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Oak Ridge History

Updated on July 16, 2017

National Register of Historic Places

The nomination for Oak Ridge to be placed on the Virginia Landmarks Register was accepted by the Virginia State Review Board and the Historic Review Board. This should be accepted by the National Park Service for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places by fall.

Oak Ridge was founded in the 1770s by Sylvester Adams

This is a brief history of the owners of Oak Ridge from its founding, to the construction of the current plantation home, through the last of the Wilsons in 1939 and the families that have maintained it since it was a self-sufficient plantation. It encompasses the evolution of the local economy in Southside Virginia, the founding of Danville, and the prosperity that tobacco built.

An Antebellum Tobacco Plantation Then and Now

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Especially on moonlit nights, the spirits of Oak Ridge can send shivers down your spine. Sometimes, in the mist, JEB Stuart's plume dancesThe Kitchen house was separate, to keep the odors away from the house (as well as the risk of fire)Snow is rare, but not unheard of in Southside.Boxwoods after a sumer showerA double rainbow over the pastureSpringtime is especially beautiful, with redbuds, dogwoods and bridal wreath
Especially on moonlit nights, the spirits of Oak Ridge can send shivers down your spine. Sometimes, in the mist, JEB Stuart's plume dances
Especially on moonlit nights, the spirits of Oak Ridge can send shivers down your spine. Sometimes, in the mist, JEB Stuart's plume dances
The Kitchen house was separate, to keep the odors away from the house (as well as the risk of fire)
The Kitchen house was separate, to keep the odors away from the house (as well as the risk of fire)
Snow is rare, but not unheard of in Southside.
Snow is rare, but not unheard of in Southside.
Boxwoods after a sumer shower
Boxwoods after a sumer shower
A double rainbow over the pasture
A double rainbow over the pasture
Springtime is especially beautiful, with redbuds, dogwoods and bridal wreath
Springtime is especially beautiful, with redbuds, dogwoods and bridal wreath

Restoration of the Plantation - You don't own a place like Oak Ridge, you are but a steward for the next generation

If you are interested in the construction of old houses of this era, and the challenges of restoring them you may find this website interesting.

Topographical map of the Dan River
Topographical map of the Dan River

Settlements along the Dan River

Peter Wilson and his wife, Ailsy emigrated from Scotland and were among the pioneer settlers in this area in the 1720s. The Indians named the Dan River “Morotock,” meaning “shining river.” This country was described as a veritable “land of Eden” by William Byrd when he surveyed his purchase in 1728. Mr. Byrd’s account of that survey is still in print. Peter Wilson built his home at Dan’s Hill, which was later replaced with the extant brick manor by his grandson. Mr. Wilson was a farmer, a surveyor, a vestryman and earned the rank of Captain of the Colonial Militia in 1759, during the French and Indian War. He started a ferry across the Dan River which was a profitable enterprise, since there were no bridges across the River at that time. The ferry continued in operation until 1902 when the textile mill in Danville dammed the river.

Peter Wilson’s descendants founded or married the founders of all the plantations along the Dan River west of Danville. Berry Hill was built by Peter Perkins in the 1740s on 1,200 acres given to Peter Wilson’s daughter, Agnes upon her marriage. Peter’s grandson Nathaniel married Winifred Tunstall and founded Belle Grade, on the south bank of the river. Another grandson founded Laurel Cliff on the South side of the river. Peter’s great grand-daughter, Agnes John Peter Wilson, married Samuel Hairston who founded Oak Hill. Samuel Pannil Wilson, a great grandchild, founded Windsor in the 1850s.

Oak Ridge: Origin

Sylvester Adams acquired the plantation lands

Sylvester Adams is listed in the tax records of Pittsylvania County for 1782 as owning 4,450 acres. In the Library of Virginia are listed Land Office Grants to Mr. Adams by Governor Jefferson in 1780 referring to grants which total 2,208 acres. Presumably he had acquired considerable property prior to the Revolution which accounts for the difference. It is difficult to place the land described in these grants, but one shares a boundary with that of Mr. Wilson, as well as the Dan River.

There is a contemporary description by a Methodist Bishop named Francis Asbury of his circuit ministry in which he mentions that, in April, 1791, “I spent the evening with George Adams, a true son of a worthy father, Sylvester Adams, for kindness towards preachers” following a sermon at Watson’s Church, suggesting Sylvester had passed away. Sylvester’s original house was built about a mile closer to the river, in what is now Oak Ridge Farms subdivision, presumably near the cemetery there.

