The Howards of Kenmore

Many families have called Historic Kenmore “home” over its more than two centuries of existence.  In late 19th century, the Howards lived in the grand brick home and one Howard in particular left an everlasting mark on the house and its history.

William Key Howard, Sr. was born in Maryland in 1829 (and was related to Francis Scott Key).  Howard Sr. married twice, first to Agnes Schley and then to Clara Randolph.  He and Clara had three sons: William Jr., Allan, and Clarence.

William Key Howard, Jr., the eldest son and the most important Howard in Kenmore’s history, was born on December 11, 1861 in Richmond but the family lived in Baltimore during his early years.

WKHowardJryouth

A young William Key Howard, Jr.

According to Howard, Jr’s obituary, during the Civil War, both of his parents were accused of being Confederate spies and jailed. Junior successfully appealed for his mother’s release. Another source states that Howard, Sr. joined the Confederate Army in 1861, was captured and imprisoned at Elmira, NY in 1864, and then paroled at war’s end.

After the Civil War, the family moved to an estate near Fredericksburg called “Altoona” and Junior received a private education in Fredericksburg and in Hanover County.

Howard, Sr. purchased Kenmore in 1881.  The Howards found the house’s plasterwork so damaged that Senior considered removing the ceilings.  Howard, Jr. convinced his father to let him restore them instead, even though Junior was restricted to a cast to correct a spinal problem.

William Key Howard, Jr. worked on the ceilings for nearly all of 1882. He lay on his back on scaffolding, used homemade tools to clean off dirt and debris, and injected hide glue behind loose plasterwork.  An adept woodcarver, Howard Jr. enjoyed creating items like a walnut-shaped ring box, a goblet with rings around the stem all made for a single piece of wood, and another goblet carved from a coconut.

When it came time to replace specific decorative plater pieces, Howard Jr. was well-suited to carving the new molds to copy and remake the original plaster shapes.  With great foresight, he also used tinted plaster so future generations could know they were not original pieces.

Ceiling-Hook

The central portion of the Dining Room ceiling at Kenmore. To the extreme left are two plaster leaf replacement pieces made by William Key Howard, Jr.

Ceiling-Hook-detail

A hook and surrounding flowers in the center of Kenmore’s Dining Room ceiling date from William Key Howard, Jr.’s restoration efforts and has been left, in part, as a memorial to his work to save the ceilings.

Along with the ceilings, William Key Howard, Jr. left his mark on Kenmore in one other unusual way. He and the Howard family in general were boating enthusiasts.  Howard Jr. enjoyed rowing in a racing scull on the Rappahannock River regularly. His racing scull is still in Kenmore’s attic today. At the time that Junior was rowing, there was a large tree growing on the south side of the house.  He rigged a rope and pulley system in the tree so that he could hoist his scull up high enough to swing it through the attic window and store it there in the off-season. Unfortunately, the scull was still in the attic years later when the tree came down.  The only other way to reach Kenmore’s attic is up a very narrow, twisty staircase – too narrow and twisty for a racing scull.  And so, the scull remains in the attic to this day, a reminder of Howard Jr.’s life at Kenmore.

kenmore-behind-the-scenes-8

William Key Howard, Jr.’s rowing scull in the attic at Kenmore.

HowardBoatPDQ

The Howard family were boating enthusiasts and owned a variety of boats over the years, included the “PDQ”.

In 1887, Howard, Sr. conveyed Kenmore to Howard Jr. for $4,000 to hold in trust.  It appears that both Senior and Clara continued to live at Kenmore while Howard, Jr. took an interest in electrical engineering and headed south to build power plants.  In Georgia, he married Florence Lamar Moore of Griffin about 1895.  They had 4 children: John, Clara, Francis, Agnes (Betsy).

William Key Howard, Sr. died on February 10, 1899.

Howard, Jr. returned to Virginia in 1902 to build an ice plant in Urbanna. Three years later, the Howard family together conveyed Kenmore to youngest brother, Clarence. The 1910 census, however, still lists Clara as head of the household. Living with her were Clarence, then 39, a merchant; his wife of ten years, Mary F., aged 31, a nephew, Clarence Harrison, 30; an aging boarder and a 7-year-old boy.  By March 1914, the Howards decided to further subdivide and sell the property, apparently to settle debts owed to the Conway, Gordon & Garnett National Bank of Fredericksburg.

WKHowardJr

An older William Key Howard, Jr.

