Photo courtesy Rountree descendants
It was a mild January afternoon in 2010 when my family and I set out to explore Hollywood Cemetery. What we found is that there is no better place to discover a lost family story. Our walk that day opened a door to the remarkable history of one of the most successful tycoons in post-Civil War Richmond.
After lunch at Chiocca's in the Museum District, our entourage headed to the cemetery for a hike through the 135 acres of what's billed as Richmond's "best historic site." There are 84,000 people buried there, including 18,000 Confederate soldiers and soon, we would learn, some of my wife, Dana's, ancestors.
Dana and I were visiting from Charlotte, N.C., and were led by new Richmond residents — our son, Jordan, then a medical student at Virginia Commonwealth University, and his wife, Beth Lyn, who was doing her residency at VCU Medical Center. If not for their recent relocation, we would not have set foot in the cemetery, launching us on a journey that would consume the next three years.
Hiking through the cemetery, we marveled at its beauty and the many famous names carved into tombstones — Presidents James Monroe and John Tyler, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and six Virginia governors. Our conversation turned to Dana's family ties to the city. She knew she was the great- granddaughter of Henry W. Rountree of Richmond, and she knew that was supposed to mean something — or at least it would have in another time. But all Dana had to go on was her memory of the man's portrait hanging on the wall of her grandmother Grace's living room in Arlington. She recalled his full head of wavy, gray hair, parted on the left side, a thick broomy mustache that covered his upper lip, and a steady, no-nonsense gaze looking through his round glasses. Grace had never talked about her days married to Russell Rountree, Henry's son, and Dana was too young to ask questions. So, we strolled through the cemetery, looking from gravesite to gravesite for the Rountree name. It didn't take long to realize that finding any Rountrees by chance would be an impossible task in such a vast sea of graves. We finished our walk and headed to Jordan's home to regroup. What would have been an impossible task years ago was completed in five minutes, thanks to Hollywood Cemetery's website and a searchable database. We typed in Rountree, and up came more than a dozen names, including Henry W. Rountree. Even better, the listing included coordinates for his burial site — section 1, lot 27, in a place called The Circle. We set out the next morning as the cemetery's gates swung open. Referring to the large outdoor stone-tablet map next to the visitor center, we made our way to The Circle, high up on a bluff overlooking the James River. We set out on foot. The scale of the map did not prepare us for the scene when we approached The Circle, where there are dozens of family grave sites. We started in the middle and split up. Dana went south. I went north. Coming up behind the tombstones, we had to crane our heads left and right to read the family names on the markers. At the easternmost point of The Circle, I approached a marker at least 5 feet tall. It was the last family plot before the street. I stepped forward and turned to study the name. In fine block letters, set beneath an encircled Maltese cross, was chiseled: ROUNTREE. I yelled for Dana. She ran to the sound of my voice. I pointed to the tombstone. Here was her ancestor's family plot in Richmond: great-grandparents Henry W. and Elizabeth; their children, Henry Jr., Alexander and Bessie. Here too was Russell, Dana's grandfather, as well as his son and Dana's uncle, Russell Jr. This was a place we did not know existed. The feeling of discovery and reverence was overwhelming. Our obsession had begun. Immediately upon returning to our home in Charlotte the next day, we headed for the attic. For 36 years, we had been hauling around an old cardboard box stuffed with glass artifacts wrapped in crumpled yellow newspaper pages. It traveled with us from Baltimore to New York and finally Charlotte. It had been many years since we thought about it, let alone looked inside. We brought the box down to our den and carefully removed the contents. Inside were some of Henry Rountree's belongings saved by Dana's grandmother Grace and willed to her. The glassware included two engraved vases and a tea set. The quality of the pieces indicated they belonged to people of wealth. We could visualize Rountree sipping tea while admiring the vases resting on his mantel at his home at 907 Park Ave. (It's now part of the grounds of Virginia Commonwealth University.) Our incredible discovery drove us to learn more, and