You approach Virginia's oldest plantation along a manicured path that wends its way past a pair of brick storage barns and a matched set of trim, two-story buildings that together form what the guidebooks exalt as a rare Queen Anne-style courtyard, the only surviving example in the United States. Just ahead, rolling lawns and a canopy of pecan, willow oak and English walnut trees frame an imposing, multi-tiered manor house complete with porticoed dormer windows and a welcoming 3]-foot pineapple finial crowning its mansard roof. Pretty impressive, especially when you consider that this isn't even the front entrance to Shirley Plantation.
Back in Colonial times, when Shirley and the other sprawling plantation properties of eastern Virginia were controlled by a handful of rich and politically powerful families, travelers came calling at the front door, just steps up from the James River, the country's first commercial thoroughfare.
Today's visitors arrive by the carriage entrance, but not to worry. Even if some customs have changed, others have not. There is still plenty of Southern hospitality and history at Shirley and its neighboring riverfront estates in rural Charles City County. Many are open daily to the public and can be toured with ease along meandering state Route 5, also known as the John Tyler Memorial Highway, connecting the former Colonial capital, Williamsburg, with Richmond.
Prosperous Shirley Plantation was already more than a century old in the early 1720s when Elizabeth Hill, great-granddaughter of its second owner, wed John Carter, eldest son of Robert "King" Carter, Virginia's wealthiest planter. At about the same time, construction was begun on the property's cube-shaped, brick mansion. Over the next century, when Virginia's plantocracy lived a golden age powered by African slave labor and tobacco profits, Shirley became well known for its extraordinary hospitality, offering shelter and sustenance to dozens of river travelers a day. On major occasions, the guest list might include elite local families such as the Byrds, Harrisons and Tylers or an early U.S. president.
Centuries later, generations 10 and 11 of the Hill-Carter clan still occupy the upper stories of the largely unaltered manor house, but the history-rich first floor supplies more than enough to keep visitors entertained. On guided tours, they can explore the elegant parlor where Robert E. Lee's parents were married with both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson in attendance and marvel at the graceful contours of a cantilevered staircase where musicians once played Virginia reels for merrymakers in the spacious hallway below. Or they can examine the nearly two dozen signatures etched on dining-room window panes by Shirley brides bent on testing the mettle of their newly acquired diamond wedding rings.
Views from those same windows reveal distant fields where corn, soy, wheat and cotton crops are still cultivated, a living reminder of the 800-acre plantation's all-important agricultural underpinnings.
More than just a Southern belle, Shirley Plantation is every inch a Southern survivor not only of early occupations and numerous wars, but of economic reversals, family upheavals and the ravages of time. Its role as a reconnaissance post and supply center, for instance, helped Continental army forces in America's struggle for independence. A century later during the Civil War, Shirley's strategic location near the Confederate capital of Richmond again brought the estate into harm's way. In the historic summer of 1864, the plantation was converted into a field hospital for thousands of wounded Union soldiers who fought nearby in a bloody, six-day battle between George McClellan's Army of the Potomac and Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.
Nearby Berkeley Plantation has witnessed its own tumultuous share of early American history from a privileged position above three miles of riverfront acreage. An early band of intrepid English Colonists, who disembarked in 1619, are remembered today for celebrating one of America's first Thanksgivings and -- brewing its first batches of corn whiskey, before succumbing to Indian massacres. During its 18th-century heyday, Berkeley was home to the influential Harrison clan, which produced a succession of distinguished Colonial leaders and, during the 1800s, the ninth and 23rd presidents of the United States.