BERRYVILLE — A peaceful walk through Clermont Farm’s rolling landscape, amid the picturesque mountains in the distance, may give the impression that nothing much goes on there.
Forget that notion. Although the work is not always visible, a lot is happening at the 360-acre agricultural research center and historic preservation site off Harry Byrd Highway (Va. 7) and Main Street, just east of Berryville.
What’s not yet occurring, however, is the replacement of a historic, timber-framed barn destroyed by fire a little more than a year ago.
The planning and design process has begun. Still, many steps must be taken to ensure the new barn meets state building code requirements and the needs of researchers and students who visit Clermont, said CEO Bob Stieg.
“It will be two to three years before we see a new barn,” Clermont Foundation President Joseph Whitehorne estimated.
Established in the 1750s, Clermont was owned by only four families over the decades until Clarke County lawyer and judge Elizabeth Rust Williams donated the estate to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR) upon her death in 2004. The foundation operates the farm on behalf of the department and helps fund activities there.
Ten piglets, a ram and two sows were lost during the Nov. 28, 2018, blaze that destroyed the 101-year-old barn. Also lost was a corn crib dating to 1849, as well as one of the largest wooden archaeological findings ever excavated in Virginia: The forebay and turbine box of a “tub mill” — a horizontal water wheel used by a gristmill — originally at Woolf’s Mill in Fauquier County.
Investigators believe decaying, antiquated electrical wiring sparked the fire. Arson was ruled out as a possible cause, Stieg noted.
About 60 cows and 40 sheep currently are kept at the farm. Those numbers will be maintained until after a new barn is erected, said Tait Golightly, the farm’s superintendent.
With the tub mill devices gone, a new relic is taking their place, helping to highlight Clermont’s importance to Shenandoah Valley history.
A fire pit determined to be the largest ever discovered in Virginia, at 4 feet in diameter and 2½ feet deep, was uncovered earlier this year in the farm’s smokehouse, which dates to 1803.
Smokehouse fire pits usually are smaller, Stieg said, because they are used to produce smoke rather than fire.
Williams’ mother, Caroline Rust Williams, owned the estate prior to her daughter. At some point, the elder Williams apparently installed brick on the smokehouse’s floor so she could use the structure as a garden shed, Stieg said.
As part of a long-term archaeology program continuing at the farm, researchers decided to do some digging to find out what, if anything, was under the small building’s surface. There was no evidence of a fire pit ever being there, Stieg said.
After the fire pit was unearthed, a large stone within an interior ring of stones that support the structure collapsed. The stones were put back into place, and metal rods were installed around the ring to keep other stones from falling.
The stone that collapsed enabled archaeologists to see smaller stones and gravel installed behind the “facing stones” as filler material, Stieg said. The presence of the material is proof, he said, that whoever installed the fire pit went about “a very conscious and elaborate construction” to ensure it would last.
Upon further digging, archaeologists discovered a layer of burned material about 6 inches below the pit.
“We think it’s a possibility there was an earlier smokehouse on this site,” one that perhaps burned, Stieg said. He pointed out that it’s easy for smokehouses to catch fire themselves.
With its large fire pit, though, the existing smokehouse is “extremely unusual,” he said. Apparently, “it has a lot more complicated history” than researchers have been able to fully figure out. They intend to probe further.
Presentations about the fire pit were made at an Archaeological Society of Virginia meeting and the Middle Atlantic Archaeological Conference. Stieg recalled attendees being “very surprised” to hear about the pit’s size.
Plans are to eventually repair the smokehouse’s foundation, parts of which have been washed out due to water damage over the years, he said.
Preserving and renovating
As part of Clermont’s historic preservation efforts, “we’re trying to show how things were built in the past,” Stieg said. So buildings on the estate are undergoing a long-term stabilization process.
Constructed in 1755, the farmhouse originally didn’t have a porch until Edward Snickers, who ran a tavern and ferry along the Shenandoah River, bought the house and added one circa 1770.
Snickers later gave the house to his son, William, who rebuilt the porch and added a large, elaborate dining room in 1788. The porch is undergoing its first major renovations since then.
“We were taken aback,” Steig said of Clermont and DHR staff, to realize that no changes had been made to the porch for more than two centuries.
Support structures were discovered to be wearing out, if they hadn’t worn out already.
“What we worried about,” Stieg said, “was the possibility that if we had a three-foot snowfall or very high winds, the porch could collapse.”
New joists will be installed along the length of the porch to complement ones installed in 1788 and others added around 1900.
“The old joists no longer will carry the weight” of people and furnishings on the porch, Stieg said, “but they will be preserved in their original positions.”
As part of renovations, “we don’t remove or throw away any of the original fabric of a building,” he emphasized.
Wooden floor panels were removed from the porch so problems could be observed easily. Stieg said some of the panels will be reinstalled while ones that have deteriorated will be replaced. A clear panel may be installed somewhere on the porch so visitors can see the work done to it, he said.
As initial work has started, hidden historical features have been uncovered, such as nails made in the late 1700s. Unlike nails manufactured today, 18th century nails were individually forged by blacksmiths, Stieg stated.
The renovations are expected to be completed within the next year, he said.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, Clermont was a champion wheat-growing farm that supplied international markets. It remains a so-called “working farm” supporting agricultural research. Students from Clarke County High School as well as James Madison University, the University of Virginia, the University of Maryland and other higher education institutions visit the estate as part of their studies.
Ongoing research projects include ones involving silvopasture, the integration of systematically-planted trees, forage and livestock in a pasture. Clermont staff say the practice is proving beneficial to farmers in various ways.
For instance, Stieg said, “it helps produce bigger, better livestock” that bring farmers more money at sale.
That’s because the animals are happy, according to Golightly, who is affiliated with Virginia Tech’s animal and poultry sciences division.
Being able to graze and rest under trees keeps animals cool and reduces their stress, Golightly said. When they are not stressed, they eat more and get bigger, increasing their value, he said.
The better the forage, the more of it that is eaten by livestock and the less feed that farmers have to buy, he continued.
Farmers can sell wood from trees grown in a silvopasture, Stieg said. And, plantings benefit land conservation by reducing soil erosion and improving water in nearby streams by filtering harmful substances, he said.
Researchers at Clermont are trying to determine what types of trees and planting configurations work best as part of silvopasture, Stieg said. After the researchers draw their conclusions, farmers interested in the technique can visit Clermont to get ideas for their farms, and Virginia Cooperative Extension agents promoting the practice can come to find out what to recommend to farmers, he said.
People with special interests in agriculture and history are welcome to visit Clermont and can call to schedule appointments. But except for periodic special events, the estate is not open to public gatherings.
Stieg said the facility is “a very rare asset” that helps make Clarke County special.
“We can all be proud of having preserved an early example of what a large farm was like,” he said. “It’s part of the history of our country.”