soon the news of the Rountree family plot was shared with Dana's three sisters. They, too, were surprised. There was more digging that needed to be done, and good fortune was about to come our way. Once Jordan completed medical school in May 2012, he had time to research Rountree's life while awaiting his residency assignment. His first stop was VCU's Cabell Library, where he set out to dig through old Richmond Times-Dispatch articles. He would later discover that he began his search just feet from his ancestor's residence on Park Avenue, where U.S. Census records showed he lived from 1900 through the 1920s. Jordan's research also set him on the path to find old Rountree items, and last year, he emailed me a link to the Aardvark Antiques store in Oakwood, Ga. On its website was a Rountree trunk, one of a precious few that we had ever seen for sale. It now rests proudly in our den and is something I see every day, its clear, blue Rountree label intact on the inside rolling tray. Studying the trunk, it is easy for me to see why the man and his business were so successful. There are hundreds of small nails holding the leather straps on the outside of the trunk and scores of metal reinforcements — this trunk was built to last. On Aug. 17, we stood in line outside the Greater Richmond Convention Center holding tickets to the PBS program Antiques Roadshow. More than 20,000 people applied to have their treasures appraised; only 3,000 won tickets in the drawing. We had a 10 a.m. time slot. We watched the logistics unfold inside the convention center as the volunteers and staff moved people through. The efficiency and order would make any military leader smile. Navigating the queue, we hauled with us Henry Rountree's tea set, his vases and his personal traveling trunk, which had been in the attic of Dana's sister in Washington, D.C. In our meeting with an appraiser, we were told the china had basically no value. The vases were Eastern European, worth $600 and "were very impressive," according to the appraiser. Rountree's traveling trunk, complete with a bullet hole in the base, would fetch $1,200 at auction — but to us, of course, it is priceless. Perhaps more priceless would be the story of how the bullet hole came to be there. Grace Rountree's silence, yet again, kept the mystery alive. We completed our Antiques Roadshow weekend with a dinner blocks away from the center, at Rappahannock. Rountree was still a big part of our conversation as we enjoyed fresh oysters and wood-grilled fish. After dinner, Jordan looked across the table at me and said, "You should go to the bathroom." "I already did before we ate," I replied. "Go again and look at the photos on the walls," he shot back. There are two unisex bathrooms in the far left corner of the restaurant. I entered the one on the left first, the one I had originally used. On the center wall was a large, framed photograph of a downtown city block. Old Model Ts lined the street. In the lower left of the photograph was a long vertical sign attached to the corner of the building that said: "H.W. Rountree Luggage, Trunks, Leather-goods." I hurried to the other bathroom. The photo in the second bathroom was a look at the interior of the Rountree showroom brimming with merchandise: bags, valises, even one of the patented trunks was on display. Here were the first real photos I had seen to give me a glimpse of Rountree's past. I sat back down at the table, Dana having done the bathroom shuffle in opposite order of me. "Well," said Jordan. "Did you figure it out?" "What?" we said in unison. "That building in the photo is the same building you are sitting in," said Jordan, pointing to the bathroom and then spreading his arms wide. I asked to speak with the manager, who shared where he purchased the photos, Dementi Studios at 121 E. Grace St. I ordered the two photos from Dementi Studios; they are in our den near the Rountree trunk. We had come a long way from that day almost three years before in Hollywood Cemetery. The Next Chapter On April 11, several months before our visit to Antiques Roadshow, Jordan and Beth Lyn welcomed a new baby boy into the world at VCU Medical Center. He was a healthy fellow, a hefty 9 pounds. We arrived in Richmond on the second day of his life, happy to hold him and be part of the occasion. His name was not announced until day three, however, as Dana and I waited in the car parked at the hospital's front doors. Jordan pushed Beth Lyn out in a wheelchair. In her lap was our new grandson. "Here is Ford Rountree Tozer," proclaimed Jordan. We were only blocks from where Henry Rountree's fortunes rose almost 140 years ago, and we think that great-great-great grandfather Henry would be proud.