"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.