The “Ravenscroft” of Robert Henry Downman C.S.A.
Robert Henry Downman, younger brother of Harriot Jane Downman Fleming of Green Mont, was the second son of Robert Henry Downman C.S.A of Fauquier County, Virginia. Their family home was called Ravenscroft, a frame house located about a mile north of Remington, VA, and just across the road from “Layton Stone”, the home of his paternal grandparents, John Bartholomew Downman and Harriot Jane Downman (daughter of Joseph Ball Downman of Moraticco, so she was really a Downman, twice over). Sadly, the Dowman’s life at Ravenscroft with their, then, four young children was cut short by the coming war.
In 1858, the elder Robert Henry Downman (25) joined the newly organized Black Horse Cavalry. The unit was called out at the time of John Brown’s 1859 raid at Harper’s Ferry. It was their first military engagement. (The detachment of U.S. Marines sent to handle John Brown was led by Col. Robert E. Lee. Lee was no supporter of secession but after Virginia’s seceded in 1861, he resigned his commission in the U.S military and joined the Confederacy.)
After the Union Army had moved into lower Fauquier (1862?), Frances Scott Horner Downman (26) was forced to take refuge with her children in the home of a family friend, more removed from the fighting. They never saw Ravenscroft again. The house was torn down by Union troops and the lumber used to make a marquis for a ball for General Pope. At about the same time, Layton Stone was burned to the ground.
Robert Henry Downman (Sr.) served in the Confederate Army through the entire war. The day of the surrender at Appomattox, he was there as a Major on General W. H. F. “Rooney” Lee’s staff. Following his parole, he brought his wife and 5 children to live in Warrenton. Robert Henry Downman (Sr.) ultimately became Clerk of the Court in Warrenton and served in that capacity until his death in 1891 at the age of 58. I have seen his signature as Clerk of the Court on several of the Fleming deeds, including the Green Mont Deed. He and Frances had 8 children, but their eldest died weeks before his eighth birthday, just after the family had resettled in Warrenton.
There is a portrait of Robert Henry Downman at the Fauquier Courthouse, painted, after his death, from a photograph. He wears his Confederate uniform. His son, Robert Henry Downman, had the portrait painted in New Orleans, where he ultimately came to settle, and presented it to the town of Warrenton in April 1927.
The “Ravenscroft” of Robert Henry Downman Jr.
Robert H. Downman (Jr.) was educated at the Warrenton Academy and then attended the Agricultural and Mechanical College at Blacksburg (now Virginia Polytechnic Institute). In 1880, at the age of 19 he headed of to Texas to make his fortune, which he did. He made this fortune in lumber. He eventually became known as “the Cyprus King” and lived in apparent splendor in New Orleans with his wife Anne and their two daughters, Sadie and Virginia. They lived a high life, traveling extensively in Europe, summering in Connecticut, etc…but he always missed Virginia, and his favorite sister, Harriot.
In 1912, intending to set up a second home in his beloved Virginia, Robert H. Downman purchased some 1600 acres made up of 6 contiguous farms. This land adjoined the town of The Plains, Va to the North and virtually surrounded his sister’s farm, Green Mont.
Having spent my whole life around Ravenscroft, even though, by then, it was known as Archwood, I saw the evidence of the different farms that had been assembled and was always rather fascinated, imagining the time before the farm was assembled, much in the same way that I am fascinated by and always looking out for old abandoned roadbeds as I drive through the countryside. I like to imagine what was there before.
I remember seeing an illustrated map of Ravenscroft that showed the 6 farms that made it up, and had small renderings of the houses that it contained as well as their original farm names. I thought I had seen this map in Clarissa’s house in The Plains. I haven’t found that yet. But I have found a survey by C.D.S. Clarkson of Washington, D.C. dated July and August 1914. This survey was mapped by A. J. Negrotto of New Orleans, LA. It numbers the farms one through six, shows the locations of the various farm yards, fences streams roads and wooded areas as well as acreages of the fields and the names of the adjoining property owners.
Farm No. 1 backs up to the southern corner of the town of The Plains and contains the high hill top. This is where the main house sited by R. H. Downman was located.
Farm No. 2 continues southwest from The Plains, somewhat past the Route 66 intersection. This is the farm where the Archwood “Green Barns” are located. This property shares a long common boundary with Green Mont along on Broad Run. I remember my father referring to this farm as “Rock Valley”.
Farm No. 3 is located between Rte 55 and the Southern R. R. tracks. It extends east from the edge of The Plains approximately 1/2 mile where it adjoins the “Beverley” (now Selby) property.
Farm No. 4 continues from the eastern end of Farm No. 1, along Rte. 55 to O’Bannon Rd and along O’Bannon to where it meets the east side of Green Mont. I remember a grand house on this farm. That house was called “Beulah”. It burned to the groundin the 1980’s
Farm No. 5 fronts on O’Bannon Road opposite Farm No. 4. What I assume are the original house and barns are still evident. It continued to the “Meade” property, called “Glen Bolton”, the farm directly across the road from Green Mont.
