Sunday, April 17, 2011

Virginia Watermen Families (Part 1)

Aerial Shot of Ditchley in Northumberland County, Virginia (


Along the 1100 miles of crooked coastline delineating the Northern Neck of Virginia is a small jag of land known as Ditchley, population 70.  The story of this small waterfront community encompasses both the evolution of one of the world’s most bountiful and beautiful estuaries, the Chesapeake Bay, and the evolution of an old American family. The generations of family members and inhabitants of the point have included Indians, colonial settlers, American Revolution officers, indentured and enslaved people, plantation families, Civil War commanders, farmers, and Chesapeake Bay watermen. 

Dividing Creek (
Driving down Ditchley Road on an afternoon in early March the air is filled with the sound of spring peepers. There must be thousands of the tiny chorus frogs opening their throats in an unabashed primordial symphony heralding the spring equinox. The pulsing tempo of the sound is echoed in the reddening tree tips of the hardwood forests along the road, gathering their life force into another concentrated annual burst of buds, blossoms, fruit, and leaves. Farther down the road the horizon opens up into fields filled with large flocks of Canada geese placidly feeding on the remains of the fall’s harvest.  Hawks and buzzards swoop watchfully above. Beyond the conifers and hardwoods edging the fields lies the broad bright blue of the Chesapeake with all of its hidden treasures.

 Driveway to Ditchley

The driveway to the old plantation curves away to the left beckoning the visitor through a generous yard and gradually revealing the great house that rises serenely up through the centuries. An enormous Magnolia grandiflora sprawls over the lawn with multiple petticoat branches swaying out from a massive trunk.  The magnolia is joined by a cotillion of historic trees including Black walnut, American holly, Osage-orange, and America sycamore. The majestic trees add grandeur to the grounds  rolling into acres of fields and forests. 

Magnolia Petticoat Limbs

Osage oranges (Doug Hornsby)

Ditchley flanked by Sycamore and Magnolia Trees
Besides the big house and the caretaker’s house to the side, there is a symmetrical pair of old smokehouses flanking the house like two faithful old guards.  The smokehouses are the only remaining plantation outbuildings dating back to the late eighteenth century and both structures have pyramidal roofs.

One of two old smokehouses

The house is constructed of handmade bricks that have mellowed with age and rests in a protective nest of old English boxwoods encircling the foundation.  The bushes emit a powerful, evocative scent I recognize from a lifetime of visiting old homes, it is the smell of history. This beautiful, idyllic corner of the world is where family, home, and nature intertwine for my dear friend, Virginia Lee Loudenslager Adams.  Recently, I ask Lee about her family memories.

“When I was a little girl in the Northern Neck, I had the most wonderful grandparents in the world. My grandmother was a school teacher and my grandfather was a waterman. In the late fifties and sixties, my three little sisters and I would take the bus from Warsaw down to Kilmarnock where they would be waiting for us.  They would whisk us right to the drugstore for sodas and milkshakes, and then home to Ditchley.  Every weekend through the summer my parents would come to pick us up and we would shriek, NO! NO! and beg and plead for just one more week, and then another week, and then another.  Our grandparents loved having us visit, and we never wanted to leave.”
Indeed, the family had not wanted to leave this beautiful piece of coastline for over three hundred years. Around 1650, Colonel Richard Lee of England sailed up the Virginia coast and cast his shrewd gaze over a parcel of land bounded by the Chesapeake Bay and two large tidal creeks. Lee purchased the land from the Wicomico Indians and called the area "Dividing Creek".  Since 1651, the house site and the surrounding acreage have been owned by members of the Lee and Ball families, and most recently a trust established by the Jesse Ball Dupont Foundation. 

RIchard Lee built a home between the two branches of Dividing Creek with a wide view of the Chesapeake Bay. He established a prosperous tobacco plantation which he left to his widow and three sons.  When the house burned seventy years later, his descendent Hancock Lee built a fine brick Colonial style home in 1759, just two hundred yards from the original house site. The plantation, now known as Ditchley, was named after an ancestral Lee estate in England.