Junior finally returned to Fredericksburg (but not to Kenmore) in 1909 to be the superintendent of the municipally-owned electric light plant.  Then, he went to South Boston to work at another light plant until his retirement in 1931.  Once more he returned to Fredericksburg, where he died on December 28, 1934. He was buried in the family plot at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Betty Washington’s Cookbooks

In the 18th century, more women began to publish cookbooks.  Previously, writing or compiling such books was the domain professional cooks or chefs, who were men.  Two of these women and their books, Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy and Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife, or, Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion, ended up in Betty Washington Lewis’s personal library.  She no doubt referenced these two useful books as much as I have referenced them in my blog posts about cooking here, here, and here.  Both Glasse and Smith were part of an innovative movement to create guide books on cooking for common people in a common language without pretense.

Cookbooks on the Probate

The “Compleat House Wife” and “Glasses Cookery” listed on the probate inventory made following Fielding Lewis’s death in 1782.

Hannah Glasse was born in London in 1708 and had her first book Compleat Confectioner published in 1742. Her second book The Art of Cookery was published in 1747.  This book on cookery was so popular that it went through ten editions before her death in 1770.  It was reissued another sixteen times after 1770, including two American editions in 1805 and 1812. The book’s commercial success did not translate to personal success for Glasse, however.  Unfortunate business decisions eventually led to her declaring bankruptcy, selling the copyright to The Art of Cookery, and being sent to debtor’s jail.

Hannah Glasse's 'Art of Cookery' frontispiece

The frontispiece of Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. Credit: Wikipedia

Eliza Smith and her life are shrouded in mystery and, unfortunately, not much is known about her. She wrote only one book, The Compleat Housewife, or, Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion, which went through eighteen editions and became the first cook book published in Colonial America in 1742.  According to her own account, what she presented in the book was from her own experience.  Her recipes and tips came from a “space of thirty years and upwards during which time I have been constantly employed in fashionable and noble families.”

Eliza Smith's 'The Compleat Housewife' frontispiece

Frontispiece of Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife: or Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion. Credit: Wikipedia

When these two ladies were writing in the mid-18th century, more people were residing in urban areas as part of the emerging middle and gentry classes.  These new relatively or very affluent groups were desperate to keep up with fashions, manners, and lifestyle of the aristocracy.

This often meant the middle-class housewife needed assistance with how to run a household or plan multi-course meals to keep her from committing embarrassing social faux paus.  The old commercial cook books were usually unhelpful since they were written by grand chefs for other cooks working in courts or mansions with large kitchen staffs. These books were filled with technical language and extravagant recipes with expensive ingredients.

New writers like Glasse and Smith became popular because they offered practical advice, common sense recipes, and organization.  They wrote their books to help average middle and gentry class homes with small staffs, basic cooking equipment, and a limited budget. As Glasse stated, she wrote her book “in so full and plain a manner, that most ignorant Person, who can read, will know how to do Cookery well”[1] She only hoped her book would “answer the ends I intend it for; which is to improve the servants, and save the ladies a great deal of trouble.”[2]  Eliza Smith had a similar goal, writing that her book would be a guide for the housewife where “the receipts [recipes] are all suitable to English constitutions…wholesome, toothsome, all practicable and easy to be performed; here are those proper for a frugal, and also for a sumptuous table.”[3]

Indeed, both women’s recipes had simple instructions, accessible ingredients, easy and practical help with weights, measurements, and cooking times.  Recipes had no French vocabulary, no complicated patisserie, and no confusing directions. They were just simple, delicious dishes any housewife could make or have servants make without formal culinary training.  Eliza Smith offered over a dozen different types of stew with everything from beef to eel and her pancake and apple fritter recipes sound delicious! Hannah Glasse included over 20 different types of pies, an easy and lovely syllabub, and even the first recorded recipe for curry.

'To make a Currey the India Way' from Hannah Glasse

Recipe for curry from Glasse’s “The Art of Cookery”. Credit: Wikipedia

The 18th century middle or gentry class housewife and her staff, e.g. Betty and enslaved cook Rachel, could use these books to create meals that no longer consisted of just boiled meat and a vegetable. Now, they could create a range of dishes that would not be out of place on the table of a Lord or Lady.  Betty could have dinners prepared for the week, plan special dishes for a party, or undertake extravagant desserts for her Christmastime table.  All would delight guests who were using the same books.

The Art of Cookery and The Compleat Housewife democratized cooking, which is something Betty Washington Lewis, sister of the first American president, would have appreciated.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, T. Maiden for A. Lemoine & J. Roe, 1802: pg 3

[2] Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, J. Rivington and Sons [and 25 others], 1788: pg 4

[3] Eliza Smith, The Compleat Housewife: or, Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion, J. and J. Pemberton, 1739: Preface

“I Look Not On Things Beneath Me”: Our Snobbiest Artifact, a Wax Seal Stamp That Needs To Dial Back that Sass

‘Haughty’ is not a word used often to describe artifacts.  That is, of course, unless the artifact in question is a glass wax seal stamp with a kind of snooty message on it.  Of diminutive size (smaller than a dime) with a pretty little flower in the center it proclaims in reversed letters “I Look Not on Things Beneath Me”.

