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Andrea and Rob Erda moved to Westover Plantation last fall. Photo by Adam Ewing
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Shirley Plantation Photo by Adam Ewing
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North Bend Photo by Adam Ewing
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Edgewood Photo by Adam Ewing
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Westover Plantation Photo by Adam Ewing
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Sherwood Forest Photo by Adam Ewing
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Piney Grove Photo by Adam Ewing
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Berkeley Plantation Photo by Adam Ewing
Strung like pearls along the banks of the James River in Charles City County are the grand estates of Shirley, Berkeley, Westover, North Bend and Sherwood Forest. But these are not the properties of dot-com multimillionaires or foundations. These are the homes of families linked by histories spanning hundreds of years. And these families are stubborn and absolutely determined to stay put.
"It's plain old-fashioned insanity," says Jamie Jamieson, whose father spent more than 75 years restoring the ruined Berkeley Plantation from farm profits alone. "There's a common perception that we're the privileged few. … It's actually the opposite. We struggle. We really do."
Andrea and Rob Erda moved to Westover Plantation last fall to continue a nearly 100-year-old family legacy of making Westover a home. The Carters, the most tenacious family of the bunch, have been hanging onto their home at Shirley Plantation for nearly 400 years.
But there's a hefty price to be paid for the families who live on these historic properties. They are constantly working out new ways to pay the bills and keep them open to the public.
These families quite literally are living in the past. But it is not a past of museum artifacts or celluloid entertainment. From the Carters, the Erdas, the Jamiesons, the Tylers and the Coplands of Virginia's grand estates to the Boulwares of Edgewood and the Gordineers at Piney Grove, the past is a sturdy foundation worth building their lives upon — even if a hefty dose of insanity is necessary to keep their dreams alive. Shirley Plantation In 1638, when Capt. Edward Hill purchased his first 450 acres at Shirley Plantation, a family bond with the land was struck. Today, Charles Hill Carter III; his brother, Randy Randolph; and his sister, Harriet, have inherited an unbroken 375-year-old legacy that has survived revolution, civil war and natural disasters. "You can't ignore the historical significance of Shirley," Charles Carter says. You either decide, ‘I'm not really into history, so I'll turn it over to someone else,' or you take on the challenge." For the better part of four centuries, the Carters have opted for the challenge — which means they must make the plantation pay for itself. Randy, who handles the tourism business his father started in 1950, faces a 21st-century marketing challenge. "It was nothing for tourists of the WWII generation to take a bus to Williamsburg and stand on sacred ground. And that was all they needed. Now the baby boomers show up in their SUVs and ask, ‘Where's my wine? Where's my spa and private tour?' From a marketing standpoint, how do we appeal and make Shirley relevant to them? That's the biggest struggle I see right now." With farming, tourism and a multipurpose port facility, the Carters find the recipe for solvency in diversity. And also in saying no. "We have been contacted many times by producers to do a reality-based show," Charles says. "But I don't think we can convey what we want to convey in that format without corrupting what I think is valuable here. I would hear the whirring sound of my ancestors coming out of the grave. Shirley is not just bricks. Our family does matter to us. This is my reality." North Bend For the Copland family, maintaining a 19th-century plantation is not just about preserving a 200-year-old legacy. It's about righting a regrettable wrong. John Minge built the house at North Bend for his wife, Sarah Harrison of Berkeley Plantation, in 1801. Thirty years later, 80 slaves and 16 free whites were working North Bend's tobacco and cotton fields. The plantation passed out of the Minge-Harrison family and changed hands several times until 1916 when George Forbes Copland acquired the property. Three generations later, the Coplands are still farming North Bend. George Copland II and his wife, Ridgely, raised four children on the property, but they very nearly lost it all to estate taxes in the 1980s. Opening the house and its history to the public as a bed-and-breakfast in 1984 was a lifesaver that they soon realized they enjoyed. "It was the best thing we ever did," says 75-year-old Ridgely. But the Coplands' love of their home had been burdened by a piece of its history. So in 2002, the Copland family joined the black community of Liberty Baptist Church in a formal