Berry Hill, the Seat of the Hairstons

By Alfred Varley Sims, 1923.

Oak Ridge

Berry Hill, Pittsylvania County, is one of the Colonial places of Virginia, probably the oldest place equally far inland. It was the home of the Hairston family, who originally inherited it from the Perkins’, into which family the Hairstons’ ancestors married. It has never been sold, but has passed down from the original grant from the King of England only by successive wills for about three hundred years, and is now the property of Mrs. Ruth Hairston Sims, who inherited it from her great-grandmother. It is located on Dan River, in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, and Rockingham County, North Carolina, and happens to be at the point where the Colonial army, under General Greene, crossed this river in his famous strategic retreat before the army of General Cornwallis after the battle of Guilford Courthouse.

After effecting the crossing of Dan River under great difficulty, General Greene camped his army on the river bank, where he prepared to, and did, offer resistance to his pursuers. The heavy rains under which this crossing was effected caused the river to rise abnormally and cover the extensive bottom lands, forcing General Greene's army to move back on the flat land. Cornwallis' forces drew up on the bluff on the right, or south, bank of Dan River, from where his artillery opened fire. The Berry Hill house, in which General Greene had taken up his headuarters, overlooked this crossing and battlefield, and in the cannonading the old outside chimney that served General Greene's room was struck but not wholly destroyed, and was later successfully repaired.

There has been some controversy as to the exact spot on Dan River at which General Greene's crossing was effected, but this was finally settled in 1896 when the unprecedented severe freshet covered the entire bottom, washing the land and exposing not only the smoked stones that had been used around the campfires of General Greene's soldiers, but the remains of some of the old revolutionary muskets, as well as bullets, bullet-moulds and lead. Incidentally, the fact that these pieces of equipment were left, would indicate that the retreat of General Greene's men to the higher flatland adjoining the bottoms was due to fire from across the river as well as to the rising water. The high water that occurred at this time evidently buried these articles, and succeeding freshets covered them deeper and deeper, until they were between three and four feet under ground. The successive layers of this covering were clearly discernible when the freshet of 1896 scoured the land away down to the original level of the date of General Greene's crossing.

It may be of interest to remark that at the time of General Greene's crossing the land on which he camped was a clover field. This fact was evidenced from the circumstance that after this three to four feet of earth was washed away the land soon became covered with clover, sprouted from the seed that had lain buried for over a century — incidentally proving that the seeds of some plants retain their vitality indefinitely if sufficiently far under the surface of the soil.

The original house was made entirely of hewed lumber, even the flooring having been made of puncheons split out of logs from the original forest. Some of these puncheons are still in place. The oldest part of the house was added to some time before the Revolutionary War. The laths were rived, and the nails used to fasten them were made one by one, by hand, in a blacksmith shop. Grass was used as a binder for the plaster. In about 1806 the so-called “new part” was added. The gable end of this part, with the outside chimney, is shown in one of the views of the north side of the house. The last addition, which is shown with the porch extending around it, was made by the present owner in 1911.

On the west side of the house is the garden, which is still surrounded by its ivy-covered stone wall. The eight beds composing this garden are each surrounded with the dwarf variety of boxwood, much of which is now over six feet high. Of this boxwood hedge there is almost a half mile. To the west of the garden adjoining it is the old Hairston family cemetery.

The summer-house is built of hewed locust and, though small, yet picturesque, is one of the older structures, though its exact age is not known. It is known, however, that about 1840 the ten older members of the Hairston family were at that time speculating as to what previous ancestor had built it.


This webpage is sponsored by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House, Chatham, Virginia.