Volunteers work to preserve, restore Botetourt’s historic slave cabins
BOTETOURT COUNTY, Va. (WDBJ) - Botetourt County features something thought to be one of the last remaining of its kind in all of southwest Virginia: an unassuming cabin and a crumbling kitchen.
They are leftover relics from Greenfield’s history as an antebellum plantation.
“It’s not always a pretty history. But it still needs to be talked about and it’s still one we need to know,” said Botetourt County resident Cheryl Sullivan-Willis.
For the last several years a group of dedicated volunteers, including descendants from Greenfield Plantation, have been working to restore the buildings.
In honor of Black History Month, we take a look at how the group is pushing forward, even as the buildings continue their battle with time.
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At the Greenfield Industrial Park, manufacturing has brought in the new to cohabitate with the old.
It’s still quiet here in Greenfield Park, which is what draws many people to the charming walking trails.
But unless you’re paying attention you might miss just how closely the very old and the very new are cohabitating.
“I mean when you actually come up here and look around, it’s so much different than looking at a picture or seeing video of it and hearing about it from other people,” said Sullivan-Willis. “But to actually see it firsthand, it’s amazing.”
We meet Sullivan-Willis meets us on one of these walking trails.
Except this time, we’re going off the trail.
Going past a honey bee sanctuary, we climb a small hill.
It’s a sunny, winter day and snow is still underfoot.
At our backs is the county administration building.
Next to it sits one of the manufacturing facilities with rows and rows of trucks glinting in the sun.
But just ahead of us, winter’s bare branches let us see through the trees and into the past.
And to stand in the midst of it and to walk through it,” Sullivan-Willis said, “you get a completely different feel for it than just hearing about it.”
At the crest of this hill in a small clearing, we come upon two wooden buildings.
One building is two-stories, square, with a chimney and an overhang.
The other is a rectangular cabin wrapped in a green weather protecting fabric.
It’s the very same cabin where Sullivan-Willis’ enslaved ancestors once lived and worked.
“It’s not always a pretty history,” she said. “But it still needs to be talked about and it’s still one we need to know.”
Greenfield Park was once Greenfield Plantation.
Colonel William Preston established the plantation in the mid-1700s, being among the first colonial families to settle in the region. The site grew to as large as 2,000 acres at one point.
Preston served under General Washington as a land surveyor and securer of the frontier from attacks by Native Americans. Later he served in the colony’s early legislative body, the Virginia House of Burgesses. He was also a Revolutionary War Officer. He was the area’s coroner, sheriff and treasurer.
Later in life he settled at Smithfield, another plantation which eventually found a neighbor in modern-day Virginia Tech.
The Prestons were arguably southwest Virginia’s most prominent and powerful family.
And it’s a family that has been on the Greenfield property ever since.
“The Big House was kind of through the trees there, where you can see a factory - the house was up on a hill there,” said Edward Preston. “They didn’t change the contours much as far as I can see.”
Edward Preston is a descendant of Colonel William Preston.
He lives on a few acres at the back of the property.
The Big House he refers to was the old Manor house the early Prestons established.
It stayed in the family until it burned down in 1959.
For Edward Preston, it was a place that held childhood memories of life at Greenfield in the 20th century.
“We’d just drive across the fields and come to the house because there was a lot of entertaining when I was a child. Lot of entertaining at the main house, big parties - community parties,” he recalled. “They were pretty big on fostering good relationships with the neighbors and that’s pretty much been the heart of my descendants have been focusing on community and family. Back then to be successful and survive you had to work together and with the neighbors.”
The early days of the Greenfield Plantation were focused on surviving - but also thriving.
Those several hundred acres produced wheat, corn, tobacco, hay, livestock, butter, honey and beeswax.
Most of it done with slave labor.
Sullivan-Willis said Preston originally claimed 13 enslaved workers, though there are records of more as time went on - more than 40 at one point.
As far as Preston and Sullivan-Willis understand, they say the relationship between the enslaved people and the Prestons was generally favorable.
