Charles City Things to Do

  • Terraced gardens leading to the James River
    Terraced gardens leading to the James...
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  • picture of the first distillery
    picture of the first distillery
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  • one of many basement photo opportunities
    one of many basement photo opportunities
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Most Recent Things to Do in Charles City

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    Shirley: More Outbuildings and the Willow Oak

    by b1bob Updated Oct 18, 2007

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    old laundry, current gift shop
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    6. Laundry Only the building where the laundry operated survives to this day. There is no preserved exhibit like at Mount Vernon. The second floor was used as a school for the Carter children (at one time, there were as many as 15- it's some wonder the Great House is so great anymore). In the 20th century, it was used as a guesthouse. Now, the gift shop and storage room are on the first floor and the second floor is office space.

    7. Stable Horses were not only important symbolically to Virginia planters, but also practically. It was important to keep them in good working order. The stables also stored carriages, harnesses, and other related tools and equipment.

    8. Store House This building was built to store incoming and outgoing goods too valuable to be left on the wharves. Later family records show it was used as a machinery and tool shed.

    9. Slave Quarters The slave quarters which survives to this day was constructed in the mid 1800s as a typical wood frame, "double-pen" building. This duplex design provided separate living areas for two households. The only reason the slave house is not restored like the other outbuildings is with the division of Shirley lands over multiple generations, the surviving slave house is located on land no longer owned by the Carters.

    10. The Willow Oak of Shirley Plantation has been here for 350 years. The oak represents strength and longevity, traits of the Hill Carter family who has lived at Shirley Plantation from day one. There is a rather funny sign warning tourists not to get too close to the grand old tree.

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    Shirley: Great House

    by b1bob Updated Oct 16, 2007

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    Shirley Plantation Great House (front)
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    Shirley Plantation is Virginia's first plantation (1613). Shirley Plantation has survived the Indian Uprising, Bacon's Rebellion, the Revolutionary War, the War for Southern Independence, and the Great Depression. Shirley Plantation is the oldest family-owned business in North America dating back to 1638. Construction of this house began in 1723 and was finished in 1738, the mansion, referred to as the "Great House," is largely in its original state and is owned, operated, and lived in (to this day) by direct descendants of Edward Hill. The guided tour of the Great House highlights original family furnishings, portraits, silver, and hand-carved woodwork as well as stories of the eleven generations of the Hill-Carter family. The "Flying Staircase" is the most notable architectural feature inside the house rising three storeys with no visible means of support. This is one of the last examples of it in American architecture. In the late 17th century, Charles Carter added the 3-1/2 foot (1.1 m.) wooden pineapple to the peak of the roof line. The pineapple served as the universal sign of Southern hospitality and as an open invitation welcoming river travelers to Shirley. Here is a timeline of the history of Shirley Plantation too extensive to cover in this one tip.

    My friend Todd and I came here for the first time in October, 2007. He was most impressed by the central heating system inside which was state-of-the-art for that period. A wood stove in the basement and strategically put vents warmed the great house throughout the winter. I was impressed by the number of outbuildings. However, it lacked Berkeley's terraced gardens leading to the river and the river view was marred by a chemical plant across the James River in Hopewell.

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    Shirley: Outbuildings

    by b1bob Updated Oct 16, 2007

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    dovecote
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    If you have a long wait before your tour of the great house begins or after that tour, the Carter family preserved all of the outbuildings on the property they currently own.

    1. Dovecote Squab was a real delicacy back in the day. The doves and pigeons raised their young in the small holes within the walls of the dovecote.

    2. Ice House In the 18th and 19th centuries, ice was needed for food preservation. It wasn't like you could throw everything into the refrigerator back then. The ice was harvested from the fresh water ponds on the plantation and stored on a 35-foot (11 m.) deep ice house. The ice would last until autumn if it was properly packed.

    3. Kitchen Kitchens in those days were kept separate from grand mansions such as this primarily due to fire danger. Other considerations were cooking odour heat, and social status. One room of the kitchen contained a bake oven and the cooks lived with their families on the second floor.

    4. Pump House The Great House, laundry, and kitchen were supplied with water from this 1771 pump house.

    5. Smokehouse In the 18th and 19th century, everybody in Virginia ate pork. The smokehouse was used to preserve and store meat which was dried using salt and smoke. If they cured it right, the meat would last until the next slaughter. The big bell on top of the smokehouse was used as an alarm and to mark the beginning and the end of the work day.