Kenmore Wax Seal Stamp 1

Wax seal stamp excavated by archaeologists at Historic Kenmore.

Seal Excavated at Kenmore 2

Closeup view of the wax seal through a digital microscope.

Drawing of Wax Seal Stamp

A drawing of the wax seal stamp with the text reversed so it is legible.

Initially thought to be a signet ring, archaeologists at Ferry Farm reexamined it and determined the itty bitty blue piece of glass is actually a wax seal stamp used to personalize letters.  This seems to be an odd choice of message for the recipient of a correspondence but who are we to judge?

Found at Kenmore, this pretty little thing likely dates to the late Victorian period and would have been worn by a woman, possibly at the end of a chatelaine.  Chatelaines were all the rage with Victorian women and consisted of a long chain worn around the neck with charms at the end, which could be tucked into one’s dress or belt.  These charms often had practical uses.  Common chatelaine charms included tiny scissors, cute vials, petite magnifying glasses, and minuscule mirrors.

Unfortunately, some fashionable lady lost this at Kenmore over a hundred years ago, possibly while wandering through the garden, drink in hand, and idly thinking of sending off a letter sealed with a snarky wax message reminding everyone that “I Look Not on Things Beneath Me.”

It’s a good thing that we archaeologists don’t take the same attitude.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

6th Annual “A Wee Christmas at Kenmore” [Photos]

Visit Kenmore this holiday season for an exhibit of highly detailed, replica dollhouses – including the mansion – and miniatures in the Crowninshield Museum Building. Share memories of your dollhouse with your family as you explore life in miniature! Put your mind and eye to the test with our “I Spy Miniatures” challenge – fun for young and old alike!  Here is just a sampling of the dollhouses and miniatures on display this year…

Kenmore’s hours are Monday – Saturday from 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. and Sunday from 12:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. Kenmore is closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Exhibit ends on December 30. Admission to Kenmore and exhibit: $12 adults, $6 students, under 6 free. Exhibit only: $6 adults, $3 students, under 6 free.

Learn more here.

Mickey Owen Was Found in the Plaster!: A Look at Some Curious Inclusions Found in Plaster from Historic Kenmore

Historic Kenmore is known for the unique decorative plasterwork seen on many of its ceilings. However, some of its most unusual pieces of plaster were discovered during repair work being done in 1989. These were pieces of plaster that contained large clumps of animal hair and newspaper. An inspection of this plaster, considering an architectural artifact, in the Archaeology Lab has led to several theories about the reasons for these unconventional inclusions. But before we discuss these, it is important to first understand how historic plaster was made and used.

chamber-ceiling

Decorative plasterwork ceiling in the bed chamber at Historic Kenmore.

Plaster was one of the main finishes for interior walls in the United States until the introduction of drywall in the mid-20th century. The two main types produced were lime plaster and gypsum plaster. Lime plaster was made of water, lime, sand, and a fibrous material. The lime could be derived from limestone or oyster shells. The plaster found in Kenmore was probably made from oyster shells from the Rappahannock River, instead of limestone which is not native to this region. The fibrous material was some sort of animal hair such as horsehair, cow hair, hog hair, or even yak hair.[1] Gypsum plaster was introduced in the early 19th century and was often used in conjunction with lime plaster. Gypsum plaster did not require a fibrous binder and would eventually replace lime plaster as a finish coat.

Plaster was applied in a three-coat process. First was the scratch coat, which had the highest hair content of the three coats. This coat was applied to lathe board causing the plaster to ‘key’ (adhere) into the spaces between the lathes. Next, was the brown coat, which was dark in color due to its high content of sand. The last coat to be applied was the finish coat. This coat contained no hair, little sand, and a slightly higher lime content to create a smooth white finish.[2]

Now that we have a better understanding of how plaster is produced, let’s take a closer look at the unique pieces found at Kenmore. As discussed earlier, it is not unusual to find animal hair in plaster; however, the pieces pulled from Kenmore have exceptionally large clumps of hair not normally seen. Hair was added to plaster to act as a binder. It helped to hold the plaster together, reduce shrinkage, and improve strength.[3] Contrary to what one may believe, the process for obtaining hair for plaster was very selective. The hair had to be long, freshly cut, clean, non-greasy, and dry in order to be used in plaster. It also does not appear that people used hair from their own animals; instead, they bought hair from a tanner’s yard or a merchant. When choosing a hair type, horsehair was favored for its length and strength compared to cow or hog hair. [4]  However, horsehair was probably the most expensive and difficult to obtain out of the three.

