Sunday, July 23, 2017  

Pop Castle
A Witness to History  

Sea smoke shrouded the Rappahannock River as I lay back on the grassy rise below a house once owned by Mr. James W. Gresham of Lancaster VA. I strained to see objects on the river; the mist had reduced visibility to no more than a few yards out into the river. I could hear muffled sounds not normally heard on a clear day. There was the cry of a seagull calling to its mate, the warning shriek of an osprey, water lapping against the old wooden dock and the occasional rattle of anchor chains. There were other sounds I fancied I had heard: the rattle of sabers, the splash of oars into the water, the whistle of musket fire, the boom of a Parrot rifle and the frightened shouts of men in battle. Perhaps I was dreaming, maybe not. It all seemed very real. I was, after all, lying on hallowed ground. Pop Castle was the scene of a Civil War battle, and took gunfire from British gunboats during the war of 1812.

The Greek revival Pop Castle home sits twenty seven feet above sea level on a rise facing south with a commanding view of the Rappahannock River and sunsets across the river to the west to warm the heart of the romantic. The land was first owned by Mr. Robert Griggs who arrived in 1653 and was granted 373 acres at a point between the Rappahannock and Carter’s Creek. The spot, and the house that now occupies it, can be seen from the Norris Bridge off to the left when traveling from Middlesex to Lancaster. At one time, as the land passed through succeeding generations, it was called Mottram Wright’s Plantation, Gilbert’s Ferry and later Sherman’s Ferry. Records indicate that by 1702 it was known as a ferry landing. By 1780, Martin Sherman, the son of the last man to operate a ferry landing at that spot, set about the ambitious task of building what is believed to be either the third or fourth home on that sight.

During the war of 1812, in April of 1814, sailing vessels of the British fleet sailed up the Rappahannock pillaging plantations along the way for the much needed food supplies and anything else they could find. British sailors came ashore and stole all manner of items including poor Martin Sherman’s sheep. It seems the good people of Lancaster County were up at the Court House that day voting, since it was election day. Martin Shearman was ready when the British returned, with the help of the local Militia, he fought off the plunderers.

By the time the Civil War started the home on the banks of the Rappahannock belonged to Mr. James W. Gresham and had become to be known as Pop Castle. The origin of the name has long ago passed away along with Mr. Gresham. Despite some local folktales, the name has nothing to do with the “Pop” of cannons although it has had its share of cannon “pops.” In 1861 Union General Winfield Scott, as a part of the Anaconda Plan, set up a blockade to stop shipments from reaching the south. Hundreds of Union gunboats patrolled the Chesapeake itching to fire on any ship suspected of bringing supplies to the Confederacy. The gunboat Captains were known to forage for supplies along the shore stealing sheep, chicken, food stuffs and slaves. The Lancaster Home Guard was formed to protect residents from unwelcome Union visitors.

On June 24, 1861 a crew from the 1,000 ton Union Gunboat U.S.S Monticello (formerly the “Star of New York”) came up the Rappahannock River in search of the Confederate steamer Virginia and landed three barges on the shore at Pop Castle. Eighteen Union sailors and the pilot went ashore and were greeted by then owner Mr. James Gresham.

Some historians say the Union sailors were under the impression Gresham was a Union Sympathizer. The Union crewman asked if they could buy a chicken. Gresham refused and warned the Yankees there was a contingent of Confederate Home Guard, comprised of from 30 to 80 men, marching toward the house. The Yankees raced for their boats as Home Guard muskets opened fire. The Yankees responded from their boats with cannon fire. In the encounter Yankees sailors were killed and Mr. Gresham’s ill mother was nearly hit as a cannon shell broke through the roof above bedroom. By some miracle she was unharmed. Pop Castle did not fair as well as Yankee cannon fire bombarded the house. A later owner, Captain Thomas D. DeNegre, found dozens of remnants of the shelling including one live 15 pound Parrot rifle (actually cannon) shell in the crawl space under the house. Confederate troops reported fifty-three shots were hurled at Pop Castle. Poor old Grandma Gresham escaped injury but a popular folktale relates that a shell is reported to have exploded in her room soon after she exited. A good story, but probably not true.

Captain Mr. DeNegre, a military man with years of experience with explosives, told me the shell could not have exploded in the house without destroying it. The evidence shows it actually went through the roof. DeNegre and his son found shells buried in the yard behind the house. Evidence that shells ripped through the house still exist in the form of shattered timbers in the attic and bits of shrapnel imbedded in the dining room window sills. DeNegre also found a 125 year old unexploded bomb mechanism lying in the attic.

Union reports indicate the house was destroyed by cannon fire. A bit of an exaggeration, the actual damage to the house cost $1,000 to repair, about a quarter of what the original house cost to build. Master’s Mate L.A. Brown on the U.S.S.Monticello, reported to his commanding officer: “I heard a man on the stoop say that there was a company of well-drilled volunteers in the vicinity, and on my turning about I saw of company of armed and uniformed men stealing along the shore as if to cut off our retreat. I immediately ordered a retreat to the boat and fired off our carbines, many of which missed fire and then shoved off, having waded to the launch. As the retreating tide had left the gig high and dry on the beach, I had to leave it there. Dr. Smith, a surgeon and August Peterson a quartermaster, were wounded while wading to the launch. I immediately commenced firing the howitzer and did considerable execution and had fired a number of times when I was called back to the ship by your hail.” In a letter home a Confederate solider stated four Yankees were killed.

Captain Thomas D. DeNegre, a former U.S.Navy Submarine Captain, and his wife Louise bought Pop Castle in 1969. The DeNegres worked tirelessly to trace the history of the home and to have Pop Castle entered into the Virginia Landmarks Register in 1988 and endorsed for entry into the National Register of Historic Places in 1989.

