For the Love of Rosegill

From 'One Woman's Opinion', Southside Sentinel, May 22, May 29 and June 5, 2003

by Mary Wakefield Buxton


Urbanna, Va.- The first time I saw Rosegill, it was late summer and she was surrounded in fully-grown corn. I had to drive almost the length of her straight-like-a-shot-arrow driveway through acres and acres of corn that stood like soldiers, as if to protect their mistress from any assailants from the outer world.

The moment I first saw her white, stately magnificence is a moment I shall remember a very long time. I stood and stared at her impressive image and noted every detail of how she sat on a cliff overlooking the Rappahannock River, the bridge to the right and onward to the Chesapeake Bay, and I thought immediately that she was truly the queen of all homes.

Later I would see Rosegill from many perspectives, during all the sizes and stages of growing corn, in fields planted in soybeans or winter wheat, during fall and fallowed fields when I would walk the dogs through the stump and debris of yesterday's crops, in winter with snow settling on her fields, trees and shrubs in cottony mounds, or in spring with the sudden burst of dogwood, red bud, daffodil, iris and azalea, and she would always get into my heart and soul like no other home ever could.

Of course, it was the presence of the past at Rosegill that had captured my heart and soul. It was the profound sense and reverence of American history that this lady had witnessed up close and from her very own halls that followed me like a shadow with every step that I took across her fields or through her majestic rooms.

The Rosegill farm, home and parcel of 843 acres that front both the river and Urbanna Creek, is the leftover of a plantation that was started in 1650 by colonist Ralph Wormeley and later became home to several other Virginia governors and distinguished people. It is as much a part of Urbanna and Middlesex County as the sun and sky and river that meets the eye every day in and out of the year.

That's why what happens with Rosegill is important and of concern to everyone living in our area because she is our history, our heritage and our roots.

Six years ago Rosegill, which had often stood empty over the passing centuries, welcomed Brockett and JoAnn Muir through its front door. Because these new tenants happily shared Rosegill with the community on many occasions, I became an occasional and always respectful visitor of the old home. I grew to love Rosegill, partially because of the romantic soul of Brockett Muir, a retired, archconservative, rather a character of the old school, and who can resist one of those? He was an ob/gyn, a natural antithesis to some of my feminist ideas, who generously volunteers his medical services to area health clinics. He is also a man who not only has a vivid sense of history, but also has the heart of a poet too, quite an endearing combination.

I especially remember Brockett Muir at Rosegill on an evening just two weeks after the terrorist attack on 9/11 when the Muirs held a gala at the old home. Guests were still visibly shaken by the attack, and in spite of the tent, festive decorations and sounds from a Dixieland band, we all had terrorism in our heads.

Brockett, understanding this, stood to offer a toast to the night and his words still offer comfort as I pen this tale even several years later. "Rosegill was here for the French and Indian War," he told us as he raised his glass of wine high to the night. "Rosegill was here for the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Rosegill was here for the War of Northern Aggression, World War I, World War II, and the action in Korea and Vietnam. It will survive the last crusade against terrorism as well, and prevail, as befits the grand dame that she is. So let us now dance and play southern to beat the band!"

Beside oral tributes to Rosegill, many have picked up pen and written their feelings after an evening at Rosegill. At Christmas last year after a party in the old plantation, and the first social outing I had enjoyed after a long sojourn with a blood clot in my leg, I too wrote my impressions of Rosegill. When Brockett heard I was doing a story on Rosegill, I hastily forwarded a copy of my email to him after that party . . .

"Such luscious images remain," I wrote after the party, "the unforgettable approach down the long straight driveway, with the splendid colonial Rosegill white and glittering with Christmas at the foot of the Rappahannock River . . . chills, the golden lab bounding out to greet me at the front door, such a head could launch ships, stretching and scratching his back in the ancient boxwood and yew, the elegant Dr. and Mrs. Muir opening the front door to greet me, Baltimore charm that is cooler, more sophisticated than the Virginia, rural variety, passion on ice, like fine wine, hooded eyelids that nevertheless see all, the dog slipping inside the manor partially under my fur coat, I feel his strength in my weak legs, the sparkling Christmas decorations peeking out from each glorious room, the crackling fire, the pile of fur coats thrown carelessly into a waiting boat, oriental rugs under my feet like jewels, the portraits of ancestors gazing down from past ages, the Christmas tree over-brimming with family ornaments on command in the sun porch, the sharp taste of Chardonnay on my tongue and lips after such a very long time, the hugs, the shouts of happiness from such dear friends, the delicious food served up in the style of a king, and the dear dog at my feet staring and begging for more tea cakes with irresistible eyes of brown pool. . . .

