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Urbanna considering repairing landmark

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The Urbanna Museum and Visitor’s Center (above) was known for generations as the Old Tobacco Warehouse. The building is actually the historic James Mills Scottish Factor Store. (Photo by Tom Chillemi)

by Larry Chowning

The Urbanna Museum and Visitor’s Center building in Urbanna has a long history going back to the tobacco trade in Middlesex. For a while, its origin and use were lost to history but today, with some certainty, it is believed that it was built as a Scottish Factor Store. 

The Town of Urbanna owns the building and lot today. Town council recently set aside $40,000 for resurfacing the porch and the repair of cracked bricks. There is also concern that the foundation of the building is being negatively impacted by the hill that is in front of the building. This situation is being researched. Council members see the old colonial building as an important asset to the town and it has taken a generational effort to keep the 18th century building alive.

In the 1930s a tobacco company considered purchasing the old colonial building, known for generations as the Old Tobacco Warehouse, dismantling it and setting it up as an exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Colonial Williamsburg also showed interest in purchasing the building for use of its bricks in the Colonial restoration of Williamsburg.

When town residents learned of the possible dismantling this sparked the creation of the Ralph Wormeley Branch of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA). The State APVA along with the local branch raised funds to purchase the land and structure from the estate of R. Finley Gayle.

The Ralph Wormeley Branch of the APVA was established on May 30, 1938 with Mrs. James M. (Margaret) Barnhardt elected president of the group. She, along with others, set up a committee that spearheaded an inspection of the building by state APVA officials. The local committee, along with Mrs. Barnhardt, was composed of Mrs. Carroll Chowning, Mrs. A.E. Segar, Mrs. Carl Tomlinson and Mrs. Harris Booth.

Their goal was a complete restoration of the building, but structural work would actually not begin for another 25 years. The Ralph Wormeley Branch records state that for a while the group was “in a rather dormant state.” With the election of Mrs. A.J. Chewning in 1951, who would later own the Old Colonial Tavern building, “a more vigorous program was pursued.” Mrs. Chewning appointed General R. Latane Montague of the Old Custom House in Urbanna as chair of the restoration committee.

General Montague had previous experience with such work at Gunston Hall (home of founding father George Mason) and brought “this knowledge to bear.” He was also able to obtain timbers and bricks from an 18th-century colonial structure in Fredericksburg that would be used in the restoration.

With this impetus, extensive research began to determine the original details of construction and past use of the building. In 1958 the state and local branch of APVA sponsored and funded a “Report On A Building at Urbanna, Virginia,” conducted by professional historians and archeologists to evaluate the historic significance of the old structure. The object of the report was to determine the building’s “. . . place in the history of Virginia and its connection with the tobacco industry.”

Dr. Wesley Newton Laing, an experienced university professor of history, was hired in 1958 to do the “major report” on the building. The report outlined the history of tobacco in the colony and how Urbanna was created as an official tobacco inspection center with a tobacco customhouse and warehouse. The report was completed in 1960.

Laing’s report brought with it some disturbing news for the restoration committee, which thought the structure was an old tobacco warehouse. The report stated that building is on Lot 29, and through deeds of ownership of this lot the report determined the building was, more than likely, a commercial store structure rather than a tobacco warehouse.

Archeologists dated the structure to have been built between 1763-1766. Merchant James Mills owned the building and lot from June 28, 1771 to when Overton Cosby Co. purchased it on January 6, 1789. Both were retail storekeepers.

Laing concluded in his report that if the APVA decided to restore the building, “the restoration would be of a colonial business established of a succession of Scots Merchants who dealt in a variety of goods, including tobacco . . . but that it was not to be restored as a Tobacco Warehouse. 

Restoration began in 1964 with the rebuilding of the brick walls, porch, and roof all completed by 1965. Total restoration was completed in 1967 and that year the Urbanna Public Library moved into the downstairs of the building. Although it took the APVA nearly 30 years to restore the building, this completed the first major restoration of the structure since it was built.

The local Ralph Wormeley Branch raised $10,000 of the cost of the restoration and the remainder was paid by the parent organization. The basement and two-room loft were not part of the restoration.

posted 05.01.2019

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