Home of Patrick Henry To Become National
Federal Government Will Preserve
Historic Mansion and Grounds Which Have Been in Possession
of the Henry Descendants Since 1800
By Vera Palmer
[Sunday Magazine, Unidentified newspaper 1940s]
All those who love the Old Dominion
and know something of its great estates are more or less familiar
with this vast plantation where Patrick Henry lived, and where
he breathed his last. It is there in the little graveyard
that he rests. It is there, too, that his descendants carry
on the tradition of friendliness and hospitality that has
come down from his day.
Although it is pleasing to know that
the old place remains in the Henry family, for few old homes
have been so fortunate, yet it's even more satisfying to the
country as a whole to realize that within a very few years
it will probably be taken over by the Federal Government and
become a national shrine. Under private ownership, it is impossible
to forecast what the future might hold for the home of the
immortal orator of Virginia. But with the guardianship of
Uncle Sam, all his nephews and nieces for generations to come
will be able to visit the shrine. Then they will see where
and how one of the very greatest of that mighty group of eighteenth
century statesmen lived and worked and entertained his friends.
Red Hill is now owned by Lucy Gray
Henry Harrison, widow of Matthew Bland Harrison, and great-granddaughter
of Patrick Henry.
When Patrick Henry secured it in 1791,
after his retirement as Governor of Virginia, it contained
no fewer than 15,000 acres. Only 1,000 are now included in
the plantation. But there is still the same alluring view
looking out over the flats to the Staunton River as attracted
to this secluded spot in Charlotte County the Hanover-born
lawyer and orator.
He was not permitted to enjoy it long,
for in 1799 his earthly career terminated and he was taken
to the near-by burial ground where his second wife, Dorothea
Dandridge, has slept beside him through the years. There is
a marker at his grave, placed by the Massachusetts Chapter,
Sons of the American Revolution.
It is generally believed that there
was more open land during the residence of Patrick Henry than
there is today. When the place belonged to his grandson, William
Wirt Henry, father of Mrs. Harrison, it was yet more open.
Now there are woods on every side. They form a kind of verdant
frame for the grounds and for the surrounding fields.
Nation to Purchase Estate
About 18 months ago a bill was passed
by the Congress, and duly signed by President Roosevelt, empowering
the Government to purchase Red Hill for the nation. Now, according
to Mrs. Harrison, another bill is soon to be presented by
Senator Carter Glass, asking for an appropriation for the
reconstruction of the mansion, destroyed by fire about 16
years ago. This second bill also will ask an appropriation
for maintenance of the entire estate.
Although the place is still the property
of Mrs. Harrison, the National Park Service has sent workmen
to Red Hill ever since the President signed the bill for its
purchase. They care for the trees and look after the marvelous
boxwood, and are heartily welcomed by the owner.
Since the house was burned with most
of its contents, Mrs. Harrison has been living in what was
Patrick Henry's office, just across the yard and close to
the graveyard. Notwithstanding the fact that furniture and
other valuables went up in the flames, she regrets most of
all the loss of a very large package of her illustrious ancestor's
papers. She feels that these, probably, were a veritable treasure-house
of information regarding affairs of State, as well as relating
to his personal life.
This great Virginian traveled far,
financially speaking, from those days of his dreamy and dilatory
youth in Hanover County when he was the husband of Sarah Shelton.
That period was so vividly and dramatically portrayed by T.
Beverly Champbell in his pageant, "Liberty or Death,"
presented last July at Hanover Courthouse. Mrs. Harrison told
me that although there were 16 children, the majority of whom
survived their famous father or left heirs, his estate was
sufficient to make all of them rich.
Henry had land in various sections
of the State and counted his acres in the tens of thousands.
To give an idea of the comfortable little legacies that his
vast progeny inherited, 10,000 acres in Henry County went
to his daughter, Martha who was the wife of John Fontaine.
Red Hill was left to Patrick Henry's
two youngest sons, Winston and John. When Winston reached
his majority the larger part was cut off for him. John received
the house and the remainder of the land, which was then a
far more extensive property than it is today. Much has bee
taken from it since that time. John Henry died in 1868 and
the place went to his son, WIlliam Wirt Henry, who passed
away at the beginning of the present century.
The house built by Patrick Henry was
only a little more than half the size of what it destined
to become, for additions were made by the grandson-owner.
Where it once stood is now merely a hole in the ground, well
covered with periwinkle and other vines--an excellent place
for snakes. But the broad steps may yet be seen and the box-bordered
walks must be far lovelier than when the great Patrick and
his Dorothea dwelt there. As they strolled together up and
down the paths he pondered, doubtless, on the grave problems
then confronting the infant republic. . .she, also doubtless,
on those of the infants in the house. The imposing front gate
still stands, as does that at the other end of the garden,
looking out toward the river in the distance.
