Yorktown's Main Street
Historic Resource Study
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Almost from the inception of the APVA's Yorktown Branch in 1921, interest developed in the group for identifying and saving the site of the Secretary Nelson home and preserving the foundations of this historic structure. Actually in this first year there was a one dollar donation [1] to establish "a fund to mark the site." Despite this, however, there would be little continuing action for a year or two, and then it would require almost a decade to restore the house to its present form.

In 1924 there was a positive beginning following a discussion of the "advisability of uncovering [the] foundations of Secretary Nelson's home." This was at the Branch's July meeting and the action that followed is succinctly described in the annual report for the year: [2]

. . . the Directress [was] directed to write Mr. [John F.] Braun, the owner of the land in regard to the matter. The result was the uncovering of the foundation and the placing thereon a sign by Mr. Braun, at his own expense. For this service to history and the public, the Branch is most grateful, and has sent its thanks and appreciation in resolutions to Mr. Braun.

Following this, the matter was quiet for several years. Evidently Virginia State Highway Department plans in 1928 precipitated the additional consideration that led to a more permanent marking. When the Branch learned that there was a proposal for a road to be "built from the eastern limits of Yorktown down the Hampton road" it went into action. It had been noted that this roadway would pass through the foundations of the old home. There was general agreement, at a meeting called on January 17, 1928, that the Branch should move "to protest against the destruction of the sacred relic even if it interferes with progress. No amount of money could ever restore the foundation, nor make the history with which it is saturated. We want the road and by placing it a [few] feet to the side all would be well." The appeal to the State Highway Commissioner asked that he "consider the preservation of this historic record for the sake of the history of the town, and to agree with us that 'a land without ruins is a land without memories.'" Requests for help in moving the road were sent to the General Association, to the Governor, and to appropriate Congressmen.

The Commissioner, H. G. Shirly, proved very sympathetic to the idea of preservation. He suggested, in a letter of April 19, that the Branch seek to acquire the site of "the old Foundation." After this was accomplished, he believed it would be "a mighty fine proposition to have the road split and run around it and by planting some shrubs, etc., could make it very much more prominent than if we left it off to the side." He believed the Commission itself would readily agree to this, providing also that it was possible to "get the [Monument Lodge] Hotel people to give us the right to do so." This would accentuate the area's historical value very much and make it more accessible to tourists.

In the meantime, efforts to acquire the site of the foundations were successful. Actually it came as a donation through the Branch to the General Association from Judge Howard Ferris, Trustee, and the Peninsula Land Company as expressed in a resolution of thanks dated April 19. As the annual report for 1928 noted, this included "the foundation of Secretary Thomas Nelson's home, with a margin of five feet."

As the gift of the site was being negotiated with Judge Ferris, the matter of concreting the foundation was also being discussed with him. [3] "A coping of cement will be placed on the top of the old foundation to make its outline more distinct and to safeguard it from weather decay and souvenir collectors." Plans and estimates were ready early in 1929, the project being undertaken by "The Rev. A. J. Renforth, chairman of the Landmark committee, [who] has the work in charge." [4] The excavating and concreting of the foundations were completed prior to the January 1930 Branch meeting. The "General Association" had agreed to finance the bronze plaque, and when it was placed in July [5] it was considered "a beautiful gift to posterity." [6] The initial inscription copy had been submitted by the Directress and read:

Foundations of the home of Thomas Nelson, Secretary of the Colonial Council, erected for him by his father in 1725.

Cornwallis' Headquarters during the Siege of Yorktown 1781.

Butler killed here while serving dinner. Demolished during the Siege never rebuilt.

Secretary Nelson, a Tory, was escorted within the American lines under flag of truce by his three sons. [7]

The offer made by the Comte de Grasse Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution for "a sufficient number of posts to enclose [the] Secretary Nelson lot" had been accepted by the Branch, and Judge Ferris had not objected to the proposal for "putting a fence in front of the Foundation to keep off traffic."

Almost immediately there was public objection to the language on the bronze plaque. A letter from Dr. W. G. Stannard in the July 15 issue of the Richmond News Leader pointed out errors and called for changes. These were discussed by the Branch in meetings in the fall of 1930, but in November it was decided "not to be in a hurry about a change if one is to be made." However, the matter persisted. At the January 1932 meeting the Directress "reported that this would necessitate either recasting of the old tablet, or a new tablet, also that the Branch would be called upon to furnish the funds necessary for this amount." Nevertheless, before the year was out the bronze plague was exchanged for one with "a new inscription" which had been financed by the Branch aided by donations. [8]

Thoughts now turned to an official unveiling. It was scheduled for May 6, 1933, and a special committee was named to make plans and arrangements. A printed program was prepared, and Dr. Lyon G. Tyler gave the principal address. The unveiling was by Miss Sally Berkeley Crenshaw (a lineal descendant of Thomas Nelson, and daughter of Capt. R. N. Crenshaw of the then Naval Mine Depot) and Mrs. Polly Crenshaw.

The new marker, still in place today, read:

Foundations of the Home of
President of the Council and
Secretary of State
of the Colony of Virginia
Erected in 1725 [9]
First Headquarters of Lord Cornwallis
It was Destroyed During
The Siege of Yorktown
in 1781 [10]

The unveiling had been preceded by "a beautiful luncheon" given by the Reverend and Mrs. A. J. Renforth "at their home, Monument Lodge" in Yorktown. There was general approbation a few days later at a special meeting called on May 17. At this time the "Directress expressed her purpose of having a special book for preservation of all speeches, and programs of dedication of Nelson Tablet May 6th, 1933 for [the] perpetuation to future generations [of] this important historic event."

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Last Updated: —2009