Saturday, July 22, 2017  

Elmington: The Life Worth Living


Elmington is the crown jewel among a  string of pearls scattered along the shoreline of the North River. Lined with stately homes, whose architecture represents the very best of 17th and 18th century English colonial designs, Elmington’s neoclassical lines stand out as a testament to one man’s vision of, and obsession with, 
the old South.
Situated on a knoll amid towering magnolias, Elmington was once surrounded by graceful elm trees that gave the property its name. This is the second home that sits on a large tract of land patented in 1611 by Sir Thomas Gates, an early colonial Governor of Virginia. The first house was red brick, most likely in the Georgian style, and built closer to the river. A number of distinguished guests visited Elmington often, arriving by boat or traversing the mile and a half-long drive lined with cedars, said to be wide enough to admit three carriages, side-by-side.
In those days, when local fishermen landed a sheepshead for the estate’s table, a banner was raised from a post or tree, signaling a dinner invitation to the other riverfront estates. Boats crowded the wharf, and the house overflowed with guests, enjoying fetes and elaborate dinners. John Tyler, our tenth President, was a frequent visitor.
It’s unknown what happened to the first house, but in 1848 the current house was built by John Prosser Tabb as a wedding gift to his bride, Rebecca Lloyd. Constructed of brown brick, the house had walls three feet thick and a foundation containing bricks from the previous structure.
Life in the new manor was prosperous up until the American Civil War, when the Tabb family sold Elmington to James M. Talbott, who paid for it in Confederate money. Like its neighbors, war, reconstruction, and economic malaise brought hard times to Elmington, so by the time Thomas Dixon Jr. bought the property in 1899, the house was in serious need of renovation.
When Dixon arrived in Gloucester County, he “desired a home that had some association with history.” Born in Shelby, North Carolina, Dixon spent his youth working on the family farm and viewed life as dulling farm labor. College was his escape and in 1883 he graduated from Wake Forest with honors, and received a graduate scholarship to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore to study history and political science. His latter course work was based upon a German model that taught that each person had the God-given genius to enrich the world.
While there, Dixon befriended Woodrow Wilson, with whom he shared a passion for the theater; so much so that within four months the ever-restless Dixon left school and headed to New York City to study acting. He joined a traveling burlesque troupe, but his tall, lanky, youthful looks prevented him from being taken as a serious actor. One producer suggested he might try playwriting.
Instead, Dixon returned to North Carolina to study law, receiving his law degree in 1885. At age 20, his oratory skills helped him win a seat in the state legislature, but he soon became disenchanted with backdoor politics and so, after practicing law for a short time, decided to enter the ministry.
It was from the pulpit that Dixon would utilize all his acting and oratory talents. Six months after he was ordained a Baptist minister, he moved from a small church in Goldsboro to a pulpit in Boston and then on to a larger church in New York City, where his skills as an orator placed him in high demand as a paid lecturer. At one point he was hailed as the best lecturer in the country. His favorite topic: the horrors of Reconstruction.
By 1883, Dixon was prosperous, married with three children, and resided in a three-story brownstone near Central Park. It was there that his eldest son, Thomas III, was stricken with polio that paralyzed both legs. When his own health began to fail, Dixon turned his eyes south. How he happened to find his way to Gloucester County is unclear, although he lectured frequently in Richmond and Norfolk, so likely passed through the area often.
Nostalgic for the country life he recalled from childhood, Dixon purchased Elmington in 1897, where he settled his family on 500 acres of fertile farmland and woods. The Old Dominion steamer arrived daily at Elmington’s wharf, bringing traffic and mail, and allowing Dixon to leave Elmington midweek to travel and lecture, before returning to New York for Sunday services. His lecturing proved so lucrative he gave up his pulpit in 1899 and settled in at Elmington.
