The Plains, Va. of the Flemings

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Harriot (13), Clarissa (18), an unknown friend, Roberta (23) and Mary (26) on the porch of the then Post Office and Telephone Exchange in about 1912
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Just across from the telephone exchange, on the north side of Main St. at the intersection with Fauquier Avenue, was a small stone store: the first building in town. It was flanked by the brand new “Bank”, which still exists today. This photo is circa 1910. 

The Corner Cupboard

The backstory to Roberta Fleming’s antique store and tea room is that, her sister Mary was an antique furniture enthusiast, to say the least. Her accumulation of antiques overwhelmed her household. Such a surplus was generated that she engaged her sister Roberta to sell off the excess, which conveniently allowed her to buy even more. As to the “tea” component, Roberta was an enthusiast of “little cakes”.

Roberta called it the “Corner Cupboard”. I do not know when it first opened or how many years it was in existence. I suspect the shop was opened sometime in the early in 20’s when Mary had the time, and the means, to indulge her passion for antique furniture.  Roberta would have been in her early 30’s.

Roberta (my sister) seems to think she might have a guest register that Roberta (my great-aunt) maintained at the shop. Maybe that will furnish some clues, if it can be found.  Mary also kept a book of all her antique purchases; what, when, where and how much. I believe that book tracked the current whereabouts of all the furniture. It might have some indication which pieces ended up at The Corner Cupboard. I wonder where that book is?

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This is the old Taylor homeplace, maybe the 2nd oldest building in The Plains, in c1910, the first location of the Roberta Fleming’s “Corner Cupboard” Antique and Tea shop. This log building was razed in 1940 to make way for the gas station on the NW corner of Main St. and Loudoun Ave. (the Middleburg Road).

The Corner Cupboard first opened in a log house known as “the old Taylor homeplace” at the corner of Main St. and Loudoun Ave. That house had been the home of a Dr. Taylor, who twice served as the town’s postmaster. It was built in 1836, and used as a hospital during the Civil War (everything left standing seems to  have been used either as a hospital or a headquarters at some time during the Civil War).  It was one of the very first structures in the town of The Plains; certainly the first one at that important corner. I wonder if Roberta owned or just rented? The building was razed in the early 1940’s to make way for a gas station.

Roberta Fleming’s artwork for The Corner Cupboard, by Kip Sparrow?

Roberta had a beautiful metal sign made for the shop. After it closed its doors, this sign was made into a fire screen that she had in her Wirt St. (Leesburg) house. My sister Roberta has this sign/screen now. There was also a framed, two panel, ink silhouette drawing (Kip Sparrow?). The first (left) panel had a slender young woman dragging her man by the hand up onto the porch of a store. There was a sapling of a tree he was trying to hang on to. The second panel has an old man straggling out of the store, loaded down with purchases, followed by a matronly woman, still directing with her umbrella. There is a large mature tree in place of the sapling. The metal sign was based on the first panel. (shown above)

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The Orange County Hunt on Main St. in The Plains c1919? The “Taylor” house is visible on the right, Clarissa Fleming is on the left

At some point, The Corner Cupboard moved a few doors up to a small building perched right on Main Street, catty-corner to the original shop. I believe this building had been built as an Attorney’s or a Doctor’s office. It was much smaller than the Taylor house. Perhaps by that point it was more tea room and less antique shop.

By the 1930‘s, Roberta Fleming was busy running the household at Green Mont and helping take care of her mother. If the shop was still open, the hours of operation must have been something other that 9 to 5. Perhaps it was just open at tea time.

I keep thinking of Mike Harris’s comment, and what a wonderful opportunity running a Tea Room would have been for Roberta; plying her clientele with “nice little cakes”. Now Roberta Fleming’s great-great-niece, Susan Jeffries, has Zig-Zag, a gallery/gift store, right across the street from the original site of The Corner Cupboard.

Lee Rust: The twin silhouette illustrations for the Corner Cupboard always had the name of Kip Sparrow associated with them in my memory. I don’t know if he actually made the metal sign.

Mike Harris: I think I vaguely remember Aunt Roberta’s shop being open when I was very young – probably about 1937 give or take a year or so. Perhaps I had heard about it so often that I thought I had been there.

