Belmead: History, nature preserved

July 23, 2013 · 11 minute read

“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” — John Muir

The earth is much older than we are. It spiraled around the sun billions of years before we were put on it and will continue to do so long after we are gone. We are having an effect on it, though. A look at our oceans and rivers will quickly reveal that. Plastics, PCBs and processed hydrocarbons are not part of the primordial recipe that predates people. We did that. Those man-made materials are also persistent; some having the potential to linger in the environment for centuries and poison habitats after humans become extinct. We need to learn from our past mistakes (and successes) so we can inform a healthier future.

My interest in conservation began at summer camp when I was 8-years-old. Saint George’s Camp in Shrine Mont is on the edge of the George Washington National Forest in the Victorian resort town of Orkney Springs, Va.  I spent many summers there, taking in the history and natural beauty while developing my ideas of community and stewardship. It was logical to me then as it is now – we are spiritually tied to the earth and all its inhabitants and are morally obliged to be caretakers of our mutual story and, more importantly, of creation. Even though we are here for only a short time, it is our responsibility to ensure that our occupation of the land is benign so it will support current and future tenants.

There are a lot places in Virginia that highlight our rich cultural and natural heritage. For me, the truly special ones demonstrate the bond between history and nature and attest to our spiritual connection and duty to preservation. Saint Francis de Sales at Mount Pleasant and Saint Emma at Belmead in Powhatan County tell the story of people and their attachment to the environment and their vocation in the community. The 2200+ acre parcel on the banks of James River abounds with forests, meadows, wetlands, historic houses and schools, and it is all faithfully protected by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and FrancisEmma, Inc., the non-profit organization founded to provide for the long-term maintenance and programming of the site.

I had the opportunity to visit St. Francis/Emma last week. I was greeted by Sister Elena Henderson. Sister Elena is a terrific host and tour guide and has a wealth of knowledge about the site. The history of the site is long and layered and difficult to summarize in a blog post. Fortunately, FrancisEmma provides a threefold framework for interpreting its history. I will follow their model.


The earliest structures on the property were built for Colonel Philip St. George Cocke in the 1840s. Cocke was one of the largest Virginia slaveholders of his time. He took pains to ensure that his plantations functioned in balance with the land. Most plantations were self-supporting enterprises but Cocke had an eye toward the future. He engaged in an active reforestation plan, planting tens of thousands of trees to serve future uses and designed a progressive crop rotation plan so his fields would not be depleted of nutrients. The bulk of the plantation’s agricultural activities were located on the bottom lands where the frequent floods of the James River would deposit rich silt.

The Belmead Plantation house, built by Cocke’s slaves between 1845 and 1848, was designed to harmonize with the landscape. Instead of choosing the imposing, classical style favored by his contemporaries, Cocke hired noted architect Alexander Jackson Davis to design a gothic, picturesque mansion that nestled on the contours of a hill over the James River. It was built with stone and clay quarried on-site. Innovative trenches around the foundation engaged the coolness of the ground to regulate temperature inside the house. A granary, also built of native stone, processed the grains grown on the plantation.


The Belmead Mansion beautifully compliments the hilltop over the James River. Photo by author.

The effort to use the land in a manner that would not deplete but renew resources was however, based on slave labor. Though it appears Cocke regarded his slaves with mildness, the double standard of harmonizing with the earth while denying the right of freedom to the people who worked it seems to have weighed on him. After briefly serving the Confederacy during the Civil War, Colonel Cocke returned to his home at Belmead in December, 1861. He ended his own life the day after Christmas.


The next phase in the history of Belmead witnessed a transition. African Americans continued to work the land not as slaves but as students and entrepreneurs. The property was purchased in the 1890s by Katharine and Louise Drexel and Louise’s husband Edward Morrell. The sisters were born into a wealthy Philadelphia family with a tradition of promoting charitable work and religious endeavors. Louise and Edward started the St. Emma Industrial and Agricultural Institute in 1895. The school provided education and training for African American males.

The Belmead plantation house became the central administration building for the new Catholic military academy devoted to the empowerment of African American men through education, training and military discipline. The school offered an array of vocational classes, in agriculture, carpentry, masonry and furniture making as well as academic courses. The Belmead mansion was the eastern anchor of an academic quad that included; a chapel, a water tower, parade grounds and other academic and dormitory buildings.

The school also became an economic engine for Powhatan County. It employed more than 150 instructors and staff and the goods produced by the students were sold locally and throughout the South. Crops grown on the property and processed by the school’s mills were used on site and sold in the community.  On land where blacks were once held as chattel servants, they later obtained skills that enabled them to secure financial independence and social mobility.

African American women also had a place to learn. Katharine Drexel bought Mount Pleasant plantation just to the east of Belmead. She started the St. Francis de Sales school there in 1899. Saint Francis was run by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, a Catholic order also established by Katharine. The school provided classes for African American women in business, nursing, teacher training and a variety of academic subjects.

The exterior of the Saint Francis chapel. Photo by author.

The exterior of the Saint Francis chapel. Photo by author.

The schools provided safe employment for African Americans during the civil rights movement.

They were free to speak and demonstrate for equal rights without fear of losing their jobs. Ironically, the schools closed in 1970 due to declining enrollment. Desegregation of public schools made it possible for blacks to obtain equal educational opportunities without having to send their children to boarding schools in the countryside. However, the impact that St. Francis and St. Emma had on its 15,000 alumni and the community still resonates.


