Foreword – This is the first in a series of posts that I originally posted in early 2014. These are stories about my growing up in Virginia on a farm. It will cover roughly 20 years–maybe more. I originally prepared this series for my daughters Kym, Christina, and Larissa and my grandchildren, Haleigh and Owen. However, over the years, I have told many of these stories to my family and friends (often repeatedly). I have reviewed and edited this series to correct any errors (both in facts and in composition) and occasionally added additional information. I will greatly appreciate any comments or questions. Jeff
Now, to begin…
No. 1 – The Setting – Moyseneck Farm
The Farm was the perfect place for me to grow up. It offered the best combination of freedom, responsibility, and inspiration for the youngster that I was and for the adult I would become. My persona is rooted in the soil of Moyseneck Farm, in Lanexa, Virginia. Lanexa is a small community centered on U.S. Route 60, about 20 miles west of Williamsburg, 35 miles east of Richmond.
The name we used for the farm dates back to before 1607—it is the name of the village of Powhatan (Virginia) Indians as recorded by John Smith when he explored and mapped that part of the New World that would become Virginia. In 1609 and1610, he explored the James River and its tributaries all the way to their headwaters in the mountains. Smith produced both a map and a complete journal of his explorations. The map is remarkably detailed of the area, annotated with Indian names for villages, rivers and regional areas.
Excerpt from John Smith’s map showing location of “Jamestowne” and “Moysenec” (site of Moyseneck Farm).
Moysenec, as Smith spelled it on his map, was located at the confluence of the Chickahominy River and Diascund Creek (modern name, it is not named on Smith’s map) about eight miles upriver from where the Chickahominy flows into the James River.
John Smith wrote a lengthy account of his explorations wherein he described the Indian villages and tribes that he met, his relationship with Chief Powhatan and later his encounter with Pocahontas. Buried within the pages of this book are several references to Moysenec, wherein he described the steep cliffs rising above the river and other features of the area that would become very familiar to me. Smith had to rely on phonetics to convert Indian names to English words, and in his writing, he spelled “Moysenec” several different ways.
The combination of the river and the creek create an isthmus that is roughly shaped like a boot, the creek flowing into the river under the foot and winding around forming the “heel.” The narrow “ankle” part of the foot is high, wooded, hilly terrain that rises about 100 feet above the river. The broad foot is low land, only 10 to twenty feet above the river. Both the “toe” and the “heel” are largely tidal marsh land. The Chickahominy is a freshwater river, but is subject to tides that rise and fall about three feet.
This was an excellent site for an Indian village. The river provided excellent fishing, especially in the spring when huge schools of herring and shad swam up river to spawn. Bass, pan fish, and catfish, as well as turtles, were plentiful year-round. The marshes had good populations of muskrat, mink, and otter, providing both meat and fur. Deer, squirrel, and rabbits were also common. In the rich soil they grew maze, gourds and tobacco.
Moyseneck Farm is boot-shaped, bordered by the Chickahominy River to the West (left) and Diascund Creek (forming the heel of the “boot”).
In my younger years, the farm was probably little changed from the time of Smith’s explorations, except that much of the timber on the lower end of the farm had been clear-cut in the early 1940s. Much of area was grown up in small trees (scrub), shrubs and pines that had replaced the earlier hardwood forest.
In the early 1800s, the farm—I think it did not qualify as a plantation, or at least there is no easily accessible record of such—was a working farm that was worked by slaves. This is based on oral histories passed down through the community. According to these accounts, Jim Blayton (name unconfirmed), the master of the farm, was a hard, perhaps, cruel task master and slave owner. Local farmers and fishermen not only told tales of Jim Blayton, but would not walk along the creek at night for fear of his ghost (I heard that said, personally). Walking in the woods on the lower portion of the property, it was possible to see crop rows left from when the area was a working farm.
Sometime around the late 1800s or very early 1900s, the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) railroad obtained the land in the process of putting a railroad that ran from Norfolk to Richmond and beyond to the coal mines of western Virginia. As I understand it, the farm was part of the land purchase, and I recall being told that it was used as a hunting camp and retreat for railroad personnel. In any case there was a two-track rail line that cut across the “top of the boot,” around the north end of the bend in the river and across a bridge across the creek. Since this was the highland of the farm, the railroad engineers had simply dug a huge cut through the property so that the railroad did not have to traverse any hills. This was what we called the “railroad cut” that produced steep hills on either side of the railroad. The dirt and gravel road in and out of the cut, that provided access to the farm, was constantly washing out, having to be repaired. My father and, later, I spent many hours on a tractor with a grader blade shaping and tending to the roads.
Early in the 1900s, W.R. Shackleford, a well-to-do businessman and automobile dealer (Chrysler, Plymouth, and Dodge) purchased the property. The northern property line ran roughly parallel to, and just north of, the railroad cut, and included all land south or below the railroad. At that time, there was a house, probably a hunting lodge, on the river, just about in the curve on the top of the “foot.” Details of this building have been lost.
Apparently, W.R. also did some farming, or perhaps sharecropped the fields. The land became known as Shackleford Farms, and that appeared as the address on mail for many years.