And it is there, in Rosegill, where imagination goes to work and I see the characters of the past, the lords and the ladies, the governors, the rectors of Christ Church, the headmasters from Christchurch School, prominent visitors from Williamsburg, Richmond and Washington, proud soldiers from every war who tried on uniforms in front of mother, daughters who kissed under mistletoe and wept for unrequited love, prominent leaders in the republic . . . and I heard the conversations, the cry of births from bedrooms, the wailing of death, the comings and goings of local friends and family, house and field slaves and servants who through the centuries provided arduous labor delivered the high style to the chosen few . . . and I hear the laughter, running steps, shouts, sudden slammed doors, occasional sobs, screams and moans, and the past comes running back through me like a college textbook and I see that all of America is all right here in our very laps at Rosegill.

The Rosegill we know today came about from the action in 1649 of one man. That was the year when Captain Ralph Wormeley 'patented" 3,200 acres that "bordered the Rappahannock River and included land on both sides of what was then called Rosegill Creek and is now known as Urbanna Creek and Indian Towns of Old and New Nimcock." The family built as many as 12 homes on the farmland and held it for five generations before it was passed on to a string of new owners over the centuries.

Rosegill is on the market today for $12 million.

According to the reference book Historic Homes of Middlesex County, Virginia the Wormeleys 'hung onto their aristocratic feelings and general pro-British stance," even long after the American 'Revolutionary War.

Ralph Wormeley V died in 1806 leaving the property to a sister. He also left interesting letters that plainly expressed his anglophiliac views, which even included complaints about some of the modern changes going on in his church that he feared would "pollute the mild and humble religion of Jesus."

Little facts gleaned from old history books certainly indicate why history is so much fun to lead. History proves that some things never change, like human nature, and this includes the constant grumblings over something new happening at church.

Such thoughts were on my mind last week while enjoying a cup of Earl Grey one afternoon in the sunroom with Dr. Brockett Muir, an endearing man, and present lord and tenant in residence at Rosegill.

Brockett, I realized, was well suited to this home. He had the same general orientation as the original Wormeleys from generations ago -- he being exceedingly pro-British and also constantly perplexed about the changes in the church. It occurred to me as I sat and chatted with him that, except for the small incidence of the passage of a few centuries, I might have been in the presence of- the old captain himself.

The Muirs' golden lab, "Max" was at my feet. After creating so much-hullabaloo at the massive front screen door through which he had been banished upon my arrival, Brockett had finally had to let him back in.

I thought as I sipped my sweet tea (the only really fit beverage for human consumption) that 'old Max very probably remembered I was his lady friend who had attended the Christmas dinner and lovingly fed him numerous teacakes. He probably thought my pockets were still full of teacakes and he wanted to make sure he got the latest dole. A dog never forgets a teacake.

Brockett had earlier walked me through some of the spacious, wood-paneled rooms and I had been painfully aware that, depending on the generosity of the next tenant and his propensity to share the local castle with a scribe, this could be my last visit.

The home was very well stripped of personal belongings. The lovely old silver, china and knickknacks that had gracefully filled the rooms had been packed up in huge crates ready to be moved shortly to "Leafwood," soon to be the Muirs' new home in Saluda. However, the lovely 'antique furniture that graced the old mansion was still visible.

Brockett had shown me what I had wanted to see. I had read that a "W" had been carved into a marble fireplace mantel in the living room. It could be the W had stood for Wormeley, yet perhaps, I conjectured, it was George Washington who had at the spur of the moment and after a good stiff drink of brandy had felt so inclined to leave his imprint at Rosegill?

That's the value of Rosegill. It was used by all the early British governors in Williamsburg as a summer place and later enjoyed by many prominent colonial leaders who visited Rosegill as they passed through the area.

It is fun to sip tea and to dream about who might have walked through the halls, sat where I sat that very moment, seen the same sights, smelled the same faint whiff of honeysuckle in bloom in the fields, and perhaps even thought the same thoughts.

"After all, they were just like us," Brockett said as if suddenly reading my mind.

Brockett, who writes, paints and still practices medicine as a volunteer doctor in area clinics, explained how living at Rosegill has left its mark. "I can't write anything trite or foolish with all those governors breathing down my back," he confessed.

On the other hand, the ghosts of the past might inspire writing, especially in the wee hours of the night. Say a night when a storm crashes across the river and when the wind whistles at Rosegill and the old house groans. Imagine writing as the colonials did by the dim light of an old kerosene lamp. Wayward twigs might brush across the windowpanes, every casing might groan, and surely one could hear footsteps on the double staircase creak from the many personages from the past.

The house is big and cavernous and in a storm at night one would hardly want to run in nightgown and bare feet down the staircase and out to the back kitchen for a glass of milk. Better to hide under one's covers and listen to the storm's rages.

It was 1997 when the Muirs moved to Rosegill Plantation. They immediately called on Scott Krejci, rector of Christ Church, to offer a blessing for the house. It was a fitting thing to do since over the years so many vicars and rectors from the Church of England and later the American Episcopal Church had stood to offer blessings at Rosegill.

Next month the Muirs move to Leafwood. "JoAnne is eager to make the move now that everything is packed but I will miss Rosegill," Brockett said with a sad heart.

