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Shirley Plantation: 212 July 4ths. Descendents of original family celebrate again

By Nancy HerndonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 1, 1988



Charles City, Va.

THE stately brick buildings of Shirley Plantation stand almost exactly as they were built in 1723 - an enduring vision of the colonial past. From out of a 250-year-old doorway steps modern America in the form of Helle Carter, born abroad, but at home as mistress of an American landmark.

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Mrs. Carter visited this historic plantation 29 years ago as a young Dane and met and married the plantation's current owner Hill Carter. She now lives a classic American truth - the marriage of old and new in America's evolving society.

This Fourth of July she is introducing some 80 Danish descendents to the earliest days of the nation's history by hosting a picnic at this shady plantation by the James River.

``A lot of people in this country are immigrants or grandchildren of immigrants,'' Carter notes cheerfully in a slightly clipped accent. She believes that the plantation - the home of nine generations of Carters, including her own three Danish-American children - forms a point of connection between families who came to the United States long after its birth and those early days of American history.

Open to the public for a fee, the historic plantation, its original architecture immaculately preserved, is scarcely rivaled for authenticity and detail. Other early plantations still exist along the James, but only Shirley has been the home of a single family for two-and-a-half centuries.

The 4,000-acre tobacco plantation was founded in 1613 - just seven years after British settlers at Jamestown struggled to establish the first permanent English colony in the New World. The royal governor of Virginia named the plantation after his wife.

The three-story house and brick outbuildings - laid out in neat geometrical order - were probably built in 1723 by John Carter after his marriage to heiress Elizabeth Hill. Furnishings have been preserved from those days. In the two-story kitchen, copper pans still hang on the whitewashed brick walls, and cast iron pots squat at the fireplace.

The early Carters, who built these substantial barns and buildings, were an aristocratic family, who might have been sympathetic to the British Crown in the years leading up to the first Fourth of July. But when the Revolution came, Charles Carter was loyal to his land.

A member of the Virginia Convention, which set up government after the royal governor fled Virginia in 1775, he served briefly in the local militia during the Revolution. Shirley Plantation stored supplies for the Continental Army.

It is on the same lawn where Danish-Americans will hold this year's Fourth of July picnic that members of the Carter family watched Benedict Arnold's British fleet sail toward Richmond during the Revolution. In 1776, the enormous willow oak still standing here today had already shaded the lawn for 30 years.

After the war, the family prospered. Heirlooms displayed in the main house today include antiques, portraits, and old silver that the family has owned since tax assessors found Charles Carter the richest man in Virginia in the decade following independence.

The Carters today are more down-to-earth folk - as much caretakers as masters of their magnificent inheritance. Hill Carter, a semiretired farmer, personally handles most of the maintenance on his historic buildings and grounds.

While his ancestors posed for portraits in velvet and lace, Mr. Carter allows himself to be photographed in grease-stained pants and denim shirt, replacing blades on a mower.

``I put roofs on all these,'' he says, indicating the 18th-century brick storehouses now topped with handcut shingles. ``I do just about everything.''

A bandana around her hair, Mrs. Carter weeds beds of santolina and purple sage at midday, with a Scandinavian's love of the sun and an energetic woman's belief that work done now is better than work considered.

To keep the house and grounds meticulous for the 42,000 visitors who tour the plantation each year, she manages a staff of 15, including tour guides.

The youngest generation of Carters, now in their 20s, left the plantation to go to college, but all have now returned and live in the private rooms on the second and third stories of the historic plantation buildings. ``They're working in what they call the real world,'' says Mr. Carter.

``Charles is the oldest, so he'll inherit the house,'' reflects 22-year-old Harriet, a brown-eyed blond who raises horses on the estate. Charles, her 26-year-old brother, works for a brokerage firm in Richmond. Randy, 24, is a recent graduate of Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

So the aristocratic old buildings of Shirley still shelter a family and grace a shady lawn - and testify to the skill and vision of those who built a new nation.