The original one story hall and parlor house was built on land granted to Robert Griggs in August 1670 by Governor William Berkeley. Records indicate the original two room house may have belonged to Ezekial and Winifred Gibson Gilbert as early at 1740. The house belonged to Martin Sherman in the 1780s.

The National Register of Historic Places describes the house in the following excerpt as “Above ground level, the eighteenth-century brick cellar is indistinguishable from the low common-bond brick foundations that support the rest of the house. The earliest portion of the standing structure, built in 1855, is a five-bay two-story framed and weatherboarded block measuring about 50 by 20 feet. It has a single-pile, central passage plan. At each gable end is an exterior chimney built of five-course commonbond brickwork. Both chimneys have one pair of stepped shoulders, indicating the presence of fireboxes on both the first and second stories of the house. The windows of the first story are glazed with nine-over-nine double-hung-sash windows. Those of the second story have six-over-six double-hung sash.

The flanking louvered blinds are twentieth-century additions. The doorways that define the central bays on both the first and second stories of the facade are secured with four-panel doors. Pop Castle’s existing porch has a one-story five-bay hipped-roof section that is presently enclosed with screens and louvered windows. The pedimented second-story porch is open, supported on slender Doric piers, and large enough to shelter only the central doorway.”

For a home to be entered into the National Register of Historic Places an extensive application detailing features of the home that make it a significant historical place must be submitted. The DeNegres enlisted the aid of Ms. Camille Wells, a professor of architecture and material culture at William and Mary and Mary Washington Colleges, to write the original application for historic status.

The formal declaration details aspect of the home for future generations. In the following excerpt features of the house are documented in great detail as follows: “All material indications are that the existing porch dates from the middle of the twentieth century. The design and spacing of the Doric pilasters flanking the front doorway may well delineate the width of a one-bay porch with Greek revival detailing... The gable roof of the house has its original low-pitched angles, although the nineteenth-century covering of wood shingles has been replaced with standing-seam sheet metal.

Beneath the sheathing survives the most graphic physical evidence of the shelling Pop Castle received during the Civil War: a hole in the nailers marking the path of a projectile that passed with considerable force through both planes of the main gable roof and through the west plane of the east ell roof. A missing stud on the north gable end of the east ell (wing) suggests that the projectile departed the house through that wall.”

Like most Northern Neck houses of the period, Pop Castle is embellished with plain Greek revival details. A straightforward box cornice marks the line where the roof meets the walls of the house. Window frames are unmolded. The main entrance is distinguished with sidelights flanked by pairs of Doric pilasters that support a flat Doric frieze, cornice, and shelf. On the interior, doorways are embellished with square-molded crossetted surrounds and secured with four-panel doors. The original mantels are fashioned into Doric architraves supported by heavy Doric pilasters.

The most elaborately embellished original feature of Pop Castle is the stair. The end of each step is decorated with a flat scalloped and scrolled console. Rectangular-sectioned balusters support a polished walnut handrail. Set at the base of the stairs is a heavy tapered newel post, turned with Italianate profiles, that may represent a later alteration.

Two years after the original section of Pop Castle was completed, a two-story one-room ell (wing) was added to the north side of the house near its northeast corner. Like the original part of the house, the ell was constructed on a low brick foundation of wood framing members with weatherboard sheathing. It has a gable roof with angles that match those of the original house and an exterior brick chimney with stepped shoulders set high above the second-floor level.

Unlike the original block of Pop Castle, the northeast ell has six-over-six double-hung-sash windows on both stories. The original function of both the first and second stories of this addition — as a separate but attached household for the owner’s mother — was accommodated by original access to the exterior on the east side of the house. There probably was a stairway providing independent access to the second story as well, but later additions to the appendage have obscured its location.”

The DeNegres have a passionate love of the house and its history. Tom DeNegre once told a reporter for the Rappahannock Record “I don’t think a generation went by and something significant didn’t happen to the people in this house. Every generation saw something. When something signifi­cant happened in the U.S., something happened on this property.” In 1998 the DeNegres sold the house to Roger Mudd, the famed TV journalist and host of the History Channel TV program. Mudd, a history major in college, was extremely interested in the history of Pop Castle and the surrounding Chesapeake area. I asked Mudd what made him buy Pop Castle. He told me: “We — but mostly I — had always wanted to own a house that had some history to it. It was perfect while it lasted.” Mudd sold the home to the present owners, Waldo and Virginia Ramadan in 2005. Waldo Ramadan is in the real estate business. Virginia Ramadan is a Foreign Service officer with the U.S. Dept. of State.

In March I put Virginia Ramadan in touch with Captain and Mrs. Thomas DeNegre. We were all invited for a guided tour of Pop Castle where the DeNegres and their son Tom would meet the Ramadan’s for the first time. The Ramadan’s were bursting with questions for the DeNegres about the history of the house and what had and had not be changed since they owned it. Virginia Ramadan was eager to find out what the living room wall looked like before it had been painted. Captain DeNegre recalled that it was originally painted to look like wood grain in the Trompe-l’œil style. We all talked for hours as the Ramadans asked questions and the DeNegres told the story of the house, as they knew it. It was a highly emotional meeting for the DeNegres who had years and years of memories dwelling in
Pop Castle.

Touring Pop Castle, guided by the DeNegres and the Ramadans, I felt the eerie feeling that I should be whispering. A feeling identical to what I experienced at the Gettysburg battlefield. History happened here, brother fought against brother, men were mortally wounded here, perhaps the spirits of those who battled here still linger in the mist.

—By Bob Cerullo—contributing writer