Together the former campuses and associated lands comprise nearly 2300 acres with over two miles of frontage on the James River. Throughout its history the site has been defined by how people related to the land. During the periods of enslavement and empowerment people utilized the resources of this site in a sustainable manner – long before “sustainability” became a buzzword of conservationists.


The unspoiled view of the James River from Saint Francis/Emma. Photo by author.

The unspoiled view of the James River from Saint Francis/Emma. Photo by author.

Today both properties are owned by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. A non-profit organization, FrancisEmma Inc., manages the historic buildings and the sprawling forests, wetlands and farm fields. The Sisters and FrancisEmma Inc. run a variety of programs that preserve the site’s history and promote environmental stewardship. It is a huge job – one that is not without challenges.

In 2011 the National Trust for Historic Preservation included St. Francis/Emma on its list of the most endangered historic sites in America. Francis/Emma generates some revenue for the upkeep of the massive buildings by leasing the land for agriculture and horse boarding. But without consistent occupation and continual upkeep the buildings are threatened. In 2010 the four story bell tower at St. Francis School collapsed due to water damage. The campuses once boasted more than forty buildings. Today only a handful survive. However, the threatened status has brought national attention and financial support from granting agencies and other donors. This year major repairs were completed on the Belmead mansion’s roof and chimneys that were damaged in the August 2011 earthquake that shook central Virginia. Future renovation plans include repainting the window casements at the mansion (which involves carefully and temporarily removing each historic, hand-painted pane for safety) and the massive job of repairing the St. Francis School bell tower. More financial support is needed to secure the future of these important edifices. In addition to preserving the buildings, FrancisEmma offers programs and publications that interpret the history of the schools and plantation.

Damage from the collapsed bell tower at St. Francis School. Photo by author

Damage from the collapsed bell tower at St. Francis School. Photo by author


FrancisEmma operates the Thomas Berry Education Center that offers a variety of programs centered on social justice and environmental stewardship. Program offerings include; astronomy and star gazing, planting trees for future generations and teacher training with an environmental focus. Last spring FrancisEmma and the James River Master Naturalists held a 24 hour Bioblitz at which volunteers and environmental professionals surveyed the property day and night to inventory the plant and animal species on the property. Among the many species identified were over ninety kinds of birds, ten of which were previously undocumented in Powhatan County. The program was such a hit that Francis/Emma may offer it again in the fall of 2014.

To protect the property for the benefit of future visitors and the present wildlife, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament partnered with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation and the James River Association  to place 1000 acres of it under a permanent conservation easement. Sister Elena recalls one of the main reasons the property was placed under easement was to ensure that St. Francis/Emma will always be a place where people can come to “reconnect with nature and to heal.”

Sister Elena Henderson reflects on the beauty of the James River. Photo by author.

Sister Elena Henderson reflects on the beauty of the James River. Photo by author.

To that end, St. Francis/St. Emma offers many recreational opportunities. Fishing, hiking, bird watching, and self-guided historical walks are just a few. Francis/Emma also allows limited bow hunting (by reservation) to keep the deer population at a sustainable level. The Belmead Stables and Riding Club also operates at the site. Kayakers and canoeists can also access the James River just downhill from the Belmead mansion. For a short paddle, boaters can take out at the new Powhatan State Park five miles downstream. Information about recreational opportunities and programs can be found at Visitors to St. Francis/Emma should check in at the second house on the right on the main entrance road.

Every now and again I am fortunate enough to have an “A Ha!” moment at my job. Near the end of my visit Sister Elena told me about an old “fish hatchery” just downhill from the Belmead mansion. It is a catch basin, made of locally gathered river rock, which used to collect runoff from the paved parade grounds of St. Emma School. A very old drop inlet, which looks just like the ones used today, collected the drainage and a series of hand-made rock channels sent it to the fish-shaped catch basin downhill. It dates back to the early years of the school. I work for an agency that regulates how stormwater is managed. Today runoff is considered a pollutant that needs to be mitigated and controlled. The students of Saint Emma found a creative and sustainable way to collect runoff and use it as a resource decades before federal, state and local mandates. It was a vivid reminder that as we ponder ways to control pollution to benefit future generations, perhaps we should learn some lessons from the past.

The students at St Emma showed foresight when they built this little fish pond to capture runoff from the school parade grounds. Photo by author.

The students at St Emma showed foresight when they built this little fish pond to capture runoff from the school parade grounds. Photo by author.

In my mind, it is impossible to separate historic preservation and environmental conservation. They are wrapped together spatially and ethically. The landscape is covered with the reminders of our past and they occupy many of the same places that are the focus of conservation efforts. Affording protection for one must recognize the presence of the other. Saint Francis/Emma is the perfect example. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament are doing an exemplary job of preserving the history of the site’s people, protecting the resources that supported their residence and answering the Call to stewardship.

That is the whole story.

Where to go: 5004 Cartersville Road, Powhatan, VA 23139 

 Follow Route 60 West into Powhatan. After Route 60 becomes a two-lane road, take the next right on Bell Road. Take a left on Cartersville Road. The main entrance to St. Francis/Emma will be on the right.