A Self-Guided Tour of Chatham compiled by Mrs. F. H. Hurt
Chatham, which has been making history since 1777, is called the prettiest little town in Southside. Travelers on Highway 29 cut off to drive down Main Street to revel in great old Victorian houses set back among trees, and to marvel at a public courtyard which has become a garden. It boasts a little fountain with benches for visitors to rest upon as they read background notes such as this.
Springtime is a dream, as some 2500 tulips and bowers of dogwood are blooming, set out by the Chatham Beautification Committee which has won many awards from Keep Virginia Beautiful, including the most beautiful town in Virginia. Hundreds of red geraniums blaze throughout the summer, giving Chatham the most unusual heart-of-town view in Virginia.
Because it is small and courteous and relaxed, where natives speak to strangers and men tip their hats, it is ideal for strolling and shopping.
Because Chatham boasts only 1400 lucky souls, fascinating places are easy to walk to. Any merchant in town will help with information, if needed, as will the Pittsylvania County Chamber of Commerce, located at 38 North Main Street. This small jewel of a town is set in the largest county in Virginia - Pittsylvania, with some 56,000 population.
Let's begin our walk in front of the charming old Pittsylvania Courthouse with its great white ashtrees, old boxwood and sweep of green lawn.
Pittsylvania County Courthouse
3 North Main Street
National Register of Historic Places
This Greek Revival structure built by L. & L.M. Shumaker is the "new" courthouse -- the county's third. Its first court buildings are located at Callands, some 11 miles from Chatham. It was the center of action in 1767 when Pittsylvania was cut from Halifax County. When the still vast unmanageable county was further reduced in 1777, a new and central court site was necessary. This turned out to be Cherrystone Meeting House Spring, borning Chatham. The old spring still bubbles in the ravine below Depot Hill. Cherrystone Meeting House seemed to have served as courthouse until 1782 when a fine new brick courthouse was built on the site of the present Chatham Baptist Church.
As time passed, business in the original Cherrystone Spring location began to dry up. Business always followed court. Twenty-five years later, in 1807, the disgruntled merchants in Cherrystone bottom charged that the courthouse move was illegal. Emotions ran so high that the dispute was taken to the General Assembly. It ruled that, inasmuch court had been held in the challenged courthouse for 25 years, it would remain the courthouse, and that henceforth this disputatious little town should be called Competition. So it was, until 1874, the Assembly then relented and its name became Chatham. The lovely interior has been restored, funded by the U.S. Department of the Interior through the Virginia Historic Commission. A landmark decision came out of a case here, Ex Parte Virginia, which ruled that no one may be excluded from jury duty for reason of race. For this reason, it is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Town Hall (1898)
16 Court Place
Built by Judge James L. Tredway, this splendid brick home, now Town Hall, adapted ideally for municipal and police offices. Its purchase in 1978 was partly funded by public subscription as it was in danger of becoming a parking lot.
It continues to enjoy public support as funds from the town's annual "Christmas in Colonial Chatham" are used to refurbish it. Also citizens have created a lovely wooded park back of it at no cost to the town. The Chatham Lions Club erected a picnic shelter much used for family and civic gatherings. A picturesque gazebo and picnic tables attract crowds each spring to the Picnic-in-the-Park held by the Chatham Garden Club. The plantings of azaleas and rhododendron as well as the flowerbeds are the gift of the Chatham Beautification Committee which also maintains them.
16A Court Place
Virginia Historic Register
Directly behind Town Hall and in front of the park is the 1813 clerk's office, now restored, by the Pittsylvania Historical Society. The square section on the right is original whereas the L-shaped section is restored. It had been torn down but the original plans were found by the late Judge Langhorne Jones in court records so the restoration is authentic, guided by the Virginia Historical Landmarks Commission which also matched local funding. Its dogtooth corbel at the cornice is striking - - four rows of set-back brick at an angle.