act of contrition. The family asked forgiveness for the slavery imposed by their forbearers. The Liberty Baptist community responded by asking forgiveness for the hatred held against those who had enslaved them. The past had cleared a way for the future. Though her husband died in 2008, Ridgely continues to keep the house and grounds open to the public as a bed-and-breakfast. In the wings, her children and their families stand behind her, ready to carry on a legacy of remembrance and forgiveness at North Bend. Edgewood One spring morning in 1979, Dot Boulware answered a knock at her door. Two young men in Confederate uniforms on horseback greeted her. "Let me introduce myself, madam. I'm Jeb Stuart. And this," he said, turning to his companion, "is my rider." "Oh, really?" said Dot. "Well then, I'm Florence Nightingale." For Dot and Julian Boulware, life at Edgewood has always been one big surprise. They never intended to buy the 7,000-square-foot "farmhouse" across from Berkeley Plantation. The owner was asking $150,000, and "that was like a million dollars in 1978," Dot says. But curiosity got the best of them. They got out of the car to take a look. A single light bulb hung by a wire from the ceiling. Plaster was peeling off the walls. Then Dot looked up to see a staircase "going all the way to heaven." Her heart melted. Later, when she returned with a friend, the owner dropped the price in half. Dot blurted out, "Sold!" But the Boulwares knew nothing about the house they had purchased. They had no idea that Edgewood was the sole example of Gothic Revival architecture on the James River. When those uniformed men showed up at the door, it was a real eyebrow-raiser. The two College of William & Mary students were retracing Jeb Stuart's ride around McClellan's troops at Berkeley in 1862. His last stop was Edgewood for a cup of coffee. Dot and Julian then realized that they had acquired something priceless. In 1983, they were approached about starting a bed-and-breakfast. "We didn't even know what a bed-and-breakfast was," Dot says. "But I was trying to do anything to keep this place alive." Dot and Julian eased into the business and now have eight guest rooms. "When you think of Virginia, what do you think of? You think of history," Dot says. "This is the real deal. It should not be forgotten." Westover Plantation Last fall, Rob and Andrea Erda took a deep breath before making a leap forward that sent them rocketing back into the past. After a year of deliberation, they moved with their three children back to Andrea's childhood home of Westover Plantation, assuming a tradition spanning four generations of caring for a 263-year-old jewel in Virginia's historical crown. "When a close family friend heard we were thinking of moving to Westover, she took me aside," Rob says. "She said, ‘I wouldn't do it.' She had seen what Andrea's mother had gone through to manage this place and balance a family life. "Even my grandmother told my father: ‘Sell it.' " Andrea recalls. "She told him that it was just too much." Westover is too much. It is one of the grandest of all Virginia's Colonial mansions. It was certainly built to impress in 1750 by William Byrd III, whose father, William Byrd II, founded Richmond. In 1921, Andrea's great-grandparents, the Cranes, purchased the home. When Andrea's father inherited the property, he moved the family back to Westover. Andrea was 5. Her brother was 1. "It's never been a museum," says Andrea, who turned 39 this year. "It's always been a family home with cats and kids and all that entails. So that was very important to me when Rob and I moved here that it still remain and feel like a home first and foremost." "But we need to make the property sustainable," Rob adds. "Our main goal is that our kids can someday live here. But how do we make that work?" Rob and Andrea both bring a business savvy to managing Westover. Rob spent 10 years in investment banking. Andrea recently retired from a career as a grant writer for humanitarian-aid organizations. Right now, they are coming up to speed on running an operation that includes five rental properties, 425 acres of leased farmland, and diverse timber and hunting interests. Andrea manages the house, the children, the rental property, and the tourism potential of the property. Rob shoulders the rest and holds down a full-time job. For Andrea, her family's attachment to Westover has always been strictly personal. "It's a labor of love, and we feel an enormous responsibility to keep it going. We also want to share it. That's the balance we're trying to figure out now. "But this is not the lap of luxury. It looks very lovely, but you are on your hands and knees trying to find wiring, or digging in the garden and picking up sticks every day. We are the staff. You have to be hardwired for that." Sherwood Forest Payne Tyler grew up as an only child in the 1930s on a 4,000-acre cotton plantation in South Carolina. By the time she was 18, she was running it. "People think that the owners of plantations are