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    Berkeley Plantation

    by b1bob Updated Oct 14, 2007

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    Berkeley mansion
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    After you buy your tickets in the gift shop, they direct you to the basement (food was once stored here before modern appliances) where the guide shows a short film to give you an overview of the plantation's history. (Be sure you mind the step on the way down.) As you wait for the guide to show the film, you will note that it also contains a treasure trove of all sorts of artifacts. As Matt rightly points out on his tip, none of these artifacts is explained with signage. Since there are no signs prohibiting photography, we assumed it was okay to snap away.

    Berkeley Plantation is the oldest 3-storey brick house that can prove its date (1726). It is the birthplace of 2 U.S. Presidents. Charles City County, Virginia is the only county that can make that claim so far. It is the site of many firsts (enumerated in another tip).

    You can't see it on the photo, but there were casters on the barrel backed green chair in front of the fireplace. That may seem odd in an old house like this. The reason for the casters was that the heat from the fireplace could melt the wax makeup on a woman's face they used then and the casters effect a hasty pullback from the heat. That is the origin of the expression "saving face".

    We had a real comedienne for a guide. Susan is a middle-aged woman who was born in Illinois, but lived down here long enough to pick up traces of a Southern accent. She, a northern transplant herself, pointed out the distinction between a "yankee" and a "damn yankee".

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    Berkeley Plantation grounds tour

    by b1bob Updated Oct 14, 2007

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    Terraced gardens leading to the James River
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    The boxwood-terraced gardens at Berkeley Plantation reflect careful attention to the garden fashions of the 18th and 19th century. The gardens lead from the gazebo almost to the river bank.

    The bell roof gazebo with Chippendale railings is a short walk behind the Georgian mansion.

    When you finish the guided mansion tour, don't forget to take plenty of time to tour the grounds.

    The boxwood-terraced gardens at Berkeley Plantation reflect careful attention to the garden fashions of the 18th and 19th century. The gardens lead from the gazebo almost to the river bank.

    The bell roof gazebo with Chippendale railings is a short walk behind the Georgian mansion.

    Along the grounds tour, you will run across the many American "firsts" that occurred at Berkeley Plantation:

    • 1st official Thanksgiving: 4 December 1619 The gateway in which "acemj" is straightening his glasses is the site of the first Thanksgiving. Abraham Lincoln, who proclaimed the first official day of Thanksgiving in 1863 got his history wrong by accident or by design putting forward the notion that it began with the pilgrims from the Mayflower in 1620. The previous year, 4 December 1619 was truly the first Thanksgiving. In the main hall of Berkeley Plantation is an official document signed by an emissary of President Kennedy (who was ironically from Massachusetts) admitting that the first Thanksgiving took place at Berkeley Plantation in present-day Charles City, VA

    • 1st bourbon whiskey distilled: 1621, by George Thorpe, an Episcopal priest

    • 1st time Army bugle call Taps played: July 1862, by bugler Oliver W. Norton; the melody was written at Harrison's Landing on the plantation by then General Daniel Butterfield.

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    Berkeley Plantation

    by Karnubawax Written Oct 12, 2005

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    Of the many plantations in the Charles City area along the James River, Berkeley is considered to be the one (or at least one of the ones) to see. What separates Berkeley from the others - and what makes it ultimately worth visiting - is the history here. The second owner - and son of the plantation's builder - Benjamin Harrison (who signed the Declaration of Independence and was a 3-time Governor of Virginia) lived here, as did his son William Henry Harrison (9th President of the United States). WH's grandson Benjamin was the 23rd President.

    But the history doesn't end - or even begin - here. Settlers from England came ashore and observed the first official Thanksgiving here on December 4, 1619; Abe Lincoln later rewrote history, making Plymouth the site. The first Bourbon whiskey was made here in 1622. In 1862, the Union army had a little campout here with 140,000 soldiers. During this time, the military tune 'Taps' was composed on this site. Abe Lincoln arrived that same year, reviewed General McLellan's troops, and promptly relieved him of command.

    The Plantaion itself is very nice, with 10 acres of terraced garden (which needed a little work), great views of the James River, and lovely strolling paths around the grounds. I think it might have looked better during a different time of year (I went in September). The house itself is beautiful, and, again, the history is what makes it special.

    Berkeley was the only plantation I went to, so I have nothing to compare it to. Though it was certainly nice, I'd say that, without the history and the gardens blooming, it was just barely worth the price - which I believe was about $14.

    Route 5 is a great way to go if you're going to Williamsburg from Richmond. Some other famous nearby plantations you might want to look into are Shirley, Evelynton and Westover.

