"Are you a Tyler?" asks my hostess, Ridgely Copland, in a deep Virginia drawl. Her husband, George, eyes me with a dubious gaze as we stand in the foyer of their home and bed-and-breakfast, North Bend Plantation. "Look right here," she says, pointing to my bald spot as definitive proof that I'm related to the 10th President. "Now you know he's one," she says triumphantly.
Ridgely and George, like many folks along this stretch of the James River, about 20 minutes from Richmond, are on a first-name basis with history. Their houses were home to Presidents and generals. Their furniture held the weighty posteriors of the Founding Fathers. Indians and settlers, revolutionaries and Tories, rebels and Yankees once fought upon their land. Little wonder, then, that they see history in everything and everyone.
The plantations of the James River sit, for the most part, off State 5 (also called the John Tyler Highway). Like most visitors to the area, I began my trip with a drive down the long dirt road that leads to Shirley Plantation, settled in 1613. Deep woods give way to open fields, and the Queen Anne-period house slowly rises into view. Occupied over the years by 11 generations of the Hill-Carter family, the house is a national treasure. Though only 720 acres are left of the original 8,000, much of the furniture, silver, and outbuildings remain. To emphasize the home's originality, my guide points out that the parlor has had just four coats of paint since it was built in 1723. The tours cost $10.50 and last roughly 45 minutes. Be sure to ask your guide to show you the front door key--an enormous iron piece of art that's still in use today.
As dusk was approaching one evening, I visited what is probably the most famous of all the homes in the area, Westover. Closed to the public, except by group appointment or on certain days during special events (such as April's Historic Garden Week or Westover Church's Autumn Pilgrimage in September), Westover does open its elegant gardens, which guests can roam for a modest $2. Tulip poplars shade the house, built in 1730. A massive wrought iron gate is supported by columns topped with lead eagles. Stone finials in the shape of acorns, a pineapple, a Greek key, urns, a beehive, and cornucopias top the fenceposts. Few places I've been seem more tranquil.
Worship at Westover Church, and you'll follow in the footsteps of historical figures such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, William Henry Harrison, and John Tyler. The Anglican parish hit hard times after the Revolutionary War. (Westover was, after all, associated with the church of English royalty.) It languished off and on as a barn until 1867. Ever since, services have been held regularly, but visitors who don't come during worship hours can nonetheless explore the church and adjacent graveyard.
Berkeley Plantation cannot be missed. Site of the first official Thanksgiving in 1619, Berkeley was also the birthplace of Benjamin Harrison, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and President William Henry Harrison, "Old Tippecanoe." The country's first bourbon was brewed here, and "Taps" was composed on the grounds in 1862. Ten Presidents have visited the 1726 Georgian mansion, and guests can stroll 10 acres of formal boxwood gardens as well as go through the house.
North Bend Plantation: (804) 829-5176.
Shirley Plantation: 1-800-232-1613.
Westover: (804) 829-2882.
Westover Church: (804) 829-2488.
Berkeley Plantation: (804) 829-6018 or 1-888-466-6018.
For more information on visiting the many other historic homes along the James River (and maybe even be mistaken as the kin of a former President), visit www.jamesriverplantations.com.
This article is from the August 2003 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.