Plaster 01

A piece of Kenmore plaster that contains a large clump of animal hair.

Once the hair was acquired, it was mixed with the plaster. During this process, it was important to evenly distribute the hair throughout the plaster.[5] This was where the tradesmen making the plaster pieces found at Kenmore made a mistake. They did not distribute the hair properly causing the large clumps that we see. This caused problems when applying the plaster as well as limited the plaster’s strength.[6] Therefore, it can be concluded that the person making this plaster may not have been trained in plasterwork or was a worker under a tradesman who did not follow directions properly. Perhaps this is some experimental plaster made by William Key Howard, Jr. before he started his restoration of the decorative plasterwork on the ceilings of Kenmore in the post-Civil War period.

The next interesting inclusion found in the Kenmore plaster was pieces of newspaper. Newspaper was not used historically for the manufacture of plaster; however, a dozen or so pieces of plaster pulled from Kenmore included newspaper fragments. The newspaper appears to have been torn or balled up and then covered in plaster. A skilled tradesman would not have made or applied plaster in this way. From this, we can conclude that whoever applied this plaster was not trained.

Plaster 02

A piece of Kenmore plaster that contains both animal hair and newspaper.

From inspection of the newspaper, perhaps we can learn a little more about who may have done this. Unfortunately, no dates can be found on the newspaper pieces to give a specific time frame. However, from careful inspection of the incomplete newspaper pieces, it appears that many of the pieces are from the comics or the sports section. On one of the small pieces the words Dodgers, shortstop, and Mickey Owen can be identified. From this, it can be assumed that the paper dates between 1941-1945, the years in which Mickey Owen played for the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. The Brooklyn Dodgers experienced winning seasons in both 1941 and 1942, due to the skill of Mickey Owen and his teammates.[7] Therefore, it is likely that the newspaper article came from one of these two years. The time frame can also be limited to the months encompassing baseball season (April to October).

Plaster 03

Kenmore plaster bit containing newspaper that mentions Mickey Owen playing for the Dodgers.

With a probable date range for the plaster pieces, we can begin to look at who occupied Kenmore at the time and why they might have made plaster in this way. In 1922, Kenmore was purchased by the Kenmore Association and was operating as a museum by the 1940s. In the early ‘40s, the Kenmore Association was concluding one of its restorations. A possible theory for the inclusion of newspaper in the plaster is that this plaster was used to patch a hole during the restoration. The small amount of plaster found with newspaper inclusions and the way the newspaper is distributed throughout the plaster, with most of the newspaper layered on the bottom and consecutive layers of plaster seen on top, does point to a possible patch job,.

From the Kenmore 1941 correspondence records, a few references to repair work inside the house were found. In June of 1941, there is a reference to rewiring being done in the house. There is also mention of fire alarms being installed so that they do not show. Finally, the interior walls and ceilings were painted. On the receipt, the painter lists that some of the walls had to be mended. This is the most probable repair in which the newspaper would have been used as a patch. The hired painter was likely not trained in making/repairing historic plaster. This tradesman probably wanted a quick fix and layered newspaper over the spot and plastered over that in order to finish the paint job.

While plaster may not be the most exciting building material to study, it can give a lot of useful insight into the construction and repair of a house. Conclusions about the people commissioning and conducting the work can be derived from the composition and application of plaster. With a little investigation, even unusual inclusions in the plaster can lead to some surprising discoveries about the people who lived and worked at Kenmore and about the life story of Kenmore itself.

Tessa Honeycutt, UMW Student
Fleming Smith Scholar

[1] Henry, Allison, and John Stewart. Practical Building Conservation: Mortars, Plasters and Renders. Ashgate, 2009.

[2] Practical Building Conservation

[3] Practical Building Conservation

[4] Hodgson, Frederick Thomas. Plaster and Plastering: Mortars and Cements, How to Make and How to Use. New York: The Industrial Publication Company, 1901

[5] Ibid.

[6] Practical Building Conservation

[7] Ibid.

Gingerbread House Construction Workshop & A Wee Christmas Workshop [Photos]

On Saturday, November 19, George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore both presented their annual holiday workshops devoted to teaching attendees either how to build a gingerbread house or to create a holiday themed “room box.”  Here are some photos from both workshops…

These two workshops are presented in preparation for Ferry Farm’s annual Gingerbread House Contest & Exhibit as well as Kenmore’s annual A Wee Christmas Dollhouses and Miniatures Show.