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    Shirley Plantation

    by butterflykizzez04 Written Apr 29, 2005
    Shirley Plantation Manor house facing James River

    A visit to Shirley Plantation affords a panorama of rare historical continuity. Shirley was founded six years after the settlers arrived at Jamestown in 1607 to establish the first permanent English Colony in the New World.

    Shirley Plantation, granted to Edward Hill in 1660, features the pineapple (the Colonial symbol of hospitality) in the hand-carved woodwork in the house, and as a three-foot finial on the peak of the roof. And for good reason -- Shirley was a well-known center of hospitality in Colonial times.

    The Hills and Carters entertained the Byrds and Harrisons, not to mention Washington, Jefferson and other prominent Virginians at Shirley. Visitors today see an 800-acre working plantation operated by the tenth and eleventh generations of the Hills and Carters, who continue this tradition of hospitality.

    During the Revolution, Shirley was a supply center for the Continental Army. Twice, it was a listening post for both sides in the no-man's land between the British at City Point, now Hopewell, and Lafayette's army at Malvern Hill.

    A century later, during the War Between the States, Shirley survived the Peninsula Campaign and the struggle for nearby Richmond, the Confederate capital. Anne Hill Carter, wife of Henry Light-Horse Harry Lee, of Stratford and mother of Gen. Robert E. Lee, was born at Shirley. The famous Confederate general, widely regared as one of the greatest Americans of all time, received part of his schooling in the converted laundry house.

    The present mansion was begun in 1723 by Edward Hill III, a member of the house of Burgesses in the Virginia Colony, for his daughter Elizabeth, who married John Carter, eldest son of King Carter. It was finished in 1738 and is largely in its original state.

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    Visit "Sherwood Forest" Plantation

    by butterflykizzez04 Written Apr 29, 2005
    Driveway leading up to the plantation house

    The House, circa l730, is Virginia Tidewater in architectural design, and is the longest frame dwelling in America. It was expanded to its present length, 300 feet, by President Tyler in 1845, when he added the 68-foot ballroom designed for dancing the Virginia Reel.
    Sherwood Forest survived the Civil War in 1864 when Union soldiers damaged the house and its furnishings, as testified by marks on woodwork and doors, and scars on a French Empire table used by President Tyler in the White House. Also unique to the house is the legend of a ghost, known as the Gray Lady, who has been heard rocking in the Gray Room for more than 200 years.

    The home contains furnishings, heirlooms, silver and paintings which belonged to President Tyler and his family. Greek Revival features, added by the President and his young bride, Julia Gardiner, are evidenced by lattice, columns, and pilasters on the porches while cornices, mantles and carved medallions grace the formal rooms of the house.

    The Grounds comprise twenty-five acres of terraced gardens, serene woodlands, and lawn by the designs of mid-19th century landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing. The formal garden was partially destroyed by Civil War troops and still contains the bird bath placed in the garden by Julia Gardiner Tyler. There are over eighty varieties of centuries old trees, including a gingko tree given to Tyler by Captain Matthew Perry when he returned from the Orient in the 1850s. The original 17th century tobacco barn, garden house, milk house, smoke house, law office and kitchen/laundry comprise one of the few complete plantation yards in America.

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    Taps monument

    by matcrazy1 Updated Jan 2, 2005

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    URSZULA  AND  TAPS  MONUMENT

    The first time Army bugle call "Taps" was played at the Berkeley Plantation in 1862 that is during the Peninsula Campaign of the War Between the States. This event is commemorated by this taps monument on my picture.

    The stone monument was founded in 1919, for God and Country, by the American Legion. In 1969 the plaque on origin of Taps was erected by the American Legion, Department of Virginia in tribute to American war dead of all wars:
    During the Civil War in July 1862, when the Army of Potomac was in camp on this site, brigadier general Daniel Butterfield summoned private Oliver Willcox Norton, his brigade bugler, to his tent. He whistled some new tune and asked the bugler to sound it for him. After repeated trials and changing the time of some notes which were scribbled on the back of an envelope, the call was finally arranged to suit general Butterfield and used for the first time that night. From that time it became and remains to this day the official call for "Taps".

    Americans have all heard the haunting song "Taps". It's the song that gives them that lump in their throats and usually tears in their eyes.

    A few days later I heard the famous "Taps" in the Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. It's customarily played at funerals at Arlington National Cemetery as well as at ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknowns there. It's the most beautiful bugle call, always played slowly. Hear it here.


