Thursday, December 30, 2010

Beaverdam, Flat Creek, Grove Hill, Oaklands, and other houses

The blogger at Oaklands, 1937
            Oaklands was the name of the Watts family house and estate near Roanoke, Virginia. When I was young, in the late 1930s and 1940s, it was still a large and active farm, with cows and chickens, and vast cornfields. My mother’s aunt and cousin lived there, and eventually my second cousins. They had beautiful flower gardens and bountiful vegetable gardens close to the house, which had a big front porch with hanging swing seats. It was a favorite destination for a family outing, and the best imaginable playground for a little boy.
Grove Hill
            The farm is mostly gone now. The interstate spur I-581 cut right through it. A Target and other big box stores now occupy a mall on the other side of the highway, as well as residential neighborhoods built after World War II. On the near side, most of the farmland is occupied by two buildings, a construction equipment company and a warehouse. The creek I used to play in, Lick Run, has become a municipal park and greenway. The house remains, but even it was not the original house, built by Edward Watts around 1818; that one burned to the ground in 1897, and the present one replaced it about 1918.
            Many of the Watts family papers now at the Historical Society of Western Virginia concern the creation and operation of Oaklands. At its peak, in the 1850s, Oaklands measured about 3130 acres, almost five square miles. It began to be broken up soon after the deaths of Edward Watts in 1859, and his widow, Elizabeth (Breckinridge) Watts, in 1863. What I knew as Oaklands was perhaps a third of what it had once been.
            The family papers also evoke an age when a majority of the population were farmers, and their aspiration was to own a piece of land sufficient to sustain them. Many of them, like Edward Watts, gave their piece of land a name. Edward himself grew up in Campbell County, Virginia, on a plantation named Flat Creek, after the stream that flowed through it; his father, William Watts, had acquired Flat Creek in the 1790s.

Grove Hill (later destroyed by fire)
            Edward’s wife, Elizabeth Breckinridge, was raised at Grove Hill, the estate of General James Breckinridge, near Fincastle in Botetourt County. In the vicinity lived the Hancocks at Santillane, the Johnstons at Lauderdale, and the family of Edward and Elizabeth Watts’s future daughter-in-law, the Allens, at Beaverdam. Closer to Oaklands, the wonderfully named Yelverton Oliver built Monterey, the Tayloes lived at Buena Vista, and the Terry family at Elmwood—the last being another house I knew well as a child, because it was left to the city of Roanoke and served as the public library.
            When Oaklands was carved up among the children of the next generation, two of them renamed their portions: one became The Barrens, after the old Indian name of the area, and the other Hawkesdale, the name of the English seat of a noble family named Watts. Flat Creek became the home of William Watts’s son-in-law, Fleming Saunders, and then of Fleming’s son, Fleming Jr. Another son, Robert C. Saunders, built his own house near-by, and named it Caryswood, after his wife, Caryetta Davis. A third, Peter, inherited his father’s Franklin County property, and gave it the evocative name Bleak Hill. Legend has it that Peter’s wife, Elizabeth Dabney, chose the name after spending a winter there reading Dickens’ Bleak House. I discovered in the Flat Creek papers at the HSWV, however, that Peter dated a letter of 8 August 1855 from “Bleak Hill”, yet he did not marry Miss Dabney until 2 October 1855. I think that’s close enough to give her and Dickens credit for the name, even though the circumstances were slightly different.
            Marcel Proust called a section of his great novel Remembrance of Things Past “Place Names: The Name”. His writing is based on the idea that our past lives on within us, in a complex web of associations, and it can be called back to life by a taste or smell, like the famous madeleine, an image, a tune, a word, or a name. So it is for me with the names of these old houses, and their presence becomes more and more vivid as I read the accounts of the daily lives of inhabitants and the impressions of visitors. I have put pictures of some of these houses on this page, and given links to several more. To see images of The Barrens, Buena Vista, Elmwood, and Monterey, go to the History Museum of Western Virginia website, click to visit the Virtual Collection, and search for name of the house. Alas, so far, I have found no image whatsoever of the original house at Oaklands.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


            Oaklands was the name of the Watts family plantation, in the present-day city of Roanoke, Virginia. My maternal grandmother was Jean Duncan Watts, and much of my family’s history is bound up in the history of Oaklands. The home was built by Edward Watts (1779-1859), but his father William Watts (1740-1799) had come to the Roanoke Valley, acquired land there, and lived there for several years. His health began to fail, however, and he found the region too unsettled to live comfortably, so he moved about fifty miles east, to an estate in Campbell County, south of Lynchburg, which he called Flat Creek, after a local stream.
            William Watts married Mary Scott, and had eight children, one of whom was Edward. Around 1818, Edward returned to the Roanoke area, which at the time was still in Botetourt County. He bought land just north of the Great Road, which led west across the Appalachians at the Cumberland Gap, and prospered both as a farmer and as a lawyer. An officer in the U. S. Army in the War of 1812 himself, he married Elizabeth Breckinridge, the daughter of a general, James Breckinridge, who had a plantation just a few miles north, near Fincastle, the county seat of Botetourt County. Edward and Elizabeth (Breckinridge) Watts had ten children, and their descendants of the fifth generation still own part of Edward’s original land.
Edward Watts
            Edward continued adding to Oaklands throughout his lifetime, buying adjoining pieces of property. By the time of his death in 1859, Oaklands measured about 3130 acres, almost five square miles. It filled an arc around the northwest half of what later became the city of Roanoke, as can be seen on the map, where the approximate boundaries of Oaklands are superimposed on a recent map of the city. The little gap on the east resulted from the arrival of the railroad in the 1850s; its right-of-way cut through that part of the plantation. When Edward’s widow, Elizabeth, died in 1862, according to his wishes she divided the land among his five surviving children, four married daughters and one son, William Watts.
William Watts
            One of the daughters, Alice (Watts) Robertson, lived with her husband in Charlottesville, Virginia; another, Emma (Watts) Carr, died in 1872, her husband remarried to his children’s governess, and the children were raised by their maternal aunts; a third, Anne (Watts) Holcombe, lost her husband in 1873, and was left in financial difficulty; the last, Letitia (Watts) Sorrel, was married but had no children. William received the largest share of the estate, and like his father, he farmed and practiced law, and did military service, as a colonel in the Confederate army. He had only one child who lived to adulthood, a son named John Allen Watts, who signed himself J. Allen Watts, though his college friends called him “Squat”.
J. Allen Watts
            The sleepy little village of Big Lick had been transformed in 1881 by the junction of the north-south Shenandoah Valley railroad with the east-west Norfolk and Western main line. Big Lick chose for itself the more dignified name Roanoke, was chartered as a city in 1884 when its population passed 5000, and became a boom town. J. Allen Watts followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather as a lawyer, but he was not interested in farming. He moved his family into a big house in the growing city, and sold Oaklands to a development company. In 1897, the old house burned. The development company apparently failed; by 1918 the land belonged to the Watts family again, headed by J. Allen’s son, William. In the twentieth century, most of the land was sold off, for residential and commercial development, but a small portion remains in the possession of the family.

Oaklands plantation c. 1860, superimposed on a map of Roanoke today