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Virginia Department of Historic Resources

13 New State Historical Highway Markers Approved

Shows label of 78 rpm record.
A swinging version of “Tech Triumph”— Virginia Tech’s “fight song”— by Bob Crosby’s Bobcats, 1940.

—New markers cover topics in the counties of Amherst, Bath, Bedford, Hanover, Nottoway, Rockingham, and Smyth; and the cities of Danville, Petersburg, Portsmouth, Roanoke, Virginia Beach, and Winchester—

—Each marker’s text reproduced below.—

Topics covered in 13 recently approved and forthcoming state historical markers include a Revolutionary War militia force that dogged British troops under Gen. Benedict Arnold, the educational and political achievements of an enslaved family that escaped to Union lines during the Civil War, and a black baseball player who became a decorated World War I soldier. The martial theme extended as well to the origins of the Virginia Tech “fight song,” “Tech Triumph.”

In Virginia Beach, the marker “Skirmish at James’s Plantation” will rise to recall a militia of 520 men led by Capt. Amos Weeks that disrupted British operations in the area after Brig. Gen. Benedict Arnold, seeking to control the Tidewater region, established a base in Portsmouth in January 1781. Arnold ordered Capt. Johann Ewald, a Hessian commander of cavalry and riflemen, to pursue Weeks. He did so, inflicting about 120 casualties on Weeks’ militia, and pursued them southward. Nonetheless, “Weeks’s force regrouped and continued to harass the British,” the marker will conclude.

A marker slated for Hanover County will highlight the enslaved Fields Family, whose matriarch, Martha Ann Fields, led most of her 11 children across the Pamunkey River in 1863 to freedom behind the Union lines during the Civil War. The family settled in Hampton and pursued education. James A Fields (1844-1903), a member of Hampton Institute’s first graduating class, was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1889. George Washington Fields (1854-1932) was the first African American to earn a law degree from Cornell University, and his daughter, Inez Fields Scott (1895-1978), was the third black woman admitted to practice law in Virginia.

Spottswood Poles (1886-1962) will be remembered with a marker in Winchester, where he was born. From 1906 until 1923, an era that mostly predates the Negro Leagues, Poles starred on all-black teams in Harrisburg, Philadelphia and New York City. His speed, batting skill, and defensive play won him recognition as one of the best players of his day. He interrupted his career to serve in World War I as a sergeant with the 369th U.S. Infantry, the “Harlem Hellfighters,” and was wounded in action during the Meuse-Argonne offensive in France. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Elsewhere in Virginia, ten other markers authorized by the Board of Historic Resources during its quarterly meeting in December will also appear in 2020.

Two signs address efforts during segregation in two counties to create “separate but equal” all-black schools around the time of the 1954 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education, that found segregated schools “inherently unequal” and Historical image of Gibson High Schoolunconstitutional.

  • Bedford County’s Susie G. Gibson High School, which opened in 1954, honored Susie G. Gibson (1878-1949), the county’s supervisor of African American education for 22 years.
  • Central High School in Amherst County opened in 1956 at the same time the county established the all-white Amherst County High School. Central was the county’s first school to offer 12th grade to blacks.

 

 

Two signs will highlight houses noteworthy for their architecture and owners:

  • The two-story, 17-room octagonal house of Abijah Thomas (1814-1876) in Smyth County is one of the most refined examples of such architecture in the state. Thomas, who owned more than 10,000 acres, established Holston Woolen Mills and opened an iron furnace southeast of Marion that produced pig iron for the Confederacy.
  • A ca.-1860 Gothic Revival cottage, one of the few such dwellings in Petersburg, was the property during the first half of the 20th century of husband and wife Roger Pryor Campbell, a barber, and Carrie Bragg Campbell, a musician. Carrie Bragg Campbell, among eight students in the first graduating class at the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (later Virginia State University), became one of the first black women to run a newspaper when she assumed editorship of the Virginia Lancet from her brother in 1886.

