On a recent Sunday, armed with a copy of “Pittsylvania County: Homes and People of the Past,” a tank full of gas and snacks, my husband John and I set off to wander the back roads of Pittsylvania County, Virginia, in search of what I’ll loosely refer to as “ancestral homes.”
John’s ancestors (and mine, albeit briefly) lived in Pittsylvania County. Among his people were the Fitzgerald, Crews and Ramsey families, all of which are mentioned in “Homes and People.” The book was written by a Fitzgerald in 1974.
Therein lies a problem: since the book was written 42 years ago, some of the homes could be long gone. For example, the author describes the Fitzgerald-Brown House as “neglected … in its setting of mighty oaks, surrounded by a score of ancient dependencies.”
So, naturally, we headed off optimistically to find the Fitzgerald-Brown House.
The clapboard farm house, with what Fitzgerald describes as “diamond-shaped panes of glass” around the front entryway, was said to be located on Route 832, near the community of Shockoe. Luckily, Siri knew where Shockoe was, but once we got to Shockoe, we couldn’t find the house.
We drove up and down Route 832. We looked for the “mighty oaks” and outbuildings. We thought we found the house once, but we were wrong. The chimney was different and where were those darn diamond-shaped windows?
We never found the Fitzgerald-Brown House, but we did find Little Cherrystone. The narrow, three-story home is named for a nearby creek and appears to grow out of the landscape.
According to the book, Little Cherrystone was likely built before Pittsylvania County was founded in 1767 and is one of only four 18th-century brick houses in the county that “have survived the ravages of time.”
One of the others is Belle Grove, which was built in the 1790s but purchased by a Crews in 1875. Another ancestral home for John! Not fair. I want an ancestral home. Perhaps we’ll find out where my ancestors lived when we go to the courthouse.
During our Sunday drive, we also visited the cemetery where John’s great-great-grandfather, William Henry Ramsey, and his wife, Rebecca Mahan, are buried.
Among family, William Henry is known as “The Colonel.” He was a lieutenant colonel in the 57th Virginia during the Civil War, was wounded at Pickett’s Charge, and later surrendered his unit at Appomattox. We have a picture of him on our wall, in his gray uniform, holding a sword.
He looks a lot like my husband, eerily so.
The cemetery is located on a dirt road in the Museville area of Pittsylvania County. In it, there are a few Ramsey and Shelton headstones and dozens (hundreds?) of unmarked, periwinkle-covered depressions.
For those who might not know this, periwinkle has long been used as a ground cover at cemeteries and can be useful in locating unmarked graves.
I don’t know who is buried in those unmarked graves, but it’s possible they were slaves. According to the 1850 U.S. Census Slave Schedule, some Pittsylvania County Ramseys and Sheltons owned slaves. Perhaps that’s where they are buried.
Also buried there is Mary A. Ramsey. She was born Nov. 7, 1879 and died Oct. 12, 1887, just shy of her eighth birthday. During our visit, I took a photo of the tombstone and wondered aloud, “Who does she belong to?”
When I got home and looked at the photo, it was plain as day: Mary is the daughter of The Colonel and Rebecca. She’s my husband’s great aunt. When we go to the Pittsylvania County Courthouse, I’ll try to find out how she died.
At the bottom of Mary’s tombstone is a sweet poem:
A precious one from us has gone.
A voice we loved is stilled.
A place is vacant in our home.
Which never can be filled.
God in his wisdom has recalled.
The boon his love has given.
And tho’ the body moulders here,
The soul is safe in Heaven.
Very sad, but very sweet. I’ll leave you there.