A Brief and Provisional
History of Riverbank (updated)




front of the house


Why provisional? Because there are huge chunks of the history that we don't know. Many of the land records were burned during the Civil War. Although some still exist; family records conflict with the official records, and with each other, on important points. Some people believe that the house was constructed in 1850 (based on the dates in Isaac Terrel's book Old Houses of Rockingham County). We think it was built between 1778 and 1788. After having lived here for a while, after having exhaustively researched both primary and secondary sources, this is as much of the house's history that I believe is reliable.

First of all, people have always lived here. The fields are studded with arrowheads and flakes, evidence of thousands of years of occupation on a grassy floodplain where the main food sources included deer, elk and buffalo. There is a natural ford in the river (the original Island Ford) just behind the house. A path roughly paralleling Gap Run, the creek that comes out of Simmon's Gap in the Blue Ridge about two miles east of the house, came through the Yancey land and headed west and south across the river. Another path ran north and south along the river on the east bank, and the crossroads of these two ancient trails came at Riverbank.

When the Europeans came, they built roads along those paths. The two main roads south from Elkton (then Conrad's Store) came, one along the foothills of the Blue Ridge, following what is now Berrytown Road, and another along the river to Port Republic, which was the launching point for the barges (or gundalows) that floated down the Shenandoah and the Potomac, and on to Georgetown and Washington. Most of that original road is gone now, either washed out as the river shifted its course over time, or destroyed when it was incorporated into pasture for cattle. A small portion still survives on the Locustdale and Riverbank properties. More of it survives north of Riverbank on property owned by the Merck Corporation, but that land is closed to the public. The road was in service in the early 1900 (I spoke with a man who remembered driving with his father in a Model T to Riverbank to do some work) , although by then another road a little to the east had been established, because the river road was flooded so frequently. That alternate road is now Route 642, Captain Yancey Road, which became a small side road when Route 340 was contructed.

The Riverbank land is part of a grant that came from the Lewis family into the Yancey family, and was deeded to William Burbridge Yancey from his father, William Layton Yancey. Rebecca Yancey's history Ancestors and Descendants of Capt. William Layton Yancey and his Wife Frances Lynn Lewis: 1600-1900 recounts that the first house at Riverbank was built of logs and located upriver, where it was washed out in a flood, and that the current brick house was built in 1856 (pp. 150-153). All of this is incorrect, although many of the Yancey family bases its records on Miss Yancey's work.

It's unlikely that, if there was an original house, it was upriver, because the land rises high, about 20 feet above the waterline. The old road still runs along the bank, which means that the house site would have to be in the field, where there are no remains. Since we still have depressions in the ground from the old dairy and slave cabins, I just can't believe that a main house could disappear without a trace.

There is approximately three-quarters of a mile distance between Hilltop and Locustdale, with Riverbank about midway between. That's a tight fit for plantations, especially considering the huge tracts of land these farms controlled (in 1863, when the Yanceys tried to sell Riverbank, the plantation was 850 acres). To site an original log house downstream from the current house would put it in the midst of the farm buildings, which is also unlikely. If there was a temporary wooden struction for the family to live in while the house was being built, given how narrow the plantation was, it would have had to be very close to the house's current location.

But personally I don't believe there was a temporary house. In 1778, Thomas Lewis arranged the betrothal of his daughter Frances (who was 8 at the time) to William Layton Yancey, a captain in the Virginia Dragoons who served in the Revolution. The two were married in 1788. In the decade it took for Frances to grow up, we think Lewis laid off the property, had the bricks made, the wood cut, and the big house built. In Lewis' will, made on his deathbed in 1790, he granted the house to Layton and Frances, and pretty much thumbed his nose at his three older children, (all of whom he disinherited, the two sons for the "vices of drunkenness and gambling" and the daughter for "disobedience," meaning she likely refused an arranged marriage), and intimates that, had they been good children like his daughter Franny, he would have built them a big impressive house, too.

William Layton went on to have a distinguished career as Rockingham County split from Augusta. He served the County as a Justice of the Peace, a Sheriff, Overseer of the Poor, and election official. His profession was "farmer."

After raising a large family at Riverbank, in 1810, William Layton built Hilltop, just downriver from Riverbank. He died in 1813, leaving ownership of the new house to elder sons to be worked out, and bequeathed Frances life's rights to "the plantation she inherited from her own father Thomas Lewis," after which it was to be divided between his youngest sons William Burbridge and Albert. In the 1830s, Burbridge bought Albert's interest in the property, and emerged as the owner of Riverbank, living there through his tenure as a Justice of the Peace and member of the Virginia Legislature.

According to the Morris family, who lived here from 1968-1978 , there was an ancient tree in the middle of the big field just south of the house. Around that tree was a quantity of broken rubble and bricks which, according to local history, was the site of the kiln where the bricks for the house were made. The Morrises cut down the tree and plowed the site over, but somewhere out there below the plow zone the site remains intact. The wood in the house is old-growth yellow pine, and was cut on the Blue Ridge and milled in the water-powered sawmill that was here on the property.

The house is made of three courses of brick, inside and out. All the walls are solid. There are 14 fireplaces, 3 in the basement, 5 on the first floor, and 6 on the second floor. The front bedrooms each have twin fireplaces. The back bedroom has a modest fireplace, the same size as the still room upstairs and the warming room downstairs, two servants rooms in the very back of the house. We've been told it took six years to build, which I think is probably quite likely, given the number of bricks it would take to fill the walls three and four courses thick and three stories high.

