NORTH BEND 4 LYFEPosted: June 8, 2011
Greetings from Charles City: I am presently liveblogging from Edmund Ruffin’s queen-sized bed, where I am spending the night. (That sentence has almost certainly never before been written in the English language.) I’m staying at North Bend Plantation, a 6,000 square foot estate built in 1801 for William Henry Harrison’s sister and presently run as a bed-and-breakfast inn by George Forbes Copland II, great nephew of William Henry Harrison and great great grandson of Edmund Ruffin. I am alone, in other words, on a 200-year-old slave plantation in Charles City, VA, in a bed previously slept in by a confederate madman, in a room occupied by General Sheridan during the Civil War. I am a card-carrying Union traitor, if only on fellowship.
The internet is surprisingly fast at William Henry Harrison’s sister’s plantation because there are no other people online at William Henry Harrison’s sister’s plantation because there are simply no other people at William Henry Harrison’s sister’s plantation: there is me, owner Ridgely Copland, her perky Chihuahua, and 850 acres barely changed since 1830, when 80 slaves were censused on its premises. (I almost expect to see them today. The Confederate American landscapes are too shockingly vivid for 2011.) “I see you like history,” Ridgely explained, “so I got you in the most historic room in the house: the Sheridan Room.” And then, after a brief pause: “Do you eat bacon and sausage?” Ridgely is fantastic and somehow timeless, an aged southern plantation belle who seamlessly alternates between discussing her husband’s royal English lineage (King Henry II is listed as his 22nd great-grandfather) and her recent knee replacement surgery in the same distant drawl.
She sent me to Cul’s Courthouse Grille (here’s my image of the interior) for dinner—the only restaurant within twenty or so miles, where items like “Wilder’s Favorite Fried Catfish Sandwich” and “Angry Chicken Pasta” appear on the menu and songs with lyrics like “You’ll be my honey suckle / I’ll be your honey bee” blast through the FM. “Charles City’s pretty historic, that’s all I can tell ya,” bragged my chirpy waitress when she heard about my project. She glanced at the antique 1864 Virginia map on display by the counter. “And John Tyler’s grandson comes in all the time. This building’s been round forever, too; we used to issue death certificates or somethin’.”
Edmund Ruffin? Who??
Edmund Ruffin is pictured here, looking generally like a
senile Edgar Winters in Confederate garb badass. According to Wikipedia, Ruffins was “a farmer and slaveholder, a Confederate soldier, and an 1850s political activist” whose extremist anti-Union advocacy made him “an ardent supporter of the Confederacy and a longstanding enemy of the North.” (Don’t miss this detailed account of his postwar suicide—only after declaring “unmitigated hatred” to “the perfidious, malignant, & vile Yankee race.”) According to Klimerman, Ruffins was one of the “top five craziest people from American history.” According to Ridgely (who, I’ll repeat, is related to the man by marriage), Ruffins simply fired the first shot of the Civil War, shrug, smile, next topic.
WTF. Why are you staying there?
My mother read about North Bend’s accommodations and historic value and demanded that I stay, offering to pay the $40 difference. It is the strangest thing she has ever done for me. What has your mother done for you lately?
Which birthplaces have you visited?
Today I saw birth sites of James Madison (highway marker, barely there), James Monroe (highway marker, barely there), and George Washington (magnificent national park and monument at Washington’s great-grandfather’s gorgeous colonial plantation). More detailed posts are forthcoming—and interviews. There was the Washington NPS ranger who spoke passionately of Virginia as being “entwined with history,” and sought to explain why only the older generations seem to care. There was the gift shop worker who described quizzing people in other states on where Washington was born. (“You New Yorkers don’t even talk to strangers at all.”) My favorite was Tom, a kindly older man in a pickup truck whom I spoke with by the Monroe birthplace obelisk. He hadn’t come to see Monroe. He was just there depositing some live squirrels he trapped on his lawn. But history’s what matters, Tom says in a fabulous drawl. So he’s going to check it out.
I don’t have to approach people much for interviews in Virginia. People are different here: they all seem to strike up conversations with me first. They sense I’m not from “round here,” though no one has cursed the “perfidious, malignant, & vile Yankee race” to my face. Many just like talking, rambling, waxing passionately about history and heritage and that diner up the highway bout two miles. I’ll have time to transcribe some of these conversations (or post videos) when I’m back in New York.
And driving through rural Virginia?
The best. Gorgeous, exhilarating, and unlike anything I have seen before: you can hardly throw a stick without hitting a NRHP marker, or a Civil War battlefield, or god knows what else. “Entwined in history,” tangled in the past, entrenched in colonial, confederate, scenic Americana, that all sounds right. (Recommended soundtrack: My Morning Jacket, It Still Moves.)
It is also the least efficient traveling I have ever done: driving anywhere takes forever because all I do is stop—for storefronts that specialize in “fireworks and country ham”; for crabs and turkey shoots and more crabs ; for seventeenth century plantations and evangelical billboards. How anyone makes it anywhere ever is entirely beyond me.
And more photos?
Here’s a gallery.