Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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Lend a hand to Chatham?

MORE: Read more news from Fredericksburg

Lynda Baer, one of the area residents urging creation of a Friends of Chatham group, stands in the Colonial estate's 20th-century garden in Stafford County.

As reported in Monday’s Free Lance-Star, some of the stalwarts of the Fredericksburg area’s history scene are banding together to try and benefit one of the area’s elderly grande dames: Chatham.

Of this site on the Rappahannock River overlooking the city, the National Park Service says, “Few houses in America have witnessed as many important events and hosted as many famous people as Chatham.”

Built between 1768 and 1771 by William Fitzhugh, a contemporary and friend of George Washington, the Georgian-style house was long the focus of of a large plantation. It is named after William Pitt, the Earl of Chatham back in our mother country, England.

Nowadays, Chatham is showing her 240 years a bit, and could use a bit of makeup.

Five area residents–Lynda Baer, Jane Conner, Charlie McDaniel, Jim Padgett, Sara Poore and Scott Walker–propose to create a friends group for the venerable site that could raise money to help Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park with sprucing up the Georgian-Style house and its grounds.

Other national parks have partnered with such private, tax-deductible groups since the 1980s, with great success. (As the story notes, our park has done just that at one of its sites with Friends of Wilderness Battlefield.)

The possibilities for projects that a private, nonprofit group here could fund are many, Baer says. Park staff members and local residents have begun sketching out a “dream list” with a number of ideas, she said, including these (among many others):

– Restore the Pan statue in Chatham’s Greek temple that was shattered by vandals. It was once the most photographed single object on the estate. Recently, part of the cornice of the temple’s roof cracked and fell to the ground.

– Stabilize the mansion’s summer house.

– Create a slave-cabin exhibit to illustrate how Chatham’s hundreds of African Americans made the plantation function, and how these people lived.

– Restore and interpret the estate’s kitchen or laundry outbuildings.

Baer, who volunteers at Chatham, has been fond of the place for decades.

Entering Chatham’s grounds the other day, Baer recalled the moment she was bewitched during a visit in 1981. She’d just gone to work for the Fredericksburg Department and Parks and Recreation, and her boss, Ralph Smith, was showing her around.

“That is when I first fell in love with the Chatham grounds,” she said. “My father’s mother had prize roses surrounded by a stone wall and boxwood, and the sights and smells at Chatham instantly reminded me of her garden.”

“I fell in love with the building later during “Chatham by Candlelight,” a History at Sunset program, on a hot August night maybe 10 years ago. I was charmed by the stories of every different family that has lived there, the people who have visited there and the events that have happened there.”

For some of the history of Chatham, click here.

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