BEFORE its reduction in area by family partition and sale, the Staunton Hill Plantation in Charlotte County, about three miles from Aspen, consisted of a number of tracts acquired partly by James Bruce of Woodburn, Halifax County, one of the wealthiest men of his day, and partly by Charles Bruce, his son by his second wife, Elvira, the daughter of Colonel William Cabell, Jr., of Union Hill, Nelson County. James Bruce died in 1837 and Charles Bruce in 1896. Sally Alexander, the wife of Charles Bruce, was a sister of the Honorable James A. Seddon, the Confederate Secretary of War. Among the children of Charles and Sally Bruce were Dr. Philip A. Bruce, eminent Virginia historian; Dr. James Douglas Bruce, the distinguished Arthurian scholar, and Anne Seddon, first wife of Thomas Nelson Page.
Taking possession of the plantation as the devisee of his father’s landed estate in Charlotte County, Charles Bruce erected on it, in 1848, under the architectural oversight of John E. Johnson, a graduate of West Point, the mansion house known as Staunton Hill; and, from time to time, made such large additions by purchase to his holdings that at his death the Staunton Hill Plantation embraced no less than 5,052 acres of land, of which a great portion was very fertile Staunton River low grounds.
During the slave period, and also during the period immediately ensuing the War Between the States, the Staunton Hill Plantation was, with negro labor, maintained by Charles Bruce in a highly productive state; furnishing domestic supplies of almost every kind in profuse abundance to its mansion house; and yielding, in some years, in addition to much wheat, oats, hay and livestock of every description, between four thousand and five thousand barrels of corn, and the growth of not less than one million hills of tobacco. At the beginning of the War Between the States, Charles Bruce organized the Staunton Hill Artillery Company at his own personal expense, but after a brief term of service in the Confederate Army he was compelled by ill health to give up the captaincy of this company for a seat in the Virginia State Senate.
The architecture of Staunton Hill is Gothic, with perfectly proportioned towers and battlements which well befitted the quasi-aristocratic conditions from which it sprang. Its walls are very thick and made of brick, stuccoed; its whole front, to the second story, is adorned with a beautiful marble porch with fluted pillars and granite steps. The marble of which this porch was made was quarried in Italy, fashioned in Philadelphia, and conveyed by sea to Albemarle Sound in North Carolina; and from thence by bateau, up the waters of the Roanoke and Staunton, to the landing on the Staunton, near the base of the high hill, from which the mansion house commands striking views of the Staunton River and its alluvial plains.
The mansion house, erected at a cost of $75,000, exclusive of slave labor, contains fourteen rooms, including two hand-some drawing-rooms and a lovely Gothic library with leaded stained-glass windows. Connected with its rear is a large conservatory, a six-room colonnade and a Gothic woodhouse; and hard by is a five-room (including a billiard room) stuccoed Gothic brick office. Around it are extensive grounds set off with white-surfaced roads and walks, laid out by a skillful Scotch gardener, and fine, native and exotic trees. Environing these grounds are forest groves which are, in turn, encircled by quite a high stone wall between a mile and a half and two miles long. One of the most beautiful features of the grounds is an old-fashioned, semi-circular flower gar-den planted against a background of tall oaks, judiciously broken up into flower beds of different shapes, and, in its prime, glorified in the proper seasons by splendid specimens of pink, white and purple crepe myrtles, a superb display of the microphylla rose, and every sort of flower that is usually found in that clime in such a garden at its best.
A few years ago the mansion house and a large part of the 5,052-acre tract, owned by Charles Bruce, became the property of James Bruce of New York, one of Charles Bruce’s grand-sons; and later they were transferred by him to the Staunton Hill Club, a shooting and week-end social club, composed of himself, his brother, David K. E. Bruce of New York, and a number of their friends. But the library classics, the hand-some silver, the old china, the Sully and other portraits, the rare rosewood and other furniture, and the household furnishings and ornaments formerly contained in the mansion house passed, after the deaths of Charles Bruce and his wife, under the will of the latter, to their descendants.
