Surry’s Stalwart

Bacon’s Castle celebrates its 350th anniversary.

Driving down a dirt lane near Smithfield in Surry County, just a short detour from a stretch of road on Route 617 called Bacon’s Castle Trail, you might think you’ve stumbled onto a movie set. The structure standing before you is an imposing and incongruous display of idyllic 17th-century Englishness in the middle of hog country.

Fashioned in the shape of a cross, its three diamond-turned chimneys standing sharp like palace guards and buttressed by striking Flemish gables, Bacon’s Castle is the oldest surviving brick house in America, and maybe Virginia’s most underappreciated architectural landmark.

 “When Arthur Allen built the home, in 1665, this was very much the frontier,” says Louis Malon, director of preservation services at Preservation Virginia, which owns and operates Bacon’s Castle as a historic site and museum. It is assumed that a kiln was set up and the house’s bricks were fired on site (75 percent of the original stone remains).

Allen, a tobacco merchant, man of means and eventual justice of the peace, had arrived in Jamestown from Droitwich, Worcestershire, England, and patented this land in 1649. He set himself up on 2,000 acres, some of it acquired through an agreement with the crown to transport other English citizens to populate the colonies. Among those he brought over for a reward of 50 acres a head were three indentured servants and his future wife Alice Tucker.

In the wilderness between Lawnes and Chippokes Creeks, Allen became, in many ways, America’s first suburbanite. He commuted to civilization by boat across the James River, and his out-in-the-sticks house, fashioned in the architectural style of an earlier England, was like the first McMansion. “I don’t know if he would be the first,” Malon says, laughing at this blunt analogy. There were a few brick homes built earlier in the fledgling colonies, he says, each announcing prestige and power in a land where timber was plentiful. “But Allen was in the leading wave of people who were moving out into the land. It was the first impulse to go where there was more space. He just did it better than anybody else. His house survived.”

The 5,100-square-foot home is one of only three examples of high Jacobean architecture in the western hemisphere—the other two are in Barbados. Bacon’s Castle has the region’s oldest standing smokehouse, dating from 1701, and is also the site of America’s earliest extant English-style pleasure garden, dating back to 1680, a discovery that forever changed what was known about early American gardening when it was made in 1983. It was the first garden excavation to make the front page of the New York Times.

 “The main thing about the Bacon’s Castle garden is the design of it,” says Margaret Page Bemiss, author of the book, Historic Virginia Gardens: Preservation Work of the Garden Club of Virginia. “It was twice the size of a football field.” Spearheaded by archaeologist Nicholas Luccketti, the dig revealed a very large English Renaissance design: walking paths running north to south, crosswalks joining east to west and shady nooks (or exedras, a Roman feature) offering places to, as Bemiss says, “have a tryst.”

Historians have attributed the complex garden to Allen’s second son, Arthur II, known as Major Allen. He inherited the estate after his father died in 1669 and also became a justice of the peace. He’d later serve in the House of Burgesses. Educated in England, Major might have been familiar with the pleasure gardens popular there. “They regarded themselves as Englishmen; this was an upper middle class English house,” says Will Rieley, landscape architect for the Garden Club of Virginia. “They would have grown mainly fruits and vegetables and ornamental plants that would have been found in England. Appreciation for native plants didn’t come until much later.” The excavation showed that it wasn’t just a vegetable garden. Says Rieley, “The width of the paths, these wide sand paths, clearly showed that this was a garden with ornamental pretensions and not just a practical garden.”

It wasn’t the only pleasure garden in the colonies. “The most famous garden in the area would have been at Governor William Berkeley’s home at Green Spring [near Williamsburg],” Rieley says. That garden is now gone, as is Berkeley’s own distinctive manor house. But a 1790s rendering of the estate by Benjamin Latrobe showed “six squares just like the Bacon’s Castle garden and off to the side of the house in exactly the same relationship. Allen and Berkeley were political allies, so it’s not a surprise that their gardens would be similar.”

The grounds are still revealing secrets. In May, Preservation Virginia restorers uncovered a brick chimney and other remnants of a huge structure—like parts of an ancient kitchen—that date from the late 1600s.

