Warren County gains historic district

A state agency recently designated a vast part of Warren County, which includes the Morgan Ford Bridge, as a historic site.

The Department of Historic Resources has added the Rockland Rural Historic District to the Virginia Landmarks Register. The 10,000-acre district in the northern part of the county abuts and includes portions of the Shenandoah River and Morgan Ford Bridge.

Clarke County-based architectural historian Maral Kalbian submitted the nomination application – more than 105 pages of historical and geographical information, photographs and maps – to the department for its consideration.

“I’m thrilled by it, obviously, because I think that it’s high time that Warren County get recognized with a national register, rural-historic district,” Kalbian said Tuesday. “It was a great district and it was a privilege for me to work on it because the quality of the resources, the quality of the setting, and the quality, frankly, of the people I met in working on it was just terrific.”

Kalbian thanked county government officials, including Doug Sexton, the geographical information system coordinator, for their help and support.

“I hope Warren County sort of continues on this path,” Kalbian said. “I think there are probably some other areas they could look at.”

The creation of the district puts no restrictions on owners nor does it affect property values or real estate taxes. It doesn’t limit what an owner can do with the property, Kalbian noted. However, owners of contributing resources in the district or structures listed individually on the register can apply for rehabilitation tax credits. The district contains 336 contributing resources. Listing in the register also makes it easier for an owner to put their property into a conservation easement.

Kalbian began working on the nomination in 2012 with an extensive architectural survey that required her to visit each property in the proposed district and photograph every building, historic or not. Kalbian had to label each photograph and submit the images into a state database. The county was awarded a grant to help cover the cost of this process. Kalbian then began work on the application about 18 months ago.

The “pristine” agricultural landscape also holds a historic connection to the early settlers of the region, Kalbian noted. The district includes barns, corn cribs, silos and residential complexes dating from the late 18th century to the 1960s.

“The district is also significant in how it illustrates the history of agriculture in that area,” Kalbian said. “It’s like a history in the evolution of farming practices.”

The district covers land once part of the colonial-era land holdings of Thomas Lord Fairfax and property subsequently owned through grants to prominent Tidewater-area families, according to information from the department. The area features historic farmsteads, a community cemetery, 10 family burial grounds, a largely unaltered road system dating to the early 19th century and several crossroads communities with three schoolhouses and three churches. Land holdings associated with 18th- and early 19th-century families retain much of their original configuration. Kalbian said she found it unusual to find so many family cemeteries clustered in one area.

The district also includes a well-documented, significant river crossing at Morgan’s Ford, spanned today by a low-water bridge built in 1925. An early African-American settlement known as Leeds Town or Smoke Town lies near Morgan Ford and the crossing. Smoke Town’s exact location has yet to be confirmed through archaeology. Former slaves founded Smoke Town after Robert Carter III, one of the area’s wealthiest landholders, gradually manumitted, or freed, more than 500 enslaved people beginning in 1791.

Kalbian called Smoke Town, just south of the bridge, a “hugely significant” site associated with the largest emancipation of blacks prior to the Civil War. Slaves worked at Carter’s plantation north of the crossing and still within the district, Kalbian said. The community appears on many maps including those created through the Civil War, she added.

Part of the historic area lies in the Shenandoah Magisterial District represented on the Board of Supervisors by Richard Traczyk.

“I have supported this effort from the beginning,” Traczyk states in an email Tuesday. “This is what my neighbors wanted and they have prevailed.”

Traczyk also supported the Virginia Department of Transportation’s plans to replace the Morgan Ford Bridge with a higher, wider crossing. Smoke Town’s proximity to the bridge sparked concern among historians and residents who feared the project could encroach on the historic site. Some historians urged VDOT to either scale back the project or give archaeologists time to investigate the site.

“My only concern was the effect on Morgan Ford bridge and that it might be affected, but I have been assured it would not and the bridge replacement would continue as planned,” Traczyk states in his email. “My neighbors have worked to make this happen for several years starting out with conservation easements, which were approved by our board. So again I am happy they have reached their goal.”

The department plans to forward the Rockland Rural Historic District and eight other listings to the National Park Service for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. Access nomination forms and photographs on the department website at www.dhr.virginia.gov/registers/boardPage.html.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com