While few things were saved when the
mansion was destroyed, Mrs. Harrison showed me a pair of quaintly
designed salt-cellars, the containers which fitted into the
silver frames being of a rich royal blue glass. They are dated
"1777." She also called my attention to a pair of
money scales on the mantel in the livingroom which were used
constantly by the master of the plantation.
Several years ago Mrs. Harrison gave
to the Valentine Museum in this city a number of Henry relics,
including here great-grandfather's law books and his fee book.
The latter gives proof, she declared, that he had a good may
very profitable cases long before that of the famous "Parson's
Cause, " tried in Hanover Courthouse. This book convinces
his descendant that there is no truth in the theory that he
was a failure in his profession prior to that time.
Likeness Thought To Be From Life
Probably the most cherished possession
relative to Patrick Henry now owned by this vivacious great-granddaughter
is a photograph of the miniature which is thought to be the
only likeness of the famous orator made from life. It is included
in a picture of three mementos. The other two are a bracelet
made of his hair and a plate etched with a picture of the
Red Hill house. This miniature came to light only about 20
years ago and was unknown to William Wirt Henry when he wrote
his biography of his grandmother.
The news of its existence came to
Mrs. Harrison through the Anderson Galleries in New York,
the curator of which asked her if she could guarantee the
authenticity of a miniature of Henry which had been sent there
by a Mrs. Johnson of Lexington, Ky.
Mrs. Harrison immediately wrote to
Mrs. Johnson, asking its history. She replied by sending the
photograph of the three mementoes, and said that she had inherited
these three relics from her great-grandfather, Samuel Meredith
II, son of Samuel Meredith I, who had married a sister of
Patrick Henry, to whom they had been sent at Henry's death.
This miniature was the model used
by Keck for his beautiful head of Patrick Henry in the Hall
of Fame. Mrs. Harrison asserts that it is without doubt an
authentic picture. She has no idea what has become of the
original, but thinks it probable that the Anderson Galleries
have a record of it. Close by is a photograph of the portrait
by Sully done about 1810 from a miniature given by Mr. Henry
to his half-brother, Syme. It is understood that the famous
painter was aided by suggestions from contemporaries, especially
in regard to coloring and dress. He never saw Patrick Henry.
"A few years ago a copy of this
miniature was brought out in one of the Richmond papers,"
Mrs. Harrison said in commenting on it. "That is the
only copy which I have ever seen, and I was horribly disappointed
in it. It showed the kind of man that in Virginia is called
a ‘clodhopper.' It lacked all grace and had no dramatic force
nor fire of eloquence. I wondered how Sully could have made
his fine portrait from such a model. This is the miniature
which was supposed to have been painted by a French artist,
who heard Henry debate the British war debt case. But I could
see no trace of French art in it."
The proportions of the estate and
of the grounds surrounding the old house indicate that life
must have been easy and servants many at Red Hill when its
distinguished master held away over the vast land. There is
an old tale which declares that as the kitchen was a little
farther from the house than customary with old Virginia places,
a young Negro was put on a horse to carry, shuttle fashion,
all the food to and from the table. Don't let the practical
thought that he must have been something of an acrobat spoil
a good story.
Whether or not the horse and shuttle
yarn is true, it is safe to say that those waffles and that
fried chicken and batter-bread were hot when they reached
Marse Patrick's table. And how many chickens and how much
hot bread must have been consumed by all those young Henrys,
not to mention the guests!
Mrs. Harrison says that it is not
an unmixed blessing to own a famous estate and live there.
Tourists appear at all times and in all seasons from every
side of the house. They come determined to see, and many just
will not withdraw until that doubtful ambition has been realized.
Not long ago a gentleman appeared, and not at the front door.
When he was courteously informed that the house was not open
to the public, he replied that general rules did not apply
to him as he was a member of the Legislature in a distant
State. Mrs. Harrison told her uninvited visitor that solons
were shown no preference. So the would-be sightseer departed
reluctantly and not very happily.
How long it will be before the Government
takes over Red Hill is not known. But whenever that day comes,
Mrs. Harrison will experience a keen feeling of regret in
seeing the old place go out of the Henry family. But the certain
knowledge that it will be kept in perfect condition for all
time, and that it will become accessible to the entire nation
will, of course, largely compensate for the loss. It will
always be a quiet spot, undisturbed by the rush of modern
traffic, for it is several miles off the highway and the birds
and the whip-poor-wills will ever find a refuge there.
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