The Plains School House

Elizabeth “Tish” (Skinker) Patterson was one of the major local characters; a peer of Clarissa and Harriot Fleming, another student at the Green Mont “school”, and, as I have heard tell, a bit of an imp and a rascal. She would tell me of instigating minor rebellions (or perhaps, jail breaks) with all the little “school”  girls running away from the teacher, off through the fields, all in their white dresses.

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Cora, Tom and Mrs. Charlotte Cochran with Elizabeth “Tish” Skinker c1906 at The Plains Town Hall, built by W. K. Skinker of Chetwood c1897. This building was on the site of the current Fleming shop in The Plains, called Zig-Zag. The town hall was relocated about a mile north of town in 1he 1920’s for use as the African-American school house

When I first started at Hill School in 1965, one of my class mates was Ann Skinker. She lived a bit further out O’Bannon Road from Green Mont, just past the Carver Farm, at “Chetwood”, the home of her great great grandfather, William K. Skinker. (Chetwood is now the home of S. W. J. Seager.)

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The Plains “High School” as it was known in 1907

At that time, The Plains School House was no longer in service. The local elementary school was then in Marshall, and the high school had been first moved to Marshall in the 1930‘s and then to Warrenton in the early 1960’s. My friend, Lance Albaugh, actually attended school in The Plains. The school was operated as an elementary until about 1965

It was converted to 8 apartments in the 1970’s. I  bought the derelict building in 1988 after a plan to turn the lot into 28 town houses failed.

Then I happened to meet Tom and Barbara Wolf. They were husband and wife harpsichord and fortepiano builders. They were currently operating out of an old firehouse in NW Washington DC but wanted desperately to get out of the city.  A deal was eventually struck where they would take the building, as it sat, for basically what I had in it. Neither of us has ever looked back.

The clutter of partitions and dropped ceilings were taken out, original ceilings and columns re-exposed, floors shined up and in they went. A perfect fit. I seem to remember that we later designed an attic apartment for them in the building.

Wolf Instruments have recently expanded into building double basses, the instrument that Tom was trained on at Interlochen Arts Academy and the New England Conservatory. The Wolfs are world renowned instrument makers; Imagine, harpsichords and double basses built right there in The Plains.

In an effort to eliminate all negative sounds (wolf tones) from his basses, they are signed: Thomas Andres, Bass Makers. (Andres is his middle name).

Tom Wolfe’s sense of humor

Grace Episcopal Church

This 1918 stone church was W. H. Irwin Fleming first major commission as an Architect. The building is set quite far back  on its rather small lot. The resulting church yard is quite commodious, while the rear of the church is crammed against the back of the property. The reason for this is that the 1855 Grace Episcopal Church, or, at least, most of it, was left standing to serve the congregation during the construction of the new church. Only the “chancel” was removed to make way for the front wall of the new church’s “nave”.

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The original Grace Church built in 1855 c1910

1000 wagon loads of stone were donated from local farms, including Robert, H. Downman’s Ravenscroft and the ruin of the Furcron Glebe House. Stones from other notable structures were included in the new church. Several foundation stones of the original 1855 Grace Church, as well stones from Lawrence’s “Old Tavern” (a scene of some wilder days) were included in the base of the new church’s bell tower.

The stone work is remarkable. It is said that Irwin Fleming brought in Italian stone masons to assist in the work. The resulting structure was beautiful, with its spare interior, the graceful and intimate proportions, subtle details and beautiful glazing. An extraordinary accomplishment for a young, 34 year old Architect.

When the construction was complete, the old wooden church was taken down. It must have made for a fantastic unveiling of the new church.

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Grace Episcopal Church c1918

In the early 1960‘s, when we were just spending summers and holidays in The Plains, there were Saturday evening square dances in the parish hall. I remember meeting the Dornins, Nan(cy) and Mary. Lee and I were always paired up with them for the Do-Si-Do’s. Swing your partner….. We did attend Sunday services, but I think it was sporadic. There was a Sunday school out back on a little piece of ground that had been tacked on at some later date.