The 33rd Annual Gingerbread House Contest & Exhibit at George Washington’s Ferry Farm is a long-standing holiday tradition and, this year, runs from December 8th through the 30th.  This year’s theme is “Holiday Songs.”  For all the details about entering the contest or visiting the exhibit, click here.  Adults and children alike will enjoy the sights and smells of the festive creations displayed at Ferry Farm!

A Wee Christmas Dollhouse & Miniatures Show at Historic Kenmore runs from December 8th through the 30th. Adults and children alike will enjoy this exhibit of highly detailed, replica dollhouses – including a Kenmore dollhouse – and miniatures in the Crowninshield Museum Building. Share memories of your dollhouse with your family as you explore life in miniature! Put your mind and eye to the test with our “I Spy Miniatures” challenge – fun for young and old alike!  For all the details about visiting the show, click here.

Both Ferry Farm and Kenmore are closed on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Eve.

Abraham and The Ropewalkers: Finding Large Stories in Small Details

The staff of Historic Kenmore & George Washington’s Ferry Farm regularly conducts research into the enslaved communities that existed at both Kenmore and Ferry Farm during the Lewis and Washington family occupations.  Most of the surviving information about the enslaved is of a statistical nature – numbers, ages, locations, and luckily, names.  In comparison to the amount of documentation surviving about the Lewis family at Kenmore, however, the records pertaining to that site’s enslaved residents are scant.  And yet, Kenmore’s enslaved community is remarkably well-documented in comparison to other historic sites.  At Kenmore, we started our project with four known primary documents which survive in our manuscript collection:

  1. “The Probate” – Fielding Lewis’s probate inventory, conducted in 1781
  1. “The Divvy List” – a list written by Betty Lewis, outlining the division of slaves between her children as directed by Fielding Lewis’s last will and testament (list is dated 1782 and provides the age of each enslaved person listed, as well as some familial relationships)
  1. “The Vendu List” – a page from an account book that lists the names of enslaved people, as well as the skill or trade for some, and some familial relationships, on the Kenmore property that are to be sold at vendu (public auction or sale) following Betty Lewis’s death in 1797 (list is dated 1798, the author is unknown)
  1. “The Final Disposition” – a similar page from an account book that lists the names of slaves who were actually sold at the vendu in 1798, as well as the price paid for each and in some cases, the person who purchased them (the author is unknown)

Initially, these documents provided us with a timeframe for slavery at Kenmore, and a way to calculate the number of people owned by the Lewis family (in total, we believe that Fielding Lewis owned approximately 132 people in 1781, spread between his two primary plantations in Fredericksburg and in Frederick County, Virginia).  But, as we began to read the documents with a more critical eye, other details began to emerge – tiny notations and symbols, words crossed out by an unseen hand 200 years before, and abbreviations with an unknown meaning.  We noted every single one of these pen strokes.  There was actually a great deal of information hidden in plain sight on these documents – we just had to decipher it.

Abraham RW

Portion of The Divvy List showing Abraham with an “R.W.” after his name.

One such mysterious notation appeared on the document we refer to as the Divvy List.  One name, Abraham, appeared in the column for enslaved persons going to Robert Lewis.  Abraham was listed as being age 25, and the letters “R.W.” were written after his name.  What did R.W. mean? No other name in the document showed the same notation, and there didn’t appear to be any other clues in the Divvy List, so the mysterious “R.W.” was simply noted in Abraham’s file (we have developed a file for each enslaved person identified in the project) and we moved on.  But Abraham’s odd notation would come up again, with some interesting significance.

In the Vendu List, we were presented with unambiguous, cut and dry information.  Names of the enslaved, their skills, and children identified with their mothers.  It didn’t require a great deal of interpretation.  However, there were three enslaved people who showed some rather unusual skillsets.  Bob, George, and Randolph were all listed as being “ropemakers.” While ropemaking was certainly an important trade in the 18th century, having three people with that skill in a group of 25 adults seemed somewhat unusual.  Again, the information was noted in each individual’s file and we made a mental note to come back to it at some point.

Bob 2 and 3

Portion of The Divvy List showing Bob #2 with “Fredbg” after his name and Bob #2 with “Ropewalk” after his name.

