Teaching for Historic Places Lesson Plan

An Antebellum Plantation in Virginia

Everyday Life and the Built Environment
at the Sweet Briar Plantation

Teaching Activities

Getting Started

Figure 2: Then and Now
Sweet Briar house, 2003 Sweet Briar House, 2005
Sweet Briar House, 2003Sweet Briar House, 2005
  • Question 1: How does the landscape differ in the two photographs?
  • Question 2: Why do you think the College changed the landscape?
  • Question 3: What function do the boxwood hedges serve?

Setting the Stage

Watercolor Painting of Locust RidgeThe Sweet Briar Plantation was originally called Locust Ridge (Figure 3). Locust Ridge was built in the 1790s as a Virginian Farmhouse. The early watercolor illustrates the original building: a central rectangle, with a chimney at each end, an ornate staircase, a handful of trees (but no hedges), and a wooden picket fence.

After Elijah Fletcher bought the plantation in 1830, he began improving the agricultural amenities. First, he built grist and saw mills for processing wheat into flour and trees Figure 1, Sweet Briar Houseinto boards. Second, he planted crops, which he tended to several times a week until the 1840s when he moved permanently to Sweet Briar from Lynchburg. Third, he built structures in and around the main plantation house: an ice house (used to store ice from winter ponds by packing them in straw), a henhouse, a barn, and even a cocoonery (for silk worms). In 1852 he added two towers to the plantation house, hence the difference between Fig. 3 and Fig. 1. Can you identify the towers? They were built in an Italianate style.

Sweet Briar RosesSweet Briar Rose IconSometime after Mr. Fletcher bought the farm he changed the name from Locust Ridge to "Sweetbrier" (and later to "Sweet Briar"). The story goes that his wife, Maria, loved the profusion of roses that grew at the plantation. The species of rose was the Rosa eglanteria, translated as "Sweet Briar." Today the rose serves as the emblem of the college. Try your hand at drawing the flower in Figure 4. The college tried and came up with the icon, also pictured in Figure 4. An "icon" is a symbol that represents an idea or a theme. Here, the icon of a rose symbolizes the college.

During the 1830s and 1840s, Mr. Fletcher's two sons, Sidney and Lucian went to college (to Yale and William & Mary, respectively) and his daughters, Indiana and Elizabeth were sent to a convent in Washington D.C. for their education. Elijah's wife, Maria Antoinette Crawford Fletcher, divided her time among their houses in Lynchburg, Sweet Briar, and her mother's home in Kentucky. Martha Penn TaylorAs early as the 1830s, Mr. Fletcher began bringing African Americans to Sweet Briar to make the farm successful. These individuals were born into slavery and had no choice in the matter. They served as farmhands, stone masons, carpenters, cooks, maids, laundresses, and caregivers for the Fletcher children. To the left is a photograph of Martha Penn Taylor (Figure 5). We know from a letter that she wrote in 1854 that Mr. Fletcher owned her sister Mary. Martha asked Mr. Fletcher to purchase her so that the sisters would not be separated. After emancipation Martha moved to Coolwell, Virginia and worked as a nanny for Indiana's daughter Daisy.

Mr. Fletcher lived out the end of his days at Sweet Briar, dying in 1858, on the eve of the outbreak of the American Civil War. By then his eldest son, Sidney, had moved to a nearby plantation called Tusculum (inherited from his mother's family, the Crawfords). In Mr. Fletcher's Will, Indiana inherited Sweet Briar (Figure 12), while her sister, Elizabeth, was given land to build a new plantation, named Mt. San Angelo (Figure 13). The fourth son, Lucian, was in bad graces with his family and inherited nothing. Mr. Fletcher's wife, Maria Antoinette Crawford, pre-deceased him, dying in 1853. After the Civil War, Indiana married a reverend from New York, James Henry Williams. Their only child, Maria Georgiana (who went by the nickname "Daisy") died at age 16 in 1884. When Indiana died, at age 62 in 1900, she left the plantation land and funds to found a college for women: Sweet Briar College.