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.

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