Historic Buildings in Halifax County, Virginia
Bloomsburg - 1839
Bloomsburg mansion was built over a 7 year period, 1832 - 1839. by Alexander Watkins.
From the Record-Advertiser, February 18, 1971
By Kenneth H. Cook
The house known as "Bloomsburg," completed by Alexander Watkins over a century and a quarter ago, must have been a most impressive place in those now distant days. By our present day standards it is a mansion, in every sense of the word.
The land from the highway - US.58- ends in a circular, English boxwood-lined drive before the house. Until the mid-1950's a walk through the circle was bordered with American, or tree, box, grown nearly twenty feet high and so thick the walk was impassable. Unfortunately, this magnificent boxwood was cut completely down, and not a trace of it remains.
The stone steps which lead up to the front porch, and to the back one as well, are of large blocks, each about six feet long. According to tradition these stones were cut in a Georgia quarry, then shipped by sea and river to Clarksville, from where they were hauled to "Bloomsburg," about 35 miles, in oxen-drawn carts.
The front porch is new, having replaced a Tusccan-columned one like that at the back of the house earlier in this century. An unusual and very noticeable feature of both porches is the very wide (18 inches) weatherboarding used in place of that of regular width on the rest of the house. Intended apparently for contrast, it is very effective.
Passing through the transomed double front doors, one enters a broad, airy hall that runs the depth of the house. Dominated by a graceful, two-flight staircase and a "frescoed" ceiling
executed in two large, sunken panels with round center medallions, the hall once boasted an old-time decorative feature seldom seen today - marbleized baseboards. These were painted over during a recent restoration.
To the left of the hall are the twin parlors, large, high-pitched rooms separated by double doors; when opened, the parlors become one large drawing room. Both have fine marble mantels and, like the hall, once had marbleized baseboards.
The fresoed ceilings in the parlors probably are the finest in this county.
The other rooms in "Bloomsburg" - there are ten in all - are, like the parlors, large, lofty and comfortable, designed for gracious living, but not as finely finished as the former. The kitchen, is modern in every detail.
The third story, the attic, is one large open space generally called the ballroom, used in olden days for big parties and dances.
To the front, "Bloomsburg" is flanked east and west by two brick dependencies, the plantation kitchen and carriage house. The former, a two room Greek Revival building, was given a quality rating of "notable" by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1958 (the mansion-house was rated "high"). The kitchen, though, is beginning to deteriorate.
The smoke house, dairy house and servant's quarter, all frame, stand on the edge of the back yard.
A small log cabin once stood in the field between the brick kitchen and the highway, but many years of neglect proved to be too much for it, and it fell down early in the last decade. Today its site is marked by a clump of small trees and undergrowth in the midst of otherwise clean land. It is thought that this cabin may have been the oldest building on the place, and in it Alexander Watkins and his family probably lived from 1830 to 1832.
Mr. Watkins began building his home in 1832, and it was not until seven years later, in 1839, that it was ready for occupancy. One might wonder at the great length of time required for the work, but the reason is simple: it had to be perfect.
Mr. Watkins himself was in complete charge of the construction, carried out by his slaves. All the materials used were as nearly flawless as was possible. Not a single piece of lumber was used if it had a knot in it, and that that was used was seasoned two years in the nearby Dan River. It was all virgin wood, cut from the surrounding forests. No nails were used, just pegs.
The bricks used in the house's foundations and double end chimneys, and in the dependencies as well, were burned on the place. As with the lumber, each and every brick had to be perfect, otherwise it was discarded.
The marble mantels were imported from Italy, and probably were ordered in Richmond. The original brass hardware for the doors, removed years ago and replaced with iron, more than likely was bought in Richmond at the same time.
Some have wondered why Mr. Watkins chose to build his house with wood instead of brick, the latter being more popular with the wealthier class. 'Tis said he wanted a house that would "breathe" - and brick couldn't.
It is not know when Alexander Watkins, the son of Thomas, Jr., and Rebecca Vaughan Watkins, was born, nor exactly where, though probably in Halifax County.likewise, very little is known of his early life.
He married 20 January, 1830, Sarah Price Pate, the daughter of Thomas and Mary Stanfield Pate, of this county. To their union were born thirteen children, seven sons and six daughters. Their first two years of married life were, as was said before, thought to have been spent in the log cabin in the field.
It was during these first years that Mr. Watkins built his store. A large, four-square brick building with walls up to two feet thick, it quickly became a landmark in that part of the county. When completed he moved his growing family onto the second floor, and here they lived the seven years that "Bloomsburg" was being built.
Various dates have at times been assigned to the construction of the Bloomsburg store, but one thing is certain: it was standing in 1832. On 14 June of that year Archibald and Mary W. Glenn sold to Mr. Watkins one certain tract of land . . . opposite the store of the said Alexander Watkins and lying on the main road that leads from Irvines' Ferry to Milton, North Carolina."
Even before Mr. Watkins built his store and home the area thereabouts was known as Bloomsburg. In Chapin's 1830 REFERENCE GAZETTEER OF THE UNITED STATES, the village was described as a "trade center and stage stop on the Dan River."
The main road at that time ran from Norfolk to Clarksville past the present South Boston and across the river at Irvin's Ferry, through Bloomsburg and on to Milton, Danville, and other points west. It was then, as modern U.S. 58 is today, a main artery for east-west traffic, and consequently Bloomsburg became an important business center.