George married Peter Wilson’s daughter, Isabella, and they had four children. John and Peter moved away with their patrimony, and the youngest two, George, Jr. and William, inherited the plantation. William died young, of typhoid fever, leaving George Jr. heir.

Construction

New wealth brought new construction and Thomas Day, Cabinetmaker, thrived.

George Adams married Justinia Watkins and they built Oak Ridge in the 1830s. The new prosperity of Danville triggered new construction of many of the earlier Plantations. The decorative woodwork in the house was made by the famous cabinetmaker, Thomas Day. Mr. Day cofounded a cabinet shop in Milton, North Carolina with his brother, and pioneered many modern techniques for increasing the efficiency of cabinetmaking which laid the basis for that industry in North Carolina. Mr. Day was a free black man, and his is one of the few recorded stories of the regressive loss of liberties that free blacks suffered during the decades leading up to the War Between the States. When he was young, he enjoyed all the rights and freedoms any citizen enjoyed. In time the south’s dependency on slave labor bred increasing anxiety about rebellion, which led to increasingly onerous restrictions placed on free blacks. For example, it required an act of the North Carolina legislature for Mr. Day to bring his Virginia bride to live with him in Milton.

Thomas Day was highly successful, was an officer of the Milton Bank and an elder of the Milton Presbyterian Church. His furniture graces many of the finer homes of that era in Virginia and North Carolina, including the Governor’s Mansion, and is highly prized today.

While George and his wife, Justinia built Oak Ridge, they are buried near the original home, about a mile from the present dwelling.

Life on an antebellum plantation

Bright leaf tobacco transformed the economy, with roads, canals and rail traffic

Oak Ridge was a tobacco plantation and depended on slave labor. Successfully managing a plantation was a challenge, involving a knowledge of the factors affecting tobacco prices as well as planning all the diverse activities of successful farming. Master of a plantation was the pinnacle of the social hierarchy of Virginia.

Tobacco was a very demanding crop that took up to 18 months between planting the seedbed and shipping the cured product. Some fields were planted with forage to keep the livestock breeding population through the winter. The most fertile were hilled and planted with hot-house seedlings to begin the process. Through the growing season the tobacco plants were laboriously tended, hoeing weeds and minimizing insect damage. Plants were fertilized with manure from the livestock, ash or bone meal. Specific additives to the fertilizer improved the flavor. As the summer drew down, the first crop of leaves were cut, strung and carried to drying sheds for curing. In a good year several crops of leaves would emerge before the seed head was topped to induce the final burst of foliage. Of course some plants were allowed to develop seeds, to restock for the next year. The leaves were cured at high temperature for a week or more, depending on the method used, under tight tolerances.

The market for tobacco was overland by wagon to Lynchburg, where it could be shipped down the James to Richmond for shipment overseas to make snuff. The Dan River was not a shipping route until a barge canal was built around the Dismal Swamp in 1819. Even then, Danville remained small until the Bank of Virginia arrived in 1830, which catalyzed the growth of tobacco factories producing the distinctly American product: chewing tobacco. When the railroad finally arrived in 1857 Danville’s tobacco market thrived under the supervision of men like James Sutherlin.

In addition to the cash crop, a plantation produced food for all who lived on it and some clothing as well. Cattle, sheep, poultry and pigs were bred in addition to the working animals. Often race horses were part of the stable, if the master had a passion for competing in the point-to-points. As the annual cycle churned, chores rotated from tending the newborn animals to their slaughter in the fall to fill the larders with smoked and corned meats.The gardens supplied vegetables and fruits for the table. Orchards of apples, peaches and pears were also harvested in the fall. Walnuts were used for fabric dyes as well as food. Hickory, pecans and filberts were essential foodstuffs as well.

In 1860 a census was taken of all the slaves in Virginia. Between George Adams and his son-in-law, Dr. John Wilson, there were 112 slaves registered at Oak Ridge. This was far less than the Hairstons, who traded in slaves. When wandering the grounds one can’t help but wonder what life was like under the veil of silence that engulfed the lives of those anonymous slaves.

War brought prosperity to Danville, then bitter tragedy

During the Civil War, the estates along Berry Hill Road converted to food crops to supply Lee’s army. The plantation owners were strong proponents of secession, which they saw as vital for the preservation of their lifestyle. People were thrilled by the exploits of J.E.B. Stuart and the gallant Army of Northern Virginia. Stuart’s sister, Columbia, married Peter Hairston, whose father built Oak Hill, where she lived until her death during labor in 1857. No doubt that dashing cavalry officer was feted at these plantations before and during the war. In time the sweet exultation of 1862 became bitter when the tide turned against the South as the greater resources and persistence of Ulysses Grant gradually exhausted the strength of Lee’s army, and the homes along Berry Hill Rd. were draped in mourning.

