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An antebellum plantation in Nelson County returns to family hands

An antebellum plantation in Nelson County returns to family hands

Perched on a knoll in the mountains of Nelson County sits the Pharsalia plantation — a squat white home with a green tin roof.

Named for the epic poem depicting the civil war between Julius Caesar and the forces of the Roman Senate, Pharsalia was built in 1814 by Revolutionary War veteran Major Thomas Massie as a wedding present for his youngest son, William Massie.

It seems fitting, then, that current owners Foxie and Richard Morgan are using the house and its scenic grounds as a wedding venue. They also farm flowers, teach hearth cooking classes and hold historic tours at the more than 200-year-old house.

Foxie is the great-great-granddaughter of William Massie and feels a need to preserve and share her family’s history.

Much has been written about Pharsalia during its early history — much of it gleaned through the elaborate journals William Massie kept.

The origins of the estate date to 1795, when William Massie’s father, Thomas, purchased 3,333 acres from Colonel John Rose, in what now is southern Nelson County. Enamored with the views, he moved his family from the Tidewater area, building a plantation called Level Green.

He built Pharsalia for William and his new bride, but a lifelong marriage wasn’t in the cards for William. His first wife died after 14 years; his second wife died in childbirth, his third wife died after four months of marriage.

In his letters, William wrote of longing for a wife of “strong stock,” and he found that in Maria Effinger, who was 19 years his junior. The couple married in 1834 and she outlived her husband by 27 years.

The couple had four children who lived into adulthood — Martha Virginia, Hope, Florence and Bland. Maria also raised William’s two other children from his prior marriages.

“This is the most documented farm in the country,” Richard said. “The reason being is William Massie kept records every day — climate, farming practices, everything.”

For instance, Foxie said, Cyrus McCormick, the inventor of the mechanical reaper, visited the plantation and one of the first prototypes was used there.

At the time of William Massie’s death in 1862, his farm consisted of more than 10,000 acres divided among four plantations, and the family raised wheat, hops, tobacco, potatoes and apples. He built a number of mills to grind and export flour.

Massie’s plantations were run on slave labor, but he “strove to be a fair and just master, buying family units or uniting slave families, whenever possible,” according to information on the property.

Maria continued to run her husband’s plantations after his death, guiding the plantation through the Civil War and Reconstruction. She supplied Confederate troops with food and took care of the women around her whose husbands were off at war.

Pharsalia was set ablaze by Union soldiers in three places but servants extinguished the fires; scars remain visible on one of the mantles.

“Maria kept the place going until 1889, which was amazing,” Richard said. “That was Reconstruction. That was a terrible period of time and how she kept it together was amazing.”

Maria was a big proponent of education and made sure her family got the schooling they needed.

After Maria’s death in 1889 at the age of 75, Pharsalia passed out of the Massie family hands for about 60 years. In 1951, Pharsalia came up for sale and Foxie’s grandparents helped her parents, Perkins and George Flippin, buy the family plantation.

Foxie’s parents kept a house in Lynchburg and spent weekends and vacations on the Nelson County farm.

“I had the best of both worlds,” Foxie said. “I had my country friends and our city friends.”

Foxie said when her mother died in 2004, she gave Foxie and Richard first right of refusal to purchase Pharsalia. The couple live in another family home directly behind Pharsalia — essentially in its backyard.

“I didn’t want to live in somebody else’s backyard for the rest of my life,” Richard said.

By 2006, the Morgans owned the family plantation. Soon they decided to make a business of the property to pay for its upkeep.

The Morgans began the painstaking restoration process, tackling one room at a time in order to repair and restore the antebellum house.

Foxie said the house needed a lot of work, and Richard chimed in: “It still does.”

“We paint something every year,” Foxie said. “...There’s always tons to do.”

As the couple restored each room, Foxie left behind a plastic bag with money, a photograph and a note, in hopes that in another 100 years someone else would find the treasures she left.

“Every day is a problem or situation,” Richard said of the upkeep. “It’s always a challenge. … But we also get to enjoy this and the views are beautiful. It’s quiet and peaceful. It’s pretty secluded. We’re in our own little world here. … It’s a curse but it’s also a gift, so you just get to deal with all of it.”

Richard said the plantation house really can’t be left for more than two weeks, a lesson the couple learned when they spent three weeks in Italy and the pipes in the house ruptured.

“When we go travel or something like that, we just dread coming back. I mean, we definitely enjoy coming back, but it’s like, ‘Oh, God, what now? And how did the grass keep growing?’” Richard said, comparing the maintenance of the plantation to a high impact sport.

A tour of the home begins in the green wallpapered foyer lined by white wainscoting. The space is decorated in portraits and benches and a grandfather clock occupies the space.

“There’s not much original furniture,” Foxie said. “That just is what happens when houses are broken up. Even when my mother died, we divided everything.”

Off the foyer is the formal parlor with its dentil crown molding and columned fireplace mantle.