In the Callands Clerk's office and Courthouse, that corbel has the bricks laid straight-on.
This clerk's office houses a small but intriguing museum. Among its artifacts are many from the Civil War and some from the American Revolution.
7 Court Place
Just cattycorner from Town Hall is a lovely clapboard dwelling whose builder triggered the Courthouse Wars of 1807, described in the account of the present courthouse.
He was Richard Johnson who gave the land where the Baptist Church now stands for a courthouse. This replaced the courthouse accommodations in Cherrystone Bottom. He was paid fifty cents for the transaction. At first the new courthouse was not challenged but when business in the bottom dried up a strong-arm political leader named William Clark charged that the move was illegal. Accounts of the verbal explosions are fascinating.
Johnson's original house – two rooms up, two rooms down – served as the core of present dwelling. It was bought in 1832 by William H. Tunstall of the county family which held the office of county clerk for four generations. It became the home of John Hunt Hargrave in 1885, and arrived at its present appearance through the years. It is owned by Hargrave descendants, Mrs. Hunt Nenon, Jr. and Virginia Oswalt.
Chatham Baptist Church
12 Court Place
Across Court Street from the Tunstall-Hargrave House stands the Chatham Baptist Church, recently expanding into a large fellowship hall with classrooms.
The present church with its Gothic windows and steeple was built in 1889, replacing the church's first building in 1857 which was located at the intersection of North Main Street and Military Drive. Its lovely rose window is lighted at night.
Its unusual chandelier has a story of its own. When the first church was torn down, the chandelier appears to have been abandoned, for it was found in the 1970's leaning against the back of a country store by Madalene Vaden (Mrs. Haile) Fitzgerald. The church had it restored and now it again graces the sanctuary.
Virginia's Only Street Car Diners
19 South Main Street and 1 Depot Street
Now from the clerk's office you need to return to Main Street and turn right. Walk one block to Pruden. On the corner of Main and Pruden, you will see one of Virginia's only two street car diners. The other one is a block south, on the corner of Main and Depot. There are only 20 such diners in the United States.
The diner on Pruden has been meticulously restored, now bearing the name of Gardner's Diner. Originally No. 66, it hauled Danvillians until retirement, when it was bought by the Burnett brothers around 1939. They were celebrated for their hot dogs.
The Depot trolley, named Streetcar Named Desire, is the smallest diner among the approximately 20 in the United States. It was purchased by Bill Fretwell in 1937 from Duke Power Co., in Reidsville, N.C. He, too, was a chili master. The Burnett recipe lodges in a safe deposit box while Bill Fretwell is said to have turned down $1,000 for his. Each family believes to this day that its chili recipe was the best.
Dioramas of the American Revolution
The Famous Race to the Dan, Pittsylvania County Cultural Center, 37 Pruden Avenue
From Gardner's, walk straight down Pruden about three blocks to the Pittsylvania County Cultural Center. Remarkably, it houses a planetarium, a wonderful resource for learning and diversion.
Here you will also find five dioramas – miniature scenes in three dimensions. The backdrop has been painted by county artists and the foreground created by members of the Pittsylvania Historical Society.
The Race to the Dan is a classic for militarists for, with the Race, General Nathanael Greene outwitted Lord Cornwallis. Greene had only a ragtag barefoot hungry piece of army; Cornwallis, disciplined professional soldiers. He had conquered all before him in the Carolinas, until he met Greene. After the American disaster at Camden, N.C., Greene had established a Camp of Repose on the PeeDee River in South Carolina to try to feed and train his troops. They had fled like rabbits before Cornwallis when their leader, Gen. Gates, giving no orders, took to his heels. Now Lord Cornwallis was after Greene.
The story is enthralling. Greene later returned to battle Cornwallis at Guilford, N.C. when he fled to save his troops. This is credited as a key to Cornwallis' eventual surrender at Yorktown because, before leaving the Guilford field, Greene virtually massacred Conwallis' army Each diorama has its own narration. They have been displayed in a number of cities, including Yorktown.
