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Southside

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Fields of tobacco, peanuts, soybeans, cotton, grazing livestock, and large sweeps of forest make up the heartland of Southside, Virginia's Outer Piedmont. Its undulating landscape lies west of the Fall Line and south of the James River. To the west, a sequence of isolated mountains separates Southside from the more rugged Inner Piedmont counties that border the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Settlement during the early eighteenth century was discouraged by the colonial government because of conflicts with Native Americans and a border dispute with North Carolina. By 1720, with the Indian threat diminished, Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood opened Southside for settlement. Nevertheless, migration into the vast wilderness on the southern boundary of the colony was slow even after the quarrel with North Carolina was resolved. In 1738 inducements in the form of tax exemptions were offered and naturalization for alien settlers was facilitated. English settlers, often with a few slaves, moved in from nearby eastern counties. By midcentury, Scots-Irish began coming south through the Valley of Virginia into Southside along with Swiss, Scots, and a few Huguenots and Germans. As the population increased, new counties were created. The years between 1730 and the Revolution saw the formation of twelve Southside counties as well as the town of Petersburg, the river and harbor town that served as the export center for much of Southside. By 1776, one-third of the tobacco exported from North America passed through Petersburg. It is almost impossible to overemphasize the importance of tobacco in the economic and architectural development of Southside. The money derived from the cultivation of this fickle cash-crop plant fueled the economy of Southside for nearly three centuries.

In early Southside, tobacco was not easy to market, especially in the southern section of the region. There the waters of the Roanoke River drainage flow into North Carolina's Albemarle Sound, which lacked deep harbors for seafaring vessels. (The portion of the Roanoke River lying above its confluence with the tributary Dan River is usually called the Staunton River until it breaks through the Blue Ridge; beyond that and up to its headwaters in the mountains, it is once again called the Roanoke River.) Tobacco for export had to be transported to the James River and pass through an inspection station in the Petersburg or Richmond area. In the mid-nineteenth century the James River and Kanawha Canal was making the James River more accessible and canal cargo boats operated by reputable companies were in place. Rail lines also were being laid. Tobacco could be marketed not only at Petersburg and Richmond but also at the lesser markets of Lynchburg, Farmville, Clarksville, and Danville. The third quarter of the nineteenth century also saw soaring sales of bright tobacco, a light-colored flue-cured leaf. Unlike the coarser, dark fire-cured tobacco that grew in the more fertile soils of eastern Southside, bright leaf generally grew in the territory of poorer soil in western Southside.

With the onset of the Civil War, the increasing prosperity of Southside came to an abrupt end. The region saw some of the fiercest action in the war, most notably the bombardment of Petersburg and the surrender at Appomattox. After the war, many of the larger plantations were broken up and while much of the southern counties remained poverty-stricken for years, the tobacco-growing sections recovered much more quickly. The time-consuming but highly rewarding cultivation of tobacco was well suited for the share-cropping system, but in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, corporations forced out small manufacturers. Large tobacco warehouses and factories with new and larger machinery filled the districts in Farmville and Danville adjacent to railroad lines. Although in the 1930s, the federal government enacted crop control legislation to help tobacco farmers, by the end of the twentieth century only large tobacco farmers were left to make substantial profits. By the early twenty-first century, the removal of price supports and the allotment system ended the day of the small tobacco grower.

In Virginia, capital from the tobacco industry was instrumental in setting up many textile mills, notably in Danville, home of Dan River Mills (PI34) and its mill town at Schoolfield (PI65). In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, textile production was one of the region's major sources of income. The extractive industries, although not as important in Southside as in Southwest Virginia, were vital to some local economies. The town of Arvonia in Buckingham County grew around the quarrying and production of slate for roofing and a variety of other products. Quarrymen from Wales who came to work in these quarries were only one group of immigrants that came to post-Civil War Southside. The casualties of war and the migration of African Americans to urban areas and northward created a labor shortage on Southside farms. The state's immigration officials hoped to solve this problem by bringing in European settlers. Organizations like the Roanoke Land and Colonization Company were organized in 1867 by former planters such as Fulwar Skipwith of Prestwould (MC17) to bring in German laborers as well as farmers from Northern and Midwestern states. Northerners purchased land inexpensively from poverty-stricken plantation owners and helped create new businesses in towns such as Chase City.

