WHEN MOST OF US rummage through our bookcases for something to read, we come up with a title by John Grisham or James Patterson.
When farmer and former newspaper reporter Lawrence Latane tried that tactic a while back in his Westmoreland County home, he came up with a very different kind of volume: a tattered farm ledger simply signed “Lawrence Washington Jr., Blenheim, Westmoreland Co., Virginia.”
Because Latane is directly descended from that very Lawrence Washington Jr., and because he and wife Becky are currently operating a thriving vegetable farm on that very Blenheim property, it grabbed his attention quicker than an albino eggplant.
Latane, a friend from the time when we both covered Westmoreland County for our respective newspapers, said that although he lives in a centuries-old house, it was abandoned for years.
That, he said, makes his discovery of this type of historical record nothing short of a shock.
As he leafed through the aged ledger, with many pages torn or missing, the operator of today’s thriving Blenheim Organic Gardens found he has quite a bit in common with the two men he says wrote in the ledger from the mid 1800s: Lawrence Washington and Lawrence Washington Jr.
Lineage of that father and son connects back in the family of our first president, in Colonial days to the adjoining Popes Creek Plantation, now memorialized as a Washington’s Birthplace national park.
Latane, who has had years where crops were damaged or completely taken by everything from deluges of rain to hungry bugs, found as he read the ledger that not so much has changed at Blenheim in more than 160 years.
He said that amid the pages of balance sheets, lists of expenses and a diary of the work at Blenheim and its neighboring Popes Creek Farm in the mid- to late-1850s were many things that sounded awfully familiar.
Like this entry June 23, 1858: “Commenced cutting wheat and finished in five days. The rust, hail, joint-worm and scab having almost entirely destroyed (the crop).”
Latane noted that the next entry was dated July 8, when things weren’t looking any better.
Having wrapped up the oat harvest, it says in the ledger, “I find them much injured with chinch-bug and drought. It has been nearly—within two days—of a month since we had rain. The corn is consequently low and looking, generally, badly.”
Latane, who operates the certified organic farm with his wife and son Cameron, said he assumes some of the entries were probably set down by Lawrence Washington Sr., though a different style of handwriting in later pages may indicate a change to postings by the son.
Looking through the remarks, some in longhand and ink and other spots in what seems to be pencil markings, is a fascinating glimpse into the past.
There’s payment to now-forgotten workers for 50 cents to a dollar or slightly more for cutting wood, harvesting wheat or supplying mules for a day.
There’s even a page where Latane and I surmised someone used the book as a tally sheet to record incoming loads of some resource, perhaps guano off-loaded by boat or wagon.
It’s all made more special by the ties Latane and his family have dating back into Westmoreland’s history.
These days, he, his family and a crew that grows in harvest time aren’t spending much time contemplating days gone by.
In its 14th year, Blenheim Organic Gardens is still growing, using a new greenhouse and increased acreage to send broccoli, greens, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, cauliflower, asparagus, strawberries and so much more to farmers markets in downtown Fredericksburg and Williamsburg, and to restaurants across the region.
Not to mention a Community Supported Agriculture program with loyal members.
Latane winces remembering the storm in September of 2011 that destroyed crops of broccoli, beans and more when 26 inches of rain in 24 hours inundated the family’s fields.
But he noted that although that caused them to miss a market or two, they were back later that year with other crops.
He notes that a new sorting and storage building, a new greenhouse and lessons learned from each new year have production continuing to grow.
“But it is interesting to see that all these many years later, what we face at Blenheim isn’t all that different from what the Washingtons once saw here,” he said.