Two signs will focus on churches:

  • In Rockingham County, Trissels Mennonite Church is the oldest continuously functioning Mennonite congregation in Virginia. The first Trissels church dated to 1823, and arose adjacent to a cemetery with graves dating to the late 1700s.
  •  St. John’s Church in Portsmouth was founded in 1848. James Chisholm, its first pastor, ministered to yellow fever victims during an 1855 epidemic. The disease took his life and the Episcopal Church later added Chisholm to its calendar of saints. The church relocated to a new Gothic Revival sanctuary in 1898 designed by Charles M. Cassell. Mary Brown Channel, the first female architect licensed in Virginia, designed several church additions.

Another sign also addresses a notable first:

Hunton Life Saving and First Aid Crew, ca. 1957. (from Pinterest)
  • Reputedly the first all-black volunteer rescue squad in the United States, the Hunton Life Saving and First Aid Crew was organized in Roanoke in December 1941, shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The crew suspended operations in July 1987.

In Danville, a forthcoming marker will discuss Yancey House and Grasty Library:

  • Yancey House, a Green Book-listed lodge for African Americans during segregation, became headquarters of the local chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. The Grasty Branch of the Danville public library system, next to Yancey House, operated for black patrons from 1950 to 1969. In April 1960, a federal court order required Danville to desegregate its libraries.

 

 

 

A Bath County marker will recall the history of the Warm Springs Baths:

  • Before the Revolutionary War, father and son Thomas and John Lewis developed a resort around the natural warm springs. A popular destination for fashionable society, a noted hotel arose at the springs in the 1800s. An octagonal frame bathhouse was constructed in the 1820s, and a 22-sided Ladies’ Bath House, by the mid-1870s. The Homestead assumed management of the Warm Springs Baths in 1925, after the prior hotel was razed.

 

And in the Town of Blackstone, in Nottoway County, the origins of the “Virginia Tech Fight Song” receives its due with a forthcoming marker:

  • Blackstone residents Mattie Walton Epes and Wilfred Preston “Pete” Maddux wrote the popular Virginia Tech fight song in 1919. The song made its debut at a Virginia Tech football game in November, 1919. Columbia Records issued a recording in 1920.

After approval by the Board of Historic Resources, it can take upwards of three months or more before new markers are ready for their sponsors to dedicate them. Sponsors must cover the $1,700 manufacturing expenses a new marker.

Virginia’s historical highway marker program, which began in 1927 with installation of the first markers along U.S. 1, is considered the oldest such program in the nation. Currently there are more than 2,600 official state markers, most of which are maintained by the Virginia Department of Transportation, except in those localities outside of VDOT’s authority.

More information about the Historical Highway Marker Program is available on the website of the Department of Historic Resources at https://www.dhr.virginia.gov/highway-markers/.

[PLEASE NOTE: DHR erects markers not to “honor” their subjects but rather to educate and inform the public about a person, place, or event of regional, state, or national importance. In this regard, markers are not memorials.]

Full Text of Markers:

(The proposed locations for each sign must be approved in consultation with VDOT or public works in jurisdictions outside VDOT authority.)

Skirmish at James’s Plantation

British forces under Brig. Gen. Benedict Arnold raided Richmond early in Jan. 1781 and established a base in Portsmouth later that month, seeking to control the Tidewater region. Groups of local militia, including 520 men led by Capt. Amos Weeks, disrupted British operations in the area. Arnold ordered Capt. Johann Ewald, commander of Hessian cavalry and riflemen, to pursue Weeks. On 15 Feb. at James’s Plantation in this vicinity, Ewald surprised Weeks and inflicted about 120 casualties. Joined by Lt. Col. John G. Simcoe of the Queen’s Rangers, Ewald followed the remaining militia south to Pungo Chapel before returning to Portsmouth. Weeks’s force regrouped and continued to harass the British.

Sponsor: Christopher Pieczynski
Locality: Virginia Beach
Proposed Location: Corner of Princess Anne Road and Elson Green Avenue, Virginia Beach

 

The Fields Family

Martha Ann Fields and most of her 11 children were enslaved laborers on the Nutshell plantation, just north of here. In 1863, she led her family across the Pamunkey River to Union lines and freedom. The family settled in Hampton, pursued education, and became leading citizens after the war. James A. Fields (1844-1903), a member of Hampton Institute’s first graduating class, was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1889. George Washington Fields (1854-1932), the first African American to earn a law degree from Cornell University, was a prominent attorney. His daughter, Inez Fields Scott (1895-1978), was the third African American woman admitted to practice law in Virginia.