Just what Staunton Hill was under the old regime will be found depicted in a little book entitled Below the James, partly descriptive and partly fictional, which was written a few years ago by one of Charles Bruce’s sons.
In the Piedmont section of Virginia, at the foot of a spur of the Blue Ridge, lie the three thousand acres of Sweet Briar Plantation. In 1798 Joseph Crouse, Sr., willed to Joseph Crouse “the land on which I live,” and that is the land on which stands Sweet Briar and its gardens. Three hundred and twenty acres came from a tract of “wild land” granted to George Carrington by the crown in 1770. Sweet Briar grew under the hand of Elijah Fletcher of Ludlow, Vermont. He came to Virginia to take charge of the North Glasgow Academy in Amherst County, and there married Marie Antoinette Crawford. It was this same Marie Antoinette who gave the plantation the name of Sweet Briar. She and Elijah became emamoured of the T-shaped colonial house of Joseph Crouse, and when it was sold to settle a mortgage they purchased it, about 1830. To increase the size of the house which had only six rooms, Fletcher built two three-story towers, one higher than the other, and the rooms of these towers were reached only through the front rooms of the existing house.
It was at this time that the gardens were laid out and that the lawn in front of the house was unbroken by path or drive-way, but marked with a large circle of thirty boxwood bushes flanked on either side by a variety of trees and shrubs rarely seen in such proximity. There are Norway spruces, cathedral yews, Southern magnolias, weeping and branching hemlocks, horse chestnuts, maples and locusts with their fragrant white clusters in June, to be followed later in the summer by the white-flowering catalpa and the delicate Mimosa. A holly tree rises almost to the height of the spruces, while the feathery, shower bouquet of a fringe tree stands delicately revealed against a boxwood hedge fifteen feet high. Besides the box-wood hedges that bound the gardens and side lawn, there are symmetrical plantings of large boxwood bushes down the slope leading to the dell with its mirroring pond, 389 bushes in all, and over twelve feet high. To the side of the house still stands a two-room office beyond which “Daisy’s Garden,” bordered with dwarf box, makes a shut-in nook where fig trees still bear figs. A little to the back there has been preserved one of the original cabins of the slaves. It stands in front of a stately Indian deodar, and is overhung by a paulownia tree that showers its pale purple blossoms about the door or, blossomless, casts its dappled shadows against the old stone chimney. Sweet Briar house has unusual lines, a graceful old stairway, a haunted tower, many tall, gilt mirrors, the good old Sheraton and Chippendale furniture, Chinese bronzes and Sevres clocks.
The home and burial place of Patrick Henry is of interest on account of its association with that patriot. He bought it in 1794, and it still remains in possession of his descendants. The place takes its name from the red-brown soil. Here are beautiful and pungent hedges of boxwood, kept closely cut. They are of sempervirens, instead of the suffruticosa usually used for hedges.
In the garden are two oblong slabs of marble. One bears the inscription:
To the Memory of Patrick Henry Born May 29th, 1736 Died June 6, 1799 “His Fame his best Epitaph”
The other reads:
To the memory of Dorothea Dandridge Wife of Patrick Henry
Born -, 1755
Died February 14, 1831
Nine miles west of Lynchburg, an inviting road leads southward to Poplar Forest, the “other home” of Thomas Jefferson. To escape the social duties at Monticello, Jefferson fled to this secluded place among gigantic poplar trees for rest and writing. While president he built his playtime home, one of the queerest and loveliest houses imaginable. Due to the peculiar grading of the land the octagonal-shaped house appears to be one story from the front and two stories from the back. Two large, artificial mounds were placed on two sides of the lawn to conceal the outbuildings. This plantation of over four thousand acres was inherited by Mrs. Jefferson from her father, and remained in Jefferson’s family from 1773 to 1828. Francis Eppes, grandson of Thomas Jefferson, occupied it the last two years, having inherited it from his grandfather. Then it passed into the hands of the grandfather of the present owner. For more than a century the family has guarded this architectural gem, which at present is used as a summer home.