In the spring of 2014, I began my largest design project to date in terms of both scale and timeline. My family purchased twenty exhausted acres in eastern Albemarle County, just outside Charlottesville, Virginia with the goal of bringing it back to life, while increasingly making our life from it. Since this place has represented daily provision and a fresh start for generations of families—including ours—and due to the expansive eastern vista which affords us pretty epic sunrises, we call it Dawnbreak.
The first people known to make use of this land were members of the Monacan tribe. Our place is about twelve miles from the site of Monasukapanough village and isn’t far from the Rivanna which flows southeast from there. We’re in what is now South Keswick, along the historic Three Notch’d Road and the trail that preceded it. Our property includes over ten acres of forest; mixed growth, but predominantly hardwoods. In the center of the property, there’s a spring-fed pond that serves as a source for Mechunk Creek. Folks in the area refer to it as Mechunk Spring and it’s easy to imagine that it has provided rest and refreshment into the distant past.
In colonial times, this parcel was part of a much larger plantation known as The Marshall Farm, comprised of some 1,200 acres granted to Charles Lewis in 1731. At its peak in the early 1780s, the Lewis holdings exceeded 8,000 acres.
During the Revolution, local legend Jack Jouett and his nemesis Colonel Tarleton likely rode across the property. In 1801, a hundred acres was leased to Thomas Duckford Boyd, who assumed management of an existing tavern called Watson’s Ordinary. Our little village is still known as Boyd Tavern and our house stands just a few hundred yards from the present day structure. And in 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette made a triumphant visit to his old friend Thomas Jefferson. A national hero, Lafayette was wined and dined along the Stagecoach Road (now Rt. 616) and visited the tavern before traveling on to Monticello.
In 1870, just five years after gaining his freedom, the property was purchased by Lewis Hern, formerly a fourth-generation slave at Monticello. He’d been able to save money he’d earned as a laborer at Edgehill, a plantation belonging to Thomas Jefferson’s grandson. Mr. Hern was a founding deacon of nearby Union Run Baptist Church and established the current farm configuration. This gently rolling land would support his family for over a century, and many of them lie at rest in Union Run’s small graveyard.
Upon taking possession, Lewis Hern likely renovated an existing cabin. The earliest depiction of a substantial house at the site can be found on a map dated to 1867. However, a visit to our crawlspace reveals the foundations of at least two smaller structures that have been anecdotally dated to the colonial period. Up by the road, there’s an old well-house that still contains an ancient, hand-dug well and the many spiders that call it home.
The current house was built in 1930 by Lewis’ son, Bernard Clinton (“B. C.”) Hearns, and his grandchildren of locally harvested oak and pine. It’s a two-story, two-over-two, three bay central-passage structure. It sits on a fieldstone foundation and has a hip roof with a small attic. At some point, a one-story addition was added off the rear of the house, which contains the present-day kitchen. Surrounded by low fieldstone walls, stands of Black Locust and giant, hundred-year-old boxwoods, we get plenty of shade and gentle breezes all summer long.
The house is situated on the compass points, with the front door facing West toward Charlottesville. This means the side yard and gardens have full access to the southern sky and our northern side is protected by massive maples and outbuildings. It also means we look out the back, over field and forest, to the east—greeting the sun as it first reaches Albemarle County. It must be a straight shot all the way to the Atlantic, because we’ve spent many clear nights up on the roof, watching rockets blast off at Wallops on the Eastern Shore.
Since arriving in 2014, our energies have been focused on clearing brush and building soil fertility. While the house underwent structural renovations in the early 2000s, the land was overgrown and in many places contained deep gullies and exposed rock. After centuries of row cropping for corn and tobacco, the soil is badly depleted. The cleared acreage had begun succession and was home to Black Walnut, Locust and Eastern Red Cedar saplings as well as copious bramble and thistles, and a stand of pine was overgrown with vines and thorns.
We’ve built a few hundred yards of fencing and created a few paddocks for animals. We invited a pair of ornery goats (“Cotton” and “Coal”) to clear underbrush and get the bramble and poison ivy under control.
Now, we have a three-generation flock of hair sheep (Katahdin x St. Croix) in managed grazing. And in earky 2018, we added pastured poultry (Cornish Cross) to the rotation and filled the freezer with wonderful meat.
Additionally, we board a friendly horse (“Pokey”) and raise heritage-breed pigs. We’ve got a flock of low-input free-range laying hens, sometimes augmented by ducks and geese. We’ve also added a small apiary, with industrious honeybees pollinating the orchard and pastures beyond.
As we learn more about permaculture design, we’re trying to build our farm to be as resilient as possible. Our water lines are gravity-fed and we’re fortunate to have access to the same deep spring that the Monacan people used a millennia ago. We’ve got a small kitchen garden with fresh herbs and in 2016, we planted a small orchard. Our intention is to grow slowly and carefully and without tilling and without the use of any chemicals.
For me, the work of ecological design has been an exciting challenge. We’re learning as we go—making a lot of mistakes—and we stand on the shoulders of many. I’m particularly indebted to the work of Ben Falk of Whole Systems Design whose research and innovation in small-scale subsistence farming has been indispensable.