Travels & Traditions: Richmond, Virginia - #108

This is Richmond, Virginia, one of the most significant cities in the history of the United States. It is the capital of the Commonwealth of Virginia. It was the capital of an independent nation during the Civil War. And most significant for the traveler, Richmond is home to some of the most important reminders of our nation’s past.

In the next half-hour, we’ll take a look at Virginia’s oldest plantation; it’s been here for over 350 years... we’ll learn about the Civil War Trails, and the battlefields of Virginia... we’ll go white-water rafting through the center of town.... and finally, we’ll taste some of the traditional foods.  So join me, Burt Wolf, for TRAVELS AND TRADITIONS in Richmond, Virginia.

In 1607, when the first English colonists came to Virginia, the nearby waters were filled with seafood and the forest with game, fruits, vegetables and nuts. The land could have supplied the settlers with the food they needed.  And yet they were starving to death. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): There were at least two major reasons for the starvation. First of all, the Virginia colonists didn’t want to eat any food here that they had not already eaten back in England -- a deadly idea. And second, most of the colonists to Virginia were from the middle class. They were tradesmen and merchants who knew very little about fishing, farming or hunting.  Fortunately the native tribes traded with them, taught them about corn, and so many were able to survive and eventually learn how to farm.

By the middle of the 1600s Virginia’s main crop was tobacco. It was extremely profitable and led to the development of the plantations. A twenty-minute drive east of Richmond along the James River will bring you to Shirley, a plantation that was originally established in 1613. These days it’s home to the tenth and eleventh generations of the Carter family. Historically important areas of the property are open to the public.  Charles Carter, of the eleventh generation, was my guide.

CHARLES CARTER:  Here we have our early central heating system, built about 1830s, about a hundred years after the house was made.  You can adjust the register for the amount of heat that you’d like to come up -- air, hot air... although we’re not so sure it was that effective in the central hall with the open staircase.  So the staircase is 250 years old, or better, and it still works quite well, as you can see.  According to an engineer, this should not hold up.  It’s like a bumblebee -- it shouldn’t fly.  It’s called a “flying staircase;” you can probably see the vibration.

BURT WOLF:   What keeps it up?

CHARLES CARTER:  Two wrought-iron straps, about an inch thick and four inches wide.  They run from wall to wall.

BURT WOLF:   So it’s like a suspension bridge, right inside the house.


BURT WOLF:   Oh, great!

CHARLES CARTER:  Each generation has its own portraits done; it’s sort of a family album on our walls here.  And this is one of our family album.  We’re fairly sure that she looked like this -- at least her face, we’re not so sure about the body.

BURT WOLF:  Why is that?

CHARLES CARTER:  Well, in the time that these portraits were done, it was not uncommon for an artist to go around and stay at the family places, and they’d bring a selection of pre-painted bodies.

BURT WOLF:  And you could pick from a whole bunch of different bodies which one you wanted?


BURT WOLF:  And then they would paint the face on it.

CHARLES CARTER:  All they had to do was make the sale and paint the face... This is Elizabeth Carter.  She’s dressed very much like Lucy Randolph was.  You can see that her body and her dress are very very much the same.  Walliston, the artist, seems to have had a very consistent standard for cleavage in his portraits. ... So the plantation is here because of water, because of the river.  It was the Main Street of the colonial times, and it was also the cheapest form of transportation, the most efficient, and it was a good way to get the tobacco out, and anything else that you wanted to get in, which would include, obviously, all the furniture that you’d see in here, as well as tools... paintings, obviously, and also -- probably what you may be interested in -- all the sources of food.

The planters preferred to import much of their food rather than give up a tobacco field.  By the late 1600s, things had changed. Virginia developed its own style of cooking, a style that was based on local food products. And there was a particular interest in seafood.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Captain John Smith, who was made famous by Pocahontas, wrote in his diary that the waters of Virginia were so filled with fish that thought he could catch them with a cooking pot. And people are still interested in the seafood of Virginia. 

