An Abbreviated History of Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Chapter Ten: Chatham, Gretna, and Danville

By Maud Carter Clement, Chatham, Virginia, ca. 1952.


County Seat, 1777

When Pittsylvania County assumed its present size in 1777, the county seat was located on Hickey's Road, which later developed into the Town of Chatham. Since the change in the location of the court house was made during the Revolutionary War, no court buildings were erected until after the close of the War. In 1782 a white pillared red-brick court house was built facing the present building at the cost of 4,000 pounds of tobacco.

The Town in 1840

Pittsylvania Courthouse was situated in a rich agricultural section, surrounded by large tobacco plantations. The Virginia census of 1840 listed the county as first in the production of tobacco, second in the production of corn, and second in the number of inhabitants, having a population of 26,398.

Young professional men considered it a proper place to seek their fortunes, and doctors and lawyers now settled here. Many were from a distance, such as George and John Gilmer of Albemarle County, James Whittle of Mecklenburg County, Isaac Carrington of Halifax, Dr. Edmund Withers of Campbell and Dr. Benjamin Rives of Buckingham County.

There were three taverns in the town in 1840 for the benefit of the traveling public; the large brick hotel was not built until 1850.


The homes of the county seat were set back from the highway in large groves of forest oaks and chestnuts, and several built at this early period are still standing. The home of Mr. James Poindexter, a merchant and architect, is now the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Hunt Whitehead; the home built by Dr. Robert Coles in 1832 is now the residence of Mr. R. H. Harris. The county seat and the surrounding plantations formed one large pleasant rural community, in which a simple dignified hospitality was practiced.

After the close of the Revolutionary War, the area of fine horsebreeding in Virginia lay along the upper reaches of the Roanoke River, of which Pittsylvania formed a part. In ante-bellum days there were two race courses laid out near Chatham, one to the north on the present Lynchburg road, and the other on the Bellegrove plantation, called the Tunstall paths. Here races and tournaments were frequently held.

Virginia had played so large a part in the founding of our county that the Nation's (July 4) and Washington's birthdays (February 22) were celebrated with many festivities. Washington's birthday coming in the winter, was observed by holding great balls. For these elegant occasions the cakes and wines were ordered down from Baltimore. The Fourth of July, coming in the summer, was the occasion of great gatherings of the citizens from all over the county. There would be patriotic speeches, bountiful dinners with barbecued meats, horse racing and tournaments, followed by a ball in the evening.

Tobacco Industry

Before the formation of the great tobacco trusts Chatham was a tobacco market. There were three warehouses and three factories located here. In the census of 1861 the three tobacco factories were operated by J. H. Hargrave and Son, J. J. Payne, and A. G. Price; and all manufactured chewing tobacco. In 1889 Hargrave's produced 251,520 pounds of chewing plugs.

Chatham's industries today consist of two flour mills, a tag factory, and several large lumber.


Founded 1876

The history of Gretna began with the building of the Virginia Midland Railroad, which was completed in 1876. A railway commission came out from Lynchburg for the purpose of locating depots at the most convenient points. The citizens of the county had been notified, and wherever a group had formed the train came to a stop, the commission got off and heard the citizens put forth their claim for a depot. Upon their return to Lynchburg one member of the party wrote a letter which was published in the Pittsylvania Tribune, expressing their pleasure in the trip, and their amazement at the immense amount of farm produce grown in the northern part of the county. They were also pleased to see so active a lumbering business. Northern Pittsylvania has continued through the years produce an abundance of farm products, for which Gretna is the chief marketing center.

Franklin Junction

The citizens of the county believed so heartily in the railroad as a great aid to their economic life, that by popular subscription they built a branch line to Rocky Mount, Franklin County, which they leased to the Midland Railroad. For this reason the new town took the name of Franklin Junction. After the building of hard surfaced roads the Franklin branch was abolished, and the town then took the name of Gretna.

Sulphur Springs Plantation

The town of Gretna is located on the old Sulphur Springs plantation, once owned by a wealthy old bachelor named John Ward. By the terms of his will, of 1826, he bequeathed his lands, some 10,000 acres, to his two nephews, Dr. Lynch Dillard, and John Ward, Jr. of Edgehill, in the northern part of the county on Staunton River. His seventy slaves he liberated in these brief words: "It is my will that all my slaves now living be free." They were carried to Lawrence County Ohio and settled there.

A large milling plant the Galveston Mills is located here and the population is ________.


Danville was founded in 1793 as a point of tobacco inspection. It was a good location, situated on Dan River where the great mail route leading north and south forded the river. Very soon, a long wooden toll bridge was built across the river which was opened to the public in 1801.

Young professional men thought well of the town, and James D. Patton of Rockbridge County was settled there to practice medicine; and Halcott Townes and William Clark opened law offices there.

With a few families established in the village, and many large plantations nearby in Dan River Valley, a pleasant social life began. A yellowed invitation has been preserved to a Washington Birthnight Ball, given by a young man of the town in 1804. The invitation was issued to Miss Ann Calland and Dr. Henry Calloway of Callands, in the name of the managers, Dr. James Patton and William Clark.

The opening of the Roanoke and Dan Rivers for navigation, and the building of canals around the falls of the rivers, were matters of deep interest to the young town. A basin was provided for the safe moorings of the river batteaux. The town grew, and in 1822 a bank was chartered, and in 1828 a cotton mill was established.

Transportation remained a subject of deep concern, and the men of Danville and the county were vitally interested in building good roads. When the Richmond and Danville Railroad was completed in 1856 it was felt that transportation difficulties had been solved.

War Between the States

On the outbreak of the War Between the States all peaceful development came to an end. Danville became a military post of many activities. Hospitals, arsenals, and commissary departments were established, and many tobacco factories were used to house several thousand Federal prisoners. Redoubts and rifle pits were built on the surrounding hills for the defense of the town.

In the closing days of the Confederacy, when Richmond was evacuated, President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet retired to Danville. Mr. Davis was entertained by Major William T. Sutherlin in his handsome new residence, which now houses the Danville Memorial Library.

Tobacco Industry

After the close of the war the tobacco industry was revived, and the town rapidly developed into a great tobacco market. The demand for the fragrant yellow Virginia Leaf brought in buyers, and in 1885 there were 122 leaf dealers on the Danville market. Strong local firms of leaf dealers were organized, like Dibrell Brothers, Pemberton and Penn, J. M. Edmunds and Co., and many others. Danville was recognized as the largest bright loose leaf market in the world, and in 1899 sold 54,107,580 pounds.

In 1880 two new cotton mills were established, the Riverside and the Morotock. Later these mills and the Schoolfield mill all consolidated under the name of the Dan River Mills.

The Danville Knitting Mill was established in 1900 and is still thriving and successful.

Danville has three hospitals and is the medical center for a large area of…. [Editor's note: in the discovered copy of the manuscript, the text ends here. It is thought that the original contained considerably more information at this point.]


Related Book

(Available from the sponsor.)

History of Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Maud Carter Clement: History of Pittsylvania County, Virginia (1929)

This website is sponsored by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House, Chatham, Virginia. (See also guides to Pittsylvania County, Chatham, and Danville.)