Clermont Farm has greeted visitors traveling just west of the Shenandoah River along Virginia’s Colonial Highway, better known today as VA Route 7, for more than 240 years. Thanks to a gift from its late owner, local attorney Elizabeth Rust Williams, the estate will continue to play an important role in the county for years to come. However, just exactly what role Clermont will play is still up for debate.
To help decide its future, the first Clermont Forum will take place in spring 2011. The forum will consist of presentations by historians and other scholars on each of seven major thematic areas associated with the history of Clermont namely, agriculture, architecture, women’s history, African American history, military history, legal history, and public history. The Forum’s supporters believe that assessing Clermont’s historical significance and cultural value will contribute to the planning process needed to determine the ultimate use of Clermont as a state historic site and public facility.
“Clermont has little cultural value at first glance,” said local lawyer and social activist, Tyson Gilpin. “No large battles or significant events occurred there. It is not associated with any prominent historical persons. Its archives, tangible objects and architecture are not notable, are limited, and of small or no market value.”
However, Gilpin believes that Clermont seems to be at the intersection of many historical themes and cultural perceptions of interest to Clarke County citizens.
“The reason for this is not entirely clear,” Gilpin said. “It may be the long continuity of the one family at the site, it may be the simple mix and diversity of persons and artifacts that have been there since 1750. The geography and recent population and cultural shifts may also be a factor.”
Clermont Farm, located on the northeastern edge of Berryville, was donated to the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources by Elizabeth Rust Williams. Williams was the first female lawyer to practice law in Clarke County and was the last member of her immediate family.
According to Gilpin, Williams had an on-going feud with the Town of Berryville over her perception that the town has aspirations for developing Clermont. Gilpin said that Williams resisted the town’s plans at every turn and ultimately resulted in her gift of Clermont to the Commonwealth of Virginia essentially trumping whatever goals the town or county may have had for her property.
“As Elizabeth Williams had given essentially all her worldly goods to the community, it seemed fitting that we do more than give lip service to a project that might capture who she was and what her legacy should be,” Gilpin said.
Gilpin and a cast of local, state and national history experts have launched a multi-month assessment of Clermont to reflect on how best to use the property in light of the contemporary concerns, community needs, the requirements of the commonwealth of Virginia, and the state of contemporary society.
For Gilpin, and members of the Josephine School Community Museum, an important part of the assessment will include a review of African American history in Clarke County with a special focus on a former enslaved resident of Clermont named Josephine who purchased the first two building lots in what later became her namesake, Josephine City.
Warren R. Hofstra, professor of history at Shenandoah University, has been engaged by the trustees of the Clermont estate to serve as a consultant in working with the trustees; Bob Stieg, CEO of the Clermont Trust; and members of the Clermont Steering Committee under the leadership of David Boyce, Long Branch executive director, to develop a strategy for Forum development. Hofstra and Forum co-chair, Tyson Gilpin will guide Forum participants with respect to the Clermont site, the resources for interpreting its history, and the knowledgeable individuals engaged in the planning process at Clermont.
Both Gilpin and Josephine School Community Museum board member, Dorothy Davis are both pleased to have the opportunity to work with the forum on issues that are important to Clarke County history and specifically its African American population.
“The legal community that grew out of Clermont before and after the Civil War was entirely composed of white male lawyers. Beginning with Province McCormick and Marshall McCormick before and after the Civil War, through Edward McCormick Williams, who served as Commonwealth Attorney in Clarke County, in the same office that a prior Commonwealth Attorney, Marshall McCormick, had built, from the 1930’s to the 1970’s, to Elizabeth Williams, the donor of Clermont, who died in 2004,” Gilpin said. “The Clermont Trust holds the remaining records as well as the furnishings left from this legal tradition. The Clermont Trust also holds books and archives from the Moore-McKown law offices and has been promised the same from the Garland Williams – Scott Smalley law offices. These constitute the three main lines of legal practice in Clarke County, Virginia. Elizabeth Williams, the donor of Clermont Farm and all the tangibles that went with it, was a juvenile judge and a full time practicing lawyer until the day she died at Clermont Farm in 2004.”
Gilpin has put forward the idea of creating a legal history museum on the Clermont site. But while Gilpin, a practicing attorney, sees the Forum as a chance to examine social justice issues, Davis see a prime opportunity to examine the complex relationships between the former-enslaved residents of Josephine City and the white population after the Civil War.
Davis said that she’d like to know more about research performed by local historians regarding the Josephine City’s origins as well “Josephine” herself, for whom Davis has been unable to locate a surname for despite years of genealogical research.
Particularly, Davis said that the legend that Clermont’s post Civil War-era owner Ellen McCormick, the impoverished widow of Edward McCormick, a major in the Confederate Supply Corps stationed in Lynchburg, “gave” the land for Josephine City is false.
“McCormick didn’t “give” the property” Davis said. “The property was offered for sale on a given day and each lot cost $100 per acre. If a person missed a payment on the purchased property Mrs. McCormick put a lien on the lot.”
Davis is also interested in how former enslaved African Americans, living far and wide throughout the area, were able to hear about the sale by McCormick and gather at the appointed day and time without the use of telephones or other modern methods of communication.
But for Davis, the forum offers a chance to develop a better understanding of the lives of Clarke County’s African American history.
“I hope that we can gain more clarity about the history of Josephine City and its connection to Clermont,” Davis said. “I’d just like to understand more about the lives of Josephine and the other people who bought property and settled there.”
Once all of the Clermont researchers have completed their work, the Forum will consist of series of panel discussions centering on presentations by the scholar-participants lasting approximately one half hour each followed by the comments of other panel members and audience discussion. Other panel members will be drawn from the community to participate in an open discussion to assess and critique the Forum in light of Clermont’s planning needs.
The Forum is expected to last one and one-half days commencing on a Friday morning and ending on Saturday around noon. Forum events will include an evening reception and informal community dinner. Additional evening entertainment is a possibility in the effort to engage the community as broadly as possible in the planning process for Clermont. On the basis of presentations, comments, and discussions at the Forum, Warren Hofstra will then prepare a final summary report for consideration by the Clermont administration.
Hofstra’s report is expected to contribute significantly to the planning process and the determination of the ultimate public use of Clermont Farm.