privileged people born with silver spoons in their mouths who have never had to work," Payne says. "I can contradict that. I was taught the value of a balance sheet when I was a child." In 1975, when Payne and her husband, Harrison, embarked upon what turned into a mammoth three-year restoration of a 300-foot-long home in Charles City County, she seemed born for the adventure. Nevermind that 152 window panes had to be replaced; that floors had been removed, and that goats had been caught cavorting in the 68-foot-long ballroom built to dance the Virginia reel. This was Sherwood Forest, home of the 10th president of the United States, John Tyler — who just happened to be Harrison's grandfather. "If you're going to live in a president's house, you better be ready to preserve it and share it, or you better get rid of it and let somebody else do it," Payne says. Sherwood Forest is the only 19th-century presidential home still lived in by the family, and the Tylers have shared its history with the public for more than 30 years. Both Payne and Harrison are now in their 80s, and in 2008, they passed on the management of the property to their son, William. "He feels the ‘historic pressure,' " Payne admits. "But you also feel a great obligation to the public. These homes are yours, and they're yours to keep and maintain, but they're also yours to share. Piney Grove In true American blended-family fashion, the Gordineers have pieced together remnants of our history — and given them all a home. Since 1984, they have rescued historic buildings and placed them on the small piece of the original 18th-century Furneau-Southall plantation. Joan and Joseph Gordineer had always wanted to restore a historic house. They began with Piney Grove, itself a historically blended structure — originally a 1790 log corncrib, it morphed into a general store in 1853, and then into a family home in 1905. When the Gordineers acquired Piney Grove, it had been abandoned for 20 years and was barely salvageable. Their restoration efforts stirred local interest, and by 1987, the Gordineers decided to open a bed-and-breakfast. They soon realized that they needed another structure to house their guests properly. When an 1857 frame residence was offered for removal in Caroline County, they plunged into a new kind of restoration. For six weeks, Joseph, his son Brian, and two others worked to reframe "Ladysmith." Two years later, the reconstruction was complete, with six rooms available for guests. For the Gordineers, their buildings are not historical "throwaways." "The story told on that little silver marker out front is not the same story you experience when you walk in the door and greet a family member who resides in the house," Brian says. "When a house is no longer open to the public or is destroyed, a story is no longer being told." Berkeley Plantation When Jamie Jamieson's father, Mac Jamieson, introduced his new bride, Grace Eggleston, to his prized inheritance of American history in 1933, she was mortified. Situated on 1,000 acres of riverfront, the 300-year-old Georgian mansion that was the ancestral home of President William Henry Harrison, a place that welcomed George Washington and Abraham Lincoln through its doors, did not impress. After 65 years of neglect, not a stick of furniture remained in the house, the outbuildings had long ago been plundered for their bricks, sheep roamed the basement and the more than 15 acres of formal gardens had been reduced to muddy pastures. But Mac was going to change all that. He was going to restore it all — and he would work the land to pay for it. Grace told him he was out of his mind. "She told him to get a job in Richmond instead," recalls his son, Jamie, with a laugh. "But somehow, he sold her his dream." For the next 75 years, the Jamiesons lived at Berkeley, raised their son, and worked to restore the plantation and its mansion — solely with farm profits. "My father and mother brought this place back from the grave," Jamie says. "Everyone said it was impossible. But it was an incredible labor of love. And that's how you keep these places. You have to have your hands and your heart in it. You'd never do it otherwise, because it's so much work." The house and grounds opened to the public in 1938, and tourism has helped pay the yearly six-figure overhead and maintenance costs. But with recent declines in visitation, 68-year-old Jamie, who inherited Berkeley 10 years ago, now relies on weddings, corporate gatherings and even a "Tough Mudder" obstacle course event to pick up the slack. "We'll do anything legal to keep this place going," he jokes. "But we really do serve the public. We've never made any money doing this. It's not about the money, and you can't let it be. It's always been a struggle. Never, ever, has it not been a struggle. But just to preserve something that your family's worked on so hard and with so much blood and sweat and tears — I just can't imagine doing anything else." He smiles. "And I don't want to be the one who gives this place up."