A Botetourt County commission wants the world to know about Col. William Preston, both his accomplishments as a settler from Ireland who became a wealthy Virginia farmer and fought in the American Revolutionary War, and his troubling legacy as an owner of slaves.
The Historic Greenfield Preservation Advisory Council has begun seeking public donations for a proposed park that teaches Preston’s history and also shares the stories of the African slaves who lived and labored there and the Native Americans who dwelt there before Preston arrived.
Their ideal vision for how this would work involves historical interpreters greeting visitors at the buildings that remain from the plantation Preston once owned in what’s now the Botetourt Center at Greenfield, the county’s state of the art industrial park. Those buildings, slave quarters and a standalone kitchen, would be fully restored and open to tourists, with nearby signs further elaborating on their significance.
During a Nov. 14 presentation given in Roanoke at the Harrison Museum of African American Culture to government, university and historical society officials, members of the Greenfield council described these objectives and made their first public fundraising pitch.
Although no details are set in stone, Botetourt County Supervisor Steve Clinton, who represents the Amsterdam District, where Greenfield is located, estimated establishing the park would cost less than $1 million. The advisory council, of which Clinton is a member, aims to complete the project in five years.
The council was created in 2017 by the board of supervisors to oversee the creation of the park. The county has a special fund designated for Greenfield preservation area donations. That fund has received about $1,000 since the Nov. 14 presentation, Assistant to the County Administrator Cody Sexton said Monday.
The county will match that $1,000. Starting in fiscal year 2018, the county has committed $50,000 per year in matching funds for a five year period to the project, for an eventual total of $250,000. Prior to the Harrison Museum presentation, the county received a $10,000 donation, which it matched. Some of the money from that $20,000 was used to pay for an archaeological survey on the grounds, Sexton said.
A monument already does exist to Col. William Preston and his accomplished descendants, which include a Virginia governor and a U.S. secretary of the Navy: the Historic Smithfield Plantation in Montgomery County. Yet before moving there in 1774, Preston and his wife Susannah ran an estate for more than a decade on the land that’s now the industrial park.
The mansion where the Preston family lived was destroyed in a 1959 fire. “Perversely,” as Clinton put it, the only structures that remain to memorialize Preston’s Greenfield plantation are the slave quarters built in 1864 and the summer kitchen where the slaves labored, built in 1845.
Those two buildings became the center of a different kind of firestorm in 2016 when county officials spent $300,000 to move the structures from their original site to make room for construction of a new building. Preservationists and historians heavily criticized the move, with the Roanoke Valley Preservation Foundation sarcastically bestowing the “Bulldozer Award” on the board of supervisors.
Recycled paper and packaging manufacturer Pratt Industries moved into the shell building in late summer, Sexton said.
The relocated buildings remain intact and stable, standing near the honeybee sanctuary by the trailhead of the industrial park’s Cherry Blossom Trail. They also stand near a third 19th century building, which has been described as a slave dwelling or a plantation manager’s house, built on land that belonged to Preston’s granddaughter Sarah Preston and her husband Henry Bowyer. All three buildings, and two cemeteries also on the grounds, would be part of the proposed historic park.
“Eventually we want to show the history of Botetourt County,” said Rupert Cutler, past president of the Blue Ridge Land Conservancy and a member of the advisory council.
At the Harrison Museum presentation, Daleville business owner Cheryl Sullivan Willis, a descendant of slaves who lived on the Greenfield plantation, made an impassioned case for seeing the project through. “We have to preserve and honor the history of our past in order for us to move forward in unity,” she said.