A determined rector reclaims history from the ravages of progress and poverty.
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.
Williamsburg has held a spot on the map since 1699, when Jamestown colonists chose it for their capitol. Eighty-two years later, Virginia's capitol was relocated to Richmond, and the once bustling Williamsburg became a backwater. As years passed, modern conveniences steadily infiltrated the 18th-century façade, until service stations and five-and-dimes cast their blocky shadows over homes where history was made.
Williamsburg's colonial identity might have been lost, had it not been for the improbable partnership of a country church rector and a powerful oil magnate. Here with me to talk about the town's restoration is Will Molineux, who writes for Colonial Williamsburg, the journal.
I've always been curious – when people began to talk about the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, how about the people who lived in Williamsburg? Where this was home, and where they made a living?
Will Molineux: The people who lived here after the Civil War were very conscious of the history of Williamsburg, and the history of Virginia, and Jamestown in particular. It was a sense of pride that they had after the destructions of the Civil War. The residents of Williamsburg clearly understood the importance of the buildings, the 18th-century buildings that remained intact, although, in some cases, in a dilapidated state. They knew of its importance, and there are many examples of individuals who worked very hard to preserve the homes that they owned and the family pieces of furniture and paper that were kept intact in town over the years.
There's a wonderful story about Dr. Goodwin when he first came to Williamsburg in 1903. After he was in Williamsburg for a while, he moved to Rochester, New York, and then came back to Williamsburg. This pertained to his first time in Williamsburg. It was told that he would go calling on parishioners in town, and enjoyed having them show him old letters that were written by Lafayette and Washington that had been kept in the family. He was aware of the interest that the residents had in Williamsburg history, as much as he instilled in them and in the community a spirit of restoring the town.
Lloyd: Goodwin is W.A.R. Goodwin, who was the rector of Bruton Parish Church. He accepted the Bruton Parish Church appointment on the condition that he could restore the church. Then he got interested in restoring the whole thing.
Will: His first term as rector, that's quite true. He was born in Virginia. He was well aware of the history of Williamsburg and the importance of the church. He was a son of a Confederate veteran, and when he was in Williamsburg, he was very much active in the restoration of the church at that time. Now, this was a restoration in preparation of the 1907 – what we would call the Jamestown anniversary – the 300th anniversary at that time. The church was in a rundown condition. His predecessor started to raise money to fix up the church. His predecessor ran afoul of some church leaders and left town. Dr. Goodwin came with the understanding that he would continue this work that was done by Mr. Roberts, was his name, the previous rector's name. He would continue this work.
Lloyd: You said that Bruton Parish Church was in quite a rundown condition. I have seen some film of Williamsburg in those days, and Williamsburg is just a little spot on the road that really looks dumpy and dilapidated. Nothing that would attract you.
Will: Absolutely, but I disagree that there's nothing that would attract you. People would come to Williamsburg – tourists would come to Williamsburg – to see the old ruins, to see the spot where a lot of the history and the colonial history took place. At that time – I'm talking about the early 1900s now – they'd come to see the Audrey house. The Audrey house is what we call the Bush house today on Palace Green. It was a house made famous in a very popular novel at that time, called "Audrey." People who had read the novel would come to Williamsburg to see the Audrey house. They'd also come to see where the Palace stood. They'd come to see the Bruton Parish, and they would come to see the museum that was in the Powder Magazine, then called the Powder Horn.
Lloyd: I think the Powder Magazine has been everything that it is even possible for a building to be.
Will: You're right. It was a stable once.
Lloyd: It's just the fact that any of it survived has always amazed me.
Will: It survived because people took care of it, what they could. Fire was the problem. That was the enemy. The Virginia Gazette, in the early days, if something of significance, if an old building burned down, the headline would be, "We've Lost Another Ancient Structure." People in town were very aware of the importance of the town.
It was dilapidated, as you keep referring to it, because the town was very poor. The college had a couple of hundred students. The largest institution in town was a mental institution. But, it was on the railroad, which made Williamsburg connected to civilization, so to speak: to Newport News, to Fort Monroe, and where the Chesapeake Bay steamers would land. People traveled by bay steamers to Baltimore and Washington and elsewhere. The railroad also took you to Richmond. There were four trains, passenger trains, a day. People would come and go.
Lloyd: Almost more than now.
Will: Yes, perhaps more than now. People didn't have much money. The city was in debt, in great debt. It didn't have public water, except served by three wells. It didn't have public sewage. There were outhouses in town. The streets weren't lit. The town was late in paving its main streets – they paved the sidewalks before they paved the streets. They had telephones, of course, electricity, of course. But the community was in debt.
It didn't have a very good fire department. The fire truck was in a shed in the center of town. If there was a fire during the day, the college bell would ring or the Eastern State Hospital bell would ring. The one city employee who had a wagon picking up trash – a horse drawn wagon – would come down to the firehouse, hook up the horse, and go to the fire and the rest of the volunteers would get there. Well, of course, you're going to lose a lot by fire. Williamsburg didn't have much money to have a fire department of any sort with fire equipment.
Police was very much part-time. The jail was probably … I think there's records where those who were in jail could go out in the evening to get their meal. It was a very, very small community where everybody knew everybody else, but they didn't have any money. So, when Mr. Rockefeller came to town and said, "I'll build you a new firehouse, I'll build you a new courthouse," they welcomed him.
Lloyd: When Dr. Goodwin and John D. Rockefeller wanted to restore the town, to rebuild it, what major challenges did they face? You've just listed all the challenges a town can face.
Will: The major challenge was acquiring property. Mr. Rockefeller said, I think very clearly, that he wanted to pay fair market. They were afraid of the values just getting out of hand.
Lloyd: If word got out, the price of everything went up.
Will: Exactly. So Dr. Goodwin went to the local newspapers – that was in Newport News and in Richmond – and the editors there pretty much agreed not to nose around. This was at a time now, in 1926 –'28 when the Virginia Gazette was not being published. You didn't have any local reporting of it.
Journalists would have had a field day if they were alert to what was going on. There were occasional journalists in town, and stories in the Baltimore paper and elsewhere on what was going on in town.
But the major challenge was to acquire the property at a fair price, and to get big chunks of property, and to have everybody sign on to it. Of course, as much as the people in town understood their history and held fast and held dear to it, they might not want to give it up to a Yankee called Mr. Rockefeller.
Lloyd: Why did he want it?
Will: I think that he was enamored with the presentations that were made by Dr. Goodwin for the importance of maintaining and restoring Williamsburg and the opportunity to preserve a whole town. It grew to be a whole town. The first presentations were just a few buildings, then the buildings became buildings that were on Market Square, and the Palace Green, and then the first thing you knew, gee whiz, we better take the whole town, if this is going to mean anything.
Lloyd: We'll continue our conversation with Will Molineux about the Williamsburg restoration next week. That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Visit history.org to learn more. Check back often, we'll post more for you to download and hear.