Abandoned Farmville – The Mansion Of A Tobacco Tycoon
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Poplar Hill/The Dunnington Mansion
The Dunnington Mansion, also known as Poplar Hill, resides in the town of Farmville, Virginia. Yes, it’s not just a Facebook game, and it’s actually the county seat of Prince Edward County, formerly Amelia County until February 27, 1752.
The historic home stands overlooking the rolling hills of the Manor Golf Club – a beautiful golf course with well-maintained fairways and very reasonable greens fees of $33 on weekdays. No, that’s not a promotional pitch. Ya know, I really need to start bringing my clubs with me more often. Though I’m not sure how often, if ever again, I will be running into an abandoned home situated right in the middle of a golf course.
Early History (1700s-1826)
While the home as we know it now was constructed through numerous additions from the late 1800s into the early 1900s, the history of this home can be traced back as far as the 1700s when land-owner Richard Woodson purchased the property in Prince Edward County. Richard was also known as Baron Woodson. He was born in 1695 in Henrico County, Virginia Colony. Woodson would soon establish the Poplar Hill Plantation, at which point he also constructed the first version of this home; no more than a small four-room house.
After Woodson’s death in Goochland County, Virginia in 1774, the plantation was passed down to his daughter Agnes — born October 4, 1748. She and her husband, Francis Watkins, would later go on to construct a nicer brick house in place of the former structure. They completed construction of the home near the end of the 18th century. In addition to the reconstruction of their home, numerous other structures were built on the plantation, including quarters for enslaved African-Americans. Looking at old atlas maps, these numerous other structures can be seen noted on the property, but were eventually demolished between 2004-2006. Agnes passed away in July 1820 at the Poplar Hill plantation, followed only 6 years later by her husband in 1826. After their deaths, the property passed to their daughter Frances — one of their six children, who would go on to live there with her husband James Wood.
The couple would later further expand the mansion, which by this point in time had become known as the Wood Plantation house. After approximately 40 years of the Wood family owning the property, it once again changed hands. This time the mansion and land were acquired by Captain John Hughes Knight Junior. Knight was the son of Colonel John Hughes Knight and Sarah “Sally” Everett Carter. He married Cornelia Alice Bland on October 12, 1853 at First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia, which still operates today. Shortly after their marriage, they purchased the Poplar Hill property and made it their home until the late 1880s.
Knight then handed the property down to his daughter, India Wycliffe Knight, and her husband, tobacco tycoon Walter Grey Dunnington. This was a key turning point for the history of this home, as it would soon see the largest reconstruction of its life.
Dunnington Builds a Mansion
By 1897, Dunnington had decided to practically rebuild the entire home around the smaller structure that already existed. After the renovation, the home’s 8,500 square feet now had a total of 14 rooms. The foyer itself was quite an undertaking, and a very costly one at that. Ornate woodwork can be seen decorating the grand staircase, complimented by a beautifully-crafted brick fireplace near the front door. The home’s exterior was designed in a Romanesque Revival style, while inside you’ll find a merging of Italianate and Victorian architectural design throughout.
Upon entrance to the home, through a doorway directly to my left, I found crumbling remains of the once-luxurious study. After years of deterioration, the floor eventually gave way on one side of the room and is now nearly impassable — at least without some carefully planned steps. Pieces of the ceiling lie scattered across nearly the entire room, and all that remains aside from the fireplace are some bookshelves, though now in a less-than-desirable state, falling further each year following the slope of the slowly sinking floor. Passing through the study, I found myself standing amidst peeling walls of the formal dining room, where the Dunnington family would entertain many wealthy guests during numerous parties over the years. The two dining room windows stretched nearly all the way from floor to ceiling, one on each side of the fireplace. Light poured into the room through the windows, which were now covered in cobwebs and a residue so thick that they actually diffused and softened the harsh light as it passed through.
On the opposite side of the hall from these two rooms, two adjacent parlor areas sit falling to pieces. One room exited to the porch on the side of the home, while the other exited directly into a breathtaking space; surely one of the most notable architectural features of the mansion. The Italianate-style domed glass conservatory, though now cracked, decaying, and falling to pieces, was still so peaceful and beautiful inside and out. Soft gusts of wind entered through busted glass panels pushing the ivy, which swayed back and forth. It wasn’t difficult to get lost in relaxation beneath the green glow, pleasant birdsong, and tranquil, earthy smell of nature recklessly, though magnificently reclaiming the space.