The enslaved individual named Bob in the Vendu List was one of three Bobs who showed up throughout the four original primary documents, but only in the Divvy List did all three Bobs show up at the same time, which afforded us the chance to distinguish between the three individuals.  Bob #1 was age 27, Bob #2 was age 50 and Bob #3 was 23 years of age.  Bob #2 and #3 were listed as going to Lawrence Lewis, while Bob #1 was to stay with Betty.  Using a device that she employed throughout the Divvy List to differentiate between people with the same name, Betty added a word after each Bob.  Bob #1 had “(long)” written after his name, probably referring to a physical characteristic as “long” often meant “tall.” Bob #2 had “Fredbg” after his name. Obviously, this is simply an abbreviation for Fredericksburg where Bob lived (as opposed to the Lewis property in Frederick County). Bob #3 had “ropewalk” written after his name.  Initially, we thought it was a misprint and that Betty had intended to write “ropemaker”, since one of the ropemakers on the Vendu List was a Bob.  But, what if it wasn’t a misprint? What if, like “Fredbg”, “ropewalk” indicated the place where Bob 3 lived? And if that was the case, what if the notation of “R.W.” following Abraham’s name also indicated a place? What if that place was a “ropewalk”?

Prior to the invention of steam power, ropewalks were quite literally the places where rope was handmade throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.  They were most often found in port cities, like Liverpool, England, Norfolk, Virginia, and Boston, Massachusetts (where the earliest colonial ropewalk is documented in 1642)[i], to serve the endless need of maritime vessels for incredible lengths of rope (the British Navy required that a single rope be no less than a 1,000 feet and the HMS Victory required 26 miles of rope).[ii]  Once the American Revolution was in full swing, and the fledgling American Navy had come into existence, the colonies were on their own for producing enough cordage to supply the fleet, and smaller ropewalk operations began popping up in river towns and military supply centers.

Wright's Rope Walk, 1770

Wright’s Rope Walk in Birmingham, England about the year 1770.

Large commercial ropewalks, like those in Boston, were comprised of low, one-story, incredibly long sheds (Gray’s Ropeworks in Boston was 934 feet long – more than 3 football fields), usually with only a roof.  These structures housed a ditch in the ground, in which long hemp fibers were laid out and twisted together by “spinners” who had to walk the length of the building, backwards, while twisting and pulling hemp fibers, hence the name “walk.”  A ropemaker could walk the equivalent of 20 miles in one day’s work.[iii]  Spinners wore bundles of hemp fibers wrapped around their waists, which they fed into the twisting rope in front of them.  Spaced at regular intervals along the ditch were wooden posts, with hooks mounted on them.  The spinners would loop the freshly spun rope over the hooks as they proceeded down the ditch, to keep the tightly wound fibers from snapping backwards or coiling in on itself.  Ropewalks were also known as incredibly dangerous places, as the air was filled with the fine dust of hemp fibers which easily ignited and could cause uncontrollable fire.

This back breaking work was done mostly by free tradespeople in northern cities.  In fact, one of the first three men killed in the Boston Massacre was Samuel Gray, a ropemaker at Gray’s, who had been involved in several street fights with British soldiers, along with a gang of his fellow ropemakers, in the days leading up to the Massacre.  Ropemakers were known agitators for the revolutionary cause and fomented sedition in the ropewalks of Boston.

In a complete contrast, in southern ports, ropemaking was performed almost entirely by enslaved labor.  In Virginia, there were at least 18 ropewalks in operation by the end of the war.  Three of them were government-sponsored and used public funds to purchase hemp from local farmers.  The rest were private ventures, run by merchants and entrepreneurs who saw the growing need.[iv]  The largest of the public operations was the Public Rope Walk in Warwick, near Richmond.  It had become the primary rope producer for the Continental Navy after the British destruction of their own ropewalks at Norfolk, which had been confiscated by American forces after the war began.[v]  At its height, Warwick employed 28 enslaved laborers.  In 1781, Benedict Arnold led British forces against Richmond, with one of their main objectives being the destruction of the Warwick ropewalk, which they achieved.  Fifteen of the enslaved workers were captured (or perhaps chose to leave with British forces).  The Virginia government sold the remaining 13 ropemakers to private ropewalks around the colony.[vi]  The catastrophe at Warwick was a huge blow to Virginia naval forces and for the duration of the war it was up to the smaller ropewalks to meet demand.

So, if Fielding Lewis owned enslaved persons who appeared to be living at or employed in a ropewalk, was there a ropewalk in Fredericksburg? Fredericksburg was a primary depot for supplies being shipped out to the Continental Army and to the Virginia militia.  Fielding Lewis himself oversaw many supplies distributed out of Fredericksburg and, of course, he was one of the two owners of the Fredericksburg Gunnery, which manufactured and supplied weapons to the Continental Army.  Additionally, Fielding owned several transatlantic trade ships, which he converted into naval patrol vessels once the war broke out.  Those ships required rope before and during the war. Perhaps ropemaking was another war-time activity that Fielding participated in?

