The Tie that Binds

Westover, Shirley and Berkeley plantations are living links to our country’s history, but these Colonial-era James River estates are also home to generations of three extraordinary families.  The story of a deep and unique friendship.

Driving down winding Route 5 on my way to Westover Plantation, I’m transported back in time, leaving behind bustling downtown Richmond for bucolic Charles City County, just 35 minutes away.

Dust rolls off my car as I cruise down the tree-lined drive to the 300-year-old Georgian-style home, grassy meadows flanking the road and time-worn sheds dotting the countryside. It’s a cold January morning, but something about the estate radiates warmth—the soft morning light and sweet singsong chirps of birds.

A tangle of kids’ bicycles, a stroller and a swing set come into view in front of the sprawling 13,000-square-foot mansion hemmed by the James River, as I’m greeted by Andrea Fisher Erda and a pair of barking black labs that bound jovially towards my car.

This is where Erda grew up, rode horses, raised lambs. It’s where her family has resided for almost a century now. And it is also a living piece of deep American history, where notable Virginians William Byrd and Richard Bland once lived.

Erda and her husband Rob are raising their three children on the 1,000-acre estate. But they are also working to maintain the historic home’s integrity and preserve one of our nation’s oldest properties.

The Erdas aren’t alone. Next door, at Berkeley Plantation, Andrea’s childhood friend Cary Jamieson and her extended family work to sustain their estate and, just a few more miles down Route 5 at Shirley Plantation, Lauren Murphy Carter and her husband Charles Hill Carter IV uphold his family’s birthright.

From the age of five until she was 18 and left for college, Andrea Fisher Erda lived at Westover with her parents Fred and Muschi Fisher, and her brother Peter. She returned with her husband, a former banker who now runs an energy company, and children Wills, now 9, and twins Henry and Cornelia, 8, in 2012 after two decades away. “You don’t recognize what you have until you are older,” she says.

William Byrd purchased Westover plantation from Richard Bland in 1688, and the house was built sometime between 1737 and 1750 by the Byrd family. The estate was sold out of the family in 1814 and then to seven different owners over 107 years before being purchased in 1921 by Erda’s great-grandfather Richard Crane, the first U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia.

Growing up at Westover, Erda and her family were part of a living exhibit of sorts. Its grounds and gardens are open to the public almost every day of the year, as they have been since they were first opened for Historic Garden Week in 1929. (Tours of the house are by appointment only.)

As part of her family legacy, 42-year-old Erda is next in line as guardian (her brother Peter lives in Boston with his wife and two sons). Her parents bequeathed Westover to her in 2013 and still live on the property in a recently-renovated historic tenant cottage designed by Duncan Lee in the 1920s.

“My parents have been remarkable stewards of Westover for over 35 years, having lived in the house for 33 years,” says Erda. “Moving into another house on the property means they can never quite retire. We are always calling them up with questions about water lines and heating systems and the location of septic tanks. It is ongoing, this operation, and quite frankly, we knew we would continue to need their help and expertise for years. And this was one of the main drivers behind wanting to make sure Rob and I and our children could move in when we did, while my parents were still around.” Plus, she says they wanted to acquaint their children with country life when they were young enough “so that this is their reality.”

As Erda walks me through her home, soaring ceilings, period antiques and oil paintings of family members make me feel as if I’m part of a PBS period drama, but kids’ books, puzzles and family photos scattered throughout—the stuff of modern family life—remind me that, for the Erdas, this is home.

“I think that balance—or trying to find that balance—is really one of the bigger struggles we face here,” says Erda. “I grew up knowing the toll it took on my father who commuted to work every day in Richmond, when he also was needed out here every day to take care of things with my mother and caretaker. The work is endless and while we are young, we get caught up in trying to do it all. The reality is that there is never enough time or money to adequately put into Westover—one just does the best one can do and hopes it’s enough.”

As we talk, looking out at the James, a worker suspended by a lift repairs rotting c. 18th century crown molding and fascia board on the exterior of the home. He will be here for three months.

