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Timely lessons from Colonial times

June 16, 2010
  • A vast feild of wheat growing at the Shirley Plantation.
A vast feild of wheat growing at the Shirley Plantation. (unknown )

Vic and I have just returned from a fabulous trip to Virginia and North Carolina that was filled with food, fun, family and photos. The occasion was the wedding of our nephew, Kortney Wilson, my only brother's only son, to Kelly Brinson in Raleigh, N.C. This trip also gave us a glimpse back in history to see how people lived during Colonial times as we visited Shirley Plantation and the restored town of Colonial Williamsburg, Va.

Today, we have a global crisis because of all of the carbon dioxide that people are pouring into the air as we burn fossil fuels to generate electricity and transport goods. It was fascinating to see how people lived before electricity and fast global transport changed our lives.

Our first stop was Shirley Plantation near Williamsburg. Founded in 1613, this plantation is the oldest family business in the U.S. The plantation was named after Lady Cessalye Shirley, who never left England to see the plantation that was owned by her husband, Sir Thomas West. Upon his death, the plantation was purchased by Edward Hill I in 1638 and has been in that family ever since. Eleven generations of the Hill and Carter families have lived there, where they still grow crops of cotton, corn, wheat and soybeans. The family ceased growing tobacco, a common crop in that area, before the Civil War.

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Construction of the present plantation mansion began in 1738, and it is one of the finest examples of an intact 18th-century plantation that remain in Virginia. Its flying staircase and Queen Anne-style forecourt are the only remaining examples of this type of architecture. But it was the self-sufficiency of the plantation that fascinated me.

During hot Southern summers before electricity, the residents of the plantation had ice to preserve foods, cool their drinks and make ice cream. One of the four brick buildings in the forecourt of the plantation was a large brick icehouse. In winter, they cut ice from freshwater ponds and hauled it by horse- or oxen-drawn sleds to the icehouse, where they stacked the blocks in a 21-foot-deep, brick-lined hole beneath the icehouse. An elaborate, brick-lined drainage system allowed meltwater to drain to the James River. The icehouse provided enough ice to last them through autumn.

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