Shirley Plantation main house.
The tree is 350 years old.
James River lies just behind.

I’m back from my whirlwind trip to Richmond where I signed copies of my Civil War novel Shades of Gray at Shirley Plantation on Valentine’s Day. What a great historical site this is, offering visitors an authentic and visual link to the past!

Shirley Plantation is Virginia’s first plantation. Founded in 1613, only six years after the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown, the plantation and its numerous outbuildings have survived Indian uprisings, Bacon’s Rebellion, the American Revolution, the American Civil War, and the Great Depression.

Being from Gettysburg, I am accustomed to our “old” buildings being Civil War era. How mind-boggling that construction of the present mansion at Shirley began about 1723 when Elizabeth Hill, great-granddaughter of the first Hill, married John Carter, eldest son of Robert “King” Carter. Completed in 1738, the mansion, referred to as the “Great House,” is largely in its original state and is owned, operated, and resided in by direct descendants of Edward Hill I. Yes, that makes the 11th generation currently residing at Shirley!

One side of Kitchen house.

My book signing was in the kitchen – a two-story brick outbuilding that is larger than my original house. The staff has created a wonderful interpretive exhibit showing what foods would be served in colonial days. Directly opposite to the kitchen was the laundry building (currently the gift shop and administrative offices), which is equally impressive is size and eloquence.

The guided tour of the Great House highlights original family furnishings, portraits, silver, and hand-carved woodwork as well as stories of the Hill Carter family. The plantation has been called the most intact 18th century estate in Virginia. Several features inside the house include the “Flying Staircase” and the Queen Anne Forecourt, which are the only remaining examples in North America of this architectural style.

Inside the smokehouse.

Other outbuildings on the plantation – all made from brick that was manufactured on the plantation – include an ice house, stables, smokehouse, and storehouse. They are all impressive in their size and architectural detail. I found the smokehouse really interesting as the plantation smoked about 10 TONS of pork per year.

The plantation also has a root cellar that was made from the foundation and cellar of a “flanker house” that burned down after being struck by lightning.

Sweety” enjoying my
Shades of Gray book signing.

At the end of my book signing I had a little help from a very friendly kitty. I think she liked the sunlight coming in through the window onto the table – or maybe she just really liked my book Shades of Gray.

I have much more to write about my trip to Richmond including my foray into Hollywood Cemetery where J.E.B. Stuart, George Pickett, President Jefferson Davis, and many other notable Civil War historical figures are interred. I also visited the church where Patrick Henry gave his famous speech, “Give me liberty or give me death,” on March 23, 1775.

Richmond is a fabulous city. I didn’t have time to visit half the places I wanted to see, so I guess I will have to go back!

Jessica James


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