Chatham Hall (1894)
800 Chatham Hall Circle
Look directly east to the far hill and you will see one of Virginia's outstanding girls' preparatory schools. Its lovely campus, a bower of dogwood in springtime, boasts a 350-year-old oak and St Mary's Chapel of exquisite architecture. Its glowing stained glass windows are of strong women. The school also has a beautiful state-of-the-art library and outstanding stables. Georgia O'Keefe was an alumna.
By now you probably wish you had a car. Or maybe you do.
Hugh Wier House (1835)
25 Lanier Avenue
Return to the bottom of the hill and turn right, making a left turn one block away at Lanier Avenue. Up the hill on the left stands one of Chatham's most beautiful homes – a fine old brick built by Hugh Wier, a merchant. Originally the grounds extended from Main Street down the hill to Tanyard Branch. It was restored from virtual ruin by Mr. and Mrs. Reginald Kenney. Note the extraordinary handsome entrance with double doors and fanlight. Its mantels and wainscoting are outstanding. It is owned by Mr. and Mrs. Phil Mauger.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church (1844)
Corner of Main and Church Streets
Continue up the hill to Main Street. Stop and look left. You'll see a pretty little mini-plaza with a fountain. It was a gift of the Chatham Rotary Club. In front of you will be the modified Gothic Episcopal Church. Of tan brick, a striking interior of true carpenter Gothic. Its treasure is its windows – Tiffany. Their color is somewhat subdued by the necessary protective coating.
Chatham Presbyterian Church (1886)
66 North Main Street
Continue north on Main Street. On your left you will see a gray-blue structure trimmed in blue – the Chatham Presbyterian Church built on the exact site of the first little church built in 1846. It was carted off to the country to give others a chance to become Presbyterians. The recently restored rose window is lovely, but the pride of the church is its Moller organ. Purchased in 1912 from a church in Pennsylvania, it is considered a very fine instrument. It is insured for $250,000.
Watson Memorial Church (1997)
132 North Main Street
Replacing its century-old frame church which the congregation had outgrown, Watson Memorial Methodist church stands next to the Presbyterian church as it has for more than a century. The new building is of traditional American church design. It is of white brick which throws into relief the old stained glass windows saved from the former church.
The Oaks (1832)
215 Gilmer Drive
Look north along Main Street and you will see Gilmer Terrace, the little park maintained by the Chatham Garden Club. Facing town on the north side of the park is the Oaks. Notice how Main Street hooks around the park? It's really hooking around the Oaks, due to the clout of its builder, Dr. Robert Coles. Main Street was originally the stage road with nary a hook in it, but Dr. Coles chose the location for his house and officially arranged for the hook. It still gives a great view of the Town. It is owned by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Hurt.
The Richard White house
216 North Main Street
Just across Main Street from the Oaks is the charming little house built by Dr. Richard White, fellow physician and racing crony of Dr. Robert Coles from whom he bought the land. An early resident says the first section was built in 1810, but the official date for the second section is 1837. Close inspection reveals differences in the left side and right side, in width of clapboards and size of windows. The attic clearly displays how the sections were joined. Long the home of Stanhope S. Hurt, Pittsylvania clerk of court for 62 years, it was also the long-time residence of the P.J. Hundley family. It is once again in the Hurt family - Mr. and Mrs. Robert Hurt.
Hargrave Military Academy
200 Military Drive
Turn left a few yards and you will be on Hargrave Boulevard with Hargrave Military Academy crowning a hill to your right. It is bursting at its seams with over 400 cadets drawn to it by its balanced program of academics, military training and sports. Its latest drawing card is the Onishi-Davenport Aquatic Center, a stunning Olympic size pool where trials are held for the Junior Olympics. It also offers outstanding football, basketball, baseball and soccer.
The imposing Owen Cheatham Chapel is generously shared with the town. The pool is open to Chathamites at stated times. The school is Baptist affiliated.