There is a rumor that the plantation owners along Berry Hill Rd. conspired with George P. Kane, former police chief of Baltimore, in a desperate plot to kidnap President Lincoln and ransom him in exchange for the Confederacy’s independence. Any truth to the story that the conspiracy originated on Berry Hill Rd. has been lost in the fog of time. But, like the legend of the Danville gold, it stimulates misty thoughts of the shadowy resistance that persisted in the defeated South long after the war was over. Fables of the Knights of the Golden Circle, the derring do of Frank & Jesse James’ gang, and the Ku Klux Klan were all whispers of a storied, if flawed, counterculture to disenfranchise the freed slaves through intimidation and violence. If these rumors are true, the conspirators included the Jones, of Bachelor’s Hall, and Wilsons of Windsor. George P. Kane formed a business partnership with Mr. Jones in Danville for a tobacco factory after the war, before he returned to Baltimore in the 1870s.

George and Isabella Adams had two daughters, Emma, born in 1836, and Mary Eloise. The latter married Robert Dick, of Greensboro, and Emma married her cousin, Dr. John Wilson, who was a grandson of Isabella’s brother, Colonel John Wilson. John Wilson earned the rank of Colonel in the Revolutionary War, and was a delegate to the Convention that framed the US Constitution in 1783. Col. Wilson inherited Dan’s Hill and was prominent in defining the future of our country and the Danville area. He is a trustee in the original certificate of incorporation for the City of Danville in 1793.

Dr. Wilson’s father, George Wilson, founded Laurel Cliff, across the Dan River. The recurrent trend of marriage between cousins in this family was a deliberate attempt to preserve the heritage of Peter Wilson by keeping the estates in the family. It also hints of a cultural isolation these grandees may have felt that locked them into a failed strategy for survival.

Doctor Wilson's Office
Doctor Wilson's Office

History: Dr. Wilson Takes Charge

Physician and Planter

George Adams left Oak Ridge to his daughter Emma in his Will recorded in November, 1865 shortly before his death. Unlike some of the neighboring plantations, Oak Ridge thrived after the Civil War and the liberation of its slaves, in part because they did not lose any sons in the war, as did the Hairstons and many others.

Her husband, Dr. John Wilson, was a grandson of Peter Wilson, and Emma's cousin. Dr. Wilson graduated from medical school and maintained his medical practice in the office building built for that purpose which is still extant. It is amusing to contrast the social status of physicians now with those days. The surviving papers of Jessie and Lizzie proudly state that he practiced medicine, but never "for hire;" only as a benefice.

Dr. John Wilson

George Adams left Oak Ridge to his daughter Emma in his Will recorded in November, 1865 shortly before his death. The earliest known photograph of the house shows how it looked circa 1870. The scene shows Dr. John Wilson and two daughters, Jessie (born in 1854) and Lizzie (1855). Emma is not visible. While the photograph is not dated, the girls appear to be about 15. Note the color of the house is not white, as it contrasts with the trim around the windows. For many years Oak Ridge was known as the “Pink House.” Unlike some of the neighboring plantations, Oak Ridge thrived after the Civil War and the liberation of its slaves, in part because they did not lose any sons in the war, as did the Hairstons and many others.

Physician and Planter

Dr. Wilson maintained his medical practice, but never “for hire;” only as a benefice. This statement captures the difference in attitudes towards the medical profession then and now. A planter was the pinnacle of the social strata, whereas a physician was a tradesman. This office was built for him to see patients.

The Wilson Sisters Succeed

How difficult was it for women to succeed in the early 20th Century?

Oak Ridge passed to the sisters upon Emma Wilson’s death in 1905. Justin Hall, Lizzie's husband, was also buried in the family plot when he died in 1912, but there is no mention of Jessie’s husband, J. R. Wood. Jessie and Lizzie ran Oak Ridge for 34 years, until their passing, a few months apart, in 1938/39. They, too, are buried in the family plot, facing East to await the resurrection.

During their stewardship the sisters prospered. Given the attitude towards professional women at the time, one can only wonder at the difficulties they faced.