Farm No. 6 has a narrow point of connection with Farm No. 5 and extends South up onto Pignut Mountain.
Ravenscroft: a few passages from the Downman book.
“Uncle Rob Downman had achieved his dream of buying the Welsh (Welch) land and other land which consisted of 1,600 acres and surrounded “Green Mont” on two sides. On this land on a wooded hill situated northwest of the house at “Green Mont”, he built his home which he called “Ravenscroft” after his father’s home.
Being a man of action, he had cut through the woods surrounding his house in order to see, without obstruction, from his home his well loved sister’s home, “Green Mont”. He also built a hard road in order to be able, in all weather, to come to see her. We must remember that Robert Downman’s family’s permanent home was in New Orleans, but he wanted a home in Virginia. He persuaded Henley and Frances Carter to leave Mt. Jackson, Virginia where they were living and come to superintend the building of “Ravenscroft” , which Frances did, and Henley managed the farm.
Uncle Rob Downman, liking his family history, wished to reach into the past and use a symbol significant to this history. The weathervane on the summer house on top of the hill at “Ravenscroft” was a raven.
When the entrance gate to “Ravenscroft” was being constructed, some bones were uncovered. During the Civil War, the Grace Church in The Plains, Virginia, had been used as a hospital and this spot had been the resting place of those who died. These bones were carefully laid in a new grave located to the right of the rear gate and was marked with a bronze tablet stating the reason that these bones were in this spot.”
Robert Downman’s wife, Anne, had never developed a fondness for life at Ravenscroft. And, Robert suffered severely from arthritis. During the late teens and early 1920s he was increasingly afflicted. His trips to The Plains became more and more infrequent. By the later 1920s he was, for the most part, confined to his house in New Orleans.
Because of his illness, Robert Downman found it necessary to sell his beloved Ravenscroft to Mr. H. Teller Archibald on April 30, 1928.
Robert Downman died just a month later, on June 2, 1928.
W. H. Irwin Fleming and Ravenscroft
I don’t know of the exact working relationship between Irwin Fleming and Robert Downman. Frances may also have had a lot to do with his involvement since she was overseeing all the construction (quite an unusual role for a rural woman in the early part of the 20th century). In any case, I can see his hand in many of the improvements that were being made. He certainly designed the stone gate house on route 245. I believe he also had a hand in the graceful stone bridge that traverses Broad Run on the route of the internal macadamized road to Green Mont (a paving technique developed by a man named MacAdam). There were beautiful stone gate posts and watergates throughout Ravenscroft. I tend to attribute everything on the place that is made of stone to Irwin, but, of course, he may have had nothing to do with all of those.
I have often wondered why Ravenscroft was not graced with one of Irwin’s beautiful stone houses. The gate house is so tantalizing, one can only imagine what the accompanying main house might have been. To my knowledge, Irwin had no involvement with the frame house built on the top if that hill. I believe that was designed by an Architect from New Orleans.
Note: The stone for the new Grace Church, W. H. Irwin Fleming’s first significant architectural commission, was donated from several local farms. One of the contributors was Ravenscroft; the stone from which supposedly had a particular greenish cast. The construction of the new church was taking place right at the time Robert Downman was developing Ravenscroft.
August 1967 letter from WFR Jr.
“(Robert Downman) and his sister, my grandmother, thus had adjoining farms and did not engage in boundary disputes, although my grandfather did deed him some property, for $1.00, to straighten out his line near the public road. This is duly recorded.
The Green Mont swimming hole (1912) with a flock of Flemings and friends. This spot is located on Green Mont, on a one acre parcel that was separated from the main body of the farm by the construction of Route 66.
Robert Downman built the dam on Broad Run, on Green Mont property, partly as a recreational asset for his relatives and partly to supply water to a concrete water trough, still standing in his adjoining field. The field had no access to water for stock, as all of Broad Run was inside Green Mont in that vicinity. (HLR Note: With these particular Flemings in that swimming hole, the dam must have been one of the first improvements that Robert Downman undertook when setting up the farm.)
With the sale of the farm to Mr. (H. Teller) Archibald (the Fannie Mae candy heir) in 1928, the name was changed to “Archwood”. Mr. Archibald had a fairly impressive racing stable. All of Mr. Archibald’s race horses had “Candy” in their name.
I have no knowledge as to when H. Teller Archibald died leaving the farm to his wife, Dorothy. Nor do I know when Stetson Coleman, her next husband, came on the scene (by 1948?). I never met any of them. I do not believe Stetson Coleman was still alive when I moved to The Plains in 1965. I do know that Dorothy (Archibald) Coleman, through both of her marriages, kept the Ravenscroft house essentially as it was in 1928. At some point along the line the two flanking porches were enclosed.
in the early 1980’s, the Archwood land was briefly leased to a corn farmer from Hamilton, Va by the name of Donald Virts. Don Virts approached me about renting my barnyard with its large corn drier, installed by the Beasleys, and its many silo’s. We didn’t do any business, but I remember his demeanor perfectly. He seemed perpetually exhausted by the magnitude and financial weight of his operational debt. But bigger always seemed to be better to him. He wore a cowboy hat, drove a huge black Ford pick-up and had some very large tractors an harvesters.
