Friday, April 4, 2008

The Future of Varina's Past

Today a group of local leaders was scheduled to return from what we hope was an eye opening tour of Charleston, South Carolina. History based tourism has long brought hundreds of thousands of travelers to Virginia, and we have high hopes for Henrico, (Varina in particular). If capitalizing on local history results in preservation efforts, we're behind it 100%.

Varina contains an obvious wealth of potential historic-tourism sites, which would complete the nationally known Richmond-Charles City-Williamsburg-Jamestown corridor.

The two day visit was co-led by Katherine Busser of Capital One Financial Corp., who is chairwoman-elect of the Greater Richmond Chamber, and our own David A. Kaechele, chairman of the Henrico County Board of Supervisors. According to Richmond-Times Dispatch Staff Writer, Kiran Krishnamurthy, the trip to Charleston was organized by the Greater Richmond Chamber to see "What makes a historic city worth visiting?"

We hope those who travelled from Henrico bring back a fresh perspective on history.

"Past trips have brought forth positive change in the Richmond region, in 1993 and again in 1996. In '93, a trip to Jacksonville, Fla., had organizers focused in part on an engineering school as part of Virginia Commonwealth University's efforts along those lines. In 1996, a group visited Austin and San Antonio in Texas to learn about the semiconductor industry after Motorola Inc. selected the Richmond region for a chip plant. The group eyed San Antonio's River Walk as part of Richmond's plans for the new Canal Walk."

The RT-D articles about the trip reported many similarities between Richmond and Charleston, but how do the histories of Charleston and Varina compare as early settlements? Varina is clearly much older, while Charleston has benefitted from the ongoing preservation of its architecture and the promotion of its history since the early 20th century.

In 1670 when the first settlers arrived in the Charleston area, Varina had already been the seat of Henrico County for thirty six years. In fact, The area which includes the Varina magisterial district, was then part of Henrico "Cittie", an incorporation formed in 1619 by the Virginia Company of London.

Charles I claimed parts of South Carolina as early as 1629 by granting territory to Sir Robert Heath. But this was seventeen years after John Rolfe introduced the "Varinas" strain of Spanish tobacco to our part of eastern Henrico. The sale of this tobacco saved the struggling colony in Virginia. Rolfe had married Pocahontas in 1614, and they had called Varina Farms their home for the following two years. Back in S.C., Heath ended up forfeiting his land because he had not improved it, and so no real settlement was located there until 1663.

In 1680, the South Carolina settlers moved across the river to the current location of Charleston. Varina was established as an "unincorporated town" in 1680, and already featured a courthouse, a church for Henrico Parish, and commercial buildings, while the Charles Town settlers were just digging in to their new location.

Though the College of Charleston gave its first classes in 1770, supporting its claim as the oldest municipal college in America, William and Mary had been given its royal charter at the request of the Varina Parish Reverend, Dr. James Blair in 1693. When the College of Charleston was formed, William and Mary had already been holding classes for 76 years.

Richmond was surrendered at Tree Hill Farm in Varina on April 3rd, 1865 and the war in Charleston came to an official end on April 14, 1865. A little under two weeks apart, but Varina still managed to figure first. In both cases, the end of slavery was marked, too little too late, and at Union insistence.

Though Charleston went on to become the chief center of culture and of wealth in the South, Varina remained relatively rural after the county seat was moved from Varina in 1752. Charleston's economy benefits annually from the arrival of hundreds of thousands of "history tourists", who come to visit the areas many museums and cultural sites.

As those who visited Charleston may note, any of these points in Varina's history might be capitalized on, but past trips seem to have benefited decisions made in Richmond, and not Henrico.

Though history tourism could be a focus here, what do you see in the future for Varina's past?

The Charleston Museum states that its mission is to preserve and interpret the cultural and natural history of Charleston and the South Carolina Lowcountry. Also, Charleston will soon host the opening of The International Museum of African American History, projected to bring in 110,000 visitors during a “high-stable” year. Henrico would certainly benefit from similar planning.

Henrico County owns a vast collection of historic and cultural artifacts (above), most of which are packed into insufficient storage.
These artifacts would be the solid foundation for a museum celebrating the rural and agricultural heritage in Varina.

Varina was the long standing site of many farms and mills, an area in Varina could easily be chosen to house the windmill that Flowerdew Hundred currently has up for sale.

As pointed out by Kirin Krishnamurthy, and blogged about on Buttermilk and Molasses, "Richmond needs to capitalize on the James River."
The Richmond "Downtown Plan" has been addressing that too... but, what about Henrico, through which much more of the river passes?
Henrico County could draw many torists interested in our rich maritime history, by featuring period watercraft like the batteaus shown below.

The James River is said to be the first inland waterway in America up which captured Africans travelled by ship, bound for local slave markets. Rather than overlooking this shameful part of our history, Henrico could create a museum to educate visitors with the history of those enslaved here for centuries. The county would greatly benefit by choosing to further interpret the importance of African American culture.

The article on the Charleston trip points out that "Tourism is a major thrust for both cities" (Richmond and Charleston)... but what about Henrico, which is much larger, and has older history than Richmond does? Will more parks and historic attractions be included in the upcoming Comprehensive Plan, as residents who were surveyed in 2005 suggested? Or perhaps we will all be served with the same parks we now use, while population booms and open land becomes more scarce...

During one 2026 comprehensive plan work session in 2006, in talking about the Capital Budget Mr. Hazelett reported that the Belmont Golf Course had put in a request for 5 million dollars (to increase the number of parking spaces available at the facility and to make improvements at the golf course). He then added that "Of that amount, obviously, due to funding constraints, only the most pressing needs are recommended for consideration in the Capital Budget."

No telling how much was actually spent at Belmont for the turf repair and tarmac, but are there funds in the new billion dollar budget we keep hearing about for additional park land in Varina?

There is obviously little land left in the other districts, and greenbelt creation was a topic that ranked high among those who participated in the 2005 citizen survey...
"There was some support for creating a storm water utility that could be integrated into a larger Greenbelt/Greenway system of open spaces, parks and naturally preserved areas. Overall, 60% of the respondents supported doing so."

The population growth projected in the 2026 Plan draft is vast, and shouldn't the parks system grow to accomodate these new residents? Green infrastructure planning, historic sites, and agricultural heritage and interpretation are all necessary to current planning- before it's too late.

Again from RT-D Staff Writer Kirn Krishnamurthy: "James Dunn, president of the Greater Richmond Chamber, which puts together an annual InterCity Visit to a large metropolitan area, said Charleston was selected because organizers sensed that the South Carolina city is a place that has better capitalized on history."

"History is what we have," Dunn said. But "there's a lot of frustration that we have never quite been able to get our act together.""

Lets all hope Henrico leads the way in 'getting it together' now!

Still wondering what makes a historic city worth visiting?
Next week is Virginia Architecture Week 2008, April 7 through April 12

Would you like to read more about Varina history?

Links to the two Richmond Times-Dispatch articles on the Charleston trip local leaders took.
Feb 12, 2008 RT-D article: Leaders look to S.C.
Visit to center on Charleston's use of history
April 1, 2008 RT-D article: Regional leaders are bound for Charleston A group of about 110 will see how the S.C. city makes the most of its rich history