In addition to its stately courthouse, beautiful homes and quaint restaurants, Chatham has quite a colorful history…Take this walking/driving tour through the ages and see for yourself!
The tour begins in the center of Chatham at the Pittsylvania County Courthouse, 1 North Main Street, which was erected in 1853. Note the bronze plaque that hangs outside on the wall at the northwest corner of the building. The inscription tells the visitor that the courthouse was designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service in 1987 in commemoration of the bicentennial of the founding of the U.S. Constitution.
The designation came from the fact that the courthouse contained the office of County Judge J. Doddridge Coles who was arrested by a U.S. marshal on a bench warrant issued by a federal district judge in Danville in March of 1879. Judge Coles was charged with violation of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution when he failed to include the names of African-American men on jury lists. Judge Coles took his case (Ex Parte Virginia) to the U.S. Supreme Court and a landmark civil rights decision that upheld the action of the federal judge was handed down on March 15, 1880.
If court is not in session, the visitor may view the beautiful and well-preserved courtroom where portraits of notable and historically important county people grace the walls. Among these is that of native-born Rachel Donelson, the wife of President Andrew Jackson.
While at the courthouse, one may visit the county clerk's office where unusually good genealogical records are stored. Remarkably detailed and complete deed books, marriage records, court order books, old survey books, land books (tax lists), Civil War muster lists, wills and account current books are a gold mine for those is search of records of their ancestors (see map and index). Most visitors find this clerk's office the very finest they have seen.
From the courthouse, cross Main Street and walk west down along Court Place toward Chatham's Town Hall that faces the courthouse. On the right, you will see, behind a hedge, the Hargrave-Nenon House at 7 Court Place. The earliest portion of this structure was built in the late 1700's. It has undergone several major renovations, and assumed its present form in the 1930's. It was the former home of industrialist/philanthropist J. Hunt Hargrave, for whom Hargrave Military Academy is named (see also further information).
Continue along Court Place and across the street to Chatham's Town Hall.
This late 19th century brick former residence at 16 Court Place was the home of Tredways and Whiteheads before it became the town's offices. The structure sits on the site of an earlier county courthouse.
Behind Town Hall is the 1813 clerk's office, which was restored to its original size and shape and dedicated in 1986. The 1813 clerk's office houses a mini museum that contains artifacts dating back to the American Revolution.
However, its most valuable and well-preserved items are of Civil War vintage. For example, the visitor can view the well-preserved uniform of Lt. Col. Rawley Martin, CSA, whose home will be seen later.
The 1813 clerk's office is the regular meeting place of the Pittsylvania Historical Society, which maintains the property and was responsible for its restoration. Behind the museum is the beautiful and well-equipped town park, which is a busy place in the summer. The park was completed almost solely by volunteer labor, and is named for local author and civic leader Frances Hurt.
Leaving Town Hall, the 1813 Clerk's Office, and Frances Hurt Park, turn left onto Whittle Street and proceed down the hill. In a short distance, the street appears to fork; take the left fork which is the continuation of Whittle Street.
You have now entered “Whittletown,“ originally known as Chatham's “Whittleton” suburb and named for its developer, James M. Whittle, an attorney, railroad promoter, and state senator. The lower end of Whittle Street was once a cobblestone drive leading to the house at 242 Whittle Street which Whittle built in 1875 for his daughter and son-in-law, Matoaka and William Sims.
The house was built in the Italian villa style, utilizing techniques of insulation and passive solar design that were advanced for its time, and is possibly the only residence in Virginia with flat exterior siding made of shortleaf pine. Its occupant William E. Sims, a nationally-known pro-civil-rights political figure, was forced into exile because of controversies including the above-mentioned Ex Parte Virginia court case and a tragic riot in nearby Danville during his campaign for state senate. Later the house served successively as the main building for both of Chatham's prep schools. Present owners Henry and Patricia Mitchell operated a bed and breakfast here for over two decades.
From the Sims-Mitchell House at the end of Whittle Street, retrace your path back up Whittle Street. Bear right at the curve, then a short distance uphill turn left on Military Drive. Proceed a short block to the Pittsylvania County Public Library, on the left.