At this time Oak Ridge was still farmed by share croppers. Jean Scearce was born in the cabin which still stands at the bottom of the fields, and remembers the hard life of sharecropping. Rising at 3 AM, the women had to cook the entire day’s meals, because there wasn’t time to stop work to eat. Breakfasted before dawn, they worked as long as there was daylight, to come home to supper at dusk. Water came from a cistern that collected rain, which is all they had to wash and to drink. She remembers dousing in the cistern with her sister, which was strictly forbidden, and holding their breath so their father wouldn’t see they’d broken a cardinal rule. Many ruined cabins dot the byways of this area, stark reminders of the hardscrabble existence where poor families toiled for a pittance.

History: Jessie and Lizzie add the Portico

Last, defiant fling

During their stewardship the sisters prospered. They added the flamboyant Greek portico, the office on the west side and another office to the rear, which encompassed the space between the Servants' Quarters and the main house. At some point the kitchen was moved from the outbuilding to the ground floor of the Servants' Quarters, which was originally a separate building.

At this time Oak Ridge was still farmed by share croppers. Jean Scearce was born in the cabin which still stands at the bottom of the fields, and remembers the hard life of sharecropping. Rising at 3 AM, the women had to cook the entire day's meals, because there wasn't time to stop work to eat. Breakfasted before dawn, they worked as long as there was daylight, to come home to supper at dusk. Water came from a cistern that collected rain, which is all they had to wash and to drink. She remembers dousing in the cistern with her sister, which was strictly forbidden, and holding their breath so their father wouldn't see they'd broken a cardinal rule. Many ruined cabins dot the byways of this area, stark reminders of the hardscrabble existence where poor families toiled for a pittance.

In 1923, an article "The Valley of the Dan" written by Ellen Wilson James was published in a book titled Historic Gardens of Virginia, by Edith Sale. The article includes a brief description of the house and gardens and two photographs, including this one of the house. This is the first photograph showing the large portico and the study on the right of the entrance. The date of the addition is unknown, but we presume it was after their father passed away, in 1920. In addition to the portico, the library was added on the right. There are no pictures of the rear of Oak Ridge at this time, but we think the section splicing the rear of the main house to the building which was once the servants' quarters may have been done at this time as well.

A survey of historic homes in 1936 commissioned as part of the the Works Progress Administration includes a description of Oak Ridge by Mabel Moses, who interviewed the Wilson sisters. This document describes the interior appearance of the house at that time. She notes the sides of the stairs are "sea foam" with white trimming. The wainscoting is marble colored with mahogany trim. The interior walls were repainted a rose color to blend with the woodwork about forty years prior to her visit, according to the recollection of the sisters.

Upon Lizzie's death, in 1939, the 1,490 acres were subdivided into Oak Ridge Farms and the lots sold off by her Executor to settle the estate with her heirs, who were Wilson cousins, including Samuel P. Wilson, of Windsor.

Breakup of the estate and modernization by "Doc" Jones

Doc” E. A. Jones purchased two lots from the estate in 1939, which included the homesite and the lot north of Berry Hill Road. Doc Jones operated two drug stores, one on Main Street in Danville, the other in Schoolfield. It required two years of renovations before the property was modernized so his family could move in. The Wilson sisters had neither electricity nor plumbing, and Annie Jones extensively remodeled the interior. The Jones changed the exterior color to white. Insights into the state of the house were obtained during an interview with Frannie (Jones) Carter in 2009, who grew up at Oak Ridge with her seven siblings.

Doc Jones installed a new water pump to replace the hand dug well used by the Wilsons and enclosed it in the brick well house. Mrs. Jones oversaw the interior decoration. She had a painter redo the faux marble on the stair risers, and purchased the chandeliers from King Chandelier Company in Leakesville. The medallion in the Lady's Parlor was rose colored, reputedly stained with beet juice. Mrs. Jones obtained samples of wallpaper from the attic which she matched to renew the wall coverings. All the rooms were papered. She had the sole upstairs closet converted into a bathroom and attached a second bath to the bedroom above the Lady's Parlor. The kitchen at that time was on the ground floor of the room behind what was then the Breakfast Room. The Jones replaced the wood stove with a modern electric one. Usually the family dined in the Breakfast Room.

On the grounds there was a large grape arbor to the east of the boxwoods containing scuppernong grapes from which Doc Jones made a delicious wine. Annie Jones had an elaborate Rose Garden constructed beside the boxwoods, and was passionate about the gardens in general. Frannie recalls the old Kitchen House was used for curing tobacco, which accounts for its charcoal coating inside. She also remembers two log cabins; one at the bottom of the pasture, the other at the top. The Caretaker's Cottage was present when the Jones moved in. The Ice House was still standing, although they didn't use it.

