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Prince Edward County: A Brief History

TRYING TO ENCAPSULATE 250 YEARS OF rich history into a brief overview is as challenging as forcing a bucket of water into a thimble, for many singular events, significant personalities, and sterling accomplishments have shaped our present community.

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A New County Begins

The rich land, fresh-running rivers and streams, and abundant game that had so long supported large aboriginal settlements in this area began to attract European colonists and restive Tidewater Virginians during the first half of the eighteenth century. Here, in the up-country west of the fall-lines of Virginia's great eastward-flowing rivers, these settlers met numerous Native Americans, most notably the Weyanokes.

The first grants of land in what would become Prince Edward County were issued in 1728. By the 1740s a strong Scotch-Irish migration from northern Ireland began to fill the same area: the famous "Caldwell Settlement" (1738) extended across nearly 31,000 acres between the Staunton River and the Appomattox. Some cynics said that Virginia's Royal Governor Gooch allowed these "dissenters" (non-Anglicans) to settle in this area so they would be killed first if the Native Americans attacked.

By 1753 enough people lived in the western part of Amelia County to require the formation of a new county. In an act of respect that would be unthinkable a mere twenty-five years later, it was named Prince Edward in honor of fourteen-year-old Edward Augustus, Duke of York and Albany, the younger brother of the future King of England, George III.

The county's original dimensions were much larger than the present ones, as a major western portion of the county was cut off in 1842, as part of the new Appomattox County. Most of the original settlers of Prince Edward County were not slave-owning families; they were small-acre farmers, dependent on their own labor.

The County Court of Prince Edward convened for the first time on January 8, 1754, assembling in Anderson's Tavern, at a central crossroad where the judicial village of Prince Edward Court House (now known as Worsham) would develop. The community eventually boasted three taverns, a brick courthouse, a clerk's office (still standing and available for public meetings), a debtor's prison and a two-story stone jail, several stores, and two dozen large houses, plus numerous outlying plantations. This village would remain the county seat until 1871, when Reconstruction politics, military occupation, and a changing economy based on the railroad, all dictated the movement of the county government into Farmville.

Before the county seat's relocation, however, Prince Edward Court House had the dubious distinction of having been invaded, and briefly occupied, by two English-speaking enemy armies. On July 13, 1781, British cavalry under Colonel Tarleton swooped down upon the village, and on April 7, 1865, in the waning days of the American Civil War, over 15,000 U.S. cavalry and infantry captured it. There was even a little-known military skirmish that day all around the village. Fortunately on neither occasion were the valuable county records destroyed, as had been done on similar occasions in other county seats in the South.

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The County Prospers

Prince Edward County was ideally situated on a major transportation route from its birth; the Appomattox River at its northern border connected central Virginia with the commercial ports of Petersburg, Williamsburg, and beyond. Beginning in 1745, laws were passed to clear the river for navigation, and in the following years there were even ambitious plans for a series of canals and locks to connect the Staunton and the Appomattox rivers. As tobacco evolved into the major cash crop in this area, as it had earlier done in the Tidewater, two significant economic realities developed.

First, the labor-intensive crop required more workers, which tended to increase the number of African-American slaves in the county, and, second, the landing near Rutledge's Ford on the Appomattox (at the base of Bridge Street in present-day Farmville) became very busy as farmers from both Cumber-land and Prince Edward counties moved their tobacco hogsheads over "rolling roads" to ship them by batteau to eastern river ports. Farmville soon eclipsed the neighboring riverfront settlements of Planterstown and Jamestown as a marketing magnet.

The Virginia legislature established Farmville as a town on January 15, 1798. By 1836, it had become the fourth-largest tobacco market in Virginia. One can see on John Woods's 1820 map of Prince Edward County that the basic pattern for many of the roads that we presently know was already established.

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Education Blossoms in Prince Edward

Only twenty years after the founding of the county, the first of Prince Edward's outstanding educational institutions was founded. Hampden-Sydney College was a child of the Presbyterian Church and the American Revolution. Its name, honoring two 17th-century British anti-royalist martyrs and freedom-fighters, reflects the founders' revolutionary fervor. Many of the Scotch-Irish families from the Caldwell Settlement were among its initial financial supporters. Since 1776, Hampden-Sydney has seen its alumni become influential in the state and nation. It remains a highly regarded private liberal arts college for men.

The first part of the nineteenth century saw several more schools opened in the county, which was fast becoming an educational center for the entire state. In 1821, John Holt Rice persuaded the Presbyterian churches of Virginia (and five years later, those of North Carolina) to establish a Seminary at Hampden-Sydney College; Union Theological Seminary, now in Richmond, has furnished highly respected ministers to the church for more than 180 years. Hampden-Sydney College also established and governed (from 1837 to 1854) a medical department in Richmond; this eventually became the entirely separate and highly-respected Medical College of Virginia, a graduate school of the present-day Virginia Commonwealth University.

