Friday, January 28, 2011

Cold Weather and Winter Projects

Winter is definitely upon on us here at Stratford Hall. Punxsutawney Phil may have predicted an early spring, but we will not be packing up our cold weather clothes anytime soon!

Stratford Hall maintains reduced hours in the months of January and February, so many of you might be wondering what we do in the winter. The truth is that we do not even notice a difference! There is always a lot of work to be done, so these months allow us to focus on projects that are difficult to complete during our busier seasons. One example is the current repair of the south door of the Great House.

The Interpretation and Education Department keeps busy in the winter even when there are far fewer visitors. Policies need to be updated, reports collated, visitation data analyzed, work spaces organized, and exhibits repaired. A new newsletter was produced for local schools about the educational programs and new outreach plans created to attract more group tours. It is not exciting work, but sets the groundwork for a successful and productive 2011.

The 2011 Calendar is full of familiar programs and some new ones. Jon Bachman, Education Events Coordinator, has been working all winter to develop these programs and reach out to new audiences. We are very excited that the Triennial Coaching Weekend will be this May. Other programs include Reflections on Black History, The Women in R.E. Lee's Life, Traditional Trades Fair, Wine & Harvest Festival, and the Star Party.

Stay tuned for more updates about all the work that has happened the last few months.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Update on the organic farming program

Stratford Hall’s organic farming program continues to make progress. With funding from the Department of Agriculture, Natural Conservation Resources Service, we received a grant to support our transition to organic farming. The Gatehouse field, subject of a failed attempt to pursue sustainable practices in 2009, has now been successfully planted with a thriving crop of organic clover. We are grateful for a donation from Seeds of Change, which supplied the organic clover seed. This project will help address soil fertility issues, enabling us to pursue the cultivation of organic wheat and corn on this field in the near future. We will also grow a small demonstration crop of tobacco, the staple crop of colonial Virginia.

Ultimately, we hope to produce enough corn and wheat to supply the Stratford Hall gristmill with organic grain, which will be available for sale at our gift shop and online. We don’t have plans for the tobacco – unless there is a sudden surge of interest in the bitter variety of tobacco grown here in the 18th century; an unlikely event.

Other elements of our organic program are also evolving through the development of partnerships with compatible organizations and individuals. One of these partnerships is with Seeds of Change, who has graciously provided the seed needed to move the program forward. We have also developed relationships with other organic producers who can enable us to expand and diversify our organic products. In 2011, we initiated a partnership with Stoneleigh Farms, a successful producer of all natural honey. Stoneleigh will utilize our Cliff Fields as home to several bee colonies that will ultimately produce 2,000 pounds of honey annually. The Stratford Hall honey will be available through our own retail outlets and through grocery stores in Northern Virginia.

There has been a tradition of livestock production at Stratford Hall stretching back to the 18th century and continued intermittently since the acquisition of Stratford Hall by the Robert E. Lee Memorial Association in 1929. A small herd of Devons, a historic breed, has been maintained since the termination of the last active cattle program in 2003. Through a new partnership with Lakota Farms, one of America’s foremost sustainable Devon producers, Stratford will once again be home to a significant cattle operation. Devons are an historic breed and certainly would have been found at Stratford in the 18th century. This new program will be about more than just production, but provide our visitors with the opportunity to get a close-up view of these animals and the issues related to their care. Lakota is a grass fed producer, so their values are consistent with our growing organic program.

Because of the addition of these new programs, Stratford Hall’s organic program will make a significant contribution to our educational efforts, enabling our visitors to get a glimpse of the diversity of agricultural practice and a better understanding for its historical importance and sustainable options for its future.

- Paul Reber, Executive Director

Friday, January 21, 2011

The curator takes Manhattan

Greetings from New York City (above, a view of Rockefeller Center ice rink from my hotel).  I am currently on a scouting trip to New York during Americana Week - the time in late-January when all the big auction houses have their sales and the major antique shows are running.  After arriving yesterday, I spent the afternoon at the New York Ceramics Fair and today it is the Winter Antiques Show and whatever else I may be able to squeeze in.  We're not bidding on anything at any of the major auctions, so this time it's just the shows for me.

So what exactly do I do at these shows?  Well, I talk to people and I look at things.  Those are the two main activities.  Before I left Virginia, I made a binder of information related to items that I'm looking for, including pictures and information gleaned from Lee family records like inventories.  This trip the focus is on ceramics and specifically items found via archaeology (above - like the rat's nest - or below ground).  If you've been to our new slave quarter exhibits, you know that we have archaeology on display.  Two fragments of white salt-glazed stoneware are on view (above) and I'm looking to find whole examples to display in the slave quarter rooms.

Talking and scouting yesterday led to this plate:  an English white salt-glaze plate with molded rim.  Can you see where these fragments might have fit?

I'm also looking for the more rare finds.  Like the Chinese export porcelain pattern we found in the rat's nest with a pair of crabs on it.  Or the agateware tea bowl found in the West Yard and now on display in our new Southwest Outbuilding exhibits.  No luck so far.  So I give out my card, gather e-mail addresses, and will send dealers pictures of the fragments so they can help keep a lookout for examples in the marketplace.  Keep your fingers crossed for me today and I'll be sure to report back if any interesting finds come my way.