We walked through the 12-foot hallway and out the front door. The wheat crop was green and looked near harvest. The corn in the backfields had just burst forth from the moist earth and looked like little green paw prints lined up across the earth. The lawn had been freshly mowed and there was the sweetness of grass heavy in the air.

Max nudged my leg, still dreaming of teacakes, as I climbed into my car. A crow called from across the field. I drove off down the long driveway.

I was filled with one thought. Finding just the right buyer for Rosegill is so important for Middlesex County.

The best scenario would be for the land and the colonial home to be preserved for future generations. But how this could possibly come about remains to be seen.

Last week, as I turned into the driveway leading to Rosegill, two cars were ahead of me during the long passage. As I pulled up to the stately old mansion, I was greeted by realtor Elizabeth Johnson and her clients. She was showing the home and plantation, owned by Strother Scott of Richmond, which is now on the market for $12 million.

I looked at the people who might consider buying Rosegill, already wondering what they were like and whether they would treasure and preserve the old homestead. And, more importantly, would they share it with the people of Middlesex County as a part of our area treasure?

A gal can dream, can't she?

Dream that whoever lives in Rosegill shares it with the community like the Muirs have done as tenants of the residence over the last six years. "I felt it was right for us to share the property," Brockett Muir told me, explaining his view that the home is really everyone's heritage.

The Muirs hosted many gatherings, such as the Christmas tour, various club parties and dances, and welcomed several Richmond museum tours through the house and gardens.

Three times a year, the Muirs would also host a "Harbor Night." Brockett would climb into his old dory and scout Urbanna Creek, taking a look at the flags of visiting boats, especially noting foreign vessels. He would then row over to invite a few yachtsmen to a feast at Rosegill. "I always was quick to choose any boats bearing a British flag," he confessed.

At the appointed time, Brockett would return to collect his guests and take them to the manor for a roast of lamb dinner that JoAnn had lovingly prepared, lots of good brew, and even more good stories. Over the years many visitors to Urbanna went home with a tale of an elegant evening spent at historic Rosegill in Virginia. This hospitality triggered many invitations to the Muirs from people all over the world.

Brockett had originally come from a farming family in Maryland and one of his greatest enjoyments at Rosegill has been watching in deep admiration and respect as Farmer Bray tilled the land.

"Farmer Bray always knew how to get the best crop off the land," Brockett told me. "Last summer during the drought that destroyed most of the area corn, Farmer Bray somehow, as if by magic, knew to plant his crop early in the spring."

Last year Bray had seen his corn grow before the worst of the drought could stunt his crop. According to Brockett, Bray was able to save well over half of his corn whereas other area farmers lost almost the full crop.

There are many rich stories of Rosegill that pass frequently between old and new residents of Middlesex County. Who knows if they are true?

I hadn't been in the county even a month in 1984 before the late Carroll Chowning, local historian, told me that Rosegill had passed ownership from one party to another through a simple poker card game. The parties had generously imbibed, Carroll told me, and the next day the loser woke up and, remembering what he had done, hurried over to his friend's house. "We weren't serious about that bet on Rosegill, were we?" Carroll suggested the man said. Then, "Oh yes we were!" came the devastating response, and the deed changed hands.

"I've also heard that rumor," said Larry Chowning, historian, author and reporter at the Sentinel, who also assured me that such a story would be hard to verify. Larry reminded me that in the days after the Civil War property like Rosegill didn't have the value that we know waterfront estates have today.

Larry shared a tale about a Captain Bailey from across the river who once had owned Rosegill. When Bailey was a young man and serving as a cabin boy on a ship that once passed Urbanna, he was known to have said, "One day I'm going to own that place." The shipmates turned and stared at the shore and saw Rosegill. Sure enough, in the following years, Bailey's dream came true.

It makes one want to grow up and be a cabin boy.

Another favorite tale told to me by Brockett is how Rosegill once caught fire. The people in Urbanna were so concerned that the old place would burn to the ground that they formed old-fashioned lines down the driveway and passed buckets of water to help the fire department put out the fire. The way the natives came to the rescue of Rosegill may indicate their affection for the old manse.

The moving van will soon come down the long driveway at Rosegill and the Muirs will be moving to their home in Saluda. The moving van will return with new tenants.

It was now time to conclude the story on the old plantation and turn my thoughts elsewhere. As I drove out the long driveway one final time, noting how the wheat and corn had grown in the tremendous rain of the past three short weeks, I became pensive. The words of the poet William Butler Yeats returned, "Cast a cold eye ON life, ON love, horseman pass on by" . . . a line from a poem that Yeats had arranged to have written on his tombstone.

What happens at Rosegill will happen, I realized, and there was not much anyone could do to change her fate. I tried not to worry about what might lie ahead for the old homestead.

Like an old, fine book, one more chapter at Rosegill is about to come to an end. I was already thinking about the next chapter, wondering what it might contain and considering how I might find a way to write the story. ©2003