At Chippokes Plantation, visitors feast on slices of natural, agricultural history


If you take the College Run Trail at Chippokes Plantation State Park, you will reach a stretch of the James River that still looks much as it did when the Jamestown settlers encountered the Native Americans here.

The river is trimmed by a slim, light-colored beach of coastal plain sands, remnants of the eras when oceans surged east and west over 10,000-year cycles of glacial advance and retreat.

If you are extremely lucky, you may come across a fossilized tooth of a megalodon, the giant relative of today's great white shark.

But probably without even trying, you will see scores of Chesapecten jeffersonius, a large, scalloped bivalve and Virginia's state fossil.

Along the James, the river that made the settlement of Virginia possible, osprey and bald eagles nest as they did 400 years ago when the Powhatan tributary chief, Chippok, lived here with his Quiyounghanock tribe.

Chief Chippok was among those who made survival possible for the English settlers five miles across the river at Jamestown during the period of the uneasy peace between the Indians and colonists in the early years of the Virginia colony.

But in 1619, the Virginia Company granted Chief Chippok's lands, where his tribe and ancestors had hunted, fished, and planted for many generations, to Capt. William Powell.

Thus began the slow transformation of this waterfront property into the plantation that claims to be the oldest continuously farmed piece of land in Virginia.

The 1,600-acre state park, about 15 miles upriver from Smithfield and across the river from Jamestown, is on a peninsula of land bounded by the James to the north and Lower Chippokes Creek to the southeast. At every turn, the park's landscapes evoke the past — defined by generations, centuries and millennia.

This Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network site offers a unique slice of Virginia's history, gleaned from fossil records, Native American archeological sites and the buildings, artifacts and tools from 400 years of English settlement.

Visitors entering the park off Route 634 in Surry, VA, drive through stands of plantation loblolly pine, past the recreation area with an Olympic-size swimming pool, a camp store and campgrounds tucked into the woods.

Farther on is a large, shaded parking lot by the visitor's center. A picnic shelter provides a fine view of the broad, flat James where cumulus clouds hover over the far shore. On a small bluff, a split-rail fence separates grass from a slope where goldenrod and ironweed tumble down alongside a paved path to the beach 30 feet below.

In the distance, the Jamestown-Scotland ferry carries travelers, tourists and commuters across the James 24 hours a day.

"A lot of folks don't realize this park is here," said Bill Jacobs, Chippokes' park manager. "They take the free ferry over from Jamestown, come to visit and say they had no idea something so special was on this side of the river."

Jacobs has worked at many state parks in Virginia during his 35-year career and understands the complexity of this cultural and historic landmark, a designated site along the Lower James section of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.

Corn, soybeans, cotton, peanuts and golden grains have been sowed here since 1619, starting with Powell, who died only four years later in an English raid on the Chickahominy tribe that followed the Indian uprising against Jamestown.

Powell's son, George, may have lived on the land, but because he had no heir, it reverted back to Gov. William Berkeley, and then went to Col. Phillip Ludwell in 1684. Ludwell continued to lease the land to be farmed, but chose not to live there.

In 1837, Albert Carroll Jones was the first to call Chippokes home since Captain Powell two centuries before him. He expanded the original River House on Quarter Lane, and built a second home, an Italianate manor house now called "Chippokes."

Victor Stewart, a prominent local forester, expanded the manor house in 1918. He and his wife, Evelyn, had a great interest in conservation. After his death, Evelyn deeded the plantation to the commonwealth of Virginia in 1967 with the stipulation that it continue to be farmed as it had for centuries before.

Today, farming and household tools and vehicles are showcased in covered exhibits called the Farm and Forestry Museum. Generations of equipment for tilling, sowing, reaping and baling shows the slow evolution of mechanization that accompanied the advent of the steam, and then gasoline, engines.

Nathan Younger, assistant park manager since 2011, lives in one of several tenant farmers' homes and likes the feeling of being immersed in the plantation. "A lot of the land looks much as it would have two and three centuries ago. I feel a strong sense of this place, especially at night in the fall or winter, when there are only a few people here."

During the high season, up to 30 staff are needed to operate the park. Younger knows that it took more than 100 to work the fields and hearths of the plantation in the 1700 and 1800s. "What amazes me is the effort people had to go to reap the benefits of living from the land," he said. "Today, we have it so very easy."

Jennica Walker, who has worked at Chippokes since 2006, explained that maintaining the park and programs for up to 80,000 visitors each year is made possible with a cadre of more than 300 volunteers. Chippokes boasts the largest number of volunteers of any state park in Virginia.

"This is an amazing place, because we attract those who are interested in history and culture, or natural history or farming. Our volunteers bring a wide breadth of skills, experience and passion to the programs we are able to offer here."

Walker said that one of the most popular programs is the hearth-cooking demonstration, which is offered more than a dozen times each year to coincide with special events.

Volunteers start building the fire around 10 a.m. to create the coals for the traditional midday meal, which includes game and seasonable vegetables that would have been available in the 1800s.

Hoppin' John (rice and black-eyed peas) and stews, favored by the slaves and workers for their ease of preparation, are prepared in Dutch ovens and kettles over hot fires. The plantation's orchards would have made fruit cobblers a common dessert.

"Many visitors are amazed at how good it tastes when it is made from scratch with traditional ingredients," Walker said.

Every July, Chippokes hosts the Pork, Peanut and Pine Festival that bring together local music, and arts and crafts with the modern agricultural mainstays of this rural economy. There are demonstrations of the 18th century sawmill and plenty of the famous Smithfield ham.

But one doesn't have to be interested in farming or agriculture to appreciate the legacy of Chippokes Plantation. There is spaciousness to the landscape, where rows of corn give way to forest and cypress growing in cool swamps by the river.

Four tenant houses in the midst of the fields have been transformed into comfortable homes that can be rented by the week.

Kayaks or canoes may be launched on Lower Chippokes. Visitors can also reserve a spot on one of the interpretive canoe trips in the marsh offered by park staff during the warmer months of the year.

Chippokes has 37 historic structures, including both 19th century manor houses, an 18th century barn and numerous dependencies. The formal gardens behind the Chippokes Manor House are simple but elegant, with boxwoods and azaleas, crepe myrtle and perennials framing the stone graves of the Stewarts, whose legacy makes it possible for future generations to experience the past.

"We call this place 'the jewel on the James,'" Jacobs said. "Some choose to camp here when visiting Jamestown and Williamsburg across the river and realize that they have stumbled onto more than just an inexpensive place to car camp or park their recreation vehicle."

Every visitor to Chippokes will discover that this is a state park with many faces and many opportunities to witness the past and experience the present through new eyes.

Article originally published in the Bay Journal on October 1, 2012.

Leslie Middleton

Leslie Middleton writes about water quality, public access, and the special places of the Chesapeake Bay region from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia.

May 20, 2015

Main image: The stretch of the James River that borders Chippokes Plantation State Park still looks much as it did when the Jamestown settlers encountered the Native Americans here. (Image courtesy: Dave Harp)
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