Ad for Atkinson & Hanewinkel, Virginia Gazette, September 1776

Advertisement for “dressed FLAX and HEMP” placed by John Atkinson and Alexander Hanewinkel in the September 6, 1776 edition of Purdie’s Virginia Gazette.

It turns out that there was indeed a local ropemaking industry with three separate ropewalks documented in the Fredericksburg area.  According to an ad placed in the Virginia Gazette in September of 1776, Alexander Hanewinkel and John Atkinson had opened a hemp and flax factory that made textiles, sail cloth and rope, and included a school to train laborers to break and dress hemp for rope.  It read, in part, “Gentlemen may have their negroes, etc. instructed in Flax Dressing, for six months of their labour.”[vii]  However, it appears that Hanewinkel and Atkinson ran out of money for their venture by the end of the year and petitioned the House of Delegates to provide them funding.  Hanewinkel and Atkinson specifically mentioned the high wages charged by laborers skilled in ropemaking and weaving as being among the reasons they were running short of money.[viii]  Another ad in the Virginia Gazette in 1777 indicates that another ropewalk had been set up in nearby Falmouth by John Richards and James Long, who were seeking to hire a manager, but almost no record of this ropewalk exists beyond the ad.[ix]  Lastly, John Frazer started the Fredericksburg Ropewalk, which appears to be the largest of all the local ventures.  In fact, the Fredericksburg Ropewalk is documented as sending cordage north to supply the rope merchants in Alexandria, despite the presence of several ropewalks in that city.[x]  Additionally, James Hunter (Fredericksburg merchant and business rival of Fielding Lewis) purchased 11,000 pounds of cordage from the Fredericksburg Ropewalk in 1779, indicating a rather large operation.[xi]

Likely because of the chaos of war and the ad hoc way in which the Americans were trying to supply the war effort, documentation for these ventures is hard to find, and therefore we don’t even know where in Fredericksburg the ropewalks were located.  The smaller ropewalk operations begun to help the war effort were usually much less formal than their pre-war counterparts, like Gray’s Rope Works in Boston.  Instead of actual sheds or roofed buildings, most were just the long, straight ditch in the ground, bordered by occasional wooden posts on either side, situated on flat stretches of land, like fields or flood plains.  With so little actual structure, archaeological evidence for these sites is sparse.  The Jones Point Ropewalk site in Alexandria, Virginia has been excavated, but archaeology revealed only post holes in long rows, with a stained stretch of ground between them (the stain may have been caused by the tar that was poured over the rope to make it resistant to rot).[xii]  Such a site would be hard to locate without any indication of where to look.

The Fredericksburg Ropewalk probably did not have actual sheds or roofed buildings. It was most likely just a long, straight ditch in the ground, bordered by occasional wooden posts on either side, situated on a flat stretch of land similar to this Dutch ropewalk.

The likeliest candidates for the places where the Lewis family’s enslaved ropewalkers Abraham, Bob, George and Randolph were employed are either the Hanewinkel & Atkinson factory and school, where Fielding might have sent them to learn a profitable (for him) trade, or the Fredericksburg Ropewalk, which was clearly the largest operation in the area.  But, the petition for funds put before the House of Delegates by Hanewinkel seems to indicate that he and his business partner were having no luck in attracting owners to provide slave labor to their ropewalk.  On the other hand, would Fielding have been willing to supply labor at his own expense to business rivals like James Hunter and John Fraser?

Interestingly, it may be that a major clue about enslaved ropemakers at Kenmore was right in front of us all along.  Among the “odds and ends” of assets and instructions for their disposition listed at the very end of Fielding Lewis’s will is “my share in the Chatham rope walk in Richmond” (which Fielding directs to be sold and the proceeds divided between his sons).  Prior to learning that three, and possibly four, of the enslaved persons at Kenmore were ropemakers, this reference seemed to be just one of many rather insignificant business matters.  But suddenly it became a more important notation.  What was the Chatham ropewalk? Obviously it was in Richmond, but could we learn anything more about it? In fact, we could.

The Chatham ropewalk (sometimes called the Chatham Rope Company, sometimes the Chatham Rope Yard, and also the Chatham Ropery) was owned by a consortium of businessmen led by Archibald Cary, who also had part ownership in one of the ropewalks destroyed by the British at Norfolk in 1776.[xiii]  It didn’t take him long to regroup however, and less than a year later, in August 1777, Cary and associates were advertising in the Virginia Gazette for trained spinners to work at the Chatham site, which was located on Shockoe Hill.  Fielding Lewis is not mentioned as one of the founding investors in the venture, but he certainly knew Cary, as they served in the House of Burgesses together and both were tasked with procuring military supplies in central Virginia.

