RICHMOND, Va. — From my position inside the gazebo, I can see the wide, gentle contours of the James River curve past emerald fields dotted with sheep. Behind me, the stately Georgian manor house of Berkeley plantation stands silent watch. Late summer's heavy heat has settled a certain quiet upon the river valley and a lull has fallen over my conversation with Mack Jamieson, the 80-something owner of this historic estate.
Perhaps a minute or so passes silently while we watch a bald eagle wing gracefully along the river's edge. My heart soars as the elegant bird catches the day's gentle drafts, but my reverie is broken when my host comments, "Aww, they're nothing but buzzards with white heads." He's only partly kidding, however. The eagles that haunt the James River corridor often dine on his newborn lambs. That's a real problem for this working farm.
It's this kind of observation that make a trip to the Berkeley plantation worthwhile and quite different from a simple tour of old houses. Though one of the nation's earliest and historically richest plantations, Berkeley remains a working farm, as well as Jamieson's home.
Berkeley is one of a dozen or so old, private plantations that grace the banks of the James River between Richmond and Williamsburg, an easy drive south of Washington. Four of them--Berkeley, Shirley, Evelynton and Sherwood Forest--are on the river's north shore within several miles of one another. They are open to the public year-round. Westover and Belle Air--also on the north shore--are open to groups by appointment and on special occasions, including historic garden week in late April, when dozens of plantations and mansions, usually closed, open their doors.
Don't expect, as I did before my visit last year, the crisp lawns of Monticello or the exacting historical standards of Colonial Williamsburg. Except for Carter's Grove in Colonial Williamsburg, private families, not well-endowed foundations, run these homes, and a portrait of Robert E. Lee might hang close to a modern-day portrait of the home's owner, underlining the living history aspect of the homes. Some of the owners are 11th-generation descendants of the original Colonial owners. The person out gardening or fixing a fence might very well be one of the owners. And the antiques and architectural nuances are also tied to the present, since people still use them.
The son of a Scottish immigrant, Jamieson is a relative newcomer to the area, rescuing the house from ruin in 1927, when he began the lifelong task of restoring the home, as well as the property. He dug out manure from the basement and cleaned up the mess that included problems associated with the Union Army's occupation of the house--as a headquarters and hospital--long before. (Jamieson has on display bullets he claims bear the teeth marks of soldiers undergoing amputations.) Berkeley's interior contains masterpiece upon masterpiece of beautiful 18th-Century antiques, carefully collected by Jamieson's wife, Grace. In the early days, he said he sold a cow every time Grace found another antique to purchase. Among the pieces of Hepplewhite and Chippendale furniture is an extraordinary gentlemen's chest of Virginia pine and cherry, filled with countless nooks and drawers designed to hold maps, deeds or ink, and a mirror to guide a gentleman as he powdered his wig. In the great room, hand-carved Adam-style cornices and chair moldings, along with the arched doorways in one room, were designed by owner Benjamin Harrison and his friend Thomas Jefferson. Signer of the Declaration of Independence and three-time governor of Virginia, Harrison was also father of William Henry Harrison, ninth President of the United States.
In the grand hallway of Berkeley is a framed letter that Jamieson likes to show visitors. Written by Arthur Schlesinger, then special assistant to President Kennedy, it contends that Berkeley, not Plymouth, Mass., was the site of the first official Thanksgiving in 1619, a full year before the Pilgrims arrived. While some sources argue this point, including encyclopedias Britannica and Americana, World Book agrees that Berkeley was site of the first feast by a group of settlers known as the Berkeley Company.