By the early nineteenth century, several master builders had brought fresh ideas to an increasingly prosperous Southside. Previously, Southside's architecture was almost devoid of two-story or brick structures and even wealthy plantation owners tended to construct one-and-a-half-story frame houses. An important builder who brought changes was Dabney Cosby, a brick mason who had worked at the University of Virginia for Thomas Jefferson. He formed a partnership with William A. Howard and they joined with James T. Whitice to construct the Centre Building of Randolph-Macon College (MC12). In the early 1830s, Howard moved to Mecklenburg and, with Whitice, built the courthouse (MC1). Cosby's career in Southside included the Buckingham County Courthouse in 1822 (burned 1869; see bu1), and in 1824 he moved to Buckingham where he constructed many brick buildings. In 1830 Cosby relocated to Prince Edward County, designed the Prince Edward Courthouse (demolished), and then in pursuit of greater prosperity, he moved to North Carolina in 1839. However, he continued to practice in Virginia, building Tabb Street Presbyterian Church (DW29) and some houses in Petersburg.

Master builder Jacob Holt had a bustling practice in Prince Edward County that, by 1840, consisted of a workforce of twenty-nine male slaves and nineteen freemen, though little is known about his career or what was built in that county. Indications are that Holt was trained by William A. Howard (for whom he named a son) and probably built many of the Greek Revival houses in and around Farmville. Holt followed Dabney Cosby to North Carolina in the early 1840s, and then in 1869, he moved to Chase City where he was responsible for several of its major buildings.

These master builders, whether they worked for him or not, were influenced by Thomas Jefferson, especially in the classical architecture of their courthouses. They were also canny businessmen who stayed in tune with the times and the tastes of their mostly conservative clients. The clients also were instrumental in bringing stylish architecture to the region. Philip St. George Cocke commissioned Alexander Jackson Davis to design Belmead (PO15), and Cocke was also instrumental in having Davis design the Powhatan County Courthouse (PO1). The Bruce family was no less innovative architecturally. Members of this family had built for themselves Berry Hill (HX22), Virginia's most impressive Greek Revival mansion, as well as Tarover (HX23) and Staunton Hill (CT18), both Gothic Revival.

As the railroads expanded their reach, the fortunes of river ports such as Cartersville in Cumberland County declined. But other communities, such as Blackstone, were transformed by the railroad into shipping centers for the region's agricultural products and for receiving manufactured goods. The railroad further boosted the fortunes of the bustling independent City of Lynchburg. And, although Petersburg lost its position as a major Virginia city after the Civil War, it remained important regionally.

The post-Civil War era saw provisions made for the education and care of freedmen. St. Paul's Normal and Industrial School (later St. Paul's College, now closed; BR10) and Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (now Virginia State University; CS7) were established for African Americans. The Church Home for Infirm and Indigent Negroes (BR11) opened in 1883 in Brunswick County. At the same time, African Americans were forming their own benevolent societies, including the Grand United Order of Moses (CT8) in Charlotte County, to serve the health and social needs of the members.

Suburban development increased in the early twentieth century in the more populated areas of Southside and accelerated later in the century as a result of white flight from racial integration in the schools and perceived problems of urban life. Petersburg and Danville particularly suffered from this loss, whereas Colonial Heights and Chesterfield County with their proximity to Richmond saw their population balloon. Even counties as far from Richmond as Amelia and Powhatan have commuter bedroom communities. Commercial strips fringe Southside towns and cities and their downtowns are struggling to revitalize. Governmental and service sectors of the economy keep them alive. For a good part of the twentieth century, tobacco, textiles, and the timber industry kept most of Southside's economy moving, if not always flourishing. Unfortunately, these are the sectors hardest hit by the new economy and its attendant globalization. In most of Southside, the twenty-first century has brought great challenges.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Anne Carter Lee

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