While I was at Hill School, from 1965 to 1967 (with Nan and Mary Dornin), we went to Grace fairly regularly. Clarissa and Harriot felt strongly about being part of the congregation.Clarissa and Harriot were mainstays of the congregation. They always each drove themselves to church in their separate cars, and then sat together in what I think of as the Fleming pew.

In about 1998, the Vestry determined to improve on it’s existing classroom building (used for its Sunday School and activities like the noted annual Plains Art Show) and expand the parish’s administrative space. A  plan that had been developed, and was heavily backed by the vestry. After much argument and debate, of which I was a part, this plan was executed. Fortunately, Irwin’s church is strong enough to survive this addition (as you can probably tell, I am not a fan. I have somehow erased the name of the Architect from my memory).

Andrea and I went to a cello recital at Grace in 2015. It is an elegant sanctuary. As Mike Harris reminds me to point out, the North gable trio of windows are dedicated to Mary Elizabeth Lee Fleming, Harriot Jane Downman Fleming and Richard Bland Lee Fleming.

Several local Architects, including Julian Kulski and Charlie Matheson, have been inspired to research Irwin Fleming’s career. Julian even tried to write a book. There are about a dozen of his buildings in the area including another in The Plains, the Archwood (nee Ravenscroft) gate house c 1920. There just weren’t enough records to be found, and even fewer drawings.

The Plains Railroad Station

The Manassas Gap Rail Road had reached The Plains by 1852 and was extended to Salem (Marshall) within the next year. The first was on the Northeast corner of the intersection of Main Street and the tracks; the future location of the Piedmont Lumber Company. The brick hotel built directly across the tracks, with its own rail platform, dates from @1860. It was managed by Hugh Chinn, who came from an old Virginia family (like Chinn of Chinn’s Crossing, before the name was changed to Middleburg?) . I do not know if the Chinns actually built the hotel.

A more substantial wood frame passenger and freight depot was built by the Railroad in 1887. It remains today, although quite inconspicuously. Many of its original features have been removed, or covered over with a smooth coat of stucco. There is a photograph of Mary Fleming sitting on the edge of the platform of that depot c1908 in the article on Mary E. L. Fleming.

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the  (2nd) wooden depot c1910

There must have been a stuccoing frenzy during the 1930’s-1940’S. So many beautifully wooden clad buildings around town were masked in stucco, including the massive Chewning-Skinker Building at the town’s main commercial intersection.

The Chewning-Skinker Building, erected in 1915, was first occupied by Hulfish Hardware and the Chewning Drug Store. It had a rather intricately detailed wooden facade, although I never knew it in that state. (This was the building I remember, so eerily illuminated by a lightning flash. It was my first glimpse of The Plains in 1960; that first night we stayed at Green Mont; that rainy night I was stuffed through an open window, in the pitch dark, to find, and unlock, the front door.) That building housed Hatcher’s store when I first knew it. One of the proprietor’s had red hair and his eyes didn’t both point in the same direction. When he was addressing you, one eye was looking eerily past you; the sort of detail that sticks in the mind of a 7 year old.

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The Plains passenger and freight depot c1887 as viewed from the North
The wooden depot c1980

Fairfax Harrison built “Belvoir” in 1914(?), 2 miles outside The Plains to the South. He was also the president of the Southern Railroad system. Accordingly, a far more substantial brick passenger terminal was built in The Plains in 1916(?).

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The “brick” station ca. 1916 (from north)          The “brick” station 1980? saved (from south)

All train service to The Plains was ended by 1948. The earlier wooden depot was purchased by Southern States Farmers Coop, for $1000.00, and was still in operation as such when I first came to town. In later years it was a cabinet shop, and then an upholstery shop. The building appears vacant at the moment. At least, it doesn’t look like much is going on there. This area of Town has always been considered the Industrial zone.

I don’t recall any activity happening in the brick station at any point that I was in The Plains from 1960 through the late 1970’s, when the building was sold by the railroad for salvage. The dismantling had gotten as far as the removal of the roof tiles and sheathing before the combined efforts of Treville Lawrence and Charlie Matheson, d.b.a. Save the Railroad Station(?) managed to raise enough money to buy back the building and, more or less, restore the roof. I believe the railroad still owns the ground, but Save the Railroad Station was able to negotiate a long term lease. Since that time there have been a revolving group of artists and craftspeople who have been through there, including Fleming Jeffries. (I believe the building is terrifically difficult to keep heated.)