The National Historic Register's description of Ditchley notes the architectural importance of the structure.  “Only a small number of houses of this quality were built in the Virginia colony and only a handful survive.  Nonetheless, they have come to symbolize the grace and elegance of high-style colonial Virginia design, and have had a profound impact on American taste, inspiring hundreds of twentieth-century imitations across the country.  As such, Ditchley and related works have become icons of our architectural heritage, a distinctly Virginia contribution.”

Portrait of Mary Ball

Descendants of Colonel Richard Lee include a Revolutionary War general, two signers of the Declaration of Independence, Robert E. Lee, Chief Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, five other Confederate Generals, President of the United States Zachary Taylor, Chief Justice Edward Douglass White, and Maryland Governor Thomas Sims Lee.  Lettice Lee, a direct descendent, married Colonel James Ball, a relative of Mary Ball Washington, the mother of George Washington. He purchased Ditchley in 1789.  Yet another descendent of Colonel Lee and the Balls of Ditchley is my friend Virginia Lee Loudenslager Adams, who cares not one whit about history or lineage, but loves her family and the landscape of her childhood.

Front door of Ditchley

“My mother, Elizabeth Eleanor Ball Loudenslager, was born in one of the upstairs bedrooms of Ditchley in 1927.  Her family lived there, but the house was owned by her cousin, Jesse Ball Dupont.  When I was a child my grandparents lived in a frame house within sight of the big house. My Aunt Edie lived out on the point, and we had other relatives who lived at Ditchley.  There were also several African American families who lived there who shared the name Ball.  The family cemetery has graves going back to 1694. There is a little baby grave in the cemetery with a little headstone.  We would always look at that little grave when we were children, it seemed so sad, and of course, there are several children’s graves in the family cemetery.”

Lee Family Cemetery

There is no trace of the homes or graves of the enslaved people that worked the property for generations.  Like the Indians before them, time has folded their labors, tears, triumphs, and struggles seamlessly back into the old earth, but the history of Ditchley and the Tidewater bears testimony to their existence, and their descendants have become some of the oldest surviving families of the Northern Neck.  Even Ditchley house has narrowly escaped from being destroyed by fire on at least one occasion.

“One night we were sitting at the dinner table at my grandparent’s house and there was a big thunderstorm.  We saw the lightening come down and hit Ditchley. BOOM! And then suddenly, there were flames leaping out.  The men got up and ran out of the house.  We weren’t allowed to go, but we watched everything through the windows.  They got the fire out and saved the house, but it was very exciting!”

Ditchley - West Facade

The old home was saved, a beautiful architectural relic of a time gone by. The great wealth generated by the original tobacco plantations dissipated with the generations.  Continuous tobacco cultivation exhausted the soil and by the mid-eighteenth century much of Virginia’s farmland lay fallow.  Plantation owners turned to other crops and livestock, but no other crop grown in Virginia created the wealth of the early tobacco cultivated during the Colonial era.
“My grandfather was Charles Flexmer Ball Jr. He knew his grandfather, who was born in 1816 and who fought in the Civil War.”
When the Civil War erupted an entire generation of Southern men joined the army or the calvary.  Many never returned and those that did found that the the tide had turned irrevocably for the old Cavalier families. A new era began for both the African American and the white families, who now lived a subsistence lifestyle side by side at Ditchley; separated more by culture than by circumstance.  Black and white people in the little community farmed the land, hunted, and for the first time, started to intensively farm and harvest the abundant life of the Chesapeake Bay.

"Historic Virginia Homes and Churches" (Lancaster) 1915
The Bay had always offered up an astounding natural bounty. Colonial settlers described flocks of waterfowl so large that they blocked the sun. Large reefs of oyster shells stacked like stones lay just below the surface of the water.  Crabs, menhaden, rockfish, oysters, clams, shad, herring, and even salmon were there for the taking.  By the 1870‘s, with the opening of the western railways during the war, trade was booming across the vast American continent.  Suddenly, there was a insatiable national market for seafood, and a hardworking waterman could make a living. In 1872 the Chesapeake Bay yielded oyster harvests one hundred times larger than the current harvests.  However, a life lived by and on the water could be dangerous and difficult.
“Some of our family lived in a frame house near the water at Ditchley.  One of the big hurricanes blew the house over, and Father, my great grandfather, stepped out of the second story window right into the field.  An oil lamp was turned over, and the house was soon engulfed in flames and completely destroyed.  Everything was burned.  All the family stuff and the family silver. In my grandparent’s china cabinet was a misshapen goblet that was all they had left.”