The watermen of Virginia harvest over eighty different species, which are shipped fresh to cities throughout the world. One of the oldest harvests is for clams. Hundreds of years ago the local tribes used clam shells as money. They felt that because of the purple streak on the inside of the shell, clams were particularly attractive and valuable.

Virginia watermen also bring in scallops. A scallop swims backwards and can’t see where it’s going, even though it has fifty eyes. Sounds like part of our Federal Government. Besides the scallop, they bring in oysters, which were one of the mainstays of the early colonial diet and are still one of Virginia’s most popular seafoods.

The state also has a striped bass catch, and of course the ever-popular, totally adaptable and multi-talented... soft shell crab.

About an hour’s drive northeast of Richmond is the town of Urbanna, Virginia -- the home of Catherine Via and Beatrice Taylor. They are sisters. They are grandmothers. And they are the only two women in the United States with a commercial license for soft shell crabbing.

BEATRICE TAYLOR:  Come on over here and let me show you how the process of a shedding works.  This one -- this is a soft crab just pulling out of its shed.

CATHERINE VIA:  See him pulling the legs out?

BEATRICE TAYLOR:  He’ll completely come out --

BURT WOLF:   Oh, that one!

BEATRICE TAYLOR:  (over)  -- an all-new crab.

CATHERINE VIA:  (over)  Yeah!

BURT WOLF:   So that’s the new crab --


BURT WOLF:   Ohhh, wow!

BEATRICE TAYLOR:  And this is like a buster that’s just starting to come out.

BURT WOLF:   A “buster”?

BEATRICE TAYLOR:  Mm-hmm.  A buster.

BURT WOLF:   ‘Cause he’s bustin’ out.

BEATRICE AND CATHERINE (unison):  Busting out.

BURT WOLF:   And that’s the shell!

BEATRICE TAYLOR:  Okay, he’s out now.

BURT WOLF:   That’s amazing!

BEATRICE TAYLOR:  Okay... this is a male crab.  You can tell by his apron right here.

BURT WOLF:   Right, looks like the Washington Monument.

BEATRICE AND CATHERINE (unison):   -- the Washington Monument.

BEATRICE TAYLOR:  And the other is the --


BEATRICE TAYLOR:  -- the Capitol.

CATHERINE VIA:  The female has an apron just like the Capitol.

BURT WOLF:   No wonder the politicians like these!  


BEATRICE TAYLOR:  Well, we’re leaving the dock and going up here to Urbanna Creek; we’re in the creek and we’re going on up into the mouth of the Rappahannock River.  That’s where my pots are.  You see, everybody has pots out here.  Your pot has a number on it; you’re assigned a number.  Mine is I-54.

BURT WOLF:   I-54.

BEATRICE TAYLOR:  Mm-hmm.  It’s like playing Bingo, right?

BURT WOLF:   Something I can do --?

BEATRICE TAYLOR:  And what I have to do is try to get in close enough to reach it here with my stick.  Just catch it within the rope.  Right there.  You missed it, Burt.

BURT WOLF:   I am an extraordinarily talented person at this!  You can see that I was a natural born crabber!  

BEATRICE TAYLOR:  (over)  We will make another turn.

BURT WOLF:   As a matter of fact, I crabbed about everything for the first three years of my life.  We’re going to have a second try.

BEATRICE TAYLOR:  Catch it down right where the rope is tied.

BURT WOLF:   Sure.  You got a lot of tape?  We’re gonna be here awhile, sports fans.  Ah yes, a natural born crabber. 

BEATRICE TAYLOR:  See if I can get you right on it this time.

BURT WOLF:   Now, I’m catching the line here.

BEATRICE TAYLOR:  Yes.  The line.  There -- you got it!  You had it.  

BURT WOLF:   I got it!  I got it!

BEATRICE TAYLOR:  You got it!  Only you’re supposed to let the hook do the work.

BURT WOLF:   Well -- no one is perfect!!!

BEATRICE TAYLOR:  (over)  What difference does it make as long as we got it?

BURT WOLF:   We either have lunch or we don’t have lunch!

BEATRICE TAYLOR:  We’ll see.  (Over)  These have only been out one day...

