Preservacation: Stratford Hall and the Various Meanings of Historic Sites

Preservacation is a series of essays by Brad Hatch about the preservation related adventures, issues, and sites that he and Lauren have encountered on their travels.  This is #3 in the series.

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By Brad Hatch

This posting has taken me a little longer to write than usual because I’ve been busy the past week. In addition to going to Williamsburg for commencement on the 17th, Lauren and I stayed at Stratford Hall that weekend for our anniversary. We met at Stratford 3 years ago and have gone there for every anniversary since. This annual ritual has inspired me to write about this place that has played such a large role in my life. Rather than giving you a review of what to do and critiquing the site, however, I wanted to reflect on what this one place means to me, and by doing so, hopefully get at the deeper and more nuanced meanings of this and other historic sites.

For those of you who don’t know, Stratford Hall is the birthplace of Robert E. Lee as well as the home of brotherly signers of the Declaration of Independence. It is a beautiful H-plan Georgian brick house built in 1738 along the cliffs of the Potomac near Montross, Virginia. At its height the plantation boasted 7,000 acres of land, a landing for ships, a grist mill, and numerous slaves. Like many plantations it was a small, self-contained town of sorts. The Lees lost the home after 1810 and it went through the hands of private owners until 1929. It was in this year that May Lanier created a ladies’ association that raised enough money, $240,000, to purchase the house and 1,100 acres as a memorial to Robert E. Lee. The Robert E. Lee Memorial Association still owns Stratford and it, like many historic houses, stands as an example of the late 19th and early 20th century preservation movement among wealthy women.

That’s enough of facts though. Facts are handy to a point, but we supply the meaning (to paraphrase Second Mate Stubb in Moby Dick). It’s meaning that interests me, though I will only give one of the countless meanings for this place. Stratford has been like a mother to me through these past several years. To start with, it has played a pivotal role in shaping my career as an archaeologist. It was here in the summer of 2005 that I took my first supervisory role in archaeology as the UMW field school assistant. I have worked on this site (the Oval Site) longer than any other, three years. It has become a part of me. I know the site backward and forward, the feel of the soil, the way the breeze cooled us off on hot June days, the sounds of the countryside.  It was as if the place and I could converse, we knew one another so well. Things seemed clearer on that site than any other. It almost had a youthful innocence about it.

In constructing my own meaning of Stratford Hall, however, it is the people that are most important. In the years that I worked there I met several important people in my life. Not least among these was Lauren, whom I found my second summer there. Up until this meeting Stratford was already tied to some important friendships. Actually, most of the people I really continue to keep up with from Mary Washington were at the first field school in 2005, including Andrew, who will be going to the University of Tennessee’s Ph.D. program with me, Irene, and Erin. The four of us continue to keep in touch and it seems that we formed a bond that summer that won’t soon be broken. With the exception of my childhood friend, Patrick, and Lauren, I would say that those three know me the best. We shared so many things on the plantation from evenings spent on the pond fishing, to afternoons spent wandering the beach looking for sharks’ teeth, to nights spent watching fireflies dance on fields beneath a starlit sky. These images are burned into my memory, but not because of their own beauty. It is the people that I spent these times with that made them special. Without the people there is no meaning for me.

Coming back to Stratford now is bittersweet in a way. It’s like going back to a point in my life that I want to capture and put away. Visiting this place allows me to do that. I can savor all of those memories as they come rushing back to me with the taste of a Northern Neck Ginger Ale, the tug of a Bass on my fishing line, or the sight of the mansion with a full field of hay in the foreground. To me Stratford represents a simpler time, a more innocent time (if there ever was such a time). It reminds me to live and to enjoy all things beautiful, for they are fleeting. I know that I can never go back to the same plantation that lives in my mind, but I don’t need to. My experience on my mother’s sandy shores and fertile fields has provided me with more than I could ever repay to her in a thousand lifetimes. This is what Stratford Hall means to me. This is only my interpretation though. As we go to sites like this we should be mindful of the people who have lived and toiled on these places. The entirety of the human experience exists on such small pieces of the planet. Historic sites are places where people have been born and died, thousands of loves have been won and lost, people have literally given their whole beings to these places. And, they’ve lived, oh, how we have lived. Think on this the next time you visit another site and it will change how you experience it.

It's the people, not the place. Photo courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

It's the people, not the place. Photo courtesy of Lauren McMillan.