Sponsor: Hanover County Historical Commission subcommittee
Locality: Hanover County
Proposed Location: 7527 Library Drive

 

Spottswood Poles (1886-1962)

Spottswood Poles, baseball player and decorated World War I soldier, was born in Winchester and lived near here. From 1906 until 1923, a period that largely predated the Negro Leagues, he starred on all-black teams such as the Harrisburg Giants, the Philadelphia Giants, and the New York Lincoln Giants. His speed, high batting average, and outstanding defensive play won him recognition as one of the best players of his era. Poles interrupted his career to serve in World War I. As a sergeant with the 369th U.S. Infantry, known as the Harlem Hellfighters, he was wounded in action during the Meuse-Argonne offensive in France. Poles died in 1962 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Sponsor: Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society
Locality: Winchester
Proposed Location: 502 North Kent St.

 

Susie G. Gibson High School

Susie G. Gibson (1878-1949), teacher and community activist, was Bedford County’s supervisor of African American education for 22 years. Her work was sponsored by the Jeanes Fund, established by Anna T. Jeanes in 1907 to enhance opportunities for black students in the rural South. Susie G. Gibson High School, named in her honor, opened just northeast of here in 1954 to serve African American students in the Town and County of Bedford. Designed by noted architect Stanhope Johnson, the school reflected an effort to equalize educational facilities rather than desegregate them. Gibson High closed in 1970 when the U.S. government required county schools to desegregate fully.

Sponsor: Susie G. Gibson Legacy, Inc.
Locality: Bedford County
Proposed Location: 600 Edmund Street

 

Central High School

Amherst County opened Central High School here in 1956 to serve African American students. The school, established at the same time as the all-white Amherst County High School, was built in an effort to create “separate but equal” facilities despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that segregated public schools were “inherently unequal” and thus unconstitutional. Central, the county’s first school to offer 12th grade to African Americans, replaced the Madison Heights Negro School and the Amherst County Training School. After the county desegregated its schools under federal court order in 1970, Central High became a junior high school.

Sponsor: All School Reunion
Locality: Amherst County
Proposed Location: Route 60, 0.9 miles east of Amherst County Visitor Center

 

Abijah Thomas (1814-1876) and his Octagonal House

Just east of here is one of the most refined examples of an octagonal house in Virginia. Built for Abijah Thomas in 1856-1857, during a surge of interest in octagonal domestic architecture, this two-story brick structure contains 17 rooms and handcrafted interior treatments. By 1860, Thomas had acquired more than 10,000 acres in this area. He established the Holston Woolen Mills, around which a village emerged, and operated a sawmill, grist mill, and tannery. Southeast of Marion, he opened an iron furnace that produced pig iron for the Confederacy. Enslaved African Americans and hired workers labored on his properties. Financial mismanagement brought an end to his industrial ambitions.

Sponsor: Octagon House Foundation
Locality: Smyth County
Proposed Location: 615 Octagon House Road

 

Gothic Cottage

This cottage, built ca. 1860, is one of the few Gothic Revival dwellings in Petersburg. Roger Pryor Campbell (1859-1956), a barber, and Carrie Bragg Campbell (1865-1958), a musician, married in 1890 and owned this house during the first half of the 20th century. Carrie Bragg Campbell was one of eight students in the first graduating class at the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (later Virginia State University) in 1886. She taught music there from 1885 until 1888. In 1886, she became one of the first African American women to run a newspaper when she took over the editorship of the Virginia Lancet from her brother, George F. Bragg.

Sponsor: Cameron Foundation
Locality: Petersburg
Proposed Location: 223 Harrison St.