Meanwhile, about this same time, yet another medical school was founded in the county. The prominent Prince Edward physician John Peter Mettauer, educated first at Hampden-Sydney and then in Philadelphia, first practiced in Baltimore. He came home in 1836, to found a private medical school the next year between Prince Edward Court House and Kingsville. Ten years later, in 1847, Dr. Mettauer allied his school with Randolph-Macon College, recently founded in Boydton, near the Virginia-North Carolina border. Dr. Mettauer and his two sons trained dozens of doctors at this county medical school, establishing a strong reputation for developing innovative surgeries and surgical instruments. This school closed when Randolph-Macon shut down during the Civil War.

The Farmville Female Academy, chartered in 1839 as a seminary (i.e., preparatory school) for young women, held its first classes in 1843. By the turn of the century, its original building on High Street housed the State Female Normal School, a leading producer of teachers for Virginia's growing system of public schools. After further name changes, property acquisitions, and new directions in its curriculum, in 1949 it became Longwood College (named for a prominent plantation home nearby). In July of 2002 the school officially became Longwood University; it is a respected coeducational state institution of over 4,000 students, conferring both undergraduate and graduate degrees.

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The Railroads Contribute to Growth

In the early 1850s, Farmville citizens pledged $100,000 to purchase South Side Rail Road stock, thus persuading the railroad planners to redirect their route from the Court House to Farmville‹a rerouting which would initiate a major economic change and eventually a governmental change as well. The detour, however, required building the 2,400-foot-long High Bridge several miles east of Farmville, spanning the Appomattox River between Cumberland and Prince Edward counties. An engineering marvel of its day, High Bridge was a popular tourist attraction. In the last days of the American Civil War, it became a military target for both armies.

A second railroad, the narrow-gauge Farmville & Powhatan (principally hauling freight) was completed in 1890, linking Farmville to the James River, and thus to trade routes around the world. It was later known as the Tidewater & Western Railroad. The Virginian Railroad built a coal-hauling line along the southern border of the county in the early 1900s; like the old South Side line, that track is now part of the Norfolk-Southern system.

Railroad depot stops gave life and individual histories to small communities like Meherrin in the southern part of the county, and Rice and Prospect to the north. West of Farmville, there was a required rail stop at the Tuggle water tank, where passengers could also get on or off. The Farmville-Tuggle short ride was a favorite for children who were "taking the cars" for the first time, while the Farmville-Rice trip offered the excitement of a teetering "high-wire ride" over High Bridge. Some parents, however, regarded this as being "too dangerous" for their children.

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Civil War in Prince Edward County

The county had achieved a fair degree of prosperity by the late 1850s, but this would all change with the coming of the American Civil War. The 1860 census reveals the extent to which this local prosperity was due to slavery. The 1860 census tables record 4,038 Whites (34.1%), 465 Free Blacks (3.9%‹the highest percentage of any county in Virginia at the time), and 7,341 Slaves (62.0%) in the total county population.

Eight separate military companies (usually of a hundred men) went off to war from the county, and in some cases these companies included black servants. One of the infantry companies, "The Hampden-Sydney Boys," was composed entirely of college and seminary students, and it was the first college-boy unit on either side‹Blue or Gray‹to come under fire in the war.

While a major Confederate military hospital was established in the vicinity of the Farmville depot, to which wounded soldiers were brought from all over the South, the county remained geographically untouched by battle until the last week of the conflict, when the remnants of Confederate General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia streamed through in their retreat from Richmond and Petersburg to Appomattox Court House. The last engagement of the Civil War in Virginia was at Sayler's Creek. There were also skirmishes at High Bridge, in northern Farmville, and at Prince Edward Court House. It was also on county soil, in downtown Farmville, that Union General U.S. Grant informally reviewed his troops for the last time, and it was from the Prince Edward Hotel that he sent his first dispatch to General Lee, suggesting surrender.

Several days after the April 9th surrender, many Prince Edward citizens and U.S. military occupation personnel attended a memorial service for the assassinated President Lincoln in Farmville.

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After the War in Prince Edward

The end of the war brought economic depression on the heels of the privations of the war years. While the official County records had all remained intact, many civilian records were not so fortunate; major damage to Farmville's economy occurred because the Union troops had burned the records of the Farmville Female College, with the results that the college trustees were unable to find the names of their own stockholders and the amounts of their investments; they eventually had to sell the school.

The end of the war brought also a major reordering of society, with the freeing of slaves and the granting of their full citizenship and right to vote. Many newly-freed slaves turned to farming, along with a major part of the county's white population.

There were soon positive signs of community cooperation and wholeness. The Farmville Building and Loan Association, for example, had both white and black stockholders and financed many new homes on small lots in Farmville, contributing greatly to the well being of both groups in the community. African-American entrepreneurs gradually became a factor in both town and county business growth, although this was more evident in Farmville than in the county at large. By 1889, black-owned businesses included grocery stores, barbershops, restaurants, a furniture repair store, a silversmith, a clock-repair shop, a shoemaking shop, a wheelwright business, and the town's only brick-making company.

