Maple Hall Plantation
Maple Hall, built by John B. Gibson in 1855, is an exemplar of Greek Revival architecture in the region. The surrounding estate was previously the property of Edward Tarr, “the first African American real estate owner west of the Blue Ridge mountains.” It was bought from Tarr under suspicious circumstances by Alexander Stuart, later a Major at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse and great-grandfather of Confederate cavalry general J.E.B. Stuart, and eventually passed to the Gibson family, who held it until 1984. In addition to the central manor, an 1824 Federal-style dwelling, an early log outbuilding, and a 1985 multi-room structure stand on the 55-acre property. The three residential buildings are used as an inn and restaurant by the current owners.
Backstory and Context
Benjamin Borden, an early Virginia land speculator, was granted 100,000 acres in what is now Rockbridge County in 1735. He was required to fill the land with 100 families; he primarily recruited these settlers from Northern Ireland. His land company gave 270 acres of what was varyingly called the “Borden Tract” and the “Irish Tract” to Isaac Gray in 1751. Isaac Gray and his wife deeded the land to Jacob Gray the following year. By that time, the land was located in a strategic position; today’s US 11 was originally the path of the Old Valley Turnpike, while I-81/64 follows the former Great Valley Road. The latter was a major path for settlers headed through Virginia and into southern colonies.
The estate was purchased by Edward Tarr in 1754. Tarr, also known as “Black Ned,” was a former slave who had worked in iron refineries for several owners in Pennsylvania before buying his freedom and moving to Virginia in 1752. Tarr was married to a Scottish woman; it is believed that he used a loophole in Pennsylvania and Virginia law to escape prosecution, since both states had made interracial marriage illegal. He was also a prominent member of the Timber Ridge Presbyterian Church, though he had been taught by Moravians in his old state (and was, in fact, fluent in German). This land sale made him, “the first African American real estate owner west of the Blue Ridge mountains.” He operated a successful blacksmith shop and forge; it was the only such establishment in the area and also catered to passing travelers. In fear of attacks during the French and Indian War, Tarr returned to Pennsylvania from 1757 to 1759. Local sentiments against him began to increase when he came back to Virginia with a second white woman, believed to be his mistress; he was even charged with both “harboring a common disturber of the peace” and “retailing strong beer without a license.” Tarr moved to Staunton, Virginia, not long after but kept his land on Timber Ridge. In 1761, a man named Hugh Montgomery claimed that he had purchased Tarr from Joseph Shute, a South Carolina trader and son of Thomas Shute, Tarr’s last master. Tarr was able to present the elder Shute’s will (which allowed him to purchase his freedom) and evidence of his payments. While Tarr was required to pay a bond of 500 pounds, when the trial date came, Tarr appeared but Montgomery did not and the case was rejected. In 1772, Alexander Stuart began eyeing Tarr’s land for the falls along its creek, which he believed could be used for milling operations. He sent Samuel McChesney as a mediator to purchase the land so as not to inform Tarr that he was interested in using the land for a business, which he believed would cause Tarr to charge more for the property. McChesney seemed to succeed, buying the land for 45 pounds, 15 pounds less than what Tarr paid for it originally. However, McChesney then decided to keep it for himself. Stuart took McChesney to court, but didn’t receive ownership of the land until 1776. He gave some of the land to Liberty Hall Academy (now Washington and Lee University) the same year. He did build a grist mill and sawmill along the creek, which is now known as Mill Creek. He also served as Major of a Virginia militia regiment during the Revolutionary War and fought with valor at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse.
The land eventually ended up in the possession of the Kinnear family; around 1824, a Federal-style dwelling, called the “Slave Quarters” but most likely the original main house, was constructed. The property was sold to John Beard Gibson in 1835. Gibson was a farmer and a very successful miller and distiller. Legend has it that he waited to build a new house on his property until he could afford to construct, “the grandest, largest, and most stylistically sophisticated structure in his neighborhood.” While other buildings in the area were built in the Greek Revival style that Gibson so effectively employed at Maple Hall, no other house had such a well-adorned interior, which Gibson copied almost exactly from Asher Benjamin’s handbook The Practical House Carpenter. It is said that the finished product, “displays a sophisticated rendering of the Greek Revival style not exceeded in any other home in the county.” An addition to the house might have been built in 1859 or it might, in fact, predate Maple Hall, which could have been located specifically to connect to this smaller structure. It is also believed that the VMI Corps of Cadets marched across his property on their way to the Battle of New Market in 1864.
The property was owned by Gibson descendants until it was purchased by the Meredith family in 1984. They restored the buildings, among other things, replacing Maple Hall’s deteriorated wood floors with concrete and completely reconstructing the exterior staircase according to original plans. They also built a large restaurant and office addition onto the rear of the main house, a restroom addition onto the rear of the “Slave Quarters,” and another dwelling, the “Pond House”, on the grounds. They ran the property as an inn until it closed in 2012; it was then bought in 2014 by Phillip and Ava Clayton, who operate the property as an inn with a restaurant (the “Restaurant 1850”) as well as an event venue. Today, in addition to the three dwellings, the grounds have a pool, pond, tennis courts, and miles of walking trails for guests’ enjoyment.
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