In separate events in West Virginia, my father was born in 1917. His mother was Edna Bradley Richmond, married to Orestes Albert Richmond. Orestes died c. 1924 (when my father was seven). Sometime after that his mother moved to eastern Virginia in the Portsmouth area. The details are lost, but she met and married W. R. Shackleford around 1940 or 1941 and they moved to the farm. W. R. was killed in a logging accident on the farm within a few years after they were married and my grandmother (we called her Susie) inherited the property.
In the years between 1944 and 1950, Susie married and later divorced Dee DeHart, and my parents (Paul S. Richmond and Lois Rice Richmond) built a house on, and moved to, the farm. I believe W.R. Shackleford left Susie financially “well off” and I suspect she assisted my parents in building a home on the farm. I can just barely remember the house being built—I specifically recall seeing a carpenter working on the stairway into the basement. The earliest photos of me on the farm show me about the age of three. At about this same time, the name of the farm was changed from Shackleford Farms to Moyseneck Farm based on the original Indian village name.
My father and Dee worked the farm. I have photos of them harvesting wheat, my father running a fishing operation, etc. (as I have said, my mother was an accomplished photographer). The farm never was financially successful.
I only vaguely remember Dee. Around 1950—I would have been five years old—Susie took a trip to Reno, Nevada. She was gone for a several months. Although it was never expressly explained to me at that young age, she apparently went to Nevada, established residency, and obtained a divorce from Dee. Nevada was the go-to state for a divorce in those days. Needless to say, I have no more recollections of Dee. I do have preschool recollections of living on the farm. That would have been before September 1951.
My father continued to work the farm. One of my fond memories is walking behind the tractor as he plowed fields. I would often find arrowheads and shards of Indian pottery, as well and nests of turtle and snake eggs and several species of burrowing snakes.
My father farmed (corn, wheat, truck crops); raised chickens for eggs; raised pigs; milked a cow for our milk; trapped the marshes for muskrat, mink, and otter; and fished the river for herring and shad. In 1955 or 1956, he obtained an appointment (signed by President Dwight Eisenhower) as Postmaster of Lanexa. Now that he had a full-time job, I had to take on many of the routine farm chores—such as tending the pigs.
Paul Richmond with stretched pelt from an otter trapped in the marshes on the Farm (1945). Otter and mink pelts fetched good prices.
From 1952 until 1963, my grandmother lived in the “lower house” on the farm—the site of, and perhaps expanded from the original building that the railroad had left on the farm. It was a comfortable home.
My father had a brother, Neil D. Richmond. He was a curator of herpetology (reptiles and amphibians) at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. He was a brilliant naturalist and scientist, and he had a profound influence on me during those formative years.
Neil was married to Doris, a really fantastic lady. She was smart, kind, witty (as I remember at the age of eight or so), and she was truly loved by Susie and our family. They would come from Pittsburgh to the farm about twice a year. Neil had a fondness for gin martinis, but Aunt Doris always managed apply gentle but effective influence that prevented him from over-indulging. They had a son named Neil Murray. Now we had two Neils, “Big Neil” and “Little Neil.” When Little Neil was about two years old, Aunt Doris died from polio. Big Neil lost his guiding influence, and the pitcher of martinis that he mixed regularly was not intended to be shared.
When Little Neil became school age, he came to live on the farm with Susie. She took him back and forth to school in Williamsburg, and later he attended New Kent School (my school) for a while before returning to Pittsburgh to live with his father, where he finished high school.
From 1952 on, Moyseneck Farm began to have increasing influence on my development from childhood to maturity. That influence would continue until the late 1970s.
I had more than 500 acres of land to explore. I loved being outside, and I loved reading. All through grade and middle school, I would regularly take a book (Susie made sure I had lots of books around, and I would also get books from the school library) and hike to some comfortable spot on the farm and spend hours reading. We always had a dog, and the dog would go along for the walk and spend her time hunting or napping nearby.
My father provided me with a single-shot .22 caliber rifle when I was about ten, and he taught me how to shoot and hunt. So, in the fall, my hikes would include hunting. I soon learned to shoot squirrel and rabbits. I also learned that we cleaned, cooked, and ate what we shot. If I did not feel like skinning and cleaning a squirrel, I did not shoot it!
Of course, with the river, creek, and a pond on the farm, fishing was also a frequent activity. The same rules for cleaning and cooking applied to fish. We caught perch, bass and catfish—all of which made excellent meals. My mother took whatever was provided and turned it into a delicious meal.
My grandmother continued to live on the farm until her death in 1963. Susie’s last will and testament established an uncertain fate for the farm. Effectively she left the farm in “interests” to Big Neil and my father–that is, there was no physical division of the property. To add to the complexity, she left a one-percent interest to a third party in New Port News, Virginia, and my father and uncle Neil would share the remaining 99% equally. To obtain clear title to the property, my father had to buy out both Neil and the third party. As my father described it, obtaining Neil’s share was relatively easy, but the third party realized he held a strong hand and my father had to pay dearly for the last one percent of the farm to obtain a clear title. I think my father wanted to keep the farm, but I also suspect that financing the purchase of the property from Neil and the third party put him deeply in debt. Consequently, in the 1970s he sold the property, for a goodly sum, to developers, who built a housing development called “The Colonies.”
I find it sad that the original Indian village name, “Moysenec” is no longer associated with the property.
And there, my connection to that property ends—but I accrued many experiences (and stories) over those years, several of which I will share here over the next few weeks.
Interesting story. Thanks for sharing. So much I never knew about the farm. Miss those days!