Currently there is an Air B&B apartment in the garret. Mike Harris has engaged it for the reunion.

The Fire

On February 21, 1967, at 2:45 PM, while coming down into The Plains, the breaks failed on a tanker truck carrying a load of gasoline and it crashed into a train, hitting a tank car loaded with flammable chemicals at a grade level crossing next to the lumber company and a coal storage yard, in a 30 mile per hour wind; film at 11:00.

I was headed home from school in that VW bus with Bob, Nan, Mary and little Bob Dornin, Steve Marzani, Catherine Adams and Celeste Adams. As we were departing Middleburg, a huge column of black smoke rose in front of us. You could tell that something terrible had just happened but, of course, we had no idea what it was. As we got closer to The Plains the sky was black. To make matters worse, the train involved was stretched across both rail crossings so there was no way to even enter town from the north. Bob back-tracked through Whitewood to head towards The Plains from the Marshall side to drop off Celeste and Catherine. This was our first look at the fire.

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3PM Feb. 21, 1967

The intensity and size of the fire compared to the primitive scale and nature of the town’s fire fighting equipment is hard to convey. Those largely volunteer firefighters did an amazing job of saving the surrounding buildings, and The Plains

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A Western view of The Plains. Even though this picture was taken c1910, with the exception of the new Grace Church building, this is pretty much how the town appeared just before the collision of the tanker truck and the chemical train at the lumber yard in February 1967. The Piedmont Lumber Co. stretched out along the tracks and the gambrel roofed Patterson apartment building with its ancillary structures that was the former Orange Count Hunt Clubhouse. The steeple of the old wooden Grace Church is visible in this picture. This is actually pretty much what The Plains looks like today

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The shaded buildings were lost to the fire. It is quite amazing that the volunteers were able to save the Chinn Hotel and the Cochran Lodge. Roberta pulled a glob of molten metal out of the ruins of the Patterson Building (The Orange County Hunt Club House).

I was never inside the old Orange County Hunt Club House. It was quite a significant shingle building with its stately gambrel roof. The smaller buildings behind it were, I assume, for the grooms and other hirelings. One or two of the small groom’s cottages, set along the boundary to Grace Church, survived the fire. When Grace Church expanded its building in about 2000, the Orange County Club House property became a parking area for the church property. One of these little cottages was repositioned and remains on the site. I believe much of the original stone wall along Main Street also remains.

The Orange County Hunt

Seeking warmer climes, allowing a longer fox hunting season, The Orange County Hunt Club (Orange County, New York) had settled in the Plains in 1903. Initially the wealthy hunt members were accommodated in their private railroad cars. Gradually they settled in and built local houses. One of these was Harriot Harper who had moved down from Geneseo, New York. Irwin Fleming designed a very beautiful home for her and her husband, Fletcher. It was called Friendship Farm (now called Salamander Farm) on Zulla Road.

William Skinker not only had a pack of hounds to sell to them when they arrived, he sold them one of his farms, “Windy Knoll”, as a site for their kennels. Then he sold them the land on which to build their club house. He was also Joint Master of the Orange County Hounds.

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The Orange County Hunt Club House c1907 (from the rear yard

The Piedmont Lumber Company

The Piedmont Lumber Company was rebuilt after the fire. A dairy barn across from the old rail stations was used as a temporary lumber yard while the new buildings were under construction. That building continued to be part of the Lumber Company for many years. The old barn is long gone. On the site, now, is the town’s first affordable housing project. Roger Williams died in the late 1980’s. His ex-wife Charlotte kept Piedmont Lumber going for a few years before finally closing its doors in @1995. Another victim of Home Depot. The building is now an office for the Ohrstrom family.

