No one visits Red Hill by accident; greater numbers should visit by design.1
This is the place where Patrick Henry spent the last years of his life. After playing a major part in the American Revolution and serving five terms as Governor of Virginia, Henry retired from public life and moved to this 2900 acre Charlotte County tobacco plantation in 1794. He was by then one of the wealthiest landowners in the Commonwealth, but he preferred to live at Red Hill, overlooking the Staunton River valley, with his second wife, Dorothea Dandridge, and many of his children and grandchildren. His health was not good in his last years but it is said that he loved to sit in the garden, playing with the children and entertaining them with his violin music.
Patrick Henry died on June 6, 1799, and was buried at Red Hill. During his tenure, the plantation grew corn and wheat as well as tobacco and employed 66 slaves. Horses, cattle, sheep, and hogs were also raised on the property. After his death, Henry's son John inherited Red Hill, which was named for the red clay soil found in the area. Later, John's son William Wirt Henry used it as a summer home. The original house underwent several additions, especially in the early 1900's by Mrs. Lucy Harrison and Mrs. Elizabeth Lyons (both great-granddaughters of Patrick Henry) who turned the house into an eighteen room mansion. In 1919, the house was completely destroyed by fire and was not rebuilt.
The property remained in the Henry family until the middle of the twentieth century when Eugene B. Casey (a Washington, D. C. philanthropist) founded the nonprofit Patrick Henry Memorial Foudation and acquired Red Hill in order to preserve the memory of Patrick Henry. The house and several outbuildings were constructed as closely as possible to the original plans. Red Hill was officially entered in the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and declared a national memorial in 1986.
Red Hill is open to visitors daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. except New Year's Day, Thanksgiving Day, and December 25. In the winter months (November through March) it closes at 4 p.m. Admission is 6 USD for adults, less for children.2 The visitor's center contains a small museum of documents, artwork, and belongings of the Henry family and shows a fifteen minute video Patrick Henry's Red Hill. There is also a gift shop and restroom facilities. After the film, visitors follow instructions in a printed brochure to the self-guided walking tour of the plantation buildings and gravesite.
Outside the reconstructed main house stands the famous Osage Orange tree which is sixty-four feet high and has a ninety-six foot span. The champion tree is listed in the American Forestry Hall of Fame. Behind the house is a view of the river valley, which looks nearly the same as it did in Henry's time. Although the Staunton River is not visible, thick trees frame the rolling fields along its banks. An old story relates that Patrick Henry built a platform out here and issued instructions to the plantation workers from it.
The house is very simple. There are three rooms on the main floor: two bedrooms and a living room, and two more bedrooms upstairs. Between twelve and twenty family members lived here, so Patrick Henry directed the construction of the second main floor bedroom for himself and Dorothea, although one legend states that he built it so he could hear the rain on the roof at night. The sparse furnishings of the rooms are a mixture of period pieces and replicas, including his bed with damask curtains and a Chippendale corner chair.
To the side of the house is the separate kitchen building, the necessary house, and the smokehouse with a stone-lined fire pit. At the end of the row is a two-story servants' cabin, rebuilt from the original logs. Henry's coachman and cook, Harrison and Milly, lived their whole lives here, serving the Henry family.
Also nearby is Henry's law office building, which may have once been a plantation office. Henry taught law to several sons, grandsons, and a nephew in this building, although he was in semi-retirement from his practice by the time he came to Red Hill. Some members of the family or guests may have slept in this building as well.
The family burial ground is located to the east of the buildings. Patrick Henry and Dorothea are interred together under a double box tomb; his gravestone bears the words "His fame his best epitaph." Other members of the family were buried around him, although only a few of the graves are marked.
Recently the site of a greenhouse was found during a utility dig behind the house. The greenhouse was used to protect potted fruit trees such as lemons and oranges during the cold months. Other parts of the buildings and grounds are also being excavated and restored.
Red Hill is about five miles east of the town of Brookneal in south-central Virginia. It is within two miles of Route 40, although those last two miles wind through tobacco fields and forest over nearly-deserted, narrow country roads. Judging from the size of the parking lot beside the visitor's center, few people visit Red Hill, but it is definitely worth the trip.
1. Jane Ockershausen, The New Virginia One-Day Trip Book, EPM Publications (McLean, VA), 1996, page 184. ISBN 1-889324-00-0
2. I last visited Red Hill on August 24, 2002, and these times and prices were accurate then. More information (including phone numbers) can be found on the Red Hill website: http://www.redhill.org.