August Stirs Up Remembrancers Of Fluvanna

The old Tyler Mansion stone wall, still standing and looking beautiful today. Photo by Sandy Robison

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

–William Faulkner

The curved shore straightens out to a river’s genesis. The vast maples, surviving elms, and majestic willows drape the lakeside, and as the land rises, steeply, hickory, lilac and wildflowers festoon it. In July the tiger lilies tall and straight, astonishingly orange, rose against the quaint stone wall of the old mansion along with Queen Anne’s Lace, but they are gone until next year. Now it’s August, and a lilac shade of daisy flanks the wall. Next door, my grandparents’ house sits empty, its flagstone walk out back dotted with shade-loving Lily of the Valley, or so it is in my memory.

Though they’re gone now these 50 years, I can still see the necklace of red tulips my grandmother Gunhild Forsberg planted every year around her house. Her Carl built it, board by board, brick by brick, 1948-51, on a piece of land next door to his son in law George Sherwin, and with George’s help. An open lot lay between their house and still does, across which little tan Poncho, my cousin’s Chihuahua, would trot daily back and forth, back and forth, his tail high, between Sherwins and Forsbergs. My grandparents’ house was white-shingled with red awnings and a brick porch stoop with black wrought iron railings. Grandma tossed a handful of birdseed onto those steps every morning. I can see her leaning out the door, whispering, here you are, little birdies.

On the walls in that welcoming kitchen, pale forest green like the entire downstairs of the house, hung homilies like Ve Get Too Soon Alt, and Too Late Smart. In the living room, a monochromatic green from carpet to walls hung 18th century portraits of women and one antique framed print, large and Rococo in style with rolled edges, of a mother and child. Gunhild’s taste was French Empire, from her deep red brocade sofa with its gold threads to the art on her walls. They faced a half wall picture window couched in drapes like a garden of multi-colored flowers. She was a practical woman of elegant taste prone to headaches and anxiety. My grandmother worked for Nelson and Butts as the window dresser for a number of years. Flowers were part of her daily life. She was fussy about them too, as she was particular about every detail of life, and she preferred tulips, deep red, lily of the valley, lilacs and purple iris. If she gave us cut flowers, they were carnations white, pink or red, heady with scent, petals like a child’s skin.

Grandpa Forsberg with Muskie and my sister Vicky, circa 1961. Submitted photo

August calls up memories for me. I don’t know why. Somehow it is always summer in Fluvanna. In the 50s, August meant Uncle George would set up the little swimming pool next to grandpa’s house so my cousin Barbara and I could play in it. Then we were off to the little store a few doors up past the Chase’s house and before the Conover’s. We would sit on the wooden steps and eat out Popsicles, Creamsicles maybe, sometimes Fudgsicles. Maybe Tom, Mary and Martha Chase would join us for a while. The Rainers lived right across the street.

In the pretty cottage at lake’s edge directly on the shoreline from Sherwin’s lived the Swanson’s, Ginger and her husband Elliott and their son Brady, my sister’s best pal in childhood. They rented the cottage from my Sherwin aunt and uncle and became lifelong family friends to all of us.

Summer days were a series of beautiful hours spent in sun and shade. On a rainy day, I would curl up in the library upstairs and read any one of grandpa’s books or National Geographic magazines which dated back 20 years or more, aligned in perfect order on the shelves, kept behind glass. I loved the sound of rain on the slanted roof. Grandpa lined the upstairs walls with knotty pine and the closets with fragrant cedar. The guest couch was large and lumpy, way too soft, but I slept like a baby on it. Shakespeare could be found on those shelves though I didn’t dare it until I was in my teens. Little did I know that those early readings would prompt a lifetime of love of books. I was just a little blond girl, a Svenska flicka, lucky enough to be there in the embrace of a family kind and warm, safe and nurturing. We did not live there in Fluvanna. We came as visitors to see family. But for me, it was the better part of childhood. For my Swedish immigrant grandparents, it was their life’s dream.

Fluvanna in the 50s was a community of good folks in well-tended houses, a shoreline that looked across to Lakewood and Celoron and beyond into the deep green forest and rising hills of Harmony. But those who settled Fluvanna were also in pursuit of a life dream, a new life, on the shore of a beautiful lake.

Fluvanna is rich in history, from its early hotels to the big brick mansion itself, which holds court over the whole little hamlet, to the oddly castle-like building that is now the War Vets. The entire area there by the lake–from just above Greenhurst to where the Outlet truly begins as the lake narrows and darkens, was originally called the Point, and according to Hetty Sherwin in her book on Fluvanna history, was part of a major Native America trail across the area.

She claims Celoron may have camped there, perhaps up nearer Greenhurst or just beyond at what is now Sheldon Hall, or Sherwin suggests, right there in Fluvanna by my grandparents’ house where the land rises sharply from the lake, which Celoron notes in his journal regarding his overnight camp. The “vlie” — the swampland, still wild and impenetrable to this day–lies just to the south of the cemetery and remains dark and mysterious, filled with unusual plants. The original plank road crossed it and caused road builders plenty of grief. Native American mounds, full of artifacts of varying kinds, are said to run north to south just east of Townline Road where Moon Road adjoins it. “Indian burial mounds bear silent testimony to the Indians’ early occupancy,” Sherwin writes. She points them out as lying 60 rods north of the lake road, a half mile from the shore, near Townline Road, running south to north.

By 1806, Jeremiah Griffith had settled near Greenhurst on 500 acres. My cousin Barb’s Sherwin family traces back to these original settlers, so her roots in Fluvanna run deep. In what is now Fluvanna proper, the John Strunk family arrived in 1809 with four children as did the Jonas Simmons family, comprised of 13 children. Benjamin Lee is mentioned as another early settler in the same period. Prior to 1820, Hetty Sherwin writes, only “a few frame buildings” existed in the Fluvanna area. By 1827 though, the community had grown to fourteen houses and a church.

My cousin Barb has her own copy of the Hetty Sherwin history. She writes, “When I opened the book, there was an obit taped to the page. It was for Flora Griffith Sherwin, Frank’s (my grandfather Sherwin’s) grandmother. She died at 94, one of the oldest people in the county at the time. Her son Philo was the first owner of the Sherwin House (more on this in a forthcoming article). The Sherwin House sits on the same spot as the house where I grew up (now owned by another family). It burned in 1918 or 1919, depending on where you look in the history books.”

The editor of the Jamestown Journal wrote of the early settlers to the area right on the Ellicott/Ellery Town lines, “Those early settlers with their sturdy independence, their courage, activity and energy, were but a type of pioneer of that heroic age.” I feel the history when I visit, when I stop to recall memory and photograph a spot, when I drive through. “Stout hands and hearts” built this community, Sherwin adds.

Stout hands and hearts–it’s a good phrase. The settlers had dreams of building a good life here on the shore of Chautauqua Lake. For my grandparents, it was their life’s dream to come to America, build their own home and live their lives on the shore of a beautiful spot. Fluvanna is one still, lovely and historic, perhaps most so in August when summer lingers in the shimmering heat.