Historic Gardens of Virginia

By Mrs. Ellen Bruce Crane

The story of Berry Hill would require volumes to tell. We give you an extract from one of the most honored volumes on Virginia history, "Historic Gardens of Virginia," which gives one of the earliest deeds to be drawn for the transfer of "Berry Hill" and explains its later becoming a part of the Bruce holdings in Virginia. The deed itself was drawn in his own handwriting by Thomas Jefferson and is now preserved in the archives of the University of Virginia.

The extract from the "Historic Gardens of Virginia" was written by Mrs. Ellen Bruce Crane of Historic "Westover" on the James River.

Berry Hill, the home of Malcolm Graeme Bruce, in Halifax County, is one of the historical places in Virginia. It first came into possession of the family about 1769, as shown in the following deed.

This indenture made on the (illegible) day of November in the year of our Lord one Thousand seven hundred and sixty nine. Benjamin Harrison of Berkley in the county of Charles City on the one part and Isaac Coles of the county of Halifax on the other part witnesseth that the said Benjamin, in consideration of eight hundred pounds current money of Virginia to him in hand paid, doth grant bargain and sell to the s'd Isaac and his heirs one tract or parcel of land in the county of Halifax containing one thousand and twenty acres lying on Dan River and bounded by the several lines and boundaries mentioned in a plot and survey thereof made by one Thomas Jones of the county of Prince George; the said one thousand and twenty acres being parcel of a larger tract formerly the property of the honorable William Byrd and by him sold and conveyed to Richard Bland Exqr. by indenture bearing date the sixteenth day of April one thousand seven hundred and fifty one; to have and to hold the said tract of one thousand and twenty acres with all the appurtenances thereunto belonging to the s'd Isaac and his heirs forever, and the s'd Benjamin for himself and his heirs doth covenant with the s'd Isaac and his heirs that the s'd Benjamin and his heirs the s'd tract or parcel of land to the s'd Isaac and his heirs shall and will forever warrant and defend, In witness whereof the s'd Benjamin hath hereto subscribed his name and affixed his seal on the day and year first above written.
Berry Hill Garden
Benj. Harrison. (Red Seal)
Signed, sealed and delivered in presence of :
Ro. C. Nicholas
Edm'd Pendleton
J. S. Mercer
Proved by 2 Witnesses
Fully proved & to be Reco'd

Recorded & Exe'd
Virginia Jct's
At a General Court held at the Capital the 5th day of May 1770.
This Indenture was proved by the Oaths of Edmund Pendleton and James Mercer witnesses thereto and on the seventh day of the same month the said Indenture was proved by the Oath of Robert Carter Nicholas Esq, another witness thereto and ordered to be Recorded.
Teste---Ben Waller, Cl, Cor.'t. The several hands through which the estate passed from Colonel William Boyd, of Westover, were Richard Bland, Benjamin Harrison, Isaac Coles, the Bruce ancestor; General Edward Carrington, and to his first cousin, James Coles Bruce.

The original house of red brick was built by Isaac Coles and had a garden enclosed by a brick wall. These were replaced by James C. Bruce in 1839, but the original box hedges, thirty feet high, oaks and other trees remain. The grounds consisted of twenty acres, surrounded by a stone wall, with a lilac hedge on the inside. The garden of ten acres required a trained gardener, and sometimes forty men were brought in to keep it in order.

Mrs. James Coles Bruce, grandmother of the owner, was a great lover of flowers, and she collected foreign as well as native flowers and shrubs for her garden.

Gravel walks sixteen feet wide led through the garden and separated from each other grass plots sixty feet square. These were bordered with flowers to a width of six feet. A large, round bed marked the center of the garden and roses bloomed all through it--the moss and the cluster, Giant of Battles, Shamrock, microphylla, the Harrison and the Blush.

Leading to the grounds was an Ailanthus avenue one-half mile long. This Ailanthus, or Tree of Heaven as it was then called, was an imported tree, not indigenous to the United States, and was considered very rare.

The pictures give a better idea of the house than I can and show the beauty of proportion, lines, and extreme simplicity. One wonders at the result from a home architect. I think my grandparents had a great deal to do with the building and no doubt received help from an intimate friend of theirs, John E. Johnson, who was noted for his good taste.

The names of many faithful servants were associated with Berry Hill. "Uncle" Aleck, the butler, was noted for his honesty and strength, and never told an untruth. During the War Between the States, he asked not to be told where the silver was buried, as he could not be unfaithful to his master, nor could he lie. And when one of the enemy stole his master's watch, this faighful servant took it from him. There were three generations of butlers and three of cooks at this house. The cook during my fathers life was very black and claimed his ancestor was a king.

My grandfather, though a Union Man at the beginning, had four sons in the Confederate service, losing two of them, so he felt the war very keenly. When he heard the enemy was approaching, he left his home and ordered the butler to fire the house rather than have it fall into their hands. My father, Alexander Bruce, who was trained at the Virginia Military Institute under Thomas J. Jackson, afterwards General Stonewall Jackson, collected all the men at home on leave or unfit for service and held Staunton Bridge, which prevented the enemy from coming through. Needless to say, when my mother used to tell me about it when I was a child, I felt it was the most important battle of the war, just as I thought the Presbyterian Church in Lexington, Virginia, the largest in the world. My grandfather, James C. Bruce, died the day Lee surrendered, and said he took a grim satisfaction in leaving the world on the day that meant the death of his class. General Merritt, one of the youngest Federal generals, was stationed at Berry Hill after the surrender.

After the war, my father, Alexander Bruce, felt it would be impossible to keep the garden as it should be kept, so he had it removed, and trees set out matching the rest of the grounds, leaving only the box, crepe myrtle and other shrubs, removing all the walks and flower beds, though my mother and sister were in tears at the thought of having to give it up. But there still remain quantities of jonquils, hedges of box, and interesting flowering trees and shrubs. Many think the place was improved by removing the garden and the cedar hedges, which divided the flowers from the vegetables; these hedges also separated the vegetables from the park, and the park from the orchard. The pictures will give some idea of the place as it now is, with the house in the center of peonies, snowballs, smoke trees, magnolia, Japan apples, flowering apples, crab apples, jasmines, honeysuckles on frames, crepe myrtles, dogwoods, Roses of Sharon, ?ringe trees, red buds and many ___. Every tree had something planted beneath to come up in the spring, such as double and single jonquils, hyacinths, snowdrops, peonies, or narcissi.

This information is was originally published in The South Boston News, 8/23/49,
and provided by The South Boston-Halifax County Museum of Fine Arts and History
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This page was last updated on August 16, 1998.