Across from the store, on the land purchased from the Glenns, Mr. Watkins built a large tobacco warehouse and prisery, where growers from the surrounding country brought their leaf for sale; and from where the tobacco, packed into hogsheads, was rolled down to Clarksville. From there it was shipped by river to port on the Atlantic, destined for England and other markets.
Alexander Watkins was a large land and slave owner, and definitely a man with an eye for business. His store and warehouse were ample - and profitable - proof of this. He managed to get a post office known as Bloomsburg, established in the store in the 1840's. It functioned until sometime in the 1890's, probably '95 or '96, a quarter century after the store had left the Watkins family. when it was closed, only to be re-opened in 1906. This time it was called Danripple, and remained so until its final closing in 1943. The latter name is still applied to the area and it is so marked on most highway maps.
There is no reason to doubt that the family did not live the life of the landed gentry at "Bloomsburg" during the two and a half decades between its completion and the Civil War. In this county, and indeed wherever they were known, the Watkinses were highly respected citizens, their name a synonym for honesty, integrity and uprightness.
When the war came, Mr.Watkins, like most of the well-to-do gentlemen of the South, invested heavily in the bonds of the Confederate government; his four surviving sons joined her armies. At the end of the four-year conflict he was left with the paper on which his bonds were printed and little else. His sons were dead. The losses left him a very bitter man.
Even before the war, however, he apparently had suffered major financial setbacks of some nature, for on 24 December, 1863, Mr. Watkins sold his beloved "Bloomsburg," together with 525 acres of land, to Sydney Walton.
It's not know where the Watkinses lived after selling the house, but apparently they lived on in the community. The brick store was not included in the sale, and Alexander operated it until his death in 1871.
At the time of the sale the family cemetery, located three or so hundred yards from the house, was also excluded, it being reserved, with perpetual rights of access, for the use of the Watkins family and their heirs.
It was to this secluded burying ground that Alexander Watkins was brought in 1871, and his wife some years later - her exact date of death is not known - to be laid to rest in unmarked graves, beside several of their children.
Mr. Watkins' estate was valued by his administrator, his son-in-law, N. T. Watkins, at $16,500.10. Of this amount, $1,137.10 represented "perishable property", $10,363,00 his remaining lands, and $5,000.00 debts due his estate.
To be precise, the debts due the estate of Mr. Watkins actually amounted to $48,667.92, but of this a mere $5,000 was considered collectable. It is an interesting commentary on the times, for one must realize that this was just six years after the war, when many, many people lost nearly every thing they had. Thus Mr. Watkins was a victim of the times, rather than being ,guilty of having used bad judgement in extending credit.
Following his death the Bloomsburg store was sold to Robert Wade, and it remained in the hands of his descendants until 1957, when it was demolished to make way for the new west-bound lane of 58.
Diligent efforts on the part of the Adams family and other, concerned citizens to save what was then the oldest store in Halifax County, in continuous operation since it was built, were to no avail. Progress could not be stopped - nor even curved a little - to spare something of as little consequence as an old brick store. Danripple, as it was then known, had to go.
I When the venerable old building finally was levelled, it not only meant the end of an era long dead, it also meant that Halifax County had lost one of its true architectural monuments. Progress had been achieved, but today, fourteen years later, one still can't help but wonder "what price progress?"
The brief flurry of interest in the store brought to light many stories about the area. One of the most interesting concerned Lord Cornwallis, who passed through on his way to Yorktown and his final defeat at the hands of the Americans and French. Local legend has it that he hung one of his men as a traitor in the Bloomsburg vicinity, then continued on, crossing the Dan at Rogers' Ferry about four miles away. He made his headquarters in the old Rogers home for a day, according to his order book.
Robert Wade also purchased "Bloomsburg," from Sydney Walton, in 1875, and from him the house, like the store, passed into the Adams family. The Wades and Adamses owned and occupied the house for 47 years.
In 1922 the estate was sold to James A. Solomon, and his heirs held it until 1967, when it was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Harold Hite. The Hites planned to restore the house and grounds to their original appearance, and even talked of replacing the "new" front porch. Their tenure was brief, though, less than a year, but they were able to start their restoration. In the process they did two things most lovers of old county homes found unthinkable: the marbleized baseboards in the hall and the parlors were painted over, and in an effort to give the house a "Spanish" look the magnificent chinneys were Painted black.
Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth E. Moorefield, who acquired "Bloomsburg" from the Hites in 1968, did much toward completing the restoration planned by the former owners.
Now "Bloomsburg," along with nearly a hundred of its original acres, is for sale. Truly one Of the loveliest houses in the county, it sits serenely in its, greatly diminished grove of locust trees as sturdy and strong as when it was completed 132 years ago. The Watkinses have descendants still residing in the county who revere their memory; and as long as their house stands it will be a monument to them, but to Alexander in particular, a man for whom, when it came to his house, good was not good enough. It had to be the best. "Bloomsburg" is.
The transcription and the updated photos are the work of Dan Shaw. In some cases modifications to the original text have been made to improve the flow of the story, correct typos, and insert new or clarifying information. Additional facts or further corrections are welcome. This author takes no credit for the original publications and its research. These local historians should be honored for the their endless hours of efforts to document this county's history for posterity.