Tuckahoe on James River, thirteen miles to the west of Richmond, is of peculiar interest to its owners because of the constant effort that has been made of late to preserve the early plantation character of the old buildings, grounds and garden, while keeping them fairly habitable according to modern standards. The home and place have been so often described in the many excellent books and magazine articles dealing with early Virginia life, whether from the point of view of history, architecture, gardening or agriculture, that little remains now to add beyond summarizing some of the earlier accounts, adding details where they fall short, and modifying inevitable inaccuracies.
Tuckahoe, which we believe to be the earliest frame building of importance still standing to the west of the Falls of Richmond, has been given a widely varying birthday, ranging from 1674 to 1725, according to the temperament and source of information of the particular historian. The combined weight of authority, however, seems to point conclusively to its having been built prior to 1700 by or for Thomas Randolph, third son of William and Mary Randolph of Turkey Island, generally called the Adam and Eve of old Virginia.
William Randolph the emigrant (1650-1711), grantee from the crown of a large section of Tidewater Virginia, stretching indefinitely westward, parcelled out his domain among his numerous sons, five of whom built important houses or established family lines that have persisted-some through all sorts of varying fortune-to the present day. These lines took their names from the estates created by their founders, many of their descendants being men of mark in the life of the colony, the commonwealth and the nation. Locally they were known as William (R.) of Chatsworth, Isham (R.) of Dungeness, Thomas (R.) of Tuckahoe, Richard (R.) of Curles, and Sir John (R.) of Williamsburg.
Of the original houses built by these five founders, Tuckahoe alone still stands today, but little changed so far as finish and arrangement go from what it was when its site was hewn out of the forest fifteen miles to the west of the Falls around which, at a later date, clustered the settlement of Richmond.
There is no way now of telling whether the original plantation opened up by or for Thomas Randolph of Tuckahoe was of “fifty thousand acres,” or of “ten thousand acres, along the river,” as varying romancers claim, but it is certain that it was many, many times greater than the six-hundred-acre farm which still pertains to the original house. If however, the size of the estate has shrunken, the traditions and stories connected with it have grown with the generations.
Thomas Randolph, the founder, whether he moved there in 1690 or earlier, certainly died there in the early days of the eighteenth century, and the place descended in the family through his son, William Randolph, his grandson, Thomas Mann Randolph, and his great-grandson, Thomas Mann Randolph II, until it was sold for debt in 1830. Owned by the Wight family until 1850, and then sold to Joseph Allen who, with his son Richard, held it till 1898, it was again sold for debt, and bought by J. Randolph Coolidge of Boston, the great-grandson of the first Thomas Mann Randolph of Tuckahoe. Since that time it has been inherited by his descendants, and it is not inaccurate to say that out of the two hundred and thirty years of its existence Tuckahoe has belonged for the first one hundred and thirty to the direct male descendants of the original builder, and for the last thirty-two to his direct descendants, by female line. During the sixty-eight years when the place was not in the family it was cared for as thoughtfully as the circumstances of the owners permitted.
Early historians, whether William Byrd of Westover in 1732, the Marquis de Chastellux in 1782, or Thomas Anbury, the English revolutionary officer who wrote of a visit to Tuckahoe in 1789, all comment on the prodigal colonial hospitality of the eighteenth century planters which caused the ruin of the owners of Tuckahoe, with many others of their class, in the earlier decades of the nineteenth century. Then came the cruel days of the War Between the States which left Virginia stripped to the bone of all her traditional prosperity, and Tuckahoe suffered with the rest.
But the old house still stood, and now in the more fortunate days of the twentieth century it has been gradually and reverently restored room by room, and furnished as opportunity offered, either with original, or at least historically sympathetic furniture. So also the outbuildings, including the old kitchen, the master’s office, and the schoolhouse where Thomas Jefferson-himself a descendant of William Randolph of Turkey Island-learned his letters, and left his first childish autograph. The quarters of the house servants, with the smokehouses and the ruins of field quarters, have been carefully preserved and, where possible, restored and adapted to their original uses.
The buildings are reached from the River Road by a straight, narrow lane, nearly a mile long, lined thickly on each side with cedar trees, many of which have grown till their branches interlace in Gothic arches high overhead, while offering glimpses, between their trunks, of broad acres of cultivated and grazing fields.
The lawn, with its enormous trees and heavily shaded view over the low grounds stretching to the muddy, swirling waters of James River three-quarters of a mile away, is dotted in the spring with the bulbs and fruit blossoms so much prized by garden lovers; and one can still trace the old brick stairway leading from the house down a steep bluff to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which for many years formed the only practical means of communication with the outside world. All the more important farm buildings but one brick barn, have gone with time, but nature reasserts herself every year and makes necessary a constant struggle to preserve what is left.
The chief glory of the place, apart from the historical tradition connected with the house, is the box garden which has been almost too frequently described and over-described in books, periodicals and newspapers during the last thirty years. It is a wonderful garden, with trimmed hedges of, suffruticosa unsurpassed and, to the prejudiced minds of the owners, unequalled in this country; and is still in very fair condition in view of its age. Its original date is pure guess work, the one clear conclusion being that, owing to the known life term of hedge box, it is much more recent than that of the house itself. Its origin has been attributed to one or an-other of the many generations of owners; but all that we can say now is that it is very old, very beautiful and, as such things go, in a remarkable state of preservation. No attempt is made to keep it filled with flowers-a few roses and flowering shrubs and the dominant trees on its outskirts serving merely to emphasize the fact that the chief glory of such a garden must come from the box itself.
Beyond the garden, at the end of a walk shaded by healthy box trees, is the old vault of the family, around which gather on spring evenings, mingled with the fireflies, the ghosts and fairies which find no room inside of an occupied house in the twentieth century that is accessible by motor and not irresponsive to the telephone.
If those who visit Tuckahoe at the present day leave it not unconscious of the appeal of its atmosphere, the efforts of those who love it will not have been wasted.