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(This article, by a distinguished historian of Southside Virginia, the late Virginia George Redd, was originally published in The Record of Hampden-Sydney College, Summer-Fall 1967)
On a slightly sloping knoll in nearby Halifax County, not too far distant from the town of South Boston, stands stately Berry Hill, the magnificent mansion house of James Coles Bruce.
A member of the class of 1824 at Hampden-Sydney, James Coles Bruce inherited Berry Hill Plantation from his father, James Bruce, who himself was a Trustee of the College from 1805 to 1830.
Soon after inheriting the plantation (which was once a portion of the lands owned by William Byrd of Westover) with its original red brick house and out-buildings, James Coles Bruce set about in 1839 to remodel the structure with the help of an architect friend, John E. Johnson. It was Johnson who was later to design Staunton Hill in Charlotte County for James Coles' half-brother, Charles Bruce.
So successful was the conversion of Berry Hill that today it is regarded as one of the finest Greek Revival mansions in America.
Overlooking a half-mile tree-lined approach, the Parthenon-like dwelling sits astride the crest of a hill within a stone-walled site of twenty acres. Eight large white columns set upon granite steps provide an imposing portico for entrance into the mansion proper. The main house is flanked to the left and right by an office and a schoolroom which James Coles turned into small scaled-down versions of the mansion with porticos of four columns.
Inside, twin stairways dominate the mansion's entrance hall. Curving as they approach the room's far wall, the stairs return and meet overhead just beyond the ceiling's center. Immediately behind the hall is the dining room with its original olive and gilt wallpaper still in place.
To the left of the entrance hall is a pair of drawing rooms, one of which served as the library. Windows from the library look out into a conservatory built at ground level to allow for the growth of large plants.
Upstairs, the bedrooms are low-ceilinged and spacious with those on the front of the house being reached by a bridge over the hall below. All together there are some twenty-five rooms in the house, including the servants' quarters which jut out from the rear of the building.
James Coles Bruce was a man of exquisite taste and refinement. His silver tableware (both flat and serving) was of his own design and included silver finger bowls and silver soup bowls. Silver was also used for the wash basin sets and the door knobs and door hinges.
In early life James Coles Bruce was elected to the General Assembly, shortly after the Nat Turner insurrection of 1831. A strong opponent of secession, he favored the gradual emancipation of the slaves.
Nonetheless, as the leading citizen of Halifax County, he was elected a member of Virginia's Secession Convention and finally, after Lincoln's call for troops, voted to cast his lot with the Commonwealth and the Confederacy.
On March 28, 1865 while the fighting around Petersburg signaled the beginning of the end of the Confederate forces, death came to James Coles Bruce at Berry Hill. He was buried by his wife, Eliza Wilkins, in the family cemetery not more than two hundred yards from the mansion house.
The Bruces had always been industrious and well-to-do people: beginning in seventeenth-century Virginia with George Bruce, who lived in the Northern Neck, down through his line to Charles Bruce of King William County, to Charles Bruce of Soldier's Rest, in Orange County, to James Bruce and James Coles Bruce of Halifax County.
It was for James Bruce, however, to build the great family fortune through the modern merchandising medium of chain stores.
His mercantile career began at the age of 16 in Colquhoun's store in Petersburg. Soon winning his employer's confidence, young James was sent to Amelia County to open a branch store.
After several years of partnership with Mr. Colquhoun, James Bruce decided that greater business advantages could be found in Halifax County. There he set up a system of stores throughout the county to supply the needs of the local planters. Business was good and James wisely invested the profits of his stores in land and tobacco.
At the time of his death in 1837, James Bruce was considered to be the third wealthiest man in America.
James Bruce's Trusteeship at Hampden-Sydney bridged the eras of the "Old College" and the "New College." Coming on the Board in 1805, just thirty years after the institution's founding, he served with many of those who had been Charter Trustees. And serving until 1830, he and many "second generation" Trustees helped to launch the college into its first development program, which saw the erection of Cushing Hall and the progressive presidency of the Episcopalian, Jonathan P. Cushing.
The early 1820's were a time of increased scientific inquiry. Enrollment was up and students were crowded 3 or 4 into a single room. There was an urgent need for the college to provide more and better accommodations for its students.
According to early insurance policies, the college buildings at that time numbered three. Other assets were its campus of approximately 120 acres and 48 shares of stock in the Bank of Virginia.
Under President Cushing's leadership, James Bruce and his fellow Trustees procured sufficient funds to commence construction of a new building. 187 feet long, 50 feet wide, and 4 stories high, this principal college building, later to be known as Cushing Hall, contained 48 rooms for students and 5 large public rooms. For years it was referred to as "the College."
Seven years after his Hampden-Sydney Trustee tenure had ended, James Bruce passed away. Surviving were James Coles Bruce by his marriage to Sally Coles and Charles, Sarah and Ellen Bruce by his marriage to Elvira Cabell Henry, his second wife being the widow of Patrick Henry, Jr. and the granddaughter of William Cabell, Sr. of Union Hill, Nelson County, another Charter Trustee of Hampden-Sydney.
Berry Hill remains today as a reminder of a by-gone era. But unlike a Tara or some other fictionalized plantation home, it is not ersatz, but real--ready for the present and prepared for the future. No silent Greek temple this, but a living memorial to the Bruce family and its descendants who, like Hampden-Sydney, are proud, not only of their past, but of their present day connection with the Old Dominion and its historic Southside.
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This page was last updated on August 20, 1998.