The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Nonprofit to acquire historic Germanna
Fort Germanna, the 18th-century site both Gov. Alexander Spotswood and early Germanic immigrants once called home, will change hands again in October.
Eighteen years after the University of Mary Washington ceased archeological work on the 60 acres in Orange County, the school is transferring ownership of the site to the nonprofit Memorial Foundation of the Germanna Colonies, also known as the Germanna Foundation.
UMW, which has owned the property since 1990, approved the land transfer to the foundation on an 8–3 vote by the board of visitors at a September meeting.
“Preserving it is the right thing to do,” UMW president Rick Hurley said at the meeting.
UMW CAN’T FUND PROJECT
Douglas Sanford, professor of historic preservation at the University of Mary Washington, has spent a large portion of his academic career researching and excavating Fort Germanna.
Spotswood established the mining colony of Germanna there in the early 1700s on what was the western frontier of Virginia. Between 1720 and 1732, Germanna was the Spotsylvania County seat, and Spotswood even built a palatial home on the site, known to many as the “enchanted castle.”
Sanford first got involved with the site as a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Virginia before continuing his efforts there as a professor at UMW.
When UMW ran out of money in 1995 to fund digs on the site, he even took the time to mow the grass on the property, where he held a summer archaeology institute for students.
The school still can’t fund research on the site, and Sanford has since moved his summer archaeology institute to Stratford Hall in Westmoreland. But when the property transfers to the Germanna Foundation, which will independently fund research, he’s hoping to still be involved.
“Our work was primarily to further understand Spotswood’s Enchanted Castle,” he said. “It’s a very important site architecturally. It’s one of the earliest examples of Georgian architecture in Virginia.”
Sanford said Spotswood’s involvement coincides with a rapidly changing period for the site.
“The contrast between the mansion and the frontier was stark,” he said. “He’s there at a moment when the community is falling apart. The Germans don’t like Spotswood. The [county] courthouse has been moved from Germanna. The institutions he has built around his Enchanted Castle are falling apart. Even the road is moved.”
CHALLENGES OF THE SITE
There are no surviving images of the Enchanted Castle, which presents a challenge for archaeologists.
But even more challenging are the layers of history associated with the site.
Before the Enchanted Castle was constructed in the 1720s, Sanford believes the site was home to the original Fort Germanna. Excavations at the property also have to contend with prehistoric artifacts, remnants from the abandoned 18th-century county seat for Spotsylvania and odds and ends from nearby Civil War battles.
“It’s a real challenge in terms of logistics and funding,” Sanford said.
In 1995, when funding ran out, Sanford said the college attempted raising money through grants but could never get enough to perform the work necessary. Sanford’s research interests also went elsewhere.
“Part of our mission is that if we can’t carry out the research, we need to preserve it for the future,” he said.
At the site, Sanford’s team uncovered “an incredible range of artifacts.”
UMW’s collection includes architectural materials, hardware, buttons, personal items, ceramics and glass from the site.
The site’s future became uncertain in 1983, when then-owner John Reynolds wanted to develop the land for residential use.
It was purchased by Historic Gordonsville Inc. for $250,000 and subsequently given in June 1990 to UMW and the state, in the hopes that they would have the money necessary to excavate the site.
The site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Register of Historic Landmarks.
Three members of the board of visitors—Jud Honaker, Mark Ingrao and Dan Steen—voted against the recent property transfer, questioning whether the foundation could overcome the same obstacles UMW had and citing concerns about what the foundation might ultimately do with the property.
Steen asked the rest of the board whether they were content handing the property over to a foundation that had not done any significant fundraising for the project yet and does not currently have a chief operating officer. But Hurley defended the foundation, saying he has confidence in the individuals who will be leading the project.
He also noted that the contract stipulates UMW involvement with the property and that if the work is not done within an agreed-upon timeframe, ownership will revert to the college.
GERMANNA FOUNDATION’S PLANS
J. Marc Wheat, president of the foundation’s trustees, said the foundation is most interested in finding evidence of the five-sided Fort Germanna. He is also interested in evidence of the church within the fort, which he said was the first reformed German church in America.
The foundation currently publishes histories and genealogies of families who descended from the Germanna colonists and from Spotswood. It also conducts annual reunions and has its 300th anniversary of the colony coming up in July 2014.
He said the anniversary energized UMW and the commonwealth to go ahead with the transfer.
“The commonwealth saw this as an opportunity to make things happen that haven’t for 18 years,” Wheat said. “It’s time to make this a valuable resource for the community.”
The foundation also owns 270 acres bordering the Fort Germanna property along the Rapidan River, which they dubbed “Siegen Forest” after the area of Germany the colonists hailed from.
Wheat was unable to provide a concrete timeline, but said he hopes to have the site cleaned and ready for work by spring 2014. There are also plans to build a lab for cleaning and preserving artifacts off-site.
Wheat said he is aware of the logistical and funding concerns.
“We have pledges in hand pending ownership of the site, though,” he said.
“It will be a real trick to find where the fort was,” he added.
He intends to establish an advisory board, including Sanford and others who have worked on the site as well as officials from other historic properties like Jamestown.
He said that the foundation and UMW have, “a good, clear-sighted understanding that people who are passionate about their history as Americans are going to be good stewards.”
“It’s a complex place and there are lots of stories we need to tell about it,” Wheat said.
Lindley Estes: 540/735-1976