Sherwood Forest, in Charles City County, is about twelve miles below Westover on the River Road. It is situated on the north side of the James River opposite the Brandons, as a bird flies. The manor house is a mile back from the river, although the plantation originally took in a mile or more of river front. My father used to say that he remembered in his boyhood watching, from the porch, the sails of the boats on the river. The lowland which intervened was then all cultivated, mostly in tobacco and cotton.
It seems that at the time the house was built, the river had become such a thoroughfare that, for privacy, the planters built their homes some distance back.
This plantation came into being as The Grove, in the eighteenth century. It was first owned by the Minges, a family of note in the James River section of Virginia, who built the central portion of the house, and it continued in that family until the year 1842 when it was purchased by President John Tyler.
On his retirement from the presidency he came here to live with his bride, the second Mrs. Tyler, who was Julia Gardiner, of Gardiner’s Island, New York. President Tyler’s first wife was Letitia Christian, of Cedar Grove, New Kent County, which was the rooftree of the Christian family. She and Mr. Tyler were living at Bassett Hall, Williamsburg, when he became president of the United States. He added the wings and corridors and gave to the place its present name. The house is three hundred feet long, the main part being two-and-a-half stories high, with dormer windows. This is flanked on either side by one-and-a-half stories, with long colonnades, as they are called, leading to the office on one end and to the kitchen on the other.
The entire house is only one room deep. The architecture, while not as magnificent as that of the earlier colonial neighbors, portrays an air of hospitality and grace, the charm of home, combining the simplicity and elegance of the typical plantation dwelling of ante bellum days.
President Tyler called it Sherwood Forest, partly in jest because he said he was an outlaw from the Whig party, but chiefly because of the wonderful grove of oaks at the front of the house. This is said to be the finest grove in Eastern Virginia. The trees rival in magnificence and age those of Sherwood Forest in England, and would make still a fit hiding place for Robin Hood and his merry men. They are the original growth, and in them gray squirrels frisk as though far from the abode of man. Only a circular plot of grass and driveway separate the house from this grove through which a long, shaded avenue leads straight to the main entrance, known as the White Gate.
At the back or garden side, the far-reaching lawn slopes down to a natural amphitheatre. This slope is terraced, and in the old days was covered with flower beds. Still there remain box and magnolia trees and many flowering trees and rare shrubs planted by the president and his lovely wife. Lilacs still bloom and honeysuckle climbs over the porch with ivy and Virginia creeper.
Part of McClellan’s army paused here to rest in their retreat to Hampton Roads from Malvern Hill, in 1862. Of course, by that time all the men of the family had left for service in the Confederacy. So the general, very kindly, stationed a guard of ten Union soldiers to protect the ladies from possible impertinence. This consideration was not repeated by Sheridan’s officers when, later during the war, they encamped in the yard and even took up their quarters in the house. Some souvenirs of their visit still remain, among them my grandmother’s Chickering square piano, with every key smashed out of place. Two handsome gilt mirror frames, reaching from floor to ceiling, have no glass left in them. They were broken up, so the story goes, and carried off by bits to be used as individual shaving mirrors.
Many and romantic associations cling and cluster around the old estate, now in the possession of Mrs. David Gardiner Tyler, daughter of the distinguished jurist, James Alfred Jones, of Richmond, and who upholds all of the traditions of the place. She married David Gardiner Tyler, eldest son of President Tyler by his second marriage. He was judge of the Fourteenth Judicial Circuit of Virginia. Three miles from Sherwood Forest is Greenway, the residence of Governor J. Tyler, Sr., and the birthplace of the president. The antique furniture and family portraits breathe into the present a delightful air of the past, marking the contrast between today and yesterday at Sherwood Forest.