Unlike those who fill home gardens with vegetables they like eating, Brenna Geraghty uses a different calculus to pick what’s in the demonstration gardens at Chippokes Plantation State Park.
Each of the groupings at the history-centered state park in Surry has been exhaustively researched to feature heirloom plants from different cultural groups that lived on the plantation founded in 1619—one of the oldest continuously farmed properties in the country.
The fence-encircled garden that sits behind a former slave quarters near the James River offers a bit of time travel as you walk from one plot to the next.
Start in the “Virginia Indian Crops” section and you’ll see goosefoot, a cousin to quinoa, as well as the Chapalote corn that goes back 5,000 years, not to mention the Seminole pumpkin squash Geraghty says is the variety that all North American squash and pumpkins come from.
Mosey to the "African Diaspora" area to see things brought via the slave trade or embraced by the enslaved community and you’ll find millet, okra, and the fish peppers popular in stews in the Chesapeake Bay region.
Keep moving and you’ll encounter the “19th Century Kitchen Garden," with everything from fig bushes to sweet potatoes to artichoke, as well as the bullnose peppers that were a favorite of Thomas Jefferson.
Perhaps the most diverse space is the “Historic Orchard and Herb” area, backed by vintage apple and peach trees that made the brandy that kept the plantation profitable over the years.
Beneath the trees are herbs used in the kitchen and house, things like summer savory, parsley, and dill for cooking, rue to treat coughs and tansy flowers that colonists used to repel fleas and bedbugs.
Put it all together and the gardens form a living exhibit of the Farm and Forestry Museum at the 1,947-acre park, which also has a mansion and river house that can be toured by visitors.
There are campgrounds, cabins for rent and recreational offerings that range from guided mansion and museum tours to trail hikes and paddling.
Geraghty, the manager of the museum, said she and the other staffers spent more than a year to get the right heirloom plants and vegetables for the period gardens. They used everything from newspaper plant catalogs to vintage seed companies to cookbooks from the 1800s to see what people were growing and eating in the different periods on plantations in the Piedmont.
They also work hard to give the demonstration garden an ever-changing array of plants.
“We’ll get school groups in here and I’ll ask the kids to pull up some radishes or sweet potatoes, and they have so much fun doing that,” she said, noting that the park uses what’s grown in the garden in hearth-cooking demonstrations on the property, to feed a growing gaggle of livestock and occasionally to send home with visitors.
“We had a family visiting one day, grandparents who’d grown up in the Philippines, along with their grandchildren,” she said. “The grandmother was so excited to see one of our cushaw squash, which she told her grandchildren she’d grown up having her grandmother cook her in a dish prepared with coconut milk.
Geraghty said she pulled her pocketknife out, cut one of the large squash and handed it to the visitor, who was overcome with emotion as she told her grandchildren she would prepare it for them as soon as they got home.
The museum director said the Farm and Forestry Museum, which includes several different small buildings as well as the garden, had originally been operated by a foundation which ceased to exist several years back.
It’s been taken over by the park, and Geraghty said she and others on the staff have been working to update the exhibits in the different buildings.
One building includes farm machinery used in different eras, from the 17th century to the 1950s, while another building features farmhouse interiors from the 1830s, 1890s, and the 1940s, “to give an idea of how home base for the farm has changed over the years,” Geraghty said.
She and other staffers are working to feature another building with new exhibits dedicated to the craftsmen who worked on farms: blacksmiths, tinsmiths, wood carvers, shoemakers and other craftsmen.
While noting that the park has its share of recreational and camping opportunities, including an Olympic-sized swimming pool, she said that, without a doubt, Chippokes is mainly a park focused on history.
To start with, that history includes the long residence of the Quiyoughcohannock Indians, part of the Powhatan Confederacy.
Prior to the arrival of Captain William Powell, who was granted 550 acres of river frontage on Chippokes Creek in 1619, Chief Powhatan ceded the land to the English with the unrealized hope that it would keep them from pushing any farther into the region.
The plantation and the bordering creek were named for an Indian chief who befriended the early English settlers.
In 1854, Albert Carroll Jones built the present Chippokes Mansion, which overlooks the historic James River. It’s a grand structure of brick, stuccoed and painted on its river side. Chippokes was once the site of one of the few legal distilleries in the commonwealth, with local legend saying that the mansion survived the Civil War because Albert Jones sold his brandies to both sides.
The plantation changed owners many times before it was bought by Thornton Jeffress of Rochester, N.Y. and V.W. Stewart of Wilson, N.C. in 1918. Stewart and his wife moved to Chippokes and put much effort into restoring the property and compiling a detailed history of the plantation.
Upon her husband's death, Evelyn Stewart, in order to preserve the plantation in its entirety, donated Chippokes Plantation to the Commonwealth as a memorial to her husband in 1967.
A more recent addition to the park is the Walnut Valley Plantation, recently willed to the state. Its 360 acres are immediately adjacent, and the property contains one of the oldest remaining slave cabins in Virginia, dating back to 1816, as well as a recently renovated lodge that will soon be available to rent.