“So there’s an outside entrance there that goes into a little room and then goes outside,” Foxie said, pointing to a door in the parlor. “That was for servants to be able to come in and feed the fireplace.”

Circa 1850 oil paintings in the parlor feature Maria and William Massie.

William Massie was a vain man, Foxie said, and he did not like sporting gray hair, so he sent away for huge vats of dye from London that turned his hair red. A lock of that red hair sits in a frame accompanied by a letter written by William.

The massive mirror over the parlor mantel was a gift.

“We’ve been gifted a lot of things to fill spaces and add to the history,” Foxie said.

From the parlor, one can enter the guest bedroom.

A bathroom was added in the early 1900s off that room and modernized in the 1970s.

The windows feature six panes per section, though the middle pane is larger than the side panes so the dividers didn’t obstruct the view.

The floors are oak and each board runs the entire length of the room without seams.

Scattered in each room of the old house are signs pointing out the history inside. One notes the brass bells that hang over the windows on the exterior of the house. Each bell rings with a different tone so the servants knew which room required assistance.

In the original dining room, bookcases built for Foxie’s mother are designed to be removed without damage to the original walls. Paintings on the wall are of the Massies Mill area.

To the right of the fireplace mantle was a warming room where servants would bring food from the outside kitchen to hold until it was time to serve. The warming room was commandeered for another first-floor bathroom.

The couple initially papered the dining room but began to have some trouble with mildew they had never experienced before. It turns out the glue on the paper wasn’t letting the old plaster breathe. When they removed the wallpaper, the problem vanished.

As far as furnishings are concerned, the Morgans strove to keep the furniture period.

“We researched basically each piece to see what time period it was. A lot of what is here was made in Lynchburg by the Duiguid Funeral Home,” Foxie said pointing out the sideboard. “… When they weren’t making coffins, they were making furniture.”

Portraits of Foxie’s grandmother, Florence Massie Morton, and her grandfather John Tyler Morton, hang on the walls.

Foxie’s grandfather bought the patent and formula for Chapstick and he and his wife mixed batches of the lip gloss in the kitchen. He eventually formed Morton Manufacturing and was instrumental in selling Chapstick to the U.S. Army during World War II.

The new dining room was added in 1841, almost 30 years after the original structure was built. It became Maria’s bedroom after she injured her ankle in 1840, which limited her mobility.

According to writings, Maria wanted to see out the front from her bedroom, which is why the addition is a little off center. In 1852, a second story containing additional bedrooms and storage was added.

A small room off the back of the house served as the kitchen when Foxie was growing up but now contains shelves displaying the family’s massive collection of cooking and gardening books.

Foxie’s parents later added a large contemporary kitchen so the entire family could participate in preparing meals together. It was not uncommon to have 20 to 30 family members crowding the house on the weekends.

The couple completely revamped the kitchen in 2012, which now doubles as preparation space for weddings, as well as an office for the staff that operates the plantation home.

“My husband’s in the woods business,” Foxie said. “So that’s came in handy for all the wood things.”

The grounds feature a kitchen where the enslaved would prepare the family meals. The couple uses the space to host hearth cooking lessons and Foxie said the chimney on the massive fireplace “draws nicely.”

Another building houses the old ice pit — a 20-foot hole encased in a structure.

“They would drop a rope ladder down to get the ice,” Foxie said. “They had ice almost year round. It was for luxury, it was for iced tea, it was for lemonade and it was for ice cream.”

The couple built an outdoor bathhouse that looks like a barn for wedding guests so they don’t have to come into the house.

The Morgans host weddings, parties, tours, farm-to-table dinners, dueling chef competitions and workshops at the plantation, which also serves as a flower farm. Weddings and events usually take place from April to October.

“This spring was a wakeup call that we really need,” Foxie said, adding cancelations mounted quickly amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Last month, Pharsalia hosted its first wedding since the pandemic. “So we decided we would offer elopements, small weddings for 30 people.”

The elopements are offered at a reduced price and give the couples about three hours with the historic house.

The couple began hosting weddings about seven years ago, and that first one was a learning experience the couple used to create a better experience for their guests. Now, during a typical year, 15 couples tie the knot at Pharsalia.

The Morgans hope it remains in the Massie family but they are realistic. Their three children have busy lives of their own.

“We’re going to do the best we can,” Foxie said. “And what happens after we die? We can’t control that. So it’s okay.”

The Morgans don’t want to see the plantation leave the family a second time, but they agree, said Richard, “You can’t control things from the grave.”

“They may not really show it but when push comes to shove they’ll step up,” Foxie said with a smile.

PHOTOS: An antebellum plantation in Nelson County returns to family hands

Perched on a knoll in the mountains of Nelson County sits the Pharsalia plantation — a squat white home with a green tin roof.

Named for the epic poem depicting the civil war between Julius Caesar and the forces of the Roman Senate, Pharsalia was built in 1814 by Revolutionary War veteran Major Thomas Massie as a wedding present for his youngest son William Massie.

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