BURT WOLF:   Triumph at last!

BEATRICE TAYLOR:  So whaddya say?  Look at here!

BURT WOLF:   Lunch!

BEATRICE TAYLOR:  Would you believe it?

BURT WOLF:   Lunch!  Oh, and fish!

BEATRICE TAYLOR:  (over)  We’ve got peelers --

BURT WOLF:   What are those little fish?

BEATRICE TAYLOR:  (over) -- we’ve got fish!  We have a ripe peeler --

BURT WOLF:   Yeah?

BEATRICE TAYLOR:  -- two ripe peelers --

BURT WOLF:   Do we have bread?

BEATRICE TAYLOR:  -- no bread, we forgot to bring the bread... so if all my pots have done this well in a day, we’re gonna have a really good catch.

BURT WOLF:   Mm-hmm!

We took our catch of the day and headed into Urbanna’s Virginia Street Cafe.  Lunch was clam chowder, a soft-shell crab sandwich with Urbanna coleslaw, and for dessert, Southern pecan pie.

The people of Virginia are preserving their traditional foods, but they are also preserving the historic buildings in which those foods are eaten. A walk around Richmond makes the point. 

This is the Executive Mansion. It has been the residence of Virginia’s governors since 1813, which makes it the oldest continuously occupied governor’s mansion in the United States.

And that is The White House Of The Confederacy. It was built in 1818 and during the War Between The States it was the home of President Jefferson Davis and his family. Next door is the Museum of The Confederacy, with the world’s largest collection of Confederate artifacts.

This is the Virginia State Capitol building. It was designed by Thomas Jefferson in 1785. It’s the home of the oldest legislative body in the Western Hemisphere.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Inside is a sculpture of George Washington.  It is the only portrait of our first president that was produced while he was still alive.  The head was made from a plaster cast of his face.  It’s what George really looked like.  Most of us, on the other hand, think that President Washington looked like the portrait on the one dollar bill, but that is not the case.  This painting was produced by a man named Gilbert Stuart, who openly admitted that he disliked Washington and was going to make him as unattractive as possible.  People who are familiar with this story think that it is particularly unfair to President Washington, and respectfully request that our Federal government change the picture on the one dollar bill.  They believe in truth in portraiture, especially for a president who is famous for not telling a lie.

Virginia’s desire to preserve the reminders of its past has led to the development of a project called “Virginia’s Civil War Trails.”   It’s a state-wide program that guides tourists through the battlefields of the War Between the States.  If you call 888-CIVIL WAR, you’ll receive a pack of information that will guide you through the historic landmarks.  Mitch Bowman is the director of the project.

MITCH BOWMAN:  Well, here we’re standing on Malvern Hill, and it’s representative of a lot of Virginia’s Civil War sites; that is to say this was an old Native American site, the Arahoutek Indians here, part of the Confederacy of Tribes several centuries ago; that John Smith found when he first sailed up the James River about half a mile behind us.  Then Marquis de Lafayette camped here in the summer --

BURT WOLF:   It’s like a hot neighborhood!

MITCH BOWMAN:  Exactly!  Well, it’s a very high plateau, Malvern Hill is, about 150 feet above sea level.  In the summer of 1862 the last major battle of the Peninsula Campaign was fought right where we’re standing. Burt.  It was a day very similar to today, quite hot and humid, the first of July 1862.  And it was in parade-ground formation, because these Union troops were not even dug in, nearly 30 cannon were lined up on this ridge, firing back down the half-mile field directly in front of us.

BURT WOLF:   The Confederate troops were coming up this way?

MITCH BOWMAN:  Exactly right.

BURT WOLF:   Confined in by this formation on either side.

MITCH BOWMAN:  Well, very, very true.  And going back to the layering of history on this site, both sides, on the east and west, dropped dramatically down into swampy marshland.

BURT WOLF:   So the only way was to come right up this way.


BURT WOLF:   And the cannons were here.

MITCH BOWMAN:  And the cannons were here.  And because of the swampland, the Confederates were unable to employ their artillery properly.  And keeping in mind, this was the sixth battle of that week, known as the Seven Days Campaign.

