A getaway that provides history lessons, quiet retreat and (maybe) ghosts
The stately, eight-columned Greek Revival mansion at the heart of the Berry Hill Resort and Conference Center in South Boston is full of stories, and some say, ghosts.
Berry Hill easily falls into the category of “Virginia’s best kept secrets.” Tucked out of sight from main roads, a long oak-lined drive leads to the mansion in Halifax County, a mile from the Dan River.
The plantation, a National Historic Landmark, is increasingly a destination for weddings, as well as conferences and weekend getaways.
As you walk around the estate, it’s easy to imagine a bustling farm operation. With the labor of at least 200 documented slaves, and probably many more, the plantation produced great quantities of tobacco, corn, wheat, oats, hay and livestock.
Remains of old stone slave quarters are scattered across the property, a poignant reminder of the people who made plantations possible. The French company that restored the estate to its former grandeur intentionally left the quarters in ruins to represent the crumbled institution of slavery, says Lealand Luck, the mansion’s 79-year-old tour guide.
The 650-acre property is part of an original 105,000-acre land grant given to William Byrd II, who surveyed the land between North Carolina and Virginia.
One of the better-known owners was Benjamin Harrison, one of the first governors of Virginia and signer of the Declaration of Independence. His son became the 9th president and grandson the 23rd president of the United States.
In 1769, Isaac Coles purchased the property, which had dwindled to 1,020 acres, and willed it to his nephew Gen. Edward Carrington, who built the first plantation house, with two “mini-mansions” on either side, around 1770.
The most significant history of the place, though, belongs to the Bruce family, the only family to live in the current mansion.
James Bruce was a pioneer in what were essentially chain stores providing needed merchandise to farmers and residents scattered throughout rural Virginia. Between 1802 and 1837, he owned or was the dominant partner in 12 country stores, several flour mills, a fertilizer-plaster factory, a commercial blacksmith shop, several lumber yards, a cotton factory and two taverns. He also owned 16 plantations and nearly 1,000 slaves.
When he died in 1837, James Bruce was the third wealthiest man in America, with an estate valued at nearly $3 million.
But it was his son, James Cole Bruce and his wife, Elizabeth “Eliza” Wilkins Bruce, who were responsible for creating the current mansion around 1840.
The mansion was literally built around the 1770 house and is stuccoed on three sides, leaving the back of the original house visible. A significant number of slaves would have been needed to construct and maintain the 17-room mansion, which took seven years to build.
Lealand Luck, a retired Halifax County agriculture teacher, has been giving tours since 1999, when AXA, a French insurance company, bought the estate and poured $33 million into the renovation of the mansion and the construction of an 88-room hotel and conference center.
AXA built the retreat for its executives, but in 2001, after the bombing of the World Trade Center, they abandoned the project. Several owners later, Dr. Charles Edwards, a spine surgeon from Baltimore, Md., is determined to keep the resort going with the help of 50 employees.
Luck credits Eliza Bruce for choosing the mansion’s model, the Second Bank of the U.S. in Philadelphia, Pa.
“She was a very particular woman about symmetry and balance,” Luck said, pointing out keyholes that don’t actually lock and doors that open into walls.
As visitors enter the front door, centered between the eight massive columns, they are greeted by a truly spectacular horseshoe-shaped staircase, one of less than a handful in the country. The mahogany railings grow shorter as you climb. The lack of visible support for the stairs has puzzled architects for decades.
Only two pieces of original furniture remain in the mansion, and they are centered in front of the staircase, a small marble-topped table and a chandelier that once burned whale oil.
The house, though, is elegantly furnished with period pieces and the original marble, which came from the same quarry in Italy where Michelangelo found the marble for his famous sculpture of David.
To the right of the entrance was originally the master bedroom, an unusual way to greet visitors. The room now serves as part of the Carrington Restaurant, which provides upscale dining Friday through Monday.
Upstairs are three guest bedrooms decorated as they might have been when the mansion was built, with the addition of indoor plumbing.
Indoor plumbing definitely messed up some of the symmetry of the mansion, and I speculated that Eliza might have been one of the ghosts who returned to haunt it.
But Luck said James Cole Bruce was so distraught when his wife died that he went to weep over her grave night after night, begging her to come back to him, even as a spirit. She never did.
Luck, however, believes there are other ghosts in the mansion.
“I hear footsteps,” he said. “I don’t like coming here at night. It’s spooky. The more you think about it, the worse it gets.”
Frederick Watkins, the car dealer who bought the estate in the 1950s, spent only a few hours in the mansion one night, and was chased out by a “lady ghost,” Luck said.
Sometimes water will run for 10 minutes in the middle of the night when no one is there, servant bells will ring and visitors’ shoes get moved, he said.
Having never seen a ghost, my travel partner Michael and I decided to return to the mansion for a nighttime visit, but it was bustling with people preparing for a wedding.
We ran into one worker who told us he had never seen a full-blown apparition, but saw shadows he couldn’t explain, as well as orbs that aren’t visible but appear on camera. He pulled out his phone to show us glowing white balls floating in the air along a back staircase.
Another photo was taken in Darby’s Tavern, now a pub and restaurant where we had eaten a tasty dinner of crab cake and jambalaya. The worker said he was renovating one of the rooms on a hot day when he suddenly felt an icy blast near his leg. He saw nothing, but took a photo that revealed an orb.
Michael and I headed upstairs to a darkened parlor and sat quietly on a corner loveseat. Our photos didn’t turn up any orbs, but we soon heard young people from a wedding party ascending the stairs and admiring the portraits in the hallway.
A young woman entered the room with her back to us, switched on the light. As she turned and saw us, she let out a blood-curdling scream. We couldn’t stop laughing. The groom came in and toasted us. “That was the best prank ever,” he said.
We had bumped into the groom’s mother, Becky Trkula of Fairfax, several times during the day of our September visit. At breakfast the next morning, the tale of our haunting was the primary topic of conversation.
Trkula said they learned about Berry Hill from a friend of the bride and couldn’t be happier with the choice.
“I think it’s a perfect place for a wedding,” she said. “The staff could not be more pleasant, accommodating and willing to help. I would call it an above-perfect venue.”
Berry Hill features 93 rooms furnished with antiques and sleigh beds or four-posted beds. A European spa, both fine and casual dining, hiking, swimming, tennis, biking, fishing and a variety of outdoor games including bocce, croquet and horseshoes are available.
Berry Hill Resort is located at 3105 River Road, South Boston. Call 434-517-7000 or visit berryhillresort.com for more information.