 

Trissels Mennonite Church

Mennonites first entered the northern Shenandoah Valley about 1730 and settled in present-day Rockingham and Augusta Counties by the 1770s. They initially worshiped in private houses. The original Trissels Church (also known as Brush Church) was constructed ca. 1823 two miles southwest of here, adjacent to a cemetery with graves dating from the late 18th century. Trissels is the oldest continuously functioning Mennonite congregation in Virginia. Sermons were delivered in German for several decades. A second sanctuary replaced the first in 1900, and a third opened in 1950. The cemetery later expanded onto the sites of the two earlier churches.

Sponsor: Trissels Mennonite Church
Locality: Rockingham County
Proposed Location: Route 42

 

St. John’s Church

St. John’s Episcopal Church was founded in 1848; its original Greek Revival sanctuary opened in 1850 near the corner of Court and London Streets. During the yellow fever epidemic of 1855, James Chisholm, the church’s first rector, remained in Portsmouth to minister to the sick. He died of the disease and was later added to the Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints. The Gothic Revival sanctuary on this site, designed by architect Charles M. Cassell, opened in 1898. Mary Brown Channel, the first female architect licensed in Virginia, designed several additions. Her father, William A. Brown (rector 1904-1938) was consecrated Bishop of Southern Virginia here in 1938.

Sponsor: St. John’s Church
Locality: Portsmouth
Proposed Location: 424 Washington Street

 

Hunton Life Saving and First Aid Crew

Alexander A. Terrell organized the Hunton Life Saving and First Aid Crew in Dec. 1941, shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The crew, reputed to have been the first all-black volunteer rescue squad in the United States, was originally headquartered here in the William A. Hunton Branch YMCA. On call 24 hours a day, members responded to medical emergencies using their own vehicles before they acquired an ambulance. The crew also provided safety and first-aid training in the community. In March 1956, the Women’s Auxiliary of Hunton Life Saving was organized. The crew moved to new headquarters several blocks northwest of here in 1964 and suspended operations in July 1987.

Sponsor: Mr. Nelson Harris
Locality: City of Roanoke
Proposed Location: 28 Wells Ave. NW

 

Yancey House and Grasty Library

The Yancey House (320 Holbrook St.) was a lodging place for African Americans during the segregation era. From the 1930s to the 1960s, it was listed in the Green Book, a guide to facilities that served black travelers. The house later became headquarters of the local chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. From 1950 to 1969, the Grasty Branch of the Danville public library system, for black patrons, operated next door. After African Americans were denied service at the main library in April 1960, an NAACP lawsuit led to a federal court order requiring equal access. In response, the city closed the libraries. They were reopened on an integrated basis in Sept., but without tables and chairs.

Sponsor: Alpha Phi Omega Chapter, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.
Locality: Danville
Proposed Location: 320 Holbrook Street

 

Warm Springs Baths

The Warm Springs Baths, an example of 19th-century medicinal resort architecture, formed the centerpiece of a small village that served as the seat of Bath County from 1791 until 1908. Thomas Lewis and his son John developed a resort around the naturally warmed mineral springs before the Revolutionary War. Later served by a noted hotel, the springs became a popular destination for people who sought fashionable society and the waters’ reputed curative powers. The octagonal frame bath house was constructed in the 1820s, while the 22-sided Ladies’ Bath House was added by the mid-1870s. After the Warm Springs Hotel was razed in 1925, The Homestead assumed management of the Warm Springs Baths.

Sponsor: Preservation Bath
Locality: Bath County
Proposed Location: Route 220, 400 feet south of intersection with Route 39

 

Virginia Tech Fight Song

Blackstone residents Mattie Walton Epes (1896-1993) and Wilfred Preston “Pete” Maddux (1897-1977) wrote the popular Virginia Tech fight song “Tech Triumph” at this house in 1919. Maddux, who had entered Virginia Polytechnic Institute as a freshman in 1916 and served in the U.S. Naval Reserve during World War I, asked Epes to help him write a song for the school. Epes improvised a tune on the piano, while Maddux wrote down the score and composed lyrics. The song, a product of “instantaneous inspiration,” was first played at a Virginia Tech football game in Nov. 1919 and quickly won the approval of the Tech Corps of Cadets. Columbia Records issued a recording in 1920.

Sponsor: Town of Blackstone
Locality: Town of Blackstone
Proposed Location: 1020 South Main Street

 

Updated March 19, 2020