Mrs. Carter recalls with mirth her encounter with the ghost of Oak Ridge. She and her husband to be, Alan, were sitting in the Library playing phonograph records one evening when they heard footsteps on the stairs. They assumed it was Mrs. Jones, coming down to remind them his curfew had passed, but instead of coming to the Library, the steps went into the Dining Room and closed the door. When asked the next day, her mother denied having come downstairs that night.

Mrs. Jones predeceased her husband, and the house was sold to settle the estate between the eight children in 1952.

Mr and Mrs Hal Rich

Mr. Hal Rich purchased Oak Ridge from the estate of “Doc” Jones. Included with the property was a list of furniture and farm equipment and “one mule.” Mr. Rich was a prominent local entrepreneur who headed an oil distribution business. His wife, Dorothy, was an heiress of the Bassett family, the well known furniture manufacturer and retailer near Martinsville.

Mr. Rich engaged Mr. Hutson Inman, who moved into the Caretaker’s Cottage on the property. Mr. Inman was previously groundskeeper for a golf club in Martinsville which Mr. Rich frequented. Hutson and his wife, Cuma, lived in the Caretaker’s Cottage from 1952 to 1968, where their children were born. He recalls Mr. Rich admitting that he had been trying for years to obtain Oak Ridge, and was proud to have finally accomplished that goal. The whisper is that Mrs. Rich was not so enthusiastic. Among the documents in our possession is a newspaper interview with Mrs. Rich recounting the time her young son, Charles, was abed with a fever. According to Mrs. Rich, the door to the bedroom spontaneously opened, and Charles politely invited the ghost of Dr. Wilson to enter.

One evening, Mr. Inman recalls, he was asked by Mr. Rich and the owner of a local car dealership to start digging in the basement. They were mysterious about what it was they were seeking, but intimated it had something to do with the Danville gold, or some other hidden relic of the final days of the Confederacy. Though he dug down four feet, the only treasure recovered was a rusted sword in its scabbard.

Hutson was both handyman as well as gardener. He installed panelling in the basement under the Dining Room to convert it into a playroom for the youngest Rich son, Charles. He also shored up the joists in the basement under the Lady's Parlor which had termite damage.

Sadly, Mr. Rich only enjoyed Oak Ridge for a few years, succumbing to cancer in 1957. Shortly after, on Christmas Eve 1959, young Charles Rich was killed in an automobile accident.

Mrs. Rich continued to run Rich Petroleum. In 1968 she resolved to sell Oak Ridge and move to town.

Dr. and Mrs. Delos Boyer

Coincidentally, Dr. Boyer was born precisely 100 years after Dr. Wilson, and both attended George Washington University. Lieut. Delos Boyer had been a B-26 “Marauder” bomber pilot in the European Theater of Operations during World War II in the 451st bomb squad. His service was remarkable in that he re-enlisted after reaching his quota. After the war he began a career in medicine at Johns Hopkins University and moved to the Danville Orthopedic Clinic in 1959.

Dr. Boyer was energetic and left an indelible impression on those who knew him. With a family of 9 children, Oak Ridge was crowded during the Boyers’ tenure. The Boyers moved the Kitchen upstairs into what had been the Breakfast Room, and built a sunroom extension on the east side of the kitchen. Phyllis Boyers made few changes to the interior décor.

On the grounds Dr. Boyer built a fiberglass greenhouse which was filled with tropical plants, birds and a monkey. He also transplanted a barn and reassembled it as a riding stable that had 12 stalls. In addition to his medical practice and his family, Dr. Boyer had a passion about putting the energy of detonation from explosives to practical use. The details behind the rationale for these experiments are lost, but he was attempting to exploit something he observed about the behavior of explosives during his bombing runs. The neighbors still remember the occasional, violent blasts that rocked the earth when Dr. Boyer was experimenting. Eventually he gave up his medical practice to focus full time on this work. The mystery deepened when he died in an automobile accident in 1984 during a trip to Oak Ridge, TN.

Dr. Boyer’s estate provided for Phyllis to remain in the home ‘til the end of her days. In time she developed Alzheimer’s dementia, and the house and gardens suffered some neglect during her final years. Hurricane Fran, in 1996, tracked directly through central North Carolina and Virginia and caused considerable damage to Oak Ridge. It levelled half the majestic trees on Cedar Row, and felled the largest oaks. The flooding was also severe and it took three days of steady pumping to empty the basement.

Following Phyllis’ death the Boyer’s estate sold Oak Ridge to Dr. Robert Lenk and his wife, Elaine.

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