Off Centreville road sits a 160-acre stretch of farmland nestled between Virginia woods. Cows graze behind a gated fence while two Australian shepherds sit in the front yard soaking up the sun.
Greenswamp farm has been in Becky Abbott’s family for more than 100 years. The farm has witnessed U.S. history in action. Its farmhouse hosted John D. Rockefeller, and its fields were the stomping ground for soldiers in the Civil War. The land is also part of a long family legacy few farms today posses.
Built before the Civil War, the farm was owned by someone outside of the family — no one is quite sure for how long — but it was repurchased by Becky Abbott’s family where it has stayed ever since.
Becky and Bruce Abbott talk about the farm’s history sitting in their living room, which is one of the original parts of the home, which was built just before the Civil War. The fireplace, which used to sit on the right wall, was removed several years back because it was not built on a foundation. It was replaced by a solid wall and a space heater.
Other additions built around the home’s original core include the front porch and a kitchen. While the kitchen is equipped with electric appliances, there’s still a wood-fire stove sitting on the side. Bruce Abbott once used the old stove to warm up a piglet.
Becky Abbott pulled out an old button from a ziplock bag. She said it belonged to a soldier from New York in 1862; her son-in-law found it in the front yard.
Even on a cold December day, two men were outside with metal detectors seeing if they could find any interesting objects buried on the farm.
If you look at a map from the Civil War, Bruce Abbott said you’ll see the original farmhouse on it.
The farm’s history intertwines with U.S. history. Bruce Abbott said John D. Rockefeller Jr. ate dinner in what is now the family’s living room when he joined the Pulaski Club. According to the Pulaski Club’s website, Cordie Austin, the lady of the house, cooked the meal. Abbott said he made this discovery looking at a photo in an old club magazine.
“Great great great grandmother did the cooking for them,” Abbott said.
The Pulaski Club was a Williamsburg social club founded in 1777 and later named after Casimir Pulaski, a Polish man who died in the American Revolution, in 1779. When Rockefeller joined, it was a group comprised of important citizens in Williamsburg. Rockefeller’s large donations to the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg put him in that category.
Becky and Bruce Abbott moved to the farm in 1988 after Becky’s grandfather died in a tractor accident.
“I thought I was just going to come down and farm this place. Cut a little hay and stuff,” Bruce Abbott said. “We’ve ended up raising a lot of cutting, a lot of hay all over the place.”
Before he came to Greenswamp Bruce Abbott worked in engineering and later the dairy industry, while Becky Abbott was a nurse. Even though both Abbotts worked the farm, they also had full-time jobs to help fund it. Becky Abbott stopped nursing a few years back after a work-related injury forced her to retire. Bruce Abbott returned to engineering and works at AES Engineering.
The farm came in danger of being built over when James City County was looking for a spot to build Jamestown High School. However, Bruce Abbott said a woman came down from Maryland to talk about conservation easements in the late 1990s.
“It stuck in her mind, she said ‘the county’s not going to put a school here, I’m gonna protect it,’” Abbott said.
Greenswamp became the first piece of land put in the conservation movement in Williamsburg in 1996 when Lorene Richardson, Becky Abbott’s mother, donated the land as an easement to the Historic Virginia Land Conservancy.
Caren Schumacher, former executive director of the Conservancy, explained that a land easement is an agreement between a landowner and a land conservancy to take away the future development rights from the land and restrict what can be done to the land. This means a developer can’t sweep in and turn the land into a new housing development.
“What I think is probably paramount is when Mrs. Richardson put the land in a conservation easement while she was alive to chose how the land was used forever,” Schumacher said. “I think it was important to Mrs. Richardson to pass it down to her children so the land could continue to live on and be farmed.”
Still a working farm, the Abbotts raise cows and grow hay, which are sold, unlike the chickens on the farm which Becky Abbott said are more like pets.
Bruce and Becky Abbott’s children and grandchildren have helped out at the farm. They expect their great-grandson, 11 month-old Alexander Hale, will also learn to bale hay and help out.
Bruce Abbott said the farm will keep running “As long as we’re alive and some of the kids want to hold onto it.”
Amelia Heymann can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on twitter @HeymannAmelia.