Saving Justis: Preservationists get to work relocating a historic Antebellum house
Workers have begun carefully dismantling a 184-year-old Midlothian home adjacent to Old Hundred Elementary School, the pieces of which will be stored and eventually reconstructed at another location as the centerpiece of a new history and culture center.
The Chesterfield Board of Supervisors voted unanimously last month to donate the Justis house to Preservation Virginia, a statewide nonprofit that has been working alongside a 16-person local committee to prevent its demolition. “We’ve gone through so many conversations about how we could make this happen and still preserve the safety and integrity of that property with a school there,” said Midlothian District Supervisor Leslie Haley at the board’s May 26 meeting. “To the citizens, I thank you for your patience and deliberation as we worked through this process.”
Beyond its architectural significance as one of just six brick Antebellum-era residences remaining in Chesterfield County, preservationists see the house as a vital link to Midlothian history that “enlightens where we are now,” said committee member Jane Holliday Wilson, who lived there with her family for two years as a young girl.
“It’s an intact example of how an industrial society functioned and provides a whole cultural understanding around the founding of our country – good, bad and ugly,” she added. “Enslaved people built the house, farmed the land and worked in the coal mines. As we grapple with questions about how we move forward as Americans, there are so many important stories to be told, stories we didn’t learn as children.”
According to Jeffrey O’Dell’s 1983 book “Chesterfield County Historic Sites and Structures,” James Hill Spears had the two-story, 2,900-square-foot house constructed in 1836 on his 612-acre property, which at some point became known as Turkey Run Farm.
Spears’ estate passed to his widow, Jane, and two sons following his death in 1863, then was sold to Louis A. Canvet in the 1870s. Ada Corpening bought the house in 1946 and extensively renovated it before selling the property to Brooks Lumber Company, which in turn sold the house and 100 acres to Robert and Virginia Justis in 1959.
Virginia Justis, a longtime Midlothian High School biology teacher, lived there from 1961 until her death in 2015. Her heirs sold the house and the remaining 82 acres of land to the county two years later for use as an elementary school site.
Left vacant and unattended, the house fell into disrepair and became a frequent target for vandals, creating a safety and security issue for the nearby school.
Last November, a deputy county attorney contacted the president of the local historical society via email, informed him the county was planning to demolish the house and invited its participation in documenting the structure prior to such action.
Instead, a hastily arranged group of Chesterfield historians and preservationists convinced county officials to delay the demolition by 90 days and give them time to come up with an alternate plan.
The county ultimately agreed to transfer possession of the house to Preservation Virginia and allow for it to be removed from the site in pieces, but only if the project can be completed by July 31 – about three weeks before the start of the 2021-22 school year.
“It has been a busy few weeks – this [arrangement] came together quickly,” said Will Glasco, director of development for the Richmond-based nonprofit. “We typically see ourselves as facilitators in helping to save places that make Virginia unique. It’s a little rare for us to get involved to this extent.”
Preservation Virginia contracted with Virginia Masonry Restoration, a company with considerable experience in the painstaking work of preserving historic structures.
Glasco acknowledged meeting the county’s deadline wouldn’t have been possible unless Warren Davies, owner of Virginia Masonry Restoration, “cleared his calendar” and agreed to begin work in early June.
“People who work with historic buildings often are booked up months in advance,” Glasco said. “This was basically Warren seeing an opportunity to save a unique historical resource and stepping up to help us.”
The Save Turkey Run Committee envisions rebuilding the Justis house at Mid-Lothian Mines Park; local real estate developer and philanthropist Tom Garner, whose family donated 65 acres along North Woolridge Road for creation of the public park in 2004, is a member of the committee and still owns undeveloped land in that area.
“The history of Virginia Justis’ home and her own ancestry intertwine with the Mid-Lothian Mines,” Garner said, noting Justis’ father, Leland Anderson, worked the mines as an engineer.
According to a press release from the committee, the house “can tell a story that spans the entirety of America’s history, and informs our evolution as a society. It has long been the dream of the founders of Mid-Lothian Mines Park to create such a center to tell this story of the coal mines, the people who worked them and the community that grew up around them.”
Coal was first discovered in Chesterfield County in the early 1700s and commercial mining was underway by 1730. During the Revolutionary War, local mines fueled a Richmond foundry for the manufacture of weapons and ammunition used by the Continental Army.
Coal also fed the iron works during the Civil War, and enslaved individuals and free Black people made up a major part of the workforce. After the war, coal continued to be mined in the area off and on until the early 1930s; the Pump Shaft of the Mid-Lothian Mine is still visible in the park today.
Mining tragedies were frequent and often deadly. Many enslaved people from Turkey Run Farm who were hired out to the mines by James Spears lost their lives in an 1855 explosion.
“History should give us knowledge and understanding of the past and present, and an appreciation for its value in our lives,” said Audrey Ross, a local historian, descendant of enslaved and free mine workers and member of the Save Turkey Run Committee.
The committee currently is trying to raise $300,000 for the initial phase of the project, which includes dismantling the structure, then cataloging and storing individual pieces for future transport. (Tax-deductible donations to Preservation Virginia’s “Save Turkey Run House Fund” can be made online at preservationvirginia.org/saveturkeyrunhouse or saveturkeyrunhouse.com, or mailed to Preservation Virginia, 204 W. Franklin St., Richmond, VA 23220.)
The committee’s next step will be forming a 501c3 nonprofit and fundraising for design and construction of the planned Mid-Lothian History and Culture Center.