The Social Butterfly joins a walking tour through historic Petersburg, the first under the mandated six-foot rule
Along with the entire nation, the Butterfly is trying to stay positive during this unprecedented time of ’social distancing’ that feels like a zombie apocalypse.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused nearly 800,000 cases globally and thousands of deaths in the U.S. alone.
Naturally, the world is experiencing a widespread panic…and rightly so.
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Despite being on lockdown for the most part, as of today, we are still encouraged to get out and exercise with the understanding we must remain six feet apart from each other.
The Historic Petersburg Foundation [HPF] began their inaugural Petersburg Spring Walking Tours on March 21.
Sixteen people, including me, the tour guide, and HPF member photographer John A. Rooney, Jr. happily met at District 19’s parking lot on West Bank Street in Old Towne to stretch our legs and take in some local history.
“I work in Petersburg at Pathways,” shared Zanda Miller of Colonial Heights. “While attending the Thomas Day event [narrated tour of the Hudson-Day House on High Street presented by the HPF called “A Celebration of the Architecture and Decorative Arts of Free Black Cabinetmaker Thomas Day”] recently which I enjoyed a lot, I grabbed a flier about this tour.
“My grandson Johni likes history, so he’s with me today,” added Miller. “I knew he would like it, and it’s good exercise.”
“Grandma took me around Old Towne before,” stated nine-year-old Johni who is a student at St. Joseph Catholic School in Petersburg. “We walked around and read the historical markers.”
Our tour guide Michelle Murrills who moved to Petersburg from Alaska a year-and-a-half-ago brought a 6-foot pvc pipe with her to stay in line with the ‘social distancing’ proper splash-zone distance determined by the Center for Disease Control.
Murrills wasn’t the only one carrying a measuring device. I had a measuring tape with me and HPF vice president Bobbi Kennedy had a cane to encourage separation.
Murrills earned a history degree from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon.
“When I first moved here, I wanted to start a history food tour, but I couldn’t get anyone interested in it,” shared Murrills. “That was before the one that operates now.
“When the HPF approached me about conducting the Old Towne tour, I jumped on it,” laughed Murrills. “I pretty much knew everything already, but I did do a little more research.”
As tourists arrived, I noticed participants going through the motions of sharing ‘air hugs’ with each other.
“My husband and I come down to Old Towne and walk around,” shared Jennifer Horn of Chesterfield. “We enjoy looking at the old buildings and learning something new about them.
“When you go to Williamsburg, its buildings from the 1700’s are refurbished,” added Horn. “But, these are the real deal…hidden gems.”
One walker and obviously a history lover himself offered to share his knowledge.
“This afternoon, I will be conducting a walking tour through Hatcher’s Run Battlefield…at least a portion of it,” shared Kyle Tucker of Sutherland. “Last week, I offered one at Breakthrough in Pamplin Historical Park.”
Tucker invites his Facebook friends to join him on his tours at no charge.
There is no way possible for me to share every detail of the tour, so I will pick my favorites from each stop to pass along with you.
While waiting for the tour to begin, Murrills pointed out, “Archeological evidence discovered on Pocahontas Island shows that indigenous Native Americans lived here 6,000 years ago.”
Our first stop was the Exchange Building built in 1841 which was previously known as the Siege Museum. It presently serves as the Petersburg Visitor Center.
“This is a little strange,” commented Murrills while the group walked to the Exchange Building. “With this six-foot rule, I don’t have the ability to herd you as usual.”
As we positioned ourselves on the steps of the Greek Revival style building, one tourist had to reposition herself in order to establish the required distance. Be sure to look closely at the photo Rooney took of our group seated on the stairs. It will not be difficult to figure out which individual was requested to move to a new safe spot. Please note…she was not neglectful in her choice of space, but she was the logical choice to move in order to comply with Governor Ralph Northam’s guideline.
”The Exchange Building is called the Exchange Building because it used to set the prices of goods going up and down the eastern seaboard before the N.Y Stock Exchange started,” Murrills noted.
Walking 72 inches apart from each other, we made our way to the parking lot located below the Centre Hill Mansion.
“Centre Hill Mansion was built by Robert Buckner Bolling IV on family land,” stated Murrills while looking up at the 1820’s mansion. “His son Robert Buckner had 11 children, and he threw them all up in the attic…back then children were not to be seen or heard.”
”Owner attorney Charles Hall Davis lost it due to $7,400 in back taxes in the 1930’s,” Murrills shared.
Our group followed Murrills across the parking lot and stopped within view of the Martin Luther King, Jr Memorial bridge where she talked about the Bollingbrook Hotel and Streetcar Depot which once operated near the bridge.
En route to our next stop, I overheard a tourist who was being diligent in keeping a 6-foot distance say, “I’ll go high, you stay low.”
Our fourth stop was the Nathaniel Friend Building which currently houses the Wabi Sabi restaurant and Vision of Rose Photo photography studio.
“I’ve been told it’s the most haunted building in Petersburg,” Murrills pointed out. “However, the guys at the Brickhouse Run say they can give this building a good run for its money.”
Murrills discussed the Farmer’s Bank located next door which like the Exchange Building and Centre Hill Mansion was closed due to COVID-19.
“The bank was used extensively in the filming of Harriet, and the outside garden was part of the slave quarters in the TV show Mercy Street,” said Murrills. “The bank was also used in the AMC TV series ‘Turn’ and Steven Spielberg’s movie ‘Lincoln’.”
According to Murrills, the cobblestone streets in Olde Towne have been used in multiple films.
We walked upon the stones a short distance along the narrow Cockade Alley until we reached the McIlwaine House which is a three-bay 2 -story frame Federal structure.