Here is located a rather remarkable genealogical section and many volumes on Pittsylvania County history. These books cover subjects from the Revolution to modern times by county historians whose works have been published from 1929 to present. The lover of fiction will also find an historical novel or two based on county history. A score or more of non-circulating local family histories are permanently on file. The periodical and reading sections are well-equipped and relaxing.
Leaving the Pittsylvania County Public Library, turn left onto Military Drive and continue north for one block. Here Military Drive merges with the circular front drive on the spacious grounds of Hargrave Military Academy. The school was founded in 1909 as a boys' training school. Its classrooms are now co-ed and the institution has developed into one bearing credentials of academic excellence.
The visitor will also want to take a peek at Owen Cheatham Chapel and at the aquatic center that boasts one of the best Olympic-size pools on the East Coast. It is the site of many aquatic meets.
From the Hargrave Military Academy campus, depart from the far outer (front) point of the circular drive, eastward on Hargrave Boulevard toward Main Street. A half-block up the hill, on the right at 24 Hargrave Boulevard, is Ingleside.
Ingleside faces in the direction of Main Street, which means that the visitor sees the house from one side rather than the front. Ingleside (Scottish for “fireside”) was built in 1844 by Dr. Chesley Martin, and thus became the boyhood home of Dr. Martin's son Rawley White Martin, who as a young man served as commanding officer of the 53rd Virginia Infantry, C.S.A., and whose gallantry during Pickett's Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg is legendary. We will see Col. Martin's home later on this tour.
Later the boys' school now called Hargrave Military Academy moved from the Sims-Mitchell House (seen earlier on this tour) to this building for a few years, before again moving to the hilltop just west, where the campus is today. For many years Ingleside has been the Tucker family home.
Ingleside is one of three physicians' homes of the antebellum period which are clustered together here at the north end of the early Pittsylvania Courthouse village. To see the other two, move east along Hargrave Boulevard a very short distance, and turn left onto Main Street.
On the left side, at 216 North Main Street, is the house Dr. Richard White built in 1837, or perhaps remodeled from a house of a generation earlier. It faces south, toward the center of town, rather than to the street. Through much of its history it has been occupied by members of the Hurt family, and that is true today: the Robert Hurts.
On the right side of the street, also facing south and onto Gilmer Terrace, is the 1832 home of Dr. Robert Coles, who was a cousin of first lady Dolley Madison. Dr. Coles arranged to have the road moved in order that his new house sit where he wanted it within the grove of oak trees, thus North Main Street today still swings in a wide curve around the house. The current owners are Mr. and Mrs. Henry Hurt.
Speaking of the name Hurt, continue north for a short block past the Old Dutch Supermarket, and turn right onto Hurt Street. Hurt street becomes Chalk Level Road as you leave the town of Chatham and cross the U.S. 29 bypass. Just shortly beyond the bridge over the bypass, prepare to see Eldon on your left.
The oldest section of Eldon, at 1037 Chalk Level Road, was erected in the 1830's by the prominent James Whittle, who became wealthy from land, timber, and lawyering in antebellum days.
However, the most famous of Eldon's owners was Claude Augustus Swanson. He was a state legislator, U.S. Congressman, Virginia Governor, U.S. Senator, and Secretary of Navy under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Swanson acquired the Eldon at the turn of the century and used it as a summer home.
Later owners have included members of the Whitehead family, Mr. and Mrs. Bob Lemm, and now Wayne and Alice Wilson.
Reversing course, re-cross the U.S. 29 bypass bridge. You will soon see an open field to the left, utilized by Chatham Hall for equestrian purposes. Slow and look down the next lane to see if you can glimpse Mansfield.
Mansfield, Chatham's oldest residence was Richard Farthing's home in 1777 when it served temporarily as the county courthouse. At that time Hurt Street, on which you have been traveling, was Hickey's Road, the main east-west thoroughfare in this frontier region.
After the Civil War, Mansfield was the home of Judge Doddridge Coles, of Ex Parte Virginia fame, until he built a larger home on Main Street. Mansfield is currently a Chatham Hall faculty residence.