Still, not much at all is known about those enslaved families.
But historic preservationists will tell you, if you listen, these cabin walls can talk.
“I learned that sometimes the history is in the bricks that were laid or made by the young children because you can tell how the bricks were made just by the fingerprints - the bricks were all made by hand. So you can tell if the bricks were made by adults or if the bricks were made by young children by the size of the fingers on the bricks or the stones and how they were picked up and how they were laid,” she said. “So there’s so much history, that we don’t think about, because that’s not how we live today. But the history is in the things that we don’t look for that we need to start looking for”
And these bricks might be among the last remaining of their kind in the region.
Log dating done by experts at Virginia Tech suggests the cabin was built sometime in the 1860s.
The building with the overhang, the summer kitchen, comes in a little earlier, the experts said. Likely the 1840s.
“...Most plantation owners of course they didn’t have air conditioning so when they built their home, the slave owners cooked in a separate kitchen. In the winter, it was ok to cook in the house, the kitchen would heat the home,” Sullivan-Willis explained during our walk up the hill. “But in the summer you want to keep the house as cool as possible, so they used the summer kitchen more often.”
She said the unique overhang feature was likely a place where food items were hung.
If you look up inside the overhang, you’ll see a door.
A ladder would take you up to what were the sleeping quarters on the second floor.
The cabin is also two stories, though you’d never guess it from the outside. It’s what’s known as a saddlebag house plan, two log rooms that shared a central chimney where several families lived together.
“There’s a doorway on this side and there’s a doorway on the other side,” Sullivan-Willis pointed out. “And at one point in time there were porches all around.”
The buildings are now listed as one of Virginia’s historic landmarks.
The foundation for the Bowyer-Holladay House, which was home to more Preston descendants, is also listed as one of the state’s historic landmarks.
While the home itself held up until the 1970s, an outbuilding connected with the property still stands. Various cemeteries dot the landscape around Greenfield.
But of the cabin and the kitchen - an architectural historian noted several years ago their historic integrity was remarkable and quite possibly the only examples of their kind in Southwest Virginia today.
This makes it all the more surprising that up until a few years ago, even lifelong residents didn’t know their history.
“Nothing at all! Believe it or not, nothing at all,” said Curtis Brown.
Brown, a self-described country guy, has seen the gradual transformation of the Greenfield Park over the years.
I do remember this was a big farm and you could pay about $2.20 to see the cows and that’s all I knew about it,” he said. “And I didn’t drive back up here because it was only a dirt road all the way up here and I didn’t know anything about it.”
That changed in 2016 when the county decided to move the buildings to make room for industry.
It was a controversial move met with opposition by some members of the community.
Several of them demonstrated with signs and songs on the greenfield site.
“Why is Botetourt County trying to move this and erase our history?” asked one demonstrator when interviewed by WDBJ7.
Despite the outcry the buildings were eventually picked up and trucked to the new spot on a hill less than a mile away.
It was about that time Jim Johnston started paying attention, too.
“Our January 2022 meeting for the Historic Greenfield Advisory Council will be starting at 3:03″
Johnston chairs the Historic Greenfield Preservation Advisory Council.
He led January’s meeting from the county’s administration building, just across the street from the Greenfield structures.
“We have a motion from Lynne, do we have a second?”
Ever since the move, a group of volunteers has been focused on preserving and restoring the structures.
Johnston said they have big plans for the nearly 30 acre preservation site.
“We have a goal to have two structures that we can use for interpretive education uses for school children, tourists and the public here in Botetourt County and the surrounding area,” he explained.
Even though the buildings have been moved, they’re positioned next to each other just as they were before the move. The advisory council envisions the clearing as a space where students and tourists and locals can walk through. They want to get the kitchen’s fireplace and chimney working again to show visitors how it would have been used.
They envision visitors getting inside the buildings, touching the walls, examining the brick - seeing it all up close.
“Well I think it’s history and it needs to be preserved and far as the negative part about it - you don’t want to hear about it but yet you got to hear about it. It’s your history,” Brown said. “And you know history is something that needs to be documented, needs to be preserved and whichever way we can do it that’s why I want to be a part of it.”