“This house was once located on South Market Street,” shared Murrills. “The original owner Erasmus Gill had a gambling problem betting on race horses and ended up losing the house to Archibald McIlwaine.”
Staying put and turning to our left, we viewed the iconic octagonal-shaped brick structure known as the Farmer’s Market.
“According to history books, this is actually one of four of these that were built here in Petersburg,” stated Murrills. “One got burned down by the British, another was hit by a tornado, and the third went up in flames during the civil war.”
I love the Farmer’s Market which happens to be vacant at the moment. It’s a true gem, and I can’t wait to see who moves into it next. It has a unique open-spaced interior, which I think would make an awesome art gallery.
“I was excited seeing how many people showed up for the tour,” stated Carol Adams of Petersburg while resting on a brick wall located in front of the Farmer’s Market entrance.
“Even the government is saying we need to get out and exercise,” added Adams. “That’s what Governor Northam said yesterday.”
Next, we all walked around behind the Farmer’s Market where Murrills discussed the Southside Train Depot.
“This is the oldest standing railroad building in Virginia,” described Murrills. “The chopping and dumping of body parts scene in the movie Lincoln was filmed here on the outside.”
Not your typical tour topic, however not being a history buff myself, I appreciated how Murrills kept our attention with bizarre facts.
According to Murrills, portions of the movies Harriet and Lincoln were filmed near the train station.
“She’s only been here 18 months, and she has this stuff down,” exclaimed Tucker on our way to the next historic landmark. “It’s a great way to spend a Saturday whether you’re social distancing or not.”
Pointing at the building on Old Street which houses the Petersburg Area Art League, Murrills stated, “The granite storefront is rare because most have been torn down or collapsed in the historic tornado.
“The tornado took out buildings next to the Antiques & Oddity Shop,” shared Shari Vetter of Petersburg who resides on High Street. “I’m enjoying recognizing scenes in movies that were shot in Old Towne.”
Walking six foot long chili dogs apart from each other, we crossed Sycamore Street, walked down West Old Street, and took a left before reaching the Blue Willow Tea Room.
I vaguely remember attending a couple of outdoor music concerts years ago in the area referred to as the Appomattox Iron Works.
“This was going to be a historical industrial park which they were developing until the tornado came through,” explained Murrills. “They were going to show people how a factory worked in 1885.”
At our ninth destination, Murrills informed us, “This is the oldest part of Petersburg; rumor has it…if you walk down to Peter’s Point after mid-night and ask a question, a ghost soldier will answer you back…but, I haven’t actually tried it, yet.”
We journeyed up North Market Street to the Trapezium House.
“No ghosts have been reported,” shared Murrills. “It’s supposed to be because the house doesn’t have any right angles.
“A runaway from the Haitian slave uprising told the owner Charles O’Hara to build it without right angles to keep the ghosts away,” added Murrills. “According to history, O’Hara’s neighbors thought the ghosts stayed away because O’Hara was crazy and they didn’t want to hang with him.
“My father’s idea is…nobody knew how to build a house…and, this is the result,” Murrills stated wittingly.
As we made our way back to where we began our journey, Murrills chatted with us about the Charles Leonard Building located on West Bank Street.
“Leonard came to Petersburg with $20 in his pocket,” Murrills stated. “Eventually, he constructed the building in 1845, and 40 years later the company was listed as the largest hardware manufacturer in the south.”
While on the tour, I learned that two building medallions exist in Petersburg. One denotes the structure is older than the 1900’s, and the other one contains crossed cannons which identifies a structure which was damaged by gunfire or cannonballs during the Civil War.
“It’s very interesting,” shared Kennedy. “There’s a lot of unknown history in Petersburg, and unfortunately, the people in this area don’t know much about the local history.
“The HPF mission is to tell the history of historic neighborhoods, and in the next few weeks…we’re going to highlight some of those neighborhoods,” added HPF president Lewis Malon of Petersburg. “And, there’s no place better to start than in Old Towne.
“The history of Petersburg needs to be told more,” stated Gordon Kendrick. “The tour was something to do…better than sitting home.
“I was more afraid of getting whacked by your tape measure than getting sick,” added Kendrick wittingly.
“It was a good walk with friendly, engaging people who obviously have an interest in Petersburg’s history,” shared tourism director for Petersburg Area Regional Tourism Martha Burton. “It was relaxed and fun, and, at the same time, interesting.”
Burton gave kudos to Michelle saying she was very well prepared and had good stories to tell.
“I am often in Old Towne, but I rarely stroll and look up,” added Burton. “A guided walk had us actually looking at the buildings that we walk by or drive by often without actually paying a lot of attention to them.”
Burton felt safe on the tour and hopes to attend each of the four offered.
“I was very comfortable that our participants were sensitive to the need for social distancing and it worked well.”
Which stop was Burton’s favorite?
“I would say my favorite was the stop on the river side of Centre Hill,” shared Burton. “One of my brothers has done research on the Bolling family and I found that conversation to be very interesting.”
“I was surprised at how many people showed up and thought it went pretty well,” stated Murrills. “I had changed some of it up so we could stay in parking lots and wouldn’t have to walk closely to each other.”
The tour was a great way to get out of self-quarantine for a short spell and learn some interesting facts about Petersburg’s history. The tour is free, however donations are gladly accepted at the end of the tour.
I highly recommend taking one of HPF’s walking tours [Old Towne, High Street, Grove Avenue, and Poplar Lawn Historic District], but unfortunately, they have been postponed until further notice.
An important notice appears on the HPF website: “In compliance with the governor’s directives pertaining to COVID-19, the HPF Walking Tours have been suspended until it has been determined by the state that such activities are considered permissible under the circumstances. We appreciate your understanding and look forward to seeing you in better times.”
Kristi K. Higgins, aka the Social Butterfly, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @KristiHigginsPI