Celebrating History in Nelson County – Pharsalia Folk Life Festival

Celebrating History in Nelson County – Pharsalia Folk Life Festival


What was life like in early 19th century Nelson County? What did it take to cook a meal over an open hearth fire? How were bricks and mortar made? What mourning rituals were observed when someone died? Pharsalia Plantation will celebrate its 200th anniversary the weekend of May 17 and 18 with an educational festival designed to step back in time – and to feast, frolic, and take the air on a flower farm surrounded by fields planted with apples, grapes, peaches, and corn.

Pharsalia’s 2014 Folk Life Festival will bring artists and artisans, chefs and musicians, authors and historians and all manner of aficionados of country living to a working farm in Tyro with an historic home constructed in 1814-16 by a man who served under George Washington in the Revolutionary War. Over 90 vendors will teach and demonstrate skills like basket making, cider pressing, and limestone plastering.

Major Thomas Massie situated Pharsalia’s 11-bay, Federal style, frame manor house at the foot of dePriest Mountain, naming it after an epic poem by the Roman writer Lucan on the war between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great in 48 B.C. “Pharsalia was originally built as a wedding gift for my great-great grandfather, William Massie,” says Foxie Morgan, current Pharsalia owner and conservator with her husband Richard. “It stayed in the family till the late 1800’s, then it had two owners, one for a brief time and another, a dentist, for about 55 years. When he died his family did not want Pharsalia, so it came up for sale and my grandparents helped my parents buy it back into the family in 1951.”

The original at one time included four farms and up to 10,000 acres that William Massie owned. Today it is about 20 acres. It has always been a farm of some sort.” The house, as Morgan describes it, “has four large rooms, with a center hall across the front and a T with a hall and two large rooms and an added large kitchen at the back of the house. An upstairs was added on the T about 1840 or so. The panes in the windows across the front are very interesting. Each window has a narrow panel of glass on each side and a wide pane in the middle.”

“Pharsalia is an amazing place,” says Steve Crandall of Tectonics II Construction, and of Devil’s Backbone Brewing Company, which is presenting a farm to table meal and wine tasting there on August 9. “It still has all the infrastructure buildings – slave hospital, outdoor kitchens, ice pits four-seater outdoor potty – in place. And it sits on this amazing bucolic hill overlooking vineyards and apple orchards. The house is kept up pristine. Foxie Morgan has done an amazing job restoring it and bringing in period furniture. It’s a neat asset for Nelson County.”

As with any property, historic or not, Pharsalia requires continual maintenance and rehabilitation to be kept in such great shape.  “We’ve taken a room at a time, one a year, to restore,” Morgan says. “We’ve documented things we’ve found, like pig and horse hair in the plaster, but we’ve also left things in the wall. We put in a little bag of money and a note – somebody else will find it in another 100 years.”

“My parents did a wonderful job of keeping good roofs on buildings. Some things are preserved correctly, and some things haven’t been touched. So I feel like we’re a good teaching plantation. Last week Monticello was here studying our slave quarters. Ours are called saddleback design. They took measurements and pointed out a lot of things I never realized.” Ever the historian, Morgan is asking everyone coming to a family reunion this June to bring their photos of original Pharsalia items, “so we can make a book of Massie pieces and know where they are.”

Pharsalia back in William’s day was a bustling, multi-faceted enterprise made possible by as many as 170 African-American slaves. “William had successes and failures, but agriculture was pretty much how they survived,” Morgan says. “Apples were big. He raised hogs. Salt curing meat was big business. William tried everything,” including cranberries and potatoes. “He was way ahead of his time.”

Two hundred years and five generations later, Pharsalia is a flower farm, a wedding site, and a treasured parcel of Nelson County listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register. Morgan grows annuals and perennials mainly for cutting; her biggest crop is peonies. William Massie’s papers are in far flung historical society holdings. Groups of ten or more can arrange tours of the grounds, but the folk life festival is the rare chance for individuals and families to see both house and grounds in something like its original atmosphere and antique manner.

“We’re not making this just another festival,” says 19th century cooking expert Rachel Deddens. This will be an opportunity for patrons to step back in time to an early 19th century plantation site, with tradespersons and crafters who will share their artistic talents, educating the public on how their particular craft was created in the past, and is being created today. We asked participating tradespersons and vendors to dress in Federal period costumes. Costumed interpreters will walk the grounds as Massie family members. Patrons will have a special treat seeing mourning practices of the period.”

Deddens herself will be in the original kitchen, “demonstrating and preparing foods of the period at the hearth. I teach people how you cooked on an open fire. Make sure you step in to see and smell the aromas of early 19th century cooking.”

Two big tents on the grounds will save the day in case of inclement weather. Tradespeople will ply their trades in buildings around the property – most of them original – including the weaving house, brick kitchen, smokehouse, and slave quarters. Traditional acoustic musicians Kim and Jimbo Cary will help kids make music.Wandering minstrels Jim Robertson and Corbin Hayslett will roam the grounds and also perform on stage. Octogenarian basket maker Paul Younger will show and sell his wares. Morgan promises homemade oyster ice cream available for sampling “at your own risk,” plus “a chicken whisperer, rabbits, and a sheep or two.”