“We are moms and parents and in the middle of all of this,” says Cary Jamieson, 43, who grew up about three miles down the road from Westover at Berkeley Plantation, and now lives in Richmond. “We have normal lives,” she says, “but we have this rare opportunity to be associated with these very special properties.”

THE BEGINNING

The plantations date back to the early 1600s, when English colonists landed in Jamestowne and moved up the James River establishing settlements. As some of the oldest estates in our country, these properties attract visitors from around the world—nearly 40,000 annually for Berkeley and Shirley, and around 15,000 for Westover.

Berkeley Plantation’s history is linked to the Harrison family—it’s the birthplace of both Benjamin Harrison V, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and 9th U.S. President William Henry Harrison; and the ancestral home of 23rd U.S. President Benjamin Harrison. In 1691 Benjamin Harrison III purchased the land and established the first commercial shipyard on the James River, and shipped tobacco back to England. Benjamin III’s son, Benjamin IV, built Berkeley’s three-story Georgian manor, which was completed in 1726. The property lays claim to a handful of historic firsts: it’s where the first Thanksgiving occurred in 1619, the first bourbon whiskey was distilled in America in the early 1620s, and where the iconic song “Taps” was written in 1862.


Click in the top right corner of each image to expand these timelines of historic events at Berkeley, Shirley and Westover plantations.

Cary Jamieson’s great-grandfather, John Jamieson, a Union drummer boy who had been at Berkeley during the Civil War, purchased the 900-acre plantation in 1907. “The house was completely inhospitable and falling apart at the time,” Jamieson notes (John Jamieson had used the property only to farm and hunt.) It wasn’t until her grandfather Malcolm Jamieson took over the property that the house was restored. Together, Jamieson’s grandfather and grandmother Grace Eggleston, an interior designer, rehabilitated the home. And in the 1940s, the couple, who had a great love for history, opened up Berkeley to the public.

Shirley Plantation dates back to 1613, when it was part of a royal land grant. It was purchased in 1638 by Edward Hill, who established its original 450 acres as a farm—it is the longest-running family-owned business in the country (today, the plantation comprises more than 700 acres). After Elizabeth Hill (Edward Hill III’s daughter) married John Carter (the oldest son of Robert “King” Carter), the couple built the 10,000-square-foot house between 1723 and 1738, and now the 11th generation of Carters—Charles and his wife Lauren, who is expecting twins in March—reside here. Charles’ brother Randy Carter, who lives in Henrico County, is deputy director of Shirley Plantation Foundation, helping to manage the estate’s tourism.

KEEPING HISTORY ALIVE

“Maintenance can get expensive and you want to do it with integrity and authenticity. Our family commitment is to this property,” Erda tells me, grabbing a fireplace poker and tending to embers in the living room’s ornate marble fireplace. I move closer to the fire and cup my hot tea—Westover feels a bit drafty on this 20-degree morning.

Erda tells me they just restored this fireplace’s chimney. Encased in 55 feet of scaffolding, it was repaired over the course of a month, costing the Erdas something like, she says, the price of a nice new car. Estates of this age and size are expensive and laborious to keep up, I hear from all three homeowners. Recent large-scale projects at Westover include building a 1,000-foot seawall and installing a geothermal heating and cooling system, along with replacing the gutters, crown molding and fascia board.

“We could easily spend $500,000 tomorrow, but we don’t have that, so we try to bite off somewhat more ‘manageable’ pieces,” says Erda, noting that upcoming projects include restoring three 18th-century chimneys, along with the ongoing cost of taking care of Westover’s roads, tenant houses and four historic outbuildings.

Annual maintenance costs at Berkeley hover around $100,000, says Jamieson; the family tackles at least three major projects each year.

“You have to prioritize,” says Shirley Plantation’s Lauren Murphy Carter. “We have a maintenance list that is ongoing. And every year we [plan] what are we going to accomplish.”

 “The first year my husband and I moved in here we did not sleep very well,” says Erda. “We are stewards of something very extraordinary and you don’t want to be the one who screws that up. We really feel that, and it’s overwhelming to know what to do.”