If you turn left on Hargrave Boulevard, you will be on Military Drive where you will pass the Pittsylvania County Library. Built in 1990, it combines new books with valuable genealogical material. Its treasure is a statue by Anna Huntington Hyatt, the Charioteer.
A right turn on Whittle Street brings you to the oldest street in Chatham, a dead-end, full of sleepy charm.
Sims-Mitchell house (1870)
242 Whittle Street
Built soon after the Civil War in Italianate villa style by Col. William E. Sims, the house was opened as bed-and-breakfast in 1975 by Henry and Patricia Mitchell. It has more than enough room - - 15 rooms including a ballroom and 11 fireplaces. The Mitchells restored it with profound respect for its construction - - brick kilned on the place, shiplap siding, horsehair-based plaster, and ornate medallions. It boasts a raised English basement and a story-and-a-half window bay.
The Mitchells also offer the little cottage next door for families.
214 South Main Street
Back on Main Street, turn right some two blocks to an imposing white-columned residence featuring a lovely curved porch. It was built in 1897 by William Marshall Tredway but sold to Joseph Whitehead when he married Ruth Tredway. It is now owned by Fred and Sandra Turner.
The foyer reflects the columned exterior with six columns of its own with original stained glass over the stairway. Double-mantels adorn three of the seven fire-places.
Standing on four-and-a-half manicured acres, the house offers six guest rooms furnished in antiques. It also boasts a small tea room offering guests home-made muffins and cinnamon coffee.
It has long been a guest home, dating from depression days. It became well known during the 20-year ownership by Nelson and Joan Motley, continued by the Turners.
House of Laird
335 South Main Street
The epitome of elegance, the House of Laird has been featured in leading magazines on country inns. The Greek revival house of 1884 has served as a bed and breakfast with three guest rooms and a suite. In addition to the home, the property features beautiful gardens.
42 Franklin Place
Further south on Main Street, on the opposite side from the House of Laird, sits an imposing house from 1837 owned and restored by Cmdr. and Mrs. Richard W. Arey. It presides on a hill overlooking life along the thoroughfare.
It features fine details such as its fanlight of leaded glass over the entrance door and plaster ceiling moldings.
Of special interest is the early dependency of beaded clapboard in the yard which was the office of Dr. Rawley White Martin who bought the estate in 1873.
223 Main Street
Now it's time to do an about-face and head north on Main Street. Behind a picket fence on the right is a small cottage replete with many features from earlier days. It was originally the home of Lovell Keatts and his sister. Mr. Keatts was a hatter.
125 Reid Street
Bear to the right of the traffic island and head into Reid Street. On the right rests perhaps Chatham's most charming residence -- a Swiss Gothic cottage rich in gingerbread and finials. Swiss-Gothic enjoyed great popularity during these years with magazines featuring floor plans.
At this point, the in-town points have been covered. Your next step depends on where you left your car or if you are hungry or thirsty. If you continue up Reid street, you will once again meet Pruden at the old movie theatre. The Pittsylvania County Cultural Center will be to your right and Main Street is up the hill to the left. To return to the Courthouse, go to Main Street and turn right.
Several restaurants are also located on Main Street, so one short-cut is to turn left on Pitt Street which will take you up to Main, emerging next to the Post Office. Turn right to begin your perusal of dining establishments.
1037 Chalk Level Road
One mile from Main Street Chatharn, set among the grand white oaks, you'll discover Eldon. Formerly a stately southern tobacco plantation, this elegant 13 room manor house with nine fire places was built by James Murray Whittle and named for an admired British jurist, Lord Eldon. This lovely home served as the summer retreat for Claude Swanson, Secretary of the Navy for Franklin D. Roosevelt and former Governor and Senator. Eldon was lovingly restored by innkeepers Joy and Bob Lemm in the 1990's to include a restaurant and all the comforts of the finest country inns.