- “Tell me where were you born, and who your father and mother were.”
“Never was born,” re-iterated the creature more empahatically. “Never had no father, nor mother nor nothin’”
“…Have you ever heard anything about God, Topsy?” The child looked bewildered, but grinned as usual.
“Do you know who made you?”
“Nobody, as I knows on,” said the child, with a short laugh. The idea appeared to amuse her considerably; for her eyes twinkled, and she added, “I spect I grow’d. Don’t think nobody never made me.”
In the nineteenth century, the phrase “grow’d like Topsy” entered the English lexicon with the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (London: John Castelli, 1852). This figure of speech describes something that grew or increased by itself, without apparent design or divine intervention.
That turn of phrase came to mind with our annual tradition of our Friendsgiving feast, which this year we celebrated the day after Thanksgiving It certainly has “grown like Topsy;” in 2012 the group totaled 15 (“Happy Friendsgiving“), and the year before we were nine, when we celebrated with “A Moveable Feast“). This year we expected 20 guests, hosted this time by friends of ours who own a farm called Woodlawn just across the Staunton River near the town of Clover in Halifax County.
Much of the information that follows appeared in a newpaper article on Woodlawn by Kenneth Cook (The News & Record, 17 September 1976), that also appears online in a tourism site for Halifax County. The house at Woodlawn is believed to date from between 1768 and 1779. It is a substantial frame dwelling built of heart-pine with wooden pegs and hand-made nails. The house had been electrified some time ago, but plumbing was added by the present owners. Largely unmolested, the house retained most of its original fixtures and finishes.
A major alteration was the addition of a front porch, with Gothic-style arches and lattice. The owners believe this addition was the work of master craftsman Thomas Day (c. 1801-1861), the famous furniture designer and cabinet maker. Day lived in Milton, North Carolina, a town very close to Danville, Virginia. This addition was completed sometime in the 1840s.
Just one room deep, the house has a large center hall, with the principal rooms on either side. The parlor is on the east side, the dining room to the west. To the right of the dining room mantel is a closet with the remains of a dumbwaiter that connected the dining room to the kitchen located in the basement. This is an unusual feature — there are only two ancient houses with dumbwaiters in Halifax county; the other is Berry Hill in South Boston. There is a door to the left of the mantel that leads to an addition that was likely used as a bedroom; this is now the modern kitchen.
Early History of Woodlawn.
The first mention of the land that became Woodlawn appeard in the Halifax County records in 1768 when Daniel Hutson of Charlotte County conveyed to Abram Womak 480 acres of land on the waters of Beaver Creek and the Staunton River. The improvements, if any, are described as “the appurtenances,” so it is not clear if the house had been built by then. Even years later, a deed dated 1779 was recorded 17 February 1780 that conveyed the same tract to John Coleman of Halifax County for 2,500 pounds, the land “whereon the said Womack now lives, together with all houses, orchards, gardens, fences, woods, underwoods, waters, watercourses and appurtenances whatsoever…”
Unfortunately, the tax records from which we may glean the exact date of construction have been lost. Then, as now, we would look for a dramatic increase in the taxable assessment that would indicate the construction of a house of some consequence. We can reasonably assume that the house was built sometime between 1768 and 1779. Ten years later, on 26 January 1789, Col. John Coleman of Chester ”for and in consideration of the natural love and affection” he held for his only son, gave to Henry Embry Coleman the 480-acre tract of land on the Staunton River that he had purchased from Abram Womack.
Henry Embry Coleman.
Henry Embry Coleman (1768-1837) is known to have attended Hampden-Sydney College (where two of sons also studied), and graduated from the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton University), in 1786. Returning home to Halifax, Henry likely took up residence at Woodlawn, and joined his wealthy contemporaries like John Carrington and Thomas Read of Charlotte County by representing Halifax in the Virginia General Assembly in 1789/90, serving in both the House and the Senate. He was Justice of the Peace in 1791 and 1792. By 1795 he was Captain of the County Militia, and he served the public good in numerous other capacities over the years. His most interesting exploit was serving as a juror in the trial for treason of Vice President Aaron Burr in 1807 (Burr was acquitted). He was appointed Lieutenant Colonel of the 84th Regiment of the Virginia Militia by the Governor in 1806, and he saw service in the War of 1812 as Lieutenant Colonel of Infantry commanding the 6th Regiment of Virginia Militia, U.S. service. After the war he was county sheriff in 1815, 1816 and 1819, and in 1837 he was appointed Overseer of the Poor. Yet with all that to keep him occupied, he also owned and managed some 7,600 acres in Halifax County.