    TAPS
    "Fading light dims the sight,
    And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright.
    From afar drawing nigh -- Falls the night.

    "Day is done, gone the sun,
    From the lake, from the hills, from the sky.
    All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.

    "Then good night, peaceful night,
    Till the light of the dawn shineth bright,
    God is near, do not fear -- Friend, good night."

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    American Thanksgiving Day was born here

    by matcrazy1 Updated Dec 20, 2004

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    THANKSGIVING  WAS  BORN  HERE

    The Thanksgiving Day originates from celebrations of the bountiful harvest and thanksgiving ceremonies in ancient cultures (Greek, Roman, Chinese, Egyptian, Jewish). In America it was born just in Charles City, on December 4, 1619 when captain John Woodleefe with the thirty-five settlers arived on the ship, "Margaret", at Berkeley Hundred which would become later Berkeley Plantation.

    This structure on my picture, was put at the Berkeley Plantation, close to the James River where the ship "Margaret" landed, to commemorize this event.

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    Where U.S. presidents were conceived

    by matcrazy1 Updated Dec 20, 2004

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    BERKELEY - SLEEPING  ROOM

    We joined guided tour around the rooms of Berkeley mansion which are furnished with a magnificent collection of eighteenth century antiques.

    There is a dining room where George Washington, the first president of the USA, and later the succeeding nine presidents, enjoyed the local food (Virginia ham) and view of the James River.

    In this modest sleeping room, on my pictures, U.S. presidents could be conceived and born...


    HARRISONS
    The building was built for wealthy Harrison family.

    Benjamin Harrison (1726 - 1791) was a son of the builder of Berkeley and its second owner. He was a farmer and politician born in just built Berkeley mansion in 1726. He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence (1776, I saw his signature 2 days later in the National Archives in Washington D.C.) and Governor of Virginia (3 times).

    His son, William Henry Harrison (1773 - 1841), born at Berkeley was the famous Indian fighter and became the ninth President of the United States in 1841.

    His grandson, Benjamin Harrison, was the 23rd President.

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    Charming pink building

    by matcrazy1 Updated Dec 20, 2004

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    CHARMING  PINK  BUILDING

    This simple but charming, pink, old, 2-store building housed the ticket office and gift shop on the ground floor and administrative offices on the second floor. It reminded me many buidings I could see in old towns in Europe. Although the pastel pink colour is more common for Mediterranean areas of Italy (look here) than for England.

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    James River

    by matcrazy1 Updated Dec 15, 2004

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    JAMES  RIVER  AT  BERKELEY  PLANTATION

    I saw the James River for the first time at the Berkeley Plantation. At first I though that it is... a lake. It was so wide... a few miles wide. It was dark day and the river with willows growing on its bank and the oposite bank partly hidden in fog looked wild and sad. It had to look the same in 1619 when the first settlers came by the ship "Margarita" and landed at this place.

    The 340-mile (547 km) long James River is not only the main river of Virginia but the most historic U.S. river as well. The first permanent English settlement of the Americas was founded in 1607 at Jamestown, Virginia, along the banks of the James. Navigation of the James played an important role in early Virginia commerce and the settlement of the interior. The river was called the Powhatan River by Indians.

    The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers formed the cradle of human civilization in the Old World. In the New World, it was the James River which fulfilled that function for America, I think.

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    Treasures of the basement

    by matcrazy1 Updated Dec 13, 2004

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    BERKELEY  BASEMENT

    At the end of our visit to the Berkeley Plantation we visited the basement where food and wine was stored in the past. Nowadays there is an exposition with original hand-hewn joists displayed. Here a model of the early plantation buildings is on view.

    The displayed items unfortunatelly are not signed and there are no explainations on them although some of them are real trasures of the early colonial times.

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    First whiskey destillery in America

    by matcrazy1 Written Dec 8, 2004

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    FIRST  WHISKEY  DESTILLERY  ON  PAINTING

    The first bourbon whiskey in America was destilled in 1621 at the place of Berkeley Plantation. Episcopal missionary, George Thorpe, who produced the beverage declared it "much better than British ale." This event is depicted on the painting which I found in the basement of the Berkeley mansion. Shouldn't Kentucky whiskey be called... Virginia whiskey?

    At the end of my U.S. trip I bought two bottles of Wild Turkey Rare Breed Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey for $50 in duty free shop at Dulles Airport. Well, it's much better than Scotch Johny Walker whiskey, I can say now.

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Charles City Things to Do

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