“You can’t erase history,” Sullivan-Willis said. ”But you can preserve it and you can learn from it.”
She said, as was typical of the era, there are so few records about who the enslaved workers living in these buildings were.
It’s why tracing ancestry for African Americans in particular, usually hits a dead end.
“The family history comes from your family. You have to ask those questions and you have to listen. And so if you have family members that are 70, 80, 90 years old and they are still very lucid and they are still willing to talk, those are the people that I encourage family members - whether they’re part of Greenfield, Botetourt County, wherever your family is - and I don’t care what race they belong to, but especially for African American persons it’s important that you talk to your family members,” she explained. “Because that rich history that you have sometimes people don’t talk about it and it’s not a history that should be hidden, it’s a history that we should talk about and should be celebrated.”
And these buildings and their bricks, with all their little secrets, hold a key to the past.
“And we know so little,” she said. “We only know a drop in the bucket. And it’s not because we want to keep reliving the past. But I think you have to give credit where credit is due and I think that sometimes you have to know and acknowledge in order to respect and move forward.”
Sullivan-Willis added that though these are plain simple structures, they still hold value for their connections to the history of the local families and the region in general.
“I mean they weren’t warm. They weren’t insulated, they weren’t great. But they were just functional enough so that these people could work. You know?” she said. “And they were not always happy doing it, but they did their job and they did it so they could have a better future for the people that lived today. So we live today because of the hard work that they did - and that’s what I would like to see.”
And so that’s how a descendant of the enslaved workers and a descendant of Colonel William Preston have come to work side-by-side.
“I think the notion that we’re preserving the slave quarters I think that’s an education in itself and you can see that yes it’s spartan but it’s safe,” Preston said. “I think kids will get a sense of what it was like, and that’s what we’re trying to preserve and really we’re trying to emphasize that.”
Sullivan-Willis, Preston, Brown and Johnston and the dozen or so members are relying on donations to get their project from dreams to designs.
It has been far from easy.
They’re selling memorial bricks which will eventually pave the walking trail.
The county matches their fundraising up to $50,000 a year, so they’re also working to earn grants to supplement what they have.
The group has about $137,000 available, but the work ahead won’t be cheap.
The chimney project alone is estimated to cost about $120.000.
“It’s been a tough road,” Johnston admits. “Fundraising has been difficult. We had good plans starting out and then of course the pandemic hit which of course was a really huge setback to us.”
At the recent meeting, a country staffer said their requests for proposals for the project to restore the kitchen chimney came back with zero bid, with interested construction groups saying they were just too short on labor to take on another project.
It’s going back out for bid though.
And Steve Clinton, a member of Botetourt’s Board of Supervisors and the Historic Greenfield Advisory Council, recently encouraged the county to consider increased support to improve and promote the site. He argued that it’s just as valuable, just as important to the history of our early nation as Colonial Williamsburn or Jefferson’s Monticello.
Johnston is hopeful.
“We just feel like we need to support the community, the citizens in Botetourt County and the surrounding area,” he said.
For Johnston, it’s important to see the project through.
“We’ve made a lot of progress and we’ve got a good ways to go,” he said. “But over the last three years or four years we have actually come forward a good bit and we’re on the precipice, I think, of a lot of good things happening this year especially.”
The group envisions a space where the past, the present and the future will converge - where the Greenfield structures take on a whole new chapter in their history.
“We hope that once we get this park and everything together and get it up and running that there will be others that come behind us and improve on what we’ve done,” Brown said.
And for Sullivan-Willis, it is a job driven by a duty to the future, in honor of the past.
“It’s not always a pretty picture. But it is a story and it’s our story. And so I’m proud of my heritage because without my heritage, without the stuff that makes you, how could you be so tough? And how can you not be proud of that? Good bad or ugly - it is what it is and they were who they were and this is who we are. And so it’s nothing to be ashamed of, it’s something to celebrate.”
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