By Bryan Stevens
Special to the Herald Courier
Eleven new historical markers recently approved for placement along Virginia roads will include a sign in Bristol, Virginia, to commemorate the Walnut Grove Plantation and its founder, Col. Robert Preston.
Preston built the house that bears his name and is known as the Robert Preston House, and he accumulated the acreage for the plantation, which at one point boasted as many as 2,000 acres. The Robert Preston House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register.
Isabelle Ladd and Jan Rainero, co-chairs of the Robert Preston House Committee of the Bristol Historical Association, worked to make the new historic marker a reality, noted that the BHA owns the house and about 3.5 acres of the surrounding land. They added that the majority of the original plantation has been commercially developed, while the undeveloped surrounding acreage (about 75 acres) is owned by the Mack B. Trammell Foundation.
Ladd and Rainero explained that Preston worked as the first surveyor of Washington County, receiving the commission in 1779 from Thomas Jefferson, who at that time was Virginia’s governor.
Around 1800, Preston constructed his Walnut Grove residence, which is among the oldest houses in Washington County. The house is significant for several reasons. Ladd and Rainero noted that the building was a frame structure as opposed to being constructed with logs, and that such a building would have been rare in Virginia’s “frontier” era. It’s known today as the oldest frame house in Washington County, Virginia. The house also originally featured a “kicked profile” roof line, which was extremely unusual.
In addition to Jefferson, Preston had contact with another important figure in American history. William Clark of the famed Lewis and Clark exploratory expedition stopped on at least one occasion at Walnut Grove on one of his many trips to Washington, D.C., to submit expenses. Clark and Preston’s son, John, were contemporaries and friends. The one documented visit by Clark to Walnut Grove can be confirmed, as it was reported in Clark’s journal.
“The marker itself attests to the historic importance of the site and its relation to both local and national history,” Ladd said. “Virginia has been declared a Lewis and Clark Eastern Legacy Trail, and efforts are ongoing in Virginia to add the segment to the National Trail.”
Ultimately, Ladd and Rainero agreed that the BHA would like to see the development of a survey useum and historic house for the Walnut Grove Plantation, noting that a survey museum could incorporate many aspects of the STEM programs so important in today’s education systems.
The process of selecting markers is an intensive one, according to Public Information Officer Randall Jones with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
“In recent years, we tend to receive upwards of 60 applications each year and average accepting around 50 each year.” Jones said. “Those we decline as state markers are ones that are clearly of local significance, or those that cannot be adequately documented.”
Jones noted that, although the acceptance rate seems high, the criteria for designating a historical marker remains a high bar.
“DHR’s two-person marker team, which consists of historian Dr. Jennifer Loux and an assistant historian, Matt Gottlieb, put a huge amount of effort into doing additional research and editing/rewriting the proposed texts so that they become eligible,” Jones said. “Without this process, vastly fewer of the applications would qualify for approval.
The text for the Walnut Grove Plantation marker will feature the following wording: “Col. Robert Preston (1750-1833) acquired 720 acres here in the 1780s and established Walnut Grove. Preston had emigrated from Ireland in 1773 and worked as assistant surveyor under his relative William Preston, who laid out vast areas of western Virginia. During the Revolutionary War, Robert Preston joined expeditions against the Cherokee and Loyalists. Gov. Thomas Jefferson appointed him the first surveyor of Washington County in 1779. Preston’s frame house, built here ca. 1800, is among the county’s oldest. By the 1830s about 30 enslaved African Americans were laboring on his land. William Clark, of Lewis and Clark, breakfasted at the home of Preston’s son John at Walnut Grove in 1809.”