Out in the wilds of Campbell County near Long Island, one can leave the main road, turn down a dead-end gravel lane and end up in the early 19th century.
"This is not Colonial Williamsburg but it has a lot of interesting things," said Karen Gorham-Smith, who owns Green Hill Plantation with her husband, Stewart Smith.
Green HIll is listed as a Virginia Historic Landmark and the owners recently received a $45,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. The award will be used for the outbuildings which the owners say are most in need of repair.
"They award money to stabilize endangered buildings," said Karen, who said she tried not to think about the ultimate cost of restoring the plantation. "I feel that we're caretakers of this place instead of owners. We will restore it as authentically as possible."
Stewart said that doing so may take the rest of their lives but neither of them seem concerned. "It's kind of like camping," said Karen, a special education teacher for Chatham Elementary School. Karen said she hopes having summers off will give her time to do research and restoration work.
"She wanted an old farmhouse, and I wanted a plantation, said Stewart. "So it kind of merged together."
Karen and Stewart have done research on Green Hill and its builder, Samuel Pannill, both locally and at the National Library of Congress. According to them, it was one of the largest slave plantations in Virginia. At the time of his death 1864, the plantation included 5,000 acres and 244 slaves.
"A lot of people would associate negative connotations with Green Hill since it was a plantation" said Karen. "That is a part of our history. It's basically negating our past if we obliterate representations of the old South. We've learned lessons from our past, and this is a reminder."
A slave block and auctioneer's stand remain in the yard. Pannill dealt heavily in the slave trade and also was founder and president of Roanoke Navigation Company, named after the nearby river, now called the Staunton.
Pannill, along with friends Patrick Henry and George Cabell, helped establish the town of Brookneal. He also served in the Virginia General Assembly.
The plantation was set up as a self-sustaining community. Still standing around the house are a loomhouse, kitchen, a laundry, a granary, an ice house, a dairy (also known as the office), and a duck house.
It is not known whether the duck house was actually used for ducks or whether the name stems from the low doorway and having to "duck" to enter. Also visible are the remains of a huge stone stable, tobacco barn, and carriage house. These buildings were known as "upper town".
Pannill also ran a merchant store with the goods brought back by his barges, and a flour mill. Flour was shipped by bateaux to North Carolina. According to Stewart's research, a chapel and about 200 slave cabins completed this area which is known as "lower town". Only one cabin remains.
Also at lower town, a toll bridge spanned the river, the main point of crossing. The bridge was burned at the end of the Civil War by cadets who, seeing the Confederate men marching home could not believe Lee had surrendered, and were afraid that the Yankees were in pursuit.
The buildings are still enclosed by stone walls made from brown stone that was dry-laid using no mortar. The stone came from Pittsylvania County across the river. Stone walkways, now partially overgrown with grass, lead everywhere around the plantation.
Many people are not aware that Green Hill exists, despite the fact that it is on the National Register of Historic Places.
"It hasn't been well-known for almost two generations," said Karen.
Most recently from Richmond, the Smiths enjoy the quiet of 435 acres and the challenge of restoration. Currently they are raising beef cattle and working with soil conservationists to reseed pine trees and get the land back in good shape. Previous owners of the house also left bee hives and they are learning how to harvest honey.
Karen and Stewart are also looking forward to staying put in one place. Karen moved a lot because her father was in military intelligences. Stewart, a real estate investor, has made a living fixing up houses and selling them.
Having an old house that was abused for years lends its own problems. Stewart said one day recently Karen went down into the basement to check a fuse and he heard her gasp. Turns out she had spotted a black widow spider and was backing away only to back into a black snake.
While they have plenty of wild creatures, they said they have not seen or heard any ghosts, possibly because there are no real tragedies surrounding the place.
"I really wish there was a ghost," Karen said. "A nice one."
They are planning to do most of the work rather than rely on professionals. "I couldn't wait to get this place fixed up. We had to get in it," she said.
"I've found that expert help isn't really expert help. Anybody's guess is as good as mine. There's not a good body of knowledge, in my opinion, on the restoration of antiquities.
Green Hill has not had a lot of modifications over the years which makes it particularly attractive from a historical angle. The rear wing of the L-shaped home is believed to have been built in 1797 and the two-story front section added later.
The house was built from red brick, some of which was likely made and fired on the plantation. It is simple, almost austere especially considering the wealth of Pannill.
"The house is in real good condition for its age," said Karen. "We're fortunate that it's semi-pristine."
"many of the original window panes remain. The glass of that time had bubbles and imperfections which give a slightly wavy appearance and view. However, the windows allow a lot of sunlight to penetrate making the interior bright and airy.
The interior floor plan follows the typical Georgian house, consisting of a center hall, flanked by the parlor and the dining room on the first floor, two bedrooms on the second floor, and a large first floor room in the rear of the house with a smaller bedroom above it. Three flights of stairs lead to each of the second floor rooms because they are not connected. It was the custom of the time to separate male and female family members and to have a separate wing for guests.
There are also three unfinished rooms in the basement and two unfinished attic rooms.
Most of the rooms are plain, but a point of interest is the carved double mantle piece reaching to the parlor ceiling. On either side is a bookcase with blue, etched glass panes that also extends to the ceiling.
Also interesting is the chair-rail high paneling which is made from single boards three feet wide and 21 feet long. The woodwork is pine, originally stained to look like cherry but covered more recently with layers of paint that Karen and Stewart want to remove.
Removing the paint will be no easy task. Besides the danger of lead-paint poisoning, removal is tedious and time-consuming, especially in carved areas.
They also want to remove the vinyl floor covering and restore the heart-of-pine boards underneath.
The original kitchen was outside but a more recent owner had three kitchens installed inside. Other things added were carbide lights, then electricity. There is still no central heat, one thing they would like to add if it can be done unobtrusively.
Karen said they will not add closets as people of the period usually had fewer clothes and kept them in wooden wardrobes.
One of the conitions of the grant is that they not disturb the historic atmosphere of the property, and that any additions be as authentic as possible.
Karen said the Historic Resources Department is realistic when it comes to requirements. For instance, they do not require that the working kitchen be outside.
As part of the grant, they have to open it to the public at least one day a year. They are also considering having a small bed and breakfast operation in the future.
Ann Miller of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources said they are excited to be a part of the effort to restore Green Hill.
"There just aren't properties with the diversity of structures that are there. It really gives you a complete picture of what life and agricultural practices were like at that time."
Copyright © 2001 Patricia B. Mitchell.