By this time, the house was half a century old, had thirty-two rooms, but lacked the antebellum façade Dixon desired, so the exterior received a whitewash plaster treatment, and imposing Greek revival columns were added front and back. Dixon put in a plumbing system powered by windmill, installed four bathrooms, and a sewerage system that drained into a nearby marsh. An acetylene gas plant supplied power for lights and cooking.
Dixon and his wife scoured junk shops in New York, bringing back massive brass chandeliers beautifully restored. Since twelve fireplaces were insufficient to keep the massive house warm in winter, Dixon installed hot air furnaces in the basement. “I figured on $3000 for the job of painting, decorating, water, heat, and modern conveniences,” Dixon later wrote. “The plumbing alone cost $2350! The bills aggregated $7500, but when it was done, it was a joy to look at.” The Dixons settled into life among the county’s first families, enjoying all the bounties the region had to offer.
In a log cabin close to the river, Dixon penned the first two novels of what would become his best-selling, albeit racist, “Trilogy of Reconstruction”; The Leopard’s Spots (1902), followed by The Clansman (1905). In 1905, he also published a personal journal titled The Life Worth Living, a pastoral and melodramatic tome about life at Elmington. Historian Parke Rouse claimed Gloucester County never had a better press agent, as Dixon’s book attracted others to the area.
The journal may have proved cathartic, because after several futile attempts to raise cabbages, cantaloupes, and hay commercially, Dixon had become disillusioned with life as a gentleman farmer and in the book’s final chapter expressed sudden melancholy and longing for big city life. Despite protests from his family, he sold Elmington and returned to New York in 1905.
The Dixons’ departure did not bring an end to improvements at Elmington. In 1906, the new owners, the Walkups, had the walls of the grand entrance hall hung with scenic murals, painted on paper, created by renowned French mural company Zuber. The papers, called “Views of North America”, depicted historical events and places in early American history. Rolls of this paper were later hung in the White House in 1962 by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy at a cost of $12,000.
In 1941, Elmington was purchased by Mr. & Mrs. Webster S. Rhoads, Jr., son and heir of the co-founder of Miller & Rhoads department stores. Their son, Christopher, recalls his years at Elmington fondly. “My father drove Rt. 33 to Richmond every Monday to work and returned on Thursday, while Mother and I stayed full- time. We had several dairy cows and a milking barn; we bailed hay; planted crops; had fruit trees, and kept bees. It was a simple life; we worked hard, and I learned a lot about farming.” One memory still brings a smile.
“The portico columns that Dixon had built were formed from empty, stacked pickle barrels stuccoed over, so they were hollow,” Chris explains. “A swarm of bees got into the top of one of the columns and made a nest inside a barrel. We discovered it when honey was found dripping down the column. We got perhaps forty gallons of honey out of that barrel.”
The Rhoads relocated the kitchen from the English basement to a new kitchen wing with breakfast room and fireplace on one end, and a large glass sun porch, with panoramic river views, on the other, bringing the footprint of the house to 6,680 sq. ft. The original, outdoor kitchen was converted to a guest house. The Rhoads enjoyed their many years on the estate.
In 1979, Elmington was bought by Peter Glasel. The grand old elms are gone, but ancient magnolias and crepe myrtles frame the stately porticos. Boxwood-bordered brick walks lead visitors through geometric and horticultural gardens, combining the best of colonial Virginia and European designs. English limestone statuary and a small pillared pavilion are framed by azaleas, lilacs, camellias, and roses.
Elmington remains a working farm with over 200 acres of no-till crops. A three-acre pond with generous plantings, created from land not fit for farming, provides wildlife habitat for a variety of birds and mammals. Recently, 65 acres were timbered, and 23 of those acres will be planted in native, warm season grasses for use as hay and to benefit quail and other wildlife.
Elmington’s roots are set as deeply as the elm trees that once grew here. The house is a testament not only to the love John Prosser Tabb felt for his bride, but the love for a house and way of life that has been handed down from one owner to another. It truly is the life worth living.
My personal thanks to Blair Farinholt, Mrs. Peter Glasel, and Christopher Rhoads for their assistance.