I remember driving to The Plains in the early 1960’s with Lee and my father in our 1931 Model A Ford pick-up truck to pick up a load of sand from Piedmont Lumber for the construction of the new driveway bridge at Green Mont. The old Piedmont “Yard” was a maze of old barns, sheds and lumber piles. Back in the far corner, next to the tracks, was the sand pile. An old tractor with a bucket loader gently placed 1/4 ton of sand in the back. The tractor was operated by a young Roger Williams, who, years later, would own the place. The truck groaned under the load. My father had a habit of overloading vehicles. Lee has a habit too. He has the truck.

Lee Rust: My recollection of that grey Saturday morning when we went with Dad in the Model A to pick up the load of sand is different from yours. It seems to me that the sand was shoveled out just inside the front gate of the yard at Green Mont to create a ‘sandbox’ play area for you and me, right under the linden tree that overhung the mounting block. I do recall playing with Tonka Toy trucks and the like in that location.

Henry Rust: I may be blending memories about the model A and the bridge, but the timing seems about right and I don’t remember any other construction project that was going on at that time that would have involved sand.

Lee Rust: I remember we unloaded the sand at the top of the driveway near the gate, for whatever reason. What year was it … 1961? Only 54 years ago. Who knows? It seems to me that the bridge construction project happened in 1962 when Bernie Lee was there. By the way, he’s the one who taught me how to drive a tractor.

O’Bannon Road

In thinking about the season of mud that accompanies the spring thaw in Virginia, I can only imagine how rutted and impassable the old dirt wagon roads must have been. I understand it was not uncommon for the wagon wheels to sink completely into the mud so that the axles would “bottom out” in certain spots. We’re probably talking about mud several feet deep.

O’Bannon was such a mud hole as it passed through the valley bottom in front of Green Mont that it was decided to move it 20 or 30 feet up hill (south) onto the Meade’s property. This was done sometime after 1900. The earlier road bed is still visible inside the Green Mont fence line. I wonder how people went about moving roads like that in those days; whether it was done privately or publicly? Clearly Green Mont picked up an acre or two at the expense of the Meades. I wonder if there was some municipality who determined the necessity for this or whether it was just worked out among the effected parties?

So when Robert Downman built a private “Macadamized” road system all the way from The Plains to Green Mont, it provided quite a considerable convenience for the Flemings. The alternative must have been horrendous in the wet season, or at any time of year for that matter

Back in the early 1900’s, O’Bannon Road was called the Thoroughfare Gap Road. This road predates The Plains and was a main route to “The Gap” from points west and south. The link, from what is now Route 55, that climbs “Headache Hill”, came into being some time after The Plains started to form in the late 1820’s. The traces of this early road are still visible, particularly as you crest the hill coming into town. This road would have been the Flemings’ principal access to The Plains prior to the construction of Ravenscroft’s internal road network.

With the advent of the automobile, this hill became an impractical route. A horse and wagon could make that muddy climb, although with some difficulty (thus the name of the hill), but automobiles had a much harder time of it. In the 1920’s, an improved road was routed along the railroad R.O.W. through Selby, approaching the town on Lee Street, thus avoiding the hill altogether.

After the construction of Rte 55 in 1938, the alignment was restored to the original route, up the hill, entering the town on Main St.  I have never walked the Selby-Lee Street route. I’d like to do that someday.

My father used to tell me of a sign that greeted you upon entering The Plains.

The Plains, Virginia
Public water system not approved

I need to write the story of that bridge.

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Isabelle and Henry Rust in front of the Cochran Lodge 1993

added April 21, 2018

The Fauquier Democrat: Thursday June 9, 1955 Anniversary Issue

I recently discovered the 50th anniversary issue of the Fauquier Democrat (now called The Fauquier Times) printed on Thursday June 9, 1955. Clarissa Fleming had made a scrapbook out of it so much of the fabric of the issue was not preserved, but there are quite a few highlights from The Plains. The article I share here was written by Lelia F. Turner.







Each town in the county, either incorporated or otherwise, was given a feature page. This aerial photo from the early 1950’s represented The Plains. The photo itself was not dated but the site is being prepared for the new home of The Plains Volunteer Fire Department. I’ll have to go look at the cornerstone tomorrow and see when it was dedicated; (1954).



Looking west toward the center of town: while the cars may have changed, the players have remained the same.




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