Sunday, September 26, 2010

Prospect Hill, Virginia

The Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute has held seven, semi-annual seminars for high school and middle school teachers over the past three years (2007-2010) at Prospect Hill located near Charlottesville, Virginia.  Following is a brief history of this historic Plantation Inn.

"Roger Thompson, the first settler to this part of Virginia arrived sometime  about 1699 when this was the Western Frontier.  There were few natives between the Tidewater area and the Shenendoah Valley and Thompson selected as his homesite a place on a hilltop with a strong spring nearby.  This simple 10 X 10 log cabin still houses guests today, more than three hundred years later.  A few years later when he was beginning to show success as a farmer in this wilderness he married a widow, Mary English, who brought her husband’s wealth and sons to help farm.  Thompson built a larger cottage and the boys stayed in the original log cabin, thereby giving it the current name, "the Boys’ Cabin."

Soon the Thompson family grew to 13 children and Thompson built the nucleus of what became the manor house in 1732, the year George Washington was born. This parlor in the manor today still has the original windows and glass panes from that time.  In 1796 the farm of then 400 acres was sold to a relative from adjoining Albemarle County, Richmond Terrill and his wife Elizabeth Overton Terrill, who were absentee owners and introduced the first slaves to work the fields.  The farm had now grown from a small farm on the frontier into a plantation where others  instead of the planter worked.  About 20 field-hands lived in the slave quarters named after the slave foreman who also lived there, Uncle Guy, and this present two story guest cottage has been called Uncle Guy’s house ever since.

Terrill later sold Prospect Hill to his wife’s relative, William Overton and his wife, Martha Gilliam Overton, in 1840 who soon expanded the house adding two wings on the east and west wings for a dining room and ballroom for entertaining and they and their children and grandchildren lived here until the last passed away in 1969.  Due to the area switching to wheat farming during the Revolution, the Overton’s extended their wealth in the ensuing years by exporting this high quality wheat to Europe in the 1840’s and 1850’s and acquired more land and slaves to work it and also added the Carriage House with more slave quarters above, called the Grooms’ Quarters.

Their son, William G. Overton, Jr. gradated from Virginia Military Institute in 1859, second lowest in his class due to many demerits.  He was commissioned a Lieutenant in the Provisional Vrmy of Virginia and was assigned to enlist the newly immigrant Irish fleeing from the potato famine in their homeland which, after Virginia secceeded [from the Union], was later formed into the Irish Battallion, the First Virginia, under his former professor at VMI, Gen.Stonewall Jackson’s Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, under Gen. Robert E. Lee.  Overton would serve in every battle with Lee until the surrender at Appomattox Court House in April, 1865.  Overton and his former slave, Sanco Pansy Scott, walked home barefoot after his parole.

In 1875 Overton married Nannie Branch Giles, the granddaughter of a VA governor and contemporary of Thomas Jefferson, although they were political enemies.  Nannie had also joined the Confederacy and was a bill signer at the Confederate Mint at Charlotte, NC during the war.  She took over the household accounts and quickly realized that Prospect Hill was losing a great deal of money farming since there was a terrible economic depression in the South as all the railroads that had been built out West during the war and the nation’s breadbasket with them.

Nannie soon began taking in guests from Richmond and Washington, DC for the summer at Prospect Hill.  One of her relatives had not resigned his US commission during the war and remained in the Union Army.  His wearing of his uniform did not please Overton and became a thorn in their marriage.  Nannie and her daughters, Frances and Marcie, inherited this General Giles home in Washington and opened a boarding house catering to women who worked in Congress, bringing them home to Prospect Hill during summer when Congress was in recess. 

The manor house was expanded with two more bedrooms, a pantry, and later the kitchen was brought into the house as well.  Business gradually faded in the 1920’s and 30’s for economic as well as comfort reasons.  Prospect Hill had two modern bathrooms added after the First World War but no electricity or running hot water until 1953 and no central heat until 1969. Bill and Mireille Sheehan and their children, Michael and Nancy, bought Prospect Hill in 1977 and began the restoration of the manor and renovation of the original outbuildings and slave quarters into guest rooms for a country inn and restaurant." 

Over the past 33 years the Sheehans have received many awards for excellence for both inn-keeping and fine dining. The warmth of their, and their staff's, genuine friendship and dedication, together with the historical roots, character and atmosphere of Prospect Hill, combine to make it the perfect setting to teach and to study the lives and writings of the Founders of the Republic.
From: Bill Sheehan, "Prospect Hill History"

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