|Plank Road in Spotsylvania, 1863|
During the summer of 1961 my father and my uncle Rolf built the house on Old Plank Road my family would live in for the next nine years (the house is still there, though much changed). My father would sometimes bring me along to "help" him. I do not remember doing much in the way of helping, of course. What I do remember is watching Rolf, from time to time, take out of his pocket what I presumed to be candy, slice off a piece with his pocket knife and put it in his mouth. Oh, how I coveted that presumed treat and I worried him endlessly to share some with me until he at last consented to cut off a small portion for me. He did not call it candy; he called it "chaw," but I was too young to heed this subtle warning. Without a moment's hesitation I popped it in my mouth. More than half a century later the ensuing thirty seconds remain among the most harrowing of my life.
But this is not about Rolf or chewing tobacco. It is about ghosts, in a manner of speaking.
|Broadside for Hopewell Nurseries|
Growing up on that stretch of Old Plank Road, about a half mile west of Harrison Road, I had no inkling then that we lived on what was once Hopewell Nursery, owned by Henry R. Robey. Robey's first advertisement appeared in 1832 in the Virginia Herald and he ran the nursery until his death in 1876. In the map above, Hopewell Nursery appears in the middle of the image between Plank Road and the unfinished railroad. In the handbill shown below, Robey's name appears as a candidate for justice of the peace. This handbill was kept with my great grandfather's papers, likely because the name of his friend and neighbor William A. Stephens appears as a candidate for supervisor.
|List of candidates|
During the time leading up to and including the Chancellorsville battle, Robey's property was used, according to testimony given in his claim for damages, as a camp for Cobb's legion and for the Fourth Virginia Cavalry. A field hospital was set up there. Ordnance wagons and troop baggage trains were parked there. "For want of axes" needed to cut firewood, Confederate soldiers instead helped themselves to Robey's fencing in order to build fires. Hundreds of horses grazed freely on his land, eating up half the grass he would have otherwise cut for hay that year. One hundred years later my father and I roamed these fields and woods with a metal detector and brought home many buttons, bullets, bridle bits and similar camp detritus.
But today I am not writing about relics or Henry Robey's troubles during the Civil War.
In the years after the war a standard gauge railroad, the Fredericksburg & Gordonsville, would be completed. My great grandfather's saw mill cut railroad ties and fencing stock for this effort. After this railroad went bankrupt it was replaced in the 1870s by the narrow gauge Potomac, Fredericksburg and Piedmont Railroad. My great grandfather supplied ties and fencing for them as well. Fifty years later that railroad was still in use.
|1927 ticket for the PF&P Railroad|
In 1927 my great grandmother used this ticket to begin her trip to Georgia to attend a niece's graduation at Agnes Scott College. As you can see, "Robey' was the third stop after it left Fredericksburg on its way to Orange. The next stop was Screamersville (which was the old Chancellorsville post office and general store of my youth, where my sister and I obtained at great personal expense fireballs and wax lips and bubble gum and other needed supplies). From there the train proceeded to Alrich's corner, past Welford furnace, Brock Road and then to the depot at the farm which had belonged to William A. Stephens. Great grandmother Row boarded the train there.
As a boy growing up on what had been Henry Robey's land I remember being puzzled by the existence of train tracks which ran through the woods behind our house. I could not fathom how a train could have made its way through the second growth pine and oak trees, the blackberry bushes, the vines and the poison ivy.
But, truly, I do not mean to wander down the old train tracks today. It is October and it is ghosts we are discussing, in a way.
In this picture taken of my mother in 1970 you see behind her what would have been Hopewell Nursery one hundred years earlier. Because it was still a working farm in 1970 it does not require much imagination to envision the previous existence of the nursery. Today, of course, it would be infinitely more difficult to see Hopewell in your mind's eye, as this landscape is now thickly dotted with the houses of Smoketree subdivision.
But still there, among those houses and perhaps seen only by me, flit the ghosts of a distant past that remains close to my heart.
Fifty years ago that land was farmed by Tommy and Ethel Burns and their grandson Steve, who was my age. Steve and I and the Carver boys used to play in that field in summer and build snow forts in winter. We used to build dams in the creek in the shade of the sycamore by Old Plank Road. We shot broomstraw arrows with home made bows. We built a club house among the hay bales in the barn.
Gone, now. All gone.
Between Route 3 and Old Plank Road, adjacent to Zoan Church, is a place known to most modern residents of Spotsylvania only as Royal Oaks subdivision. To this day, however, when I drive by there it is not those houses I see but the spectral image of O.C. Zechiel's farm. Until his death in 1957 Mr. Zechiel raised beef cattle here and ran the W-Z Market in Fredericksburg. After he died his wife Hazel (a lovely woman) remained on the farm, which she rented out to other farmers to graze cattle and to cut hay. In the summers we fished for perch and bass in her pond. In winter we hauled our sleds up the rise and then careened toward, and sometimes into, the creek. We boys used to clamber on the roof of the old slaughter house and play. I still have the scar where I gashed my leg on the tin roof. Mrs. Zechiel used to pay me a dollar to sit in her orchard on Saturdays and shoot blue jays and other shoplifters out of her beloved cherry trees. I never told her that I would have gladly paid her the dollar for the privilege.
Over the past several years, as I have researched and written about my people in Spotsylvania, I have had ample opportunity to contemplate the seismic changes that have occurred in my home county during my lifetime. These changes were inevitable and unavoidable, I suppose, and progress in its manifold forms is irresistible. Within my limited ability, what I have tried to accomplish is to preserve in words and pictures that which has been swept away by change and progress. It may be as futile as trying to capture lightning in a bottle. But the now vanished people and places of old Spotsylvania deserve to be remembered. We are much the poorer if we do not make the attempt.
A tree nursery occupied by the Confederate army. Abandoned railroad tracks deep in the woods near home. Boys playing in the creek in the shade of the sycamore. It is difficult for me to find the words to say what it means to me, so today I turn to one of the literary heroes of my youth, Thomas Wolfe:
O waste of loss, in the hot mazes, lost, among bright stars on this most weary unbright cinder, lost! Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane end unto heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.