The following is a list of festival participants:

Tradespersons, Demonstrators and Vendors

Olion Bare (arrows); Ted Batt (pottery); Jeff Bibb and Sheets (horns and leather products): Bethlehem Farm (goats and lambs, wool products); Buzzards Roost Antiques; Jim Call (photographer for dress up activity); Cane Creek Country Crafts (handcrafted folk art and paintings); Doris Cann (period clothing for dolls and children, and mob caps); Mike Crabill (historic maps); Aaron Driskill (cutting boards); Ric Davila (grist mill/corn grinder); Deniece’s Stained Glass; James River Association; R. A. and Sharon Flick (historical clothing and leather); Falling Acre Timber Framing; Patricia Foreman (Chickens and More, featuring “Oprah Hen-Free”); David Gillespie (stonecutting demos, gravestone etchings and 18th century sutler); Judi Harvey (mourning practices); Alice Higgins (chair caning and antiques); David Hoffman (understanding foraging); John Hoskins (hand hewn logs on Saturday, cider press on Sunday); Gene Hughes (Nelson County farmers and soldiers); Ted Hughes (master wagon maker and farm equipment restorer); Sherry Huffer (rabbits, spinning and knitting with rabbit fur); Hungry Hill Bee Farm (honey, honey bees with observable hive); Donna Kincaid (pottery); The Lofard Peddlar (period sutler): Lynchburg Parks and Recreation; Massie Family Stories; Doug MacLeod (flint knapper – Sunday only); Dian McNaught (primitive campsite); Mark McQuarry (soapstone master); Victoria Mattison (storyteller); Patsy Meyer (new and antique quilt sales and demonstrations with kids activity); The Nature Zone; Pat Nickolino (18th century-style broom maker); Virginia Lime Works (period building of an outside beehive and brick oven); Allan Raasch (photography); Jim Rhyne (primitive camping, Native American culture); Paul Saunders (Native American artifacts); Shanatara’s Soaps; Meg Smith (chair caning); Jannet T. Spearman (jewelry); Clinton Spencer (wooden bowls and lathe turned object – will demonstrate with a lathe); Feather Stein (bark baskets and gourds); Sunrise Forge (blacksmithing); Dee Tinsley (stones, jewelry, and the history of stones and minerals); Jewel Tumas (weaving); Penny Wilson (broom maker); Randolph Williams (walking sticks and wooden toys); Anita Wilkerson and Wymyns Wyrks (bird feeders); Paul Younger (basket maker).

Authors and Books

Tom Burford (“Professor Apple”); Lynn Coffee (“Backroads”) ; Rachel C. Deddens (“Cooking at the Hearth”); Nancy Marion (“Lynch’s Ferry Magazine”); Jessica Ward (“Food to Die For” and “Food to Live For” cookbooks).

Food and Drink

Albemarle Cider Works (bottled cider sales); Tommy Ashley (BBQ); John Brock (kettle corn and boiled peanuts); Ann Scott Cardwell (tacos and soft drinks); Catering by Claudia (vegetarian and finger foods); Chateau Z Vineyard; Chuck Wagon (dogs and burgers); Empirical Herbs (veggies, berries, and medicinal herbs); Kondo Jenkins (cakes and chocolate creations); Cindy Morris, jams, jellies, bread); Philippine Delight (Asian fare); Rhodes Creations (jams, jellies, herbal teas and baked goods); Rock Barn at Oak Ridge (smoked meat); Uncle Bob’s Self Storage (snow cones and cotton candy); Veritas Winery; Wymyns Wyrks (jams, jellies, relishes).

Historical Societies

Cabell Foundation; Nelson County Community Fund; Nelson County Historical Society; Old City Cemetery; Rockfish Valley Foundation; Wintergreen Performing Arts.

Artists and Craftsmen

Art Club and Blue Ridge Plenair; David and Ron Heath Jimmy Price (on the composition of bricks and mortar).


Kim and Jimbo Cary; Farm Use Band; David Frank with Root 2; Corbin Hayslett; The McKenzies; Nina Pinto and The Santa Marias; Proffit and Sandage; Riddle on the Harp; Jim Robertson; Rockfish Gap.

Children’s Activities and Period Games

Storytelling, rolling hoops, wagon rides, jacks, marbles, nine pins, cup and ball, checkers.

The 2014 Pharsalia Folk Life Festival will take place 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Saturday, May 17, and 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, May 18. The price of admission each day (there are no weekend passes) is $20 for adults and $7 for children. Kids under 6 get in free. Morgan recommends consulting MapQuest or Pharsalia’s own directions page rather than relying GPS directional systems to find the plantation.

The Folk Life Festival is just one of several events this spring and summer celebrating – and carrying on! – old-time folkways in Nelson County. The Grand Squares of Nelson will sponsor a Spring Flowers Square Dance on April 18 from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. at Rockfish River Elementary School, with a real live square dance caller, and line dancing during breaks. Refreshments will be served. A donation is requested at the door. The Grand Squares have hosted dances since 1985, and members have been invited to take part in a square dance scene in the movie “Altar Egos,” to be filmed April 23.

The 40th Annual Nelson County Fair takes place July 14 through July 19 at the Nelson County Fairgrounds on Route 31 East. A $10 daily ticket price provides admission for everything from clog dancing and cowboy mounted shooting, to the Miss Nelson County and Tiny Tots pageants and the Pig and Youth Market Lamb shows. Nelson County is remembering its history this year, and celebrating its culture. Tourists welcome!

by Ken Wilson

Posted In:     Magazines,Real Estate


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