In 1795 he married Ann Gordon (1776-1824) , the daughter and only child of Thomas and Margaret Murray Gordon. Through her mother, Margaret “Peggy” Murray, Ann (Gordon) Coleman was a direct descendant of the Indian Princess Pocahontas, wife of John Rolfe. Henry Embry Coleman and Ann Gordon had 12 children. Henry and Ann are interred in the family cemetery on the property. On 7 February 1837, Col. Henry Embry Coleman gave Woodlawn to his son, Charles Baskerville Coleman (1814-1849), in consideration of his “natural love and affection” and one dollar, reserving a life estate for himself (he was dead by December). This is the first instance where the name Woodlawn appears in the county records. Since then it has passed through the hands of a number of families, and the present owners are worthy stewards of the place, respectfully modernizing it while preserving its 18th century character and finishes.
On our arrival we were greeted at the door by one of the owners, dressed in 18th-century garb, as were two of his sons. We were presented with assorted wines and an enormous punch bowl full of Eggnog, prepared from a recipe by George Washington. After everyone got settled after the requisite tour of the house for newcomers, we were treated to an entertainment by the hosts — a brief one-act play about the builders of the house. It was an unexpected pleasure.
But enough about the house — on to the feast! Each guest made something, and we were charged with dessert. The sideboard literally groaned — platters and plates laden with turkey, assorted stuffings, numerous vegetables including Hayman Sweet Potatoes, a rare, little known heirloom white-fleshed sweet potato brought from the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
We were in charge of dessert. Our original impulse was to prepare a frozen confection, but thought better of it and decided to something more traditional, especially in light of the many pounds of pecans in the freezer. So we opted for Apple-Almond Tart with a gluten-free shell (for those with dietary issues), and this Pecan Chocolate Tart that we’ve made for many a Thanksgiving over the years. Pecans are never in short supply in our house.
We usually serve this with lightly sweetened whipped cream (add two or three tablespoons of sugar before whipping), but this year we added a little Vanilla extract — a teaspoon is plenty.
Pecan Chocolate Tart.
Special Equipment: fluted tart pan with removable bottom.
For the Pâte Brisée:
- 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 stick (8 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter, cut into bits
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
For the Filling:
- 3 1/2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
- 3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
- 3/4 cup light corn syrup
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into bits
- 4 large eggs at room temperature
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 2/3 cups pecan halves
Vanilla Infused Whipped Cream as an accompaniment
To make the pâte brisée:
- In a large bowl blend the flour, the butter and the salt until the mixture resembles corn meal.
- Add 2 tablespoons ice water, toss the mixture until the water is incorporated, adding more ice water if necessary to form a dough, and form the dough into a disk. With dry winter interiors, the relative humidity comes into play — expect to use more water, up to 6 or more tablespoons.
- Dust the dough with flour and chill it, wrapped in wax paper or plastic wrap, for 1 hour.
Assemble the tart:
- Roll out the dough 1/8 inch thick on a lightly floured surface, fit into a 10-inch tart pan with a removable fluted rim, and trim the edge, leaving a 1/2-inch overhang. Fold the overhang inward onto the side of the shell, pressing it firmly, and chill the shell for 30 minutes.
- Spread the chocolate, melted, on the bottom of the shell and chill the shell for 15 minutes.
- In a heavy saucepan combine the brown sugar and the syrup, bring the mixture to a boil, stirring, and simmer it for 5 minutes.
- Let the mixture cool until it stops bubbling, add the butter, and stir the mixture until the butter is melted.
- In a bowl whisk together the eggs, the vanilla, and a pinch of salt and add the syrup mixture in a very slow stream, whisking. Make sure the eggs are at room temperature; they will be less likely to curdle when combined with the hot syrup.
- Add the pecans to the shell, pour in the egg mixture, and if necessary tap down the pecans to coat them with the egg mixture.
- Bake the tart in the middle of a preheated 350°F. oven for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the crust is pale golden, let it cool, and serve it warm with the whipped cream.