Wednesday, August 16, 2017  

Grand Trees: Sign Posts to History


In Virginia, history is very evident all around us every day. Family gravesites can be seen situated in the middle of lush fields of corn or soybeans. Historical churches are restored, revered and filled with music and people. Villages take pride in their eldest buildings which are lovingly “brought back” to be used for reenactments, celebrations and farmers’ markets. The history of this area is impressively present because of the early settlements of Jamestown, Yorktown, Williamsburg, the plantations along the James River and because the Civil War “The War” was principally fought on Virginia soil. So tributes and commemorations are often seen. Along with plaques and signs, trees are often planted. Because of the disparity of the times, the ages of the plantings are much younger than the sites they honor. None-the-less they serve as a valid and honored tradition to mark historical places.
Christ Church in Weems, Virginia was the dream of Robert “King” Carter, whose home Corrotomman stood nearby on the banks of the Rappahannock River. A bronze plaque marks the spot of the remnants of the “Goodly Cedars” listed as being 270 years old and said to have lined the drive from his home to Christ Church a few miles to the east. This plaque was placed by the Cobbs Hall Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1975. The ruins of the foundation of Corrotomman are on private property nearby.
Figuratively following the line of those cedars away from the tiny charming town of Weems, you will come upon Historic Christ Church. Christ Church has been lovingly and painstakingly restored by the Christ Church Foundation for many years. Within its boundaries lie several commemorative trees.
Along its west side is a plaque that designates a beautiful alee of cedars stating “This historic Row of Goodly Cedars and landscape setting was recreated by the Garden Club of Virginia in 1968.” The Garden Club of Virginia has participated in many restoration projects throughout the state. Earlier photographs show the restoration in progress, and current day photographs not only show the maturity of those trees but are in many wedding and event photos to frame the main entrance of this historical church. This double row of cedars represents the continuation of the cedars reportedly leading from Robert Carter’s home Corrotomman in Weems. Christ Church was completed after his death in 1732 and as with all history; conjectures have been made which can change over time as research continues.
The brick walls forming the churchyard were rebuilt on the original footings in 1965. Within this wall there have stood many trees over time. Some were removed for causing structural damage as the Christ Church Foundation focused on preserving the church building. The red oak in the south east corner is purported by an arborist to be at least 150 years old. Yearly, Homecoming is celebrated by three parishes by gathering for a service and picnic in the spring. In 2014, the shadowy presence of that oak overshadows the gathered crowd.
Nearby in the town of Lancaster Courthouse, several looming sycamores stand. One is beside the Mary Ball Washington Museum. Carolyn Jett’s book, “Heathsville Yesterday and Today” -one of thirteen she has written on the history of this area, describes two of the sycamores in Lancaster Courthouse. On page 23 she also describes the Constitution Oak, a pin oak in Northumberland County on the lawn of Oakley next to the old jail as well as trees “through local legend” that were planted by William Harding, builder of Springfield. Carolyn also mentions the crossroads in Burgess where Rt 200 and Rt 360 meet as being the location of the “Hanging Tree”. She stated, “there is one gravestone marking its location there on the grounds of the Fairfield’s Anglican Church. The graves were marked using stones from the foundation of the church building.” No history of the purported “hanging tree” was given but the irony of it supposedly being on the grounds of a church was mentioned.
Along Rt 200 a few miles from Kilmarnock is Ditchley Road named after the summer home of Mary Ball of the Balls of Lancaster County and her husband, Alfred I. DuPont, of the DuPonts of Delaware. Not far from her home is the gravesite of Richard Lee, whose home Cobbs Hall sits nearby. The gravesite is a magical space deep in the woods marked by a small sign “Cobbs Hall Burial Grounds”. Within this space lie Richard Lee, his wife and numerous relatives. Vinca (periwinkle) forms a soft green carpet on the floor of the woods. There is an enormous sycamore tree within the brick wall where a plaque stands marking the burial site. Another bronze plaque on the wall states that some of the bricks to form the wall came from Stratford Hall, the home of Robert E. Lee. To the east of the burial site lies Cobbs Hall. Its driveway is lined with towering crape myrtles almost obscuring the view of the home.
Richard Lee 1613-1664 “The Immigrant” was the founder of the Lee family. He was a tobacco planter, justice and burgess, member of council, attorney general and Secretary of State. He was the great, great, great grandfather of Robert E. Lee. He died at Cobbs Hall along Dividing Creek in Northumberland County and was buried in this his “Garden” which was rededicated in 1958 and is maintained by the Society of Lees.
Along the Rappahannock River in Essex County, the town of Tappahannock is located. This charming town is packed with history. A commemorative willow oak is planted in its courthouse green. This tree, planted in November of 1980 by the Senior Citizens of Essex County, commemorates the tricentennial of the formation of the town of Tappahannock in 1680 and the formation of Essex County in 1693. Its towering growth shades the courthouse green.
George Washington Birthplace National Monument located on Rt 3 in Westmoreland County is home to a lovely path winding through a cedar grove. This shaded path meanders from the Visitors Center to the recreation of the main house and commemorates a path that is believed to be original to the property. Deborah Lawton, museum technician, was told by the rangers that lore has it that “when the monument was built in 1896 the Army Corps of Engineers planted rows of trees that could be seen growing until the 1980s.”
Not far away along Rt 3 lies beautiful Stratford Hall which is the birthplace of Robert E. Lee. The grounds are full of many wonderful trees with a few located that were commemorative. There is a plaque marking the stump of a horse chestnut tree planted in 1939 in memory of Ann Carter Lee. Ann Carter Hill Lee was the mother of Robert E. Lee and his daughter was Ann Carter Lee. Matt Peterschmidt, Director of Landscapes, located the plaque but was not able to determine to which one it was dedicated. Washington and Lee University also dedicated a red oak which grows happily on the north east of the Great House.
Dedicating a tree serves as a living memorial to our history and is a thoughtful and meaningful gesture that can bring enjoyment to generations to come. So while riding along the country roads in this part of the world look up. Keep an eye out for a row of trees leading to a lovely old home or an ancient gravesite or those shading a historic building. These trees have a story to tell while serving as sign posts to our history. 

Great thanks to:
Robert Teagle, Education Director and Curator, 
Christ Church, Weems VA
Matt Peterschmidt, Director of Landscapes, 
Stratford Hall
Deborah Lawton, 
George Washington National Memorial Birth Place
Ed Funkhouser, 
Economic Development Director Essex County
Ethan Crocket, 
Bartlett Tree Experts
Ron Geiger President of Essex County Museum 
and Historic Society
Carolyn Jett
Mary Ball Washington Museum