One day I was driving in O’Bannon Road (aka Rte. 698) and noticed that one of the beautiful stone gate posts with their sweeping sidewalls and “ball” finials were completely gone with only gashed earth to mark that they had ever been there. A half mile further down the road, I came upon a giant bulldozer preparing to take out the last one; the one that leads to the beautiful stone bridge. My then sister-in-law Wendy converged on the scene from the opposite direction and we both proceeded to throw ourselves between the bulldozer and this last stone gate. We won the standoff and the dozer driver rumbled off, cursing.
When I spoke with Mr. Virts about this later, he said that they were knocking them out so that they could get their combines in and out of the fields easier. There probably wasn’t even anyone’s permission to get at that point. He was just taking them all out. These particular gates didn’t even go into fields that he was planting. He had just told the machine operator to take out the stone gates. I asked Don why he had not just put in new gates through the wire fence next to the old stone posts. That way he could have avoided the expense of the bulldozer. I don’t recall his answer. Not sure he even heard me.
Dorothy Coleman’s estate left Archwood to Texas A & M who, not too surprisingly, had no real use for the property. Serdan Hansa Lloyd Co., a Belgian Holding Company, purchased the land from them. Their interest was merely land value speculation.
By the early 1980’s, the pressure on the area by developers was intense at that time. The undeveloped interchange at Little Georgetown loomed at the back of everyone’s mind. “Till” Hazel was perched on the mountain, seemingly ready to pounce on any opportunity. Archwood looked like a very ripe target.
My friend and neighbor, Andrea Currier, quietly stepped up and acquired Archwood (in the mid 1980’s?) and has been fostering its well being ever since. Wakefield School now occupies the top of the hill. Their administrative are in the main house. The “Green Barns” continue to grow and evolve as a regional organic farmers market . And, the Irwin Fleming designed stone gate house is happily occupied, and well cared for. I love my neighbor.
Lee Rust: I’ve never known any more than isolated fragments of the Ravenscroft story. It appears the Downmans were the authentic Fauquier natives and the Flemings were the Yankee carpetbaggers.
Although I can’t really identify anybody in the swimming hole photo (which I’ve never seen before), it’s clear that the picture was taken in mid-July since the hillside in the background is lined with rows of shocked wheat, ready for threshing.
Henry Rust: The only person that I can almost certainly recognize in the “Swimming Hole” photo is Irwin Fleming, and he’s probably addressing Mary. This dates the photo to 1912; and I am pretty sure that is Clarissa near the dam on the left. The rest are just suggested by context and relative ages.
Mike Harris: Was the ‘old swimming hole’ down in the corner that was cut out by the interstate? I vaguely remember splashing around somewhere down there, dodgeing cow pies and pulling off leeches. That all seemed perfectly normal at the time.
I think that Lee has nailed the unspoken family truth regarding Fauquier Natives and Carpet Baggers …. Everyone knew it, but the focus was always shifted to The Lees.
Our own variety of The Emperor’s New Clothes .
All of this material re Ravenscroft/Uncle Rob Downman is priceless! I can only add one snide comment.
Mrs. Archibald was a wealthy woman when she married J.D.Stetson Coleman. The Aunts, Clarissa and Harriot, always referred to her as Mrs. Archibald or,later, as Mrs.Coleman. Although I am sure they must have been guests in each other’s homes, the relationship was rather distant and formal.
Coleman asserted himself as Captain J.D.S.Coleman, U.S.M.C., Ret. I found that a tad pretentious, considering the fact that Company Grade Officers did not carry their rank into retirement, plus the fact that there were plenty of Colonels and a few Generals around who did not flaunt it.
All of which came to a head one day when I, all of age 14 or 15, was almost run down while walking across the west meadow between Homewood and Green Mont. The fact that I was carrying my .22 rifle did not help the situation. J.D.Stetson and Mrs. Coleman roared up to me in their Jeep to demand that get I off the property, and as an afterthought, who was I. With all the bravado of a young teenager I informed him that I was Anne Fleming’s son, and that I had been walking across this meadow all my life.
That little bit of brash smart-ass rejoinder did little to defuse the situation; however the Fleming connection resonated well with Mrs.Coleman who told her husband to chill. So off they went in a cloud of dust. To my knowledge we never crossed paths again
That’s all I can add to the Ravenscroft/Archwood Manor chapter,except one more gratuitous comment: “Ravenscroft” has a good ring to it; “Archwood” would be far less pretentious without “Manor”. Whatever.