Northern Neck Shoreline
“Aunt Betty’s father and brother drowned in a boating accident on the Bay in the winter. Everyone always knew it was dangerous on the water. Everybody had a story about falling out of the boat, most of the boats had a steering stick with ropes that ran the engine, and there was many a story about falling over, catching the stick, and having the boat go in circles.  They were the good stories.”

Northern Neck Coastline
There was other boat traffic on the water besides the watermen and their workboats. From the Colonial and Antebellum Eras throughout the 1920's boats continued to be the principal form of transportation for people in the region.  You could travel by boat up the bay to Baltimore and Annapolis, Maryland or down the Bay to Newport News, Hampton, and Portsmouth, Virginia, or across the Bay to the Eastern Shore.  In the late nineteenth century steamboats were an important part of life in the Northern Neck. 
There was a steamboat wharf in almost every waterfront town, where ships stopped to load and unload goods and people in a lively flow of commerce and visitors around the Bay.  People in the Northern Neck were far more connected to Baltimore than to Richmond, or other inland cities.
My grandmother was a school teacher in Baltimore, and she came down on a steamboat, and that is how my grandparents met.  They were so devoted, she would always say, “Don’t you die before me!” and he didn’t.  At the funeral my grandfather said, “No one loved her children or her grandchildren more than Eleanor.“ I couldn’t stop crying.  I remember walking down the lane to the cemetery at Ditchley.  I wanted to be by myself. I was wracked by loss.”

Ditchley - Southern View
"My grandfather was so smart and so patient.  He had gone to the University of Virginia, but his education was disrupted by WWI. He was a Chesapeake Bay waterman, and as brown as that wooden coffee table over there from being out in the sun for so many years.  In the summer as children we would get up before dawn and be sitting in the wooden skiff being rowed out to the big boat by 4:30 am.  The big boat was named the 'Slow and Easy', and she was tethered to a piling in the deep water outside the cove.”

Chesapeake Bay Deadrise Waterman's Boat (Greg Vassilakos photo)
“My grandfather had built, or had commissioned to be built, all of his boats on the property. His big work boat was a Chesapeake Bay Deadrise with a center cockpit. Every year he would take the boats to be hauled out on the railroad.  The barnacles would be scraped off of the bottoms, and then they would be painted with copper paint. He had a wharf with a crab shack out in the water, and a net shed.  He repaired his own nets, and his hands were scarred and beaten from years of working with the nets and the boats. The tips of his fingers were stained copper from dipping the nets in copper sulfate to keep them from being eaten by marine organisms."
"Before copper paint there would be a great big tar pot dug out on the side of the creek bank so you could reach under it to put wood on a fire.  When the tar was heated and was thin enough you could put your nets in the pot and coat them with the tar.  He would dip the nets into the hot liquid tar and then hang them over big stakes in every direction to dry every year or two. We were not allowed to run under them because we could get burnt!”

“Summer mornings at dawn the water was often so still and quiet. As the sunrise lit up the sky, my grandfather would steer the boat over to the poles where his pound net was strung. Then he would start slowly drawing the net in, draping the surplus net over the poles as he gathered it closer. As he brought it in, he would be leaning over the net, culling the catch, tossing creatures back into the bay. The water drops on the net sparkled in the early light.  There would be little seahorses stuck to the ropes; and all sorts of fantastical creatures like gar fish, skates, diamondback terrapins, sea turtles, eels, and all sorts of fish. Crabs were tossed into the barrel if they were the right size.” 

Pound Net (

“I remember the first time I saw dolphins flashing out of the water at dawn. In the shallows, the boat  passed over the shadows of giant rays, sliding silently and swiftly as clouds below the surface of the water.” 