In 1676, a fiery Henrico County aristocrat named Nathaniel Bacon decided to take up arms against his cousin, Berkeley, when the governor refused to react to a series of attacks by Indian tribes. Bacon gathered a ragtag force of several hundred men—locals, indentured servants and even some fellow tobacco planters—and burned down the capital of Jamestown.

Several rebels, commanded by Major Allen’s brother-in-law, Arthur Long, seized the loyalist home in Surry for use as a base, sending Major Allen and his family to hide out on the Eastern Shore. Other prominent houses, including Green Spring, were also occupied during the conflict, which lasted until January 1677. Historians have debated Bacon and his rebellion ever since.

 “He was resisting the Colonial power, we like that part,” says Malon. “But he was trying to win a commission to go out and kill Native Americans. That, we aren’t sure we like.” He sighs: “It’s a complicated story, which is the nicest way to put it. It was exactly 100 years before the American Revolution and it was the first impetus that we will make our own rules … we didn’t want to let the British authorities tell us what we could or could not do.”

The name “Bacon’s Castle” first popped up in the public record in 1802, more than a hundred years after the uprising fizzled out. Nathaniel Bacon, who would die of dysentery during the conflict, never even set foot in the place. “We try to show all of the different layers, including Bacon’s Rebellion” says Joanna Braswell, Preservation Virginia site coordinator.

Preservation Virginia, formerly the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, maintains several important historic properties, including the original Jamestown settlement, a ferry ride away from Bacon’s. The oldest state preservation society in America, the group acquired the home in 1973 and opened it a decade later.

The official tour addresses the long and expansive history of the place, not just its brush with proto-revolution. The story isn’t one of violence (the home went curiously untouched during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars) but changing life in America throughout the centuries. Some of it is told through exquisite objects, like an 1838 love poem diamond-etched into a windowpane, written by Dr. Robert Emmet Robinson to his wife Indiana. They were among the last descendants of Arthur Allen to live in the house.

Some former occupants left powerful traces. Elizabeth Bray, who married Major Allen’s son, Arthur III, outlived him and two other husbands (including Arthur Smith, the namesake of Smithfield), and even her own children. Elizabeth formed a local school, and was shrewd in business and in love, agreeing to marriage only if her suitors signed pre-nuptial agreements stipulating that she held the larger fortune. During her 60 years in the house, she was the first to make significant changes to its interior, such as adding the center passageway.

In the 1840s, John Henry Hankins, a prosperous planter with a large family, moved in. Hankins connected a neo-classical addition to the house and removed the former right section, which is now the caretaker’s cottage. The so-called Over the Hall chamber on the second floor, which also served as a child’s bedroom, has been stripped of wallpaper to reveal fascinating 19th-century graffiti. Wine bottles found with the “A.A.” seal are on display in the cellar—many empties were excavated on the grounds, remnants of the occupation—and reveal that the Allens were avid early vintners.

The remaining slave house dates to 1829, one of many that stood on the property. The home housed African slaves as early as 1680. “One of the main topics we talk about is the history of indentured servants and the transition to race-based slavery at the turn of the 18th century,” says Braswell. “Bacon’s Rebellion is kind of a pivotal point in that history.”   

Today, on the home’s 350th anniversary, the talk is as much about money as history. Preservation Virginia officials say they need $350,000 to help restore Bacon’s Castle. The brick needs repointing with delicate hand chisels. The copper valley sheathing and existing mortar need replacing. The security system needs upgrading too, and there’s repainting to be done. But most of all, the old girl needs a new roof. A challenge grant of $88,000 from the Robert G. Cabell, III and Maude Morgan Cabell Foundation has prompted a matching fundraising campaign.

As a museum and historic site, the house attracts 6,500 visitors a year—in tourism terms, Surry County is still the frontier.

“A lot of different people come here,” Braswell says. “Some are interested in the architecture or the garden, some want to know what life was like back then. And we do get a lot of people coming off the boat from Jamestown.”

For more on Bacon’s Castle, go to PreservationVirginia.org

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