Time flies when you’re in the Pre-College Program

Either that time machine we history lovers have been dreaming about has finally come to fruition, or the NIAHD Pre-College Program, Session 1, has just been flying by! By now, the students have settled into the routine of the program. And we (the Resident Program Assistants, or RPAs) have been enjoying watching them become more confident as they explore Virginia’s historic sites, attend seminar classes and lectures, and get a taste of college life. But also, our twenty-something legs can hardly keep up with this energetic bunch; is it nap time yet?

We’ll be resting over here while you read this day-by-day account of the students’ week two adventures.

Day 1:

On Monday, the Civil War Course visited Shirley Plantation in Charles City County. The same family has lived on the property for almost three-hundred years; members of the Carter and Hill families who still live in the “Great House” are the twelfth generation to call Shirley home. The students learned about the plantation’s role in the Civil War, including its connection to Robert E. Lee: his mother was born and married in the house. They also marveled at the house’s famous “flying staircase,” which appears completely unsupported, but is actually held up by hidden beams.


The Colonial Course began their day in Lancaster County, at Christ Church, a stunning brick Anglican church completed in 1735. As our guide told us, “there is none in this country to be compared to it.” Christ Church was built by wealthy landowner and planter, Robert Carter, and to this day remains the best preserved parish church from colonial Virginia. As they toured the building and the nearby museum, the students learned about Christ Church itself, Robert Carter, and eighteenth century religious shifts.

Next, the students drove down the road to Gloucester County to the Ruins of Rosewell. Once one of the grandest mansions in the colonies, Rosewell is now in ruins after a fire in 1916. Dr. David Brown gave the students an overview of the site, and then students explored on their own, including venturing down a short path through the woods to see the ice house, where twenty-first century turtles like to hide from the heat.


The students had their second English Country Dance lesson on Monday evening, graduating to more advanced steps. By the end, everyone was out of breath!


Day 2:

As Tuesday was the Fourth of July, there were no trips or seminars. Students had the morning and afternoon free to join the festivities in Colonial Williamsburg.

At 2:30, many gathered in the Blair history building on campus for the traditional viewing of the movie-musical 1776. “Somebody ohhhhpen up a window!” the Founding Fathers sang, but unfortunately, we couldn’t because the AC was on.

In the evening, the students (with RPAs leading the way) walked to a local schoolyard, an excellent vantage point for the Colonial Williamsburg fireworks show.

Day 3:

On Wednesday, the Civil War Course packed plenty of water and snacks and set off on the longest road trip of the session: to Somerset Place Plantation in Creswell, North Carolina. Once one of the largest plantations in the upper South, Somerset is known today for being a remarkably complete representation of antebellum plantation life. Students toured the main house, outbuildings, and the reconstructed overseer’s house and enslaved families’ homes.



It was the Colonial Course’s turn to visit Shirley Plantation. Focusing on — you guessed it — the house’s early history, the students learned that the house was built for Elizabeth Hill and the only son of Robert “King” Carter. Construction began in 1723, but as sometimes happens when you can’t agree on paint colors, the house took fifteen years to complete. The students also explored the ice house, kitchen, laundry, and other outbuildings on the property.


In the evening, Dr. Jodi Allen delivered a lecture on the Lemon Project, a William & Mary initiative to learn more about the enslaved people who lived and worked on the campus.

Day 4:

On Thursday, the Civil War course built a town that literally rose from the ashes: although a fire destroyed much of Petersburg in 1815, a new commercial district sprung up from the devastation. With a National Park Service Ranger as a guide, the students explored the town’s historic district, stopping at several nineteenth century businesses and homes.


Meanwhile, the Colonial Course drove west across the mountains (oh, the views!) to Staunton, Virginia, to visit the Frontier Culture Museum. A sprawling, outdoor, living history museum, the Frontier Culture Museum features dozens of re-created “Old World” and frontier settlements.



Day 5:

The Civil War Course spent the day in Richmond, visiting the Lumpkin Slave Jail and the Tredegar Iron Works, and walking along the canal. Throughout their time in the city, the students learned how these sites operated in the nineteenth century, and how they are also part of the landscape of twenty-first century Richmond.



The Colonial Course made the long walk across the street to Colonial Williamsburg, where they visited the James Geddy House. The Geddy family lot was ‘a foundry without boundaries,’ one might say: James Geddy was a gunsmith, and his sons, along similar veins (don’t blame the students for the bad jokes, it’s all me) became silversmiths, gunsmiths, and other metal-related tradesmen. Next, the students were given worksheets that led them on scavenger hunts around CW, looking for other types of trade shops, and inquiring within.


Friday evening was the students’ final English Country Dance Lesson. By this time, many of the students who had been to all of the previous lessons knew the dances well, and so instructor Dr. Jenna Simpson threw us a challenge; a Hamilton song to dance to, using eighteenth century steps.


Day 6:

Saturday was for finishing up essays, and also the second and final opportunity for students to dig at the Fairfield archaeological site with Dr. David Brown. More artifacts were found, and not just from twenty-first century picnics!


Day 7:

On Sunday afternoon, Dr. Ann Smart Martin of the University of Wisconsin-Madison gave a talk about her research on early American mercantilism, a new exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of American History on American business and commerce, and digital history. She also asked for the students’ feedback on a new UW-Madison website that allows visitors to browse the annotated entries of an eighteenth century account book: https://ramsay.arthistory.wisc.edu/. Do you see the similarities to a certain, “prime,” online store?

In the evening, the Civil War Course took a tour of Colonial Williamsburg led by Mr. Drew Gruber, the director of Civil War Trails, Inc. While CW is widely known to be a place of early American history, it has a rich Civil War history as well. Mr. Gruber illustrated this to the students, pointing out relevant structures, and doling out dissertation ideas for the PhDs-to-be in the group.


Both courses rounded out the evening — and the second week — with Kilwin’s ice cream. Nothing better!

For more photos of the students’ adventures, please visit NIAHD’s Facebook page or Instagram.


Contributed by Holly Gruntner

Published in: on July 15, 2017 at 10:08 pm Comments (0)