As the population of Prince Edward County grew, along with some small business establishments and the return of the railroad-influenced economy, the focus of the county shifted from the Court House village to the railroad town. This was also influenced by the fact that the occupying Federal army personnel (present in the county until 1876) de-trained in Farmville, and their governance‹along with opportunists known as "carpetbaggers" and "scalawags"‹was virtually all from the town. The growing influence of the town during this Reconstruction period resulted in the moving in 1871 of the county seat from its location of nearly 120 years, into Farmville, where a new courthouse was built in 1872.

As the population of Farmville grew, so too did the number of organized churches and the breadth of their ministries to the local population. Numerous schools, and even an Opera House, sprang up. Farmville was a natural place for the beginning of a community hospital that eventually served several nearby counties. That hospital opened in 1926 and has continued to be a key part of Farmville and Prince Edward County.

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The Struggle for Equal Education

As was the case almost everywhere in the South, and in the nation generally, following the institution of public schools, there were two school systems, separate and allegedly equal‹one for white children and one for black children. Upset by the inequalities of this arrangement, in April of 1951 the African-American students at the R.R. Moton High School in Farmville staged a public protest, marching from their school to the courthouse. Their strike led to the local court case, Davis et. al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward, which was eventually included in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the "separate but equal" system of public schools and mandated racial integration in all the nation's public schools.

During Virginia's "Massive Resistance" to racial integration, Prince Edward County public schools were closed for five years (1959-1964). In response to the school closing, Prince Edward Academy opened for white students. No public education was available for African-American students for five years, with the exception of voluntary efforts by both local and outside groups. This resulted in an out-flight of black students from the county, while many‹who came to be called "the lost generation"‹had no formal educational opportunity at all. Finally, as the full force of the Federal government was brought to bear upon the county, the Prince Edward County public schools reopened as an integrated system.

In the nearly forty years since their reopening, the public schools have maintained an increasingly high level of achievement. The Robert Russa Moton Museum, now a National Historic Landmark, serves as a marker of how far the community has progressed in relations between the races, preserving and celebrating the contributions of county residents to the civil rights movement in education. (Robert Russa Moton, the pioneering crusader for equal education for whom the school was named, was raised and educated in Prince Edward County; he went to Hampton Institute and succeeded Booker T. Washington as president of the famed Tuskegee Institute.)

The Prince Edward Academy has also achieved a significant level of educational success; in 1993 it was redefined entirely, thanks to a major benefactor, the industrialist-philanthropist J. B. Fuqua (a native of Prospect). As the Fuqua School, it has a more diverse enrollment and a broader geographical base, and is seen as a model for rural, private education.

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Today in Prince Edward County

Prince Edward County continues to grow economically as the center for a progressive seven-county area. From 1990 to 2000, the County's population grew 14%, from 17,320 to 19,720, with an increasing number of retirees being drawn here, in part because of the quiet and relaxed way of life, readily available shopping, and the lectures, cultural events, and athletic contests at both Longwood University and Hampden-Sydney College. The community's cultural experiences are enhanced by Longwood University's Center for the Visual Arts and by the community theater, the Waterworks Players.

The Twin Lakes State Park boasts 425 acres of wilderness and recreational space; the Sandy River Reservoir and Briery Creek Lake, more recent additions, lure fishing enthusiasts. The county has major stopover points on the Driving Tour of the Route of Lee's Retreat, as well as on Virginia's new Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail.

Many churches and good-willed citizens continue to help their own with noteworthy community-building agencies, e.g., the FACES food pantry, Habitat for Humanity, SCOPE/Meals on Wheels, and Madeline's House. Two flourishing industrial parks are located within the county.

Farmville has become the hub for retail activity, from its home-grown Green Front Furniture Company (which boasts the innovative re-use of old brick tobacco warehouses and a former shoe factory) to numerous new restaurants and small businesses. The completion of the US 460 bypass has created a business corridor south of town, while Farmville's downtown remains an attractive and vibrant center of commerce.

These signs of progress and community show how far Prince Edward County has come in its two and a half centuries of history. But the original attractions that brought the first county settlers in the 1700s‹the rich land, the fresh-running rivers and streams, the abundant recreational opportunities, and the promise of an industrious population‹are still an important part of our county life today.

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NOTE: This Brief History is a compilation written by several volunteers. It is based, with permission, on some of the text in Farmville, Virginia: An Illustrated History, published by the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts; several sections have been added, on subjects not previously covered there. Because of space limitations, many interesting subjects had to be either treated briefly or left out. We invite all Prince Edward citizens to contribute corrections, additions, and especially your own family stories and pictures by sending them to info@princeedward250.org for posting on this website.

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