To see the central campus of Chatham Hall, continue on Hurt Street around a sweeping curve and uphill, then turn left on Peach Street. Follow Peach Street for three blocks until it intersects with Pruden Street, then turn left across the Tanyard Branch bridge and proceed uphill, bearing left to proceed around the circular drive.
Chatham Hall was established in 1894. A view of its well-kept grounds and elegant neoclassical buildings are worth the visit. The postcard view from the 1920's at right, of Pruden Hall, is evidence of the remarkable continuity of the school and its structures and grounds.
Those with interest in horses will marvel at the modern and well-equipped equine center that contributes enormously to the well-rounded school curriculum. Saint Mary's Chapel is the scene of many weddings and religious ceremonies and Lee Library not only serves the school, but the entire community as well. A drive by the charming rectory may lead one to believe that it is the most beautiful residence in Chatham.
To leave the campus, proceed around the circular drive clockwise, sequentially past Pruden Hall, Dabney Hall, the Lee Library, St. Mary's Chapel, and the rectory, and go down the hill back down across the Tanyard Branch bridge. Then move straight ahead, up the hill on Pruden Avenue, and turn left on Reid Street.
About a half block from Pruden Avenue, on the left side at 117 Reid Street, is the Reid-Bruning House. Built in the Queen Anne style in 1901 for the Reid family, it is Chatham's largest residence. It is currently the home of the Bruning family.
Continue along Reid Street for another half block. Turn right on Halifax Road, and within a few feet turn left on South Main Street. The Columns will be immediately on your right.
At 214 South Main Street is The Columns. The original part of this house was constructed by influential James Whittle (he appears again!), and it was expanded around 1900 to its present impressive form by the Tredway family.
The Columns (see their website) is the oldest continuously-operating of Chatham's several bed and breakfasts. The current owners and genial hosts are Fred and Sandra Turner.
Continue south for about another block to see Oak Hall, on the right side of South Main Street.
Oak Hall, at 42 Franklin Place, sits on a hill overlooking the intersection of Franklin Place and South Main Street. A Virginia historical marker is positioned on the near side of the lawn.
The mansion was originally built by Chatham merchant James Poindexter in 1837. It later became the home of physician Lt. Col. Rawley Martin, who led Company I (known as the Chatham Greys) of the 53rd Virginia Regiment up Cemetery Ridge in Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg. He and his men had the distinction of reaching the most advanced Confederate position in the battle, but were forced to retreat after losing most of their number as dead and wounded.
Subsequent owners have included Mr. and Mrs. Hunt Whitehead, Commander and Mrs. Richard Arey, and Lewis and Bland Wall.
Now turn back north on Main Street, toward the center of town. Immediately on your right is the Whitehead-Craik House.
The Whitehead-Craik House at 335 South Main Street was built around 1884 by John Richard and Sallie Graves Whitehead.
The building remained in the Whitehead family for over a century. Currently An Inn for All Seasons, a full-service accommodation, it is owned by Anna Martin Craik and managed by John and Gayle Hudert.
Continue north on Main Street, past the courthouse, and stop at the parking lot two buildings north of the courthouse on the right side, to see the Civil War Trails marker and kiosk there.
Here is the site of Chatham's Civil War rifle factory. The Bilharz-Hall facility provided rifles to the Confederate army during 1862-1864. Surviving examples of Bilharz-Hall weapons are extremely rare and costly.
Note the explanatory signs and a kiosk containing area visitors' information.
Continue five buildings to the north and turn right on Lanier Avenue. The final site on this tour is the Wier-Mauger House, a brick building a short distance on your right.
The Wier-Mauger House, at 25 Lanier Avenue, is a remarkable example of Federal architecture, and perhaps Chatham's best-preserved early home. It was built around 1830 by Chatham merchant Hugh Wier.
Over a century later it was rescued and restored by Reginald and Anna Whitehead Kenney. Subsequent owners have been the Dr. Hugh Willis family, and now Phil and Pam Mauger.
This webpage is sponsored by Mitchells Publications.
Copyright © 1998 Herman Melton; revisions copyright © 2006 Henry Mitchell.