“I think to demystify it, it really is a labor of love,” says Cary Jamieson as she and I walk the grounds at Berkeley. “They are beautiful properties and there is incredible history connected with them, and an incredible sense of stewardship, but there is a lot that isn’t glamorous. It’s hard work that has kept these properties up.”

I couldn’t help but wonder, how do they cope with challenges? Pricy renovations and catastro-phes such as a basement flooding, or a storm ravaging the property are all things the Carters, Erdas and Jamiesons have experienced.

“That consecutiveness between the plantations,” says Erda, “That is where it comes into play. No one else knows what we deal with every day.”

In times of crisis, the three families prop each other up. Like in 2003, during Hurricane Isabel, when Westover lost hundreds of century-old cedars, and the entire property was strewn with destroyed trees. “I came out here and it looked like we came to hell,” says Erda. “We didn’t know where to begin.” Malcolm Eggleston Jamieson (“Jamie”), Cary’s father, came over from Berkeley to help clear the downed trees. (The Fishers, Erdas, Jamiesons and Carters are also longtime friends of the Tyler family—descendents of 10th U.S. President John Tyler, who have owned Sherwood Forest, another historic James River plantation, continuously since 1842—and, more recently, the Hinson family, who purchased Evelynton Plantation, which was originally part of Westover, following the death of its last family owner, Edmund Ruffin Saunders, in 2007.)

“Those ties are born in the hard times,” says Erda. “You celebrate the good times, but it’s the tough ones when you know they’re there for you.”

The history of friendship runs deep. “The Harrisons [of Berkeley] and the Byrds [of Westover] would meet halfway between the properties and have picnics,” says Jamieson, recalling a letter between the families that they found at Berkeley.

“We have great love and affection for these properties, but I think more importantly we have a great love and respect for each other and the work we put in,” says Jamieson, whose 6-year-old son Gordon’s godmother is Erda. “We are just neighbors and you have to support one another.”

THE BUSINESS OF SUSTAINABILITY

Despite their status as historic estates (all three properties are listed on the National Register of Historic Places) and prominence in the story of our country, Westover, Shirley and Berkeley are all private homes. That means that unlike the resources larger historical organizations often have, such as a staff of archaeologists or the support of grants and government assistance, the plantations receive no public funding. The burden of keeping them intact is squarely on the families’ shoulders.

“We are doing this on bare bones,” says Jamieson, who runs Berkeley with her family—father Jamie, mother Judy Pleasants Jamieson, brother Malcolm “Mac” Pleasants Jamieson and his wife Martha “Muffy” and their sons Henry and Walker—along with a small staff of dedicated employees. (Mac works full time in IT at Capital One; Jamie is retired, having owned a nursery business.) “It’s very rare for these properties to stay in families that long because they really can be a huge burden.”

Sustainability from generation to generation has been achieved at all three plantations through diversification. At Westover, Erda, who worked in fundraising for humanitarian aid organizations in New York City before returning to Virginia, rents the estate’s six former tenant cottages; hosts corporate events; and beginning recently, requires hunters to pay for the right to hunt deer, geese and turkey on the property. (Visitors to the grounds for self-guided tours are asked to leave a small donation in an honor box as the cost of admission.)

Shirley leases land for fowl hunting, too, but Berkeley and Shirley plantations mainly rely on tourism. Both are open to the public every day of the year (except Thanksgiving and Christmas), offer guided tours and maintain gift shops.

All three plantations have also tapped into the wedding market. Shirley hosted four last year, and is planning to host as many as a dozen each year. Berkeley hosts around 20 per year, and Westover, eight. (The Erdas limit the number to minimize wear and tear on the home and grounds.)

As it was when the plantations were established, farming continues to be a very important piece of all of their operations.

“Our current farmer, I knew his dad because he was farming, and my father knew his father be-cause he was farming,” Erda says of David Black, who cultivates 430 acres at Westover and who also farms 300 acres at Berkeley. (All of the properties have parcels of land that are protected under conservation easement.)

