Few eras in American history stir imaginations or passions as the memory of the antebellum South does. This period, epitomized by the white-columned manor house at the center of plantation life, has been idealized and castigated for the graciousness and arrogance, the gentility and cruelty which it represented.
Visitors to Virginia don't need to rely on imagination alone to envision life on these legendary estates, but can tour "Plantation Country," which boasts some of the oldest and grandest plantation homes in the South.
A block ticket, available May through October, allows visitors to spend a weekend or a week "plantation hopping." Tickets include a guided tour of each of five manor houses, followed by time to enjoy the grounds, gardens and dependencies.
These properties offer much more than a glimpse of pre-Civil War life. Over two centuries ago, the ambitious planters who carved a new country out of the wilderness erected the stately homes which, today, provide rich historical access to our country's earliest days, its bloodiest struggles, its most influential leaders.
A two-lane country road known as Virgina Route 5 connects the plantations. It meanders east from Richmond, through ancient woods along the James River and across fields fertile with the sweat of slaves, the blood of young soldiers in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Rutted carriage lanes lead the visitor off the main road through groves of trees where the voices of ghosts often seem more real than imagined. With the first glimpse of the manor house, standing serene and majestic up ahead, one has the sensation of crossing an invisible threshold into an age long past.
* Shirley Plantation: The present mansion, begun in 1723, is an architectural treasure and residence to the 10th generation of the original Hill-Carter family. A huge pineapple finial sits on the // roof between two chimneys, proclaiming hospitality in the home where Washington and Jefferson were once welcomed.
During the Revolution, Shirley served as a supply center for the Continental Army and later was birthplace to Robert E. Lee's mother and site of her marriage to "Light Horse Harry" Lee.
Inside is the famous "Flying Staircase," a carved walnut staircase rising three stories without any apparent means of support. Outside, a number of quaint brick outbuildings form a unique Queen Anne forecourt. Included here is the two-story kitchen, separated from the main house because of danger of fire, and the laundry house where young Robert E. Lee received his early schooling.
The river side of the manor is shaded by a gnarled willow oak more than 300 years old, and affords panoramas of the James which, sadly, are blemished by occasional smokestacks on the opposite bank, a reminder that the visitor is still firmly in the 20th century.
Shirley is open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
* Berkeley: The birthplace of Benjamin Harrison, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and William Henry Harrison, ninth U.S. president, Berkeley is also known as the plantation of "firsts."
Here English settlers celebrated the first official Thanksgiving a year before the Pilgrims arrived in New England. Thirty-eight weary settlers landed here in December 1619 and proclaimed that their day of arrival be perpetually kept as a day of thanks to God. Later, the enterprising Colonists concocted a brew of Indian corn here that became the original bourbon whiskey.
Berkeley was the site of the first commercial shipyard during the Revolution. During the Civil War, not only were observation balloons used here for the first time to study troop movements, but the haunting bugle call of "Taps" was composed while the Army of the Potomac was encamped around Berkeley. The main house served as General McClellan's headquarters and as an improvised Union hospital. Lincoln visited Berkeley twice to review the troops.
Visitors tour the manor house, which is restored to its former elegance, and stroll through terraced gardens sloping down to the river, where a reproduction of the ship that brought the original settlers is silhouetted against the James. Berkeley is open daily, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
* Evelynton: Home to the Ruffin family since 1847, the original house was destroyed during the Civil War, a terrible irony since it's believed that Edward Ruffin fired the first shot at Fort Sumter. It was not until the 1930s that the family had a Georgian Revival manor house constructed over the original foundation.
Named for the daughter of William Byrd, the founder of Richmond, who sold part of his own expansive plantation to the Ruffins, Evelynton is said to be haunted by its namesake.
The house, grounds and gardens are open for tours daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
* Sherwood Forest: Only recently opened to the public, Sherwood Forest was owned by two U.S. presidents, William Harrison and John Tyler, and is the current residence of President Tyler's grandson. Originally known as Walnut Grove, the plantation was renamed when President Tyler left office and his rival, Henry Clay, commented, "Like Robin Hood, he is going off to his Sherwood Forest." Tyler was not offended, and the name stuck.
Though the house is only one-room wide, it is the longest frame house in America, and contains 44 rooms. It did not survive the Civil War unscathed, and visitors can see the large sword slash on the front door and scars left on a dining-room door when Union troops tried to force their way in.
The tour culminates in the ballroom, which President Tyler and his wife added in 1845. It is bright and airy, with floor-to-ceiling windows, today draped in the same-colored fabric, bright green, that Mrs. Tyler ordered "to match the green lawn." Though only 12 feet wide, the ballroom is 68 feet long, perfectly designed for dancing the Virginia Reel.
On the grounds outside, visitors can see the original 17th-century tobacco barn and other dependencies. Open dally, a.m. to 5 p.m.
* Weston Plantation: Leave Route 5 and cross the Benjamin Harrison Bridge to reach Hopewell, where Weston manor overlooks the Appomattox River. The house, an example of late-Georgian plantation architecture, was reputedly built as a wedding present for one of the Eppes family in the 1700s. It retains most of its original hand-carved woodwork.
Shelled by Northern gunboats during the Civil War, the house was subsequently commandeered as headquarters for Union General Sheridan. During later restoration, an unexploded cannonball was found lodged in the framing of the dining room and is still available for visitors to see.
Weston is the only house on the plantation tour where visitors can view all three floors, including upstairs bedrooms and the winter kitchen in the basement with its dumbwaiter and the original crane still over the cooking fireplace. Open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
* Appomattox Manor: Though not part of the plantation tour, Appomattox Manor, also in Hopewell, makes a nice addition and is free. The house, in what is known as City Point, overlooks the convergence of the James and Appomattox rivers. Open daily, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Block tickets for touring five of the above plantations are on sale Sunday through Friday, for $28.50, at each participating estate.
A leisurely "Plantation Cruise" is available aboard Richmond's riverboat, the Annabel Lee. Tickets include a buffet lunch, a riverside approach to the plantations and tours of three of the estates. Reservations are recommended for the cruise, which runs Tuesdays, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Cost: $38.95, children $10.95. Call (800) 752-7093.