was old Uncle Jim Something-or-other (older Negroes seemed seldom to have last names) getting $5,000 for his derelict shanty next door to the Powder Horn. When Miss Emma Lou Barlow refused flatly to sell her crumbling old mansion on Duke of Gloucester Street because she had nowhere else to go, the good doctor offered not only to restore it and equip it with electric lights and plumbing, but to allow her to live out her life there at a rental of one dollar a year. Numerous life tenure agreements of this sort were made.
The suspense and curiosity about who was behind all this was becoming almost unbearable to the citizenry. So also to Dr. Goodwin was the task of keeping the secret and doing all the chores. Moreover, the time was at hand when architects and contractors would have to be brought in to start the actual work of restoration: he was already the owner of some thirty-seven properties for which he had paid out more than $2,000,000. So, after long consultations with Mr. Rockefeller and his advisers in New York, a mass meeting was called in the local high school building for the night of June 12, 1928. For the first time, Dr. Goodwin spelled out in detail the great plans he had for the restoration of the entire colonial city of Williamsburg and, good actor that he was, held his punch line for the end— ”… and the man whose great foresight and generosity has made this possible is … JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER, JRI”
Thereafter things began to hum. A corporation was formed to handle the business details. Architects were secured, contracts let, historians, archaeologists, and antiquarians put to work delving into the minutiae of colonial life, habits, and appurtenances. The restored city “opened for business” in October, 1934, with Raleigh Tavern, the Capitol, the Palace, and a few lesser establishments on Duke of Gloucester Street as the main attractions, and with President Franklin D. Roosevelt heading the guest list.
The great transformation was not achieved, naturally, without some bad blood, and traces of animosity are still to be found among a few of the older families still living in Williamsburg. Much of this came through haggling over real-estate prices, and from simple resentment over an impious interruption in a cherished way of life. When a construction crew uprooted the Confederate monument on Palace Green and replanted it on an inconspicuous side street, a shrill cry of anguish arose from the ranks of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The next morning a wooden cross was stuck in the hole where the monument had been, inscribed “crucified on a cross of treachery.” Miss Annie Galt refused to part with her eighteenthcentury house during her lifetime, and showed her contempt for the Yankee schemers by replacing its mellow (but porous) old Cyprus shingle roof with one of glistening galvanized tin. The most conspicuous anachronism on Duke of Gloucester Street today, standing in the patrician shadow of the restored Capitol building, is the dowdy, two-story, post-McKinley frame house of Miss Cara Armistead, with a sign out front inviting “Overnight Guests.” Her last reputed offer from the restoration people was $50,000—10 no avail. Old “Miss Jennie”—Mrs. Virginia B. Haughwout—holds out even beyond the grave: she wrote into her will that none of her property was to be yielded up to the invaders. Her heirs to this day operate the only privately owned restaurant ( cum antiques, curios, and assorted tourist wares) outside of the commercial district, on Duke of Gloucester Street—fittingly known as Bull’s Head Tavern.
A more subtle—and possibly more pervasive—antipathy grows out of the inevitable evolution of Williamsburg from a shrine to a spectacle. There is a muted and ever-so-sophisticated touch of show business about the place—the costumes of the hostesses and lackeys; the elaborate napkin-around-the-neck ritual of the eating places; the slightly comic sunset-gun ceremony before the Powder Magazine; the aseptic implausibility of so much fresh paint and polished brass and tidy lawns and prim table settings—one begins almost to look for the Seal of Approval from Good Housekeeping ! It can be argued, of course, that these embellishments are necessary to “round out the picture.” Well, maybe so, but the effect is to make the portrait a little larger than life.
But most Williamsburgers today are content with the fate that history and the Rockefellers have lavished upon them. It gives them a good life and a stable future—and a still-heady sense of identity with the past. Colonial Williamsburg, Incorporated, owns 130 acres along the center axis of the town—the main historical area—and a protective cordon of nearly 3,000 acres around it. It has restored 83 buildings surviving from the eighteenth century, and 430 others of every size and description have been faithfully reconstructed, most of them on their original foundations. Some 720 unwanted modern structures have been demolished to make way for them, and 83 acres of gardens and greens have been created. The total cost to date has been $62,800,000, and in addition an endowment of approximately $50,000,000 has been created by the Rockefellers to keep Williamsburg a going enterprise and to soak up its annual operating deficit of around $500,000. Before this year ends, close to one million visitorsschool children, sightseers, foreign potentates—will pass through the town, the majority to stay at least one night and to inspect the principal exhibits, and to take away with them the Lord knows what wisdom and what impressions.
He who will may ponder the cultural significance of these facts. For myself, I prefer to reflect upon the pleasures of having a home town which has done so well for itself, in a regressive sort of way.