Loggerhead (

“My grandfather caught blues, croakers, and rockfish to eat, but he thought the best eating was the blow toads or puffer toads.  The Northern Puffer was little with a face like a parrot fish.  They were not puffed all the time, and they had two little pieces about the size of your fingers behind their head, that was the real “Chicken of the Sea”! We all loved sugar toads because they were so sweet!  They were delicious!"

“The Chesapeake blue crabs were there from the spring through the autumn.  The crabs dwell on the flat channel bottoms, and in winter they leave the bay for deep offshore water. The soft crabs were all around the shores.  You would look for the crab shedding floats and then the crabs under it.  He would catch peelers, then put them in the crab floats until they shed.  The men would pack the soft shell crabs in wet sea weed to keep them alive.  The hard crabs were packed in baskets.” 
“My grandfather always had lot of treats and sandwiches packed for us. When we got restless, because we were still little girls, he would stop what he was doing and take us over to a wild stretch of Bay beach where we could dig in the sand and play and swim.  We swam with the sea nettles for years, but we didn’t care. He would just wait, patiently watching over us.”

Bay Beach (Doug Hornsby)

 Sea Nettle or Jellyfish in early spring

Tidal Beach in the Northern Neck

“One day we were in the boat when he was taking his catch to the buy-boat to sell.  As we neared the other boat he called out “Hullooo”.  There was no answer.  He called out again, “Hulloooo”, and then again, “Hulloooo”!  There was still no answer.  It was very quiet and the waves were slapping against the side of the boat.  My grandfather frowned a little staring at the boat.  He said, “I’ll tell you what girls, let’s go find someone else.”  And he did, and just as he must have suspected, the Captain of the buy-boat was found on the floor below deck, where he had fallen through the hull and broken his neck, dead.”
In the winter my grandfather tonged oysters.  I remember watching him open the oyster shells with his sharp oyster knife.  I would love to have his old knife sharpener, but it is long gone.  It was wooden with a wheel and a treadle which he pumped with his foot while he held his knife against the spinning sharpening wheel.  He would shuck the oyster into mason jars in his crab house. I remember he would count the oysters as he shucked them.  One, and he would slip the oyster into the mason jar, two, three, four, five, all into the jar, and then six, into his mouth!  Then he would start counting all over again.  I still don’t like raw oysters to this day.”
There were always eels around and sometimes he sold eels in a good market.  Once I remember we were in the little skiff and he was checking crab floats for soft shells and I was just a child, dangling my fingertips in the water.  My trailing fingers attracted an eel, and before I thought about it, I grabbed the eel and flung it across the boat and smacked my grandfather across the head!”
“The men would also go fishing and hunting. We would have wild goose for Thanksgiving.  My great grandmother wrote a little piece for the local newspaper for years.  I remember one whoops moment, when she wrote that, “Master Charles Ball got a fine goose for the table”, only it wasn’t hunting season.  This didn’t even occur to her, because of course, when she was a girl growing up, there was no designated hunting season.”

Northern Neck

“My grandfather didn’t farm the land, he was always working on the water year round, and it was a subsistence life.  During really lean times people would fish someone else’s pound net on the sly, and that was really bad.  It was stealing the food from your children’s mouths.  I remember during bad times that my grandfather would take food to some of the other families on the point that he knew were going hungry.  The bay was not always abundant.  There were ebbs and flows in a waterman’s life, times when the red tide came.  My grandaddy was still fishing in the early seventies, and there was already a rockfish crash then, and of course, MSX killed the oysters.” 
“One of the rites of passage was when you were finally a big girl, you could take the skiff around the edges of the cove all by yourself.  I stood on the seat and poled around, it was a big moment.  What I remember about our lives was that we were so family oriented, with Ditchley house, the field, Aunt Edie's, my grandparents, and out on the point, my great grandfather's house.  We read voraciously, all of the time, when we were not outside or on the water.  I remember the fireflies lighting up the fields at night, the bob whites, and the white throated sparrows singing in the holly trees in the early spring. I can remember the sound of those sparrows, and then they would go away.  My grandfather and his father and his grandfather and so on, they lived their whole lives at Ditchley on Dividing Creek."


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