There were nearly 8,000 casualties on this day’s battle, roughly 5,000 on the Confederate side, 3,000 on the Union side.  And a commander noted, looking at the field, after the battle, that it had a singular “crawling” effect.  There were nearly 5,000 wounded and dying troops out here on the field in front of us.  And you can imagine 5,000 people out there lying down right now today, and if they were crawling it gave the whole plateau, the whole field almost a “moving” kind of feeling to it.  So it’s really just... horrific action up on what is today a very peaceful spot.  And I think the visitor traveling along our trails, having seen the five battlegrounds within this week before they get here to the sixth one, gets a really profound sense of that continuity, that progression.

Another example of Richmond’s desire to preserve its past is the Jefferson Hotel.  The Jefferson opened in 1895 and has been part of Richmond’s social life ever since.

At the center of the hotel’s Palm Court lobby is a lifesize marble statue of Thomas Jefferson. It stands beneath a 35-foot Tiffany stained-glass skylight. Next door is the Rotunda.  It’s an extraordinary room. It has a 70-foot-long ceiling decorated with a reproduction of a Tiffany skylight.  The Rotunda and the Palm Court are connected by the Grand Staircase. The word around town is that this staircase was used as the model for the one in “Gone With The Wind.”

At the top of the staircase is the Lemaire restaurant. It was named after Etienne Lemaire, who was the maitre d’ at the White House during the years when Thomas Jefferson was the President of the United States. The restaurant specializes in updated versions of traditional Southern recipes... a classic Virginia spoonbread... oysters and clams on a bed of sautéed spinach... striped bass with cabbage and English peas... and honey-glazed roast tenderloin of pork.

The Jefferson Hotel is in Richmond’s downtown area... which is a good place to begin a short tour of some of Richmond’s neighborhoods. Church Hill has St. John’s Church, which was built in 1741. This was the church where Patrick Henry said “give me liberty or give me death.”

During the 1800s Shockoe Slip was a warehouse district. Today it is the nighttime neighborhood. 

Carytown is a good spot for walking, shopping, visiting museums and galleries, or seeing a movie at the Byrd, a restored  movie house from the thirties, where a ticket costs 99 cents... which is “as good as it gets.”

There is a general belief that you haven’t completed your tour of Richmond until you’ve toured Monument Avenue. It’s a wide boulevard with monumental statues in the center. You will encounter generals... and the president of the Confederacy... a scientist... and a tennis star -- Arthur Ashe.

After which you could be “served” a good meal at Millie’s Diner. Millie’s is in the historic Kullman diner that was originally built in 1941 for neighborhood factory workers.  It’s packed with lovers of good food and good music.  They have a great jukebox.  We had Millie’s original signature dish called Devil’s Mess -- peppers, onions, eggplant, and hot Italian sausage, stewed with curry and pan-fried eggs.  And for dessert, a peanut butter cookie and vanilla ice cream sandwich.

Fanning out from Monroe Park are a series of streets that have come to be known as The Fan District. It may well be the largest intact Victorian neighborhood in North America -- over two thousand townhouses designed by many different architects of the time. 

As you travel through the Fan you can’t help noticing all the flags in front of the houses. In a town that holds tight to its traditions, anything that might seem faddish would definitely be out. But house flags in Richmond have become a tradition... and it only took twenty-five years. The person responsible is Millie Jones, whose business is called Festival Flags.  And that’s the flag that started it all. 

MILLIE JONES:  The “It’s A Boy” was the flag that I hung out for the birth of our son, Jonathan.  And when I did, of course, everyone came by to say “Oh my goodness!  What a wonderful way to announce the birth of a child!”  And then you see the progression of his life throughout -- when he was twelve... when he was twenty-one... and, of course, his confirmation with the butterfly flag.  And then people would call up and say, “Would you make one of those for me?  That is just the neatest thing I’ve ever seen!”  And that’s really how it started.

BURT WOLF:  How many flags do you make a year?

