“ Address: 501 Shirley Plantation Road / Charles City / Virginia / United States of America / 23030 / Tel: +1 804 829 5121 „
While we were in Virginia we stayed at the Powhatan Plantation which had an authentic plantation house but we still wanted to go and visit a couple of other original Virginia plantations and we chose the Shirley Plantation because it was the First plantation in Virginia and also because we live in the village of Shirley in Derbyshire. We had hoped that if we mentioned the fact that we lived in Shirley we might get a discount on our entry ticket but no such luck and it was quite expensive, about £8 each if I remember rightly so we were a bit disappointed.
The Shirley Plantation is at 501 Shirley Plantation Rd, Charles City, Virginia which was under an hour, 35km west of Williamsburg where we were staying. The plantation is open daily from 9am to 5pm but closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas day. Situated on the banks of the James River as the river was the means of transport for both people and goods and this makes for a really beautiful setting for this lovely traditionally built plantation house.
The plantation and house date from 1613 which is very early in American history when you remember the Pilgrim Fathers arrived in New England in 1620, four years after this. These early plantation houses look very similar, they are very square and symmetrical with the front door being central and windows either side, a bit like a child's drawing of a house.
This plantation not only had a symmetrical house but the entire layout of the buildings within the 'farm' was symmetrical to create a formal forecourt like the English estates of the same period. The plantation owners were extremely wealthy and the plantation houses reflected this wealth. Construction on the house itself was begun in 1723 and has a distinct Queen Anne or Georgian look, very solid, balanced and with large windows and a double pitched roof, all very grand.
Inside the house visitors are only allowed to see the downstairs as the 11th generation of the family still live in the rest of the house upstairs. It was a nicely proportioned house with high ceilings and light rooms with 18th century hand carved panelling on the walls. One of the windows has a glass pane where over the generations youngsters had carved their names. The older names were considerably better written than the later ones I might add. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take any photos inside the house but once outside we were free to take any photos we liked.
One out house I found fascinating was the Ice House. I found it amazing that they had managed to create somewhere where things could be kept cold as long ago as this. Apparently they 'harvested' the ice from the plantation's ponds and stored it in the 21foot deep Ice House. This ice because it was carefully packed lasted until the following autumn when the weather was cool again prior to the fresh 'harvest' time in winter. The loft above the ice store was used a store for goods ready to be transported along the river.
Another interesting food storage 'building' was the root cellar where root vegetables such as potatoes, turnips and other fresh foods such as apples were stored in the cool and so they were kept fresher than if they were stored in a building above ground.
The smokehouse was another vital place to preserve food. Meat was preserved using salt and smoke. Pork was the most common meat cured in the 18th and 19th century in Virginia.
Besides the buildings for the food storage and preserving of the foodstuffs there were stables which housed the horses and also the harnesses, carriages and other farm equipment. The laundry was also a separate building as the fire for heating the water was a fire danger. The laundry servants and their families lived in the rooms above the laundry. This building became a guest house during the 20th century but today it is a gift shop downstairs and offices upstairs.
Like the laundry, the kitchen was away from the main house because of the danger of fire and also it kept the cooking smells and heat away from the family and guests. Once again the cooks and their families lived above the kitchen, they must have enjoyed the warmth in the winter but in summer it would have been so very hot I would think.
Besides these buildings there was a dovecote as doves were popular for eating as were their eggs. A pump house which supplied the water for the laundry, the house and the kitchen was built in 1771. There was also a store house to store goods considered too valuable to be stored down at the wharves but later became a store for machinery and other tools.
This was a very interesting plantation to visit because of the fact that it was Virginia's First plantation and is still lived in by descendants of the original family. The house and the rest of the property was immaculately presented with the grass beautifully cut, the out buildings were in tip top condition with explanation labels in all the buildings to explain their former use and present day use too.
It was interesting to visit this particular plantation for us living in the small village of Shirley although there is no connection with our village it seems.
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