All three of the plantations grow corn, wheat and soybeans. Three years ago, Shirley Plantation planted pecan trees and started farming freshwater prawns in the James River.

Lauren’s husband Charles also owns and manages a port at Shirley, transporting, among other things, topsoil runoff from other sites that has been repurposed from dredging. Currently, he contracts with a professional terminal operating company, Host Terminals Inc. of Norfolk, to run the facility. According to Charles, since tobacco was exported in the early part of the 1600s, there have been many docks along Shirley’s waterfront, aiding in the movement of cargo. In recent years this has also included sand, gravel, mineral sands, steel, heavy equipment, cattle and passengers.

 A more recent source of income for all three properties has come from the growing interest in Virginia as a location for films.

“It’s like the circus moving to town,” says Erda with a laugh, about hosting film crews. For the filming of the HBO movie John Adams, which took place at Westover in 2007, 250 people tramped around the grounds for at least two weeks of filming, coming and going from around 10 honeywagons and large tractor trailers parked on the estate. Erda recalls struggling to get her then 4-month-old to sleep while the crew shot throughout the night and early morning.

Scenes from AMC’s series Turn were filmed on all three plantations. Other major motion pictures have also used the properties as backdrops. Terrence Malick’s The New World, about Pocahontas and John Rolfe’s relationship, and most recently, Loving, a film based on the story of the interracial couple Richard and Mildred Loving, were filmed at Berkeley. Film productions can bring in roughly $10,000 to $15,000 per year.

Still, Erda, Jamieson and Carter are keen to point out that, even with diverse revenue streams, they are all just getting by.

PLANTATION LIFE

“I grew up being used to the fact that this was our home, but it was also open to the public,” says Jamieson. “I would meet people from all around the world who were interested in history. I met so many fascinating people.”

At Shirley, “We get the place back at five o’clock every day,” when the public tours end, Carter says with a laugh. They have a unique living situation—the kitchen is tucked in the basement, the first floor is open to the public for tours, and the couple’s living quarters are on the second floor. While Lauren, who sits on the board of directors for Shirley’s nonprofit foundation (Berkeley also has established a foundation), and I chatted over tea in the main parlor, a guide was conducting a tour, taking a group of tourists from room to room, pointing out the home’s notable architectural features and explaining the family’s history. But even with twins, the couple’s first children, due in March, the Carters aren’t daunted.

“Our kids are going to have to learn how to respect things a lot sooner than most children,” says Carter. “You don’t want to be the one to break the 300-year-old vase.

“The Carters have raised kids here for 11 generations. [Today], it’s not what people are used to, but it’s been done here for so long that it’s definitely doable, and we are just going to figure it out as we go along.”

Jamieson, who now lives and works in Richmond and is director of the Bryan Innovation Lab at the Steward School, says she spends as much time as she can at Berkeley with her son Gordon. (The upstairs at Berkeley is reserved for all the extended family who come and go frequently and use it as their private residence.) “I want my son to be as invested in the property as I am,” she says, “and have a love and affection for it.” On a warm day this winter, the pair spent hours tracking the paw prints of a mother and baby raccoon along the banks of the James River.

“All of us are very united in the fact that we would love to see the property maintained and open to the public as it is,” says Jamieson. “Our only job is to try to do the best job we can to be stewards of the property and the land. This isn’t just about the house. This is an incredible rich resource of land, with incredible diversity of wildlife.”

Sitting in Westover’s living room, Erda opens up an old guest book from her great-grandparents’ era. Signatures show that Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller and their four sons visited Westover in 1926. Other notable figures that signed Westover’s guest book include Charles Lindbergh, Winston Churchill, Edith Bolling Wilson and Eleanor Roosevelt. Erda is unequivocal about following in her forefathers’ footsteps and continuing the tradition of welcoming people to visit. “These houses are American’s real connection to history,” she says.

“Shirley Plantation is too special not to share it,” says Lauren Carter. “It’s everyone’s history.” BerkeleyPlantation.com, ShirleyPlantation.com, WestoverPlantation.com


This article originally appeared in our April 2016 issue.

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