Wednesday, August 16, 2017  

Providence Plantation
“Dec. 1, 1771 Hard and deep snow.”

As the story goes, slaves working around the pre-Revolutionary house called Providence were fearful of going into the master bedroom where the words “Dec 1, 1771—Hard and deep snow” were etched on one of the small window panes. The then owner had died very soon after etching the words in the glass and it was believed his ghost had been seen standing in the window tracing the letters.

There are no solid records as to when the present home called Providence was built. The original landowner was Valentine Wallis who was given a 1000 acre Crown grant of the lands along the Piankatank River in 1662. It is known that Valentine Wallis came to Jamestown in 1610 at the age of 18 and was a member of the newly-formed London Company. Valentine died in 1687 and left the home and land to his son William.

There is a brick in the wall above the original entrance on the waterside which bears the date 1760 along with the capitol letter WM which may be the initials of William Morgan. William Morgan is believed to have been sent by the King of England to rid the Chesapeake Bay area of pirates. The plantation is described in history of the area around Bland Point, the Bland Patent history describes it thusly: “On this 200 acre parcel of the old Bland tract, William Morgan had a substantial brick plantation house erected in 1760, that still stands today overlooking a broad expanse of the Piankatank River, not far from its mouth in the Chesapeake Bay, this story-and-a-half high over an English basement single pile house is contracted of bricks laid in flemish bond. It has interior end chimneys as well as three dormer windows on both its river front facing the sound and road front facing the north... Its exterior dimension measure about fifty by twenty feet giving it approximately 3000 square feet of floor space (The house is now actually larger due to the addition of two wings on the house’s east and west side) Within that space is a well preserved colonial house interior including original H and L hinges and finely detailed woodwork including two excellent crafted first floor mantles, a beautiful staircase and some surviving wainscoting. There are two rooms on either side of a central hall on both the main and second floors, and the basement contained both a wine cellar and a deep cellar.”

While it has been known as Providence for a long time, the plantation was also called Dudley’s plantation. The 1759 deed from William Dudley to Benjamin Davis states “being a part of a greater Tract taken up Valentine Wallis and now part held by Stanton Dudley and Christopher Miller Sen.”

The name Providence is said to have come about during the actual building of the house. The legend says during the construction a young child climbed up to a dormer window and fell to the basement. Miraculously the child was not seriously injured. It is said that Wallis declared that only providence could have saved this child from death after such a fall and from then on he declared the home would be called “Providence.”

Lord Dunmore raided Providence during the Revolutionary War. Encamped at nearby Gwyn’s Island, the British soldiers ransacked Providence for food but spared the house. During the Civil War, Providence did not fare as well. At that time the home was owned by William Vaughn, Vaughn lost four sons during that war. They are buried in a small graveyard near the present entrance to Providence. For many years, the damage to the wall above the kitchen was evident. Providence had been shelled by Union gunboats. The union troops did more than shell Providence. During one raid in the spring of 1865, the Vaughns had tried to hide two Confederate soldiers in an upstairs bedroom. The next day Union troops searched the house and hearing noises in the bedroom, fired through the door. The Vaughns watched as the two Confederate soldiers were dragged out of the house and shot to death in their garden. After Union troops left, the Vaughns gave the two soldiers a proper burial in the little family cemetery. Years later, one of the Confederate soldiers named O’Connor was removed and brought home.

In 1912 Providence was purchased by William Wake. I spoke with his granddaughter, Mrs. Louise Miller who, as a child, spent a great deal of time in the home called Providence. She told me “I used to go over there every day to visit my grandmother and often stay the night. My uncle and his wife lived there with my aunt and grandmother. I think I have slept in every bedroom in the house except for one on the third floor. We lived just down the road and as soon as I could walk I would go over to visit. I remember my aunt used to give me a bath when I was there. My aunt gave me a bath from the feet up and my mother always gave it to me from the face down. I wondered why she did that, then I came to the conclusion that it was because she was from Baltimore. There was no water or electricity in the house when I visited there. The dining room was in the English basement and we always ate there at Christmas and for wakes. My aunt always decorated the house beautifully.

In the cellar there was a space near the stairs where there was the opening to a tunnel. It was believed that during the Civil War the tunnel was supposed to go from the house to the river at the entrance to the creek. They used to allow Confederate soldiers to escape. I remember seeing a pile of bricks at the river where I was told was once the entrance to the tunnel. I remember too seeing the damage from a cannon ball that was fired at the house from gunboats. I remember seeing the window pane with the inscription about the hard snow but it is no longer in the house. My grandmother had a room in that house for as long as she lived so they could not sell it. I stopped going to the house when I was in high school. I have fond memories of the house and the beautiful stairway in the dining room.” Ms. Miller laments the removal of the stairway and the cementing of the cellar by a previous owner.

Providence as it stands today is a far cry from the home Louise Miller knew. Over the succeeding years it has been expanded and changed by a succession of owners. Louise Miller laments the efforts of one owner who she said destroyed much of the charm and history of the house. Like the story of the child who was miraculously saved from injury by divine providence, the house was saved in 1984 by a couple from Richmond who quite by chance learned the house was for sale during a chance conversation with a Wake descendent, owner of a hardware store in Richmond.

Bill Cawthorn and his wife Cean bought Providence as a summer home in 1984. They were living in Richmond at the time where Bill practiced law until his recent retirement. Almost immediately they started renovations and additions that would bring the home to its present glory. After installing a magnificent inground pool, they turned their attention to the house. The first project was to add a back porch and a room facing the water. To do that, they had to knock out a rear wall that was part of a 1960 addition. Removing the wall provided a magnificent view of the water. All of the work they did was done keeping the original architecture in mind. I asked Cean if this was a labor of love, she replied: “Bill supplies the labor, I supply the love.”

Next the Cawthorns built a guest house where they could reside while major work was being done on the house. They built a new barn as well. Landscaping provided an easy way to reach the water. Years of erosion had created a steep drop to the water. They lived in the guest house for three years while major renovations were being done on the main house. Two wings were added and the interior completely renovated. The house is now approximately 6000 square feet. A beautiful garden was created between the guest house and the barn. One of the most interesting aspects of the house are hand painted murals that once adorned their home in Richmond.

The Cawthorns have devoted a great deal of time and thought to the restoration and expansion of Providence. When they bought the house, it had been unoccupied for many years but was still in surprisingly good condition. Over the years since 1984, they have not only restored the home; they have expanded it until today it is a beautiful home in which the original colonial style and traditions have been painstakingly preserved.