Upstairs, beautifully-detailed archways connect halls and stairwells. Rooms were decorated with beautiful Victorian fireplaces. In some rooms of the home, you’ll also find turret alcoves. During my visit, the November sun offered a warm glow, constantly beaming beautifully into rooms through the alcove windows. These spaces had previously provided a perfect spot to relax and enjoy the sun, but I’d say I enjoyed it just the same. Oh, and about the stairwells? Well, there were a lot of them. I’d imagine that some were used for servants to keep them separate from the family or guests, (real glad we’ve made it past this) but now they just look like someone tried to design the home after an M. C. Escher Piece.
At the very top of the home was a large attic — formerly brown wood, now an elegant and calming off-white thanks to the many birds that have called this space home for years. As I reached the top of the stairs, I was greeted with yet another door, which led to a balcony area situated within the archway of the home’s facade, which faces northwest. I can only imagine how many evenings were spent up there enjoying the sunset.
Walter’s Incredible Wealth
So it’s obvious that Walter Dunnington had some serious money, and was living quite a lavish, high-class lifestyle, but how did he achieve this wealth? I mean, sure, by this point we know that he was a tobacco tycoon, but how did that come to be?
In 1870, Walter’s father, James W. Dunnington, created the Dunnington Tobacco Company in Farmville, Virginia. In 1872, only two years after the company was created, Walter joined his father in business. Over the years, he would help by bringing the company’s name around the world, obtaining clients from Italy, Austria, and even Norway.
While the company initially focused on producing dark-fired tobacco, they eventually transitioned to bright lead, as it had become largely popular with the massive expansion of the Virginia and North Carolina cigarette manufacturing business near the end of the 19th century.
Eventually, Norway had become one of the company’s biggest clients. In 1902, thirty train cars loaded with tobacco left from Farmville, destined for Norway via the shipping docks at the end of the Norfolk and Western Railway tracks. The tobacco company eventually operated on over 1,100 acres, then known as the Poplar Hill Farm. One of the original tobacco warehouses is located on the Appomattox River at Mill and First Street. While the Dunnington Mansion has seen a more grim fate, the warehouse has been repurposed and is now occupied by Charley’s Waterfront Cafe and part of the Green Front Furniture Company.
If the tobacco company itself weren’t enough to bring Walter a nice profit, he also entered the world of banking, becoming involved in Farmville’s First National Bank. If these two ventures weren’t enough to fill his days, he also became the co-owner of the Virginia State Fertilizer Company with Walter H. Robertson. In 1897, the same year Walter and his wife moved into their Poplar Hill mansion, Walter served the county as a member of the Hampden-Sydney College Board of Trustees. He had surely become a very busy, but very rich man.
Walter Grey Dunnington passed away on August 1, 1922, leaving behind his son, Walter, and wife, India, who would continue to live in the home for the next 40 years after his death. On July 25, 1960, India passed away at the age of 103-years-old. It’s wild to think that she lived to see a time when trains and horses were the main modes of transportation, but also got to see the first light bulb, first automobile, plane, television, and even lived into the introduction and early evolution of Rock and Roll music. Imagine what a wild ride through life that would be. She and Walter are both buried at the Westview Cemetery in Farmville. Their son, Walter, would pass away 11 years later on May 20, 1971. He is buried at the Southampton Cemetery in Southampton, Suffolk County, New York.
After India’s death, the home would continue to be inhabited and was well-maintained for years, though not much information exists on who lived there over the years between 1960-1998.
At one point, the golf course had plans to restore the historic mansion with possible use for guests and events. Unfortunately, as the economy began to fall apart, the plans were scrapped due to a lack of funding.
Local resident Virginia Dowler Dickhoff was one of many who remember growing up on the old Dunnington property. Her father would come into Prince Edward County from Canada to help tend to the farm and keep the field crops healthy. This was information I was able to find online from a former neighbor of hers. Unfortunately, Virginia passed away on January 15, 2020.
The home went up for auction in a sealed bid auction held in October. The deadline for a 361-acre portion of property, including the mansion, was scheduled for 3 pm on Wednesday, October 7, 2020.