MILLIE JONES:  Oh, upwards of ten thousand.  It just simply depends.  We do a great deal of custom design work, but we also do this mass-produced work as well.  And we’re strictly made right here, you know.  We do not import.  And we are made right here in Richmond, Virginia.

BURT WOLF:  Pick out one that you like.

MILLIE JONES:  I like this one especially here.  This is apple blossoms.  And we have wonderful dogwoods, of course.  Virginia is known for its beautiful dogwood.  And, of course, the hot summertime -- the sunflower is fabulous.  Celebrate the cow, right?  Then, of course, I think we’re overtaken by squirrels in Richmond, but this one is done for several different reasons.

BURT WOLF:  Why do you think people like flags?

MILLIE JONES:  Well, because they make you happy.  They’re very colorful; they make you ask questions.  Flags are a reason; flags are a marker; flags are for celebration.  And that’s exactly what we have.  We have reasons for celebration, and that’s why people love them.

Another Richmond area that has been able to preserve some amazing material is the Jackson Ward District. At the beginning of the 1900s Jackson Ward was the center of one of our country’s most successful African-American business communities. It is home to Richmond’s Black History Museum, and its director, Brian Little.

BRIAN LITTLE:  The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia is a place that’s a repository for the life struggles and accomplishments of African-Americans within Virginia. We receive about 17,000 visitors a year; we have different types of exhibits -- art shows, history, cultural programs, and several different other types of offerings to the community. Jackson Ward is the birthplace of black capitalism.  It was once the black Wall Street of America.  Looking at the 1920s, 30s and 40s, we find black entreprenurialship here in this Jackson Ward community.

One of the inspirational figures in this business community was a woman named Maggie Walker.  Her home in Jackson Ward is a major attraction.  At the turn of the century she became the first woman millionaire, and the first black president of an American bank.

BRIAN LITTLE:  Maggie Walker’s quite a unique person.  She wanted to start a business, she went into a white bank for a loan and she was declined the loan.  And she was a woman who believed that “No” was not the right answer for her.

BURT WOLF:  I love her!

BRIAN LITTLE:  So she decided that she wanted to pull from the community and start her own business by empowering the community to begin a savings and loan bank, if you will, the Saint Luke’s Pennies and Savings Bank.   She decided to corral the community together and to get everyone to bring their pennies -- not dollars, not nickels, not quarters -- to her bank to begin a savings account.  And she took from one cent to ten cents to ten dollars or what have you, and she turned those pennies into dollars, which later began a great investment for the community. So, she empowered this community by using her own techniques and her own principles of business to teach others -- young and old -- how to invest their dollars so that one day they can begin to purchase land, purchase houses, start their own businesses, and that sort of thing.  And when we look at Jackson Ward as the birthplace of black capitalism, we begin to see how her principles play into the development of this community. ... The community’s being revitalized; we have a project right now that the City Manager and the City Council has approved entitled “Vision 2000,” which allows the community to reinvest in its own historic properties.  We have properties that are being renovated on a daily basis; as we look at the community we start to see persons -- for example, who are refurbishing their houses and making them, restoring them back to their original flair and original architecture, peeling off the paint to find out what’s underneath... all of this is being part of the whole revitalization of Jackson Ward.

As I mentioned earlier, Richmond is here because of the James River and the James River Falls. For centuries the river was the most important means of getting around. And it can still give you an interesting trip. You can take it on the old paddlewheel steamer, the Annabel Lee, or on an even earlier form of transportation, the raft. The Richmond Raft Company has a city franchise for rafting trips right in the center of town. They’ll supply you with all the gear you need and a trained guide. The objective is to give people a close look at the beauty of the falls and a better understanding of this natural resource. 

Richmond is a city of traditions, but it’s important to remember that its oldest traditions include being a great commercial center and a cultural capital. Today Richmond is home to twelve of Fortune Magazine’s 1000 largest companies. The English businessmen of the early 1600s who put up the original money for the exploration of Virginia would love what’s happening here now.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief visit to Virginia, and that you will join us next time on TRAVELS & TRADITIONS.  I’m Burt Wolf.