Rope, or line, was an 18th century essential, rather on Atlantic sailing vessels or a Virginia farm.

There appears to be some debate about the fate of the Chatham ropewalk.  In January of 1781, when Benedict Arnold and his British forces raided Richmond, many industrial buildings were intentionally destroyed, aimed at critically injuring the American war machine.  Arnold identified a ropewalk as being among the facilities that he and his men destroyed in Richmond (in addition to the ropewalk at Warwick, outside of Richmond), and since most of their destruction took place in and around Shockoe Hill, some historians maintain that the Chatham ropewalk seems the likely candidate.[xiv]  However, the Marquis de Lafayette apparently quartered his troops inside the ropewalk “on the east side of the city”[xv] (which would also describe the location of the Chatham ropewalk) when they marched through Richmond a few months later, which would seem to indicate that the ropewalk structure was still standing.  And of course, Fielding Lewis seemed to feel that his share in the Chatham ropewalk was still worth something when he wrote his will in October of 1781.  No additional family documents shed any light on whether or not the share was sold as directed.

So, the question now becomes, did Fielding Lewis send Abraham, Bob, George, and Randolph to work and possibly live at the local Fredericksburg ropewalks or did he send them all the way to Richmond to work and live at a ropewalk in which he had a financial stake? Arguments for both can be made, but at the moment we haven’t found any documentation to conclusively say which it was.  One final clue, although its meaning is still unclear, was discovered in a fragmented receipt in the Kenmore archival collection.  The receipt, dated 1794, shows that Betty Lewis paid off her account with the Fredericksburg general mercantile store Callender & Henderson by hiring out the labor of Bob, George, and Randolph for one year to David Henderson.[xvi]  As all three were ropemakers, we have to assume that Henderson was interested in them for that skill and was aware that they had it.

As to the ultimate fates of Abraham, Bob, Randolph, and George, we know some things.  Abraham was intended to go to Robert Lewis when he came of age, and so we assume that he did.  However, estate records for Robert Lewis show no Abraham on his property at the time of Robert’s death.  Bob was apparently intended to go to Lawrence Lewis, but instead he must have stayed with Betty Lewis, as his name and occupation of ropemaker appear on the Vendu List in 1797.  However, his name does not appear on the Final Disposition, so we do not know with any certainty who purchased him at the sale.  Randolph also stayed at Kenmore and is listed on the Final Disposition document as being sold to George Lewis for £121.  As property of George Lewis, he would have gone to Marmion Plantation on the Northern Neck.  Interestingly, George was also sold to George Lewis in the Final Disposition, for £122, meaning that Lewis had purchased two of the three ropemakers listed.

Abraham’s mysterious “R.W.” notation was initially just a fragment of information to be cataloged as part of the larger project to research the enslaved communities at both Kenmore and Ferry Farm.  While we know almost nothing else of this man, that tiny two-letter notation revealed a story that he was a large part of – what trade he may have had, where he may have lived, and which members of his community he may have been closest to.  We will continue to search for these larger stories in the smallest of details.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[i] Samuel Gray.  Boston Massacre Historical Society. http://www.bostonmassacre.net

[ii] HMS Victory, The National Museum of the Royal Navy. https://web.archive.org/web/20120501012634/http://www.hms-victory.com

[iii] The Long Story of the Jones Point Ropewalk, 1833 – 1850. National Park Service Historical Marker. https://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=127774

[iv] Swenson, Ben. Hemp & Flax in Colonial America. Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Winter 2015.

[v] Ward, Harry M. and Harold E. Greer, Jr. Richmond During the Revolution: 1775 – 1783. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA. Pg. 136.

[vi] Herndon, G. Melvin. A War-Inspired Industry: The Manufacture of Hemp in Virginia During the Revolution. The Virginia Magazine of History & Biography, Vol. 74, No.3 (July, 1966).  Pg. 309.

[vii] Ibid, Pg. 305.  Virginia Gazette, September 5, 1776.

[viii] Journal of the House of Delegates, Anno Domini 1776. Library of Virginia. Pg. 8.

[ix] Herndon, 307.  Virginia Gazette, June 6, 1777.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] John Frazer to James Hunter, August 25, 1782. ALS. Hunter Family Papers, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, VA.

[xii] The Long Story of the Jones Point Ropewalk, 1833 – 1850.

[xiii] Ward, 136.

[xiv] Ibid, 137.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Receipt, January – December, 1794.  Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 716.