When I try to think through the house's history, I think about the purpose for which the house was built. This is not a farmhouse, not by any stretch of the imagination. It was a plantation, built in Federal style for entertaining. Three side-by-side formal parlors and a dining room made up the first floor. Upstairs the two bedrooms in the front wing are extremely formal, each one having twin fireplaces. The back wing was made up of a bedroom/ballroom, and a still room.

In 1850 the house underwent a comprehensive renovation, and much of the woodwork was switched out to reflect Victorian tastes (again, sawmills on the property, a near-inexhaustible supply of old-growth pine on the mountains, and skilled slave artisans made the work involved very doable and the cost very minimal). In the north bedroom upstairs, a curtain wall split one large room into two smaller ones. Andy removed that later wall , making the room whole again. The main staircase was moved from the central parlor and relocated into a small room in the middle of the house, one that was carved out of the dining room downstairs and the big back bedroom upstairs. This we know because the current central staircase is separated from those rooms by another thin curtain wall--one of only two walls in the house made of plaster and hand-riven lathe instead of brick. The other is in the center room upstairs (where originally the staircase opened). That room was cut in two, making a hallway and a bedroom that was turned into a bathroom in the 1940s. It's the only room in the house that does not have a fireplace but, with an open stairway, it would not have needed one. It's clear that the staircase was moved from a different location, judging from the way the ceiling cuts the downstairs door woodwork in half, and a lightwell over one of the back doors (now leading into the bathroom) was covered up to accommodate the landing.

At the same time, German itinerant artists came through the Shenandoah Valley, and left paintings in some of the houses. There are two other houses in Rockingham County that preserve frescoes similar to the one in the south parlor at Riverbank. According to Yancey family lore the fresco, which covers the entire ceiling in a trompe d'oeil painting, was room and board for the artist through an entire winter. A second fresco in the north parlor didn't survive. Or maybe it did, buried under layers of paint. In any event, that ceiling is now covered with drywall and perhaps awaiting a skilled conservator.

A house of this size would require considerable support. The 1850 census reveals that there were 16 servants on the property, 2 white and 14 African-American, ranging in age from 7 to 70. According to the Yancey family, at least some of the slaves lived in the basement rooms, which follow the layout of the main floor. The room beneath the south parlor was probably a dining room; the kitchen would have been in the very back of the house. Before 1960, shackles were fastened to the basement wall adjacent to the steps outside. That wall that collapsed from the infiltration of tree roots, cracked the exterior wall all the way to the roof and has since been repaired.

I have to confess that when I learned some of the slave history, especially the oral history about the slaves' treatment, I was troubled and, even now, I tend to avoid the basement. But as I've lived here I've developed a companionable feeling for the people who built and maintained this huge house. When I strip away layers of new paint I think of the hands that last touched the old finishes, trace the footsteps in the worn doorsteps. It is far more their house than mine.

Two of the slaves born at Riverbank, twin brothers Reuben and Ambrose Dallard, sons of Jemimah Dallard, who apprenticed as carpenters, took part in the 1850 renovation. After the Civil War and Emancipation, the Dallard brothers went to Harrisonburg, where they built many of the houses in "Newtown." Much of Harrisonburg's Newtown was shamefully siezed by eminent domain in Urban Renewal in the 1960s and bulldozed, tearing the heart out of Harrisonburg's African-American community. A few of the Dallard houses survived, though, one of which shows remarkable similarity to the Riverbank renovation work.

In the 1850's the house was leased to the Teel family briefly. A flood in the later part of the decade convinced the Teels that they were more comfortable on higher ground, so they moved to Hilltop and, in 1858, William Benjamin Yancey and his wife, Victoria, moved in. William Benjamin left almost immediately to join the 10th Virginia Infantry as the commanding officer of the Peaked Mountain Grays. During the Civil War, Riverbank stood near the main north/south road between Conrad's Store (Elkton) and Port Republic. We have no doubt that it was visited often by officers, certainly by Stonewall Jackson, under whom Yancey served, and that it served at times as a hospital, as did almost every house in the area. After Port Republic, the Federals retreating down the Valley skirmished all the way past the house and down to Conrad's Store (Elkton).

"Captain Billy" served in the 10th Virginia, commanding the regiment during Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, and was in every battle the Army of Northern Virginia saw, until he was wounded in the 3rd battle of Winchester in 1864. He returned home, to survive the last days of the war after Sheridan's Burning of the Valley. He remained in constant pain from a minie ball in his hip, for the rest of his life.

After the war, Captain Yancey built an empire, buying land, raising crops, running mills, owning a store, working as Postmaster and serving on the board of the railroad. The railroad had a depot in the middle of his farm at Yancey, which is now gone. He and his wife raised a huge family. In accordance with family tradition, the children were tutored at home. The sons became lawyers, chemists, etc. Daughter Julia briefly married, was widowed and came home. As the years passed, daughter Emma, also widowed and with two children, returned. Her children, Hunter and Mary Gibbons, grew up at Riverbank. Both Hunter and Mary left, but their cousins and, eventually, Mary's children, returned often to visit. Julia and Emma remained in the house and, in time, Hunter assumed responsiblity for the property. Day to day operations had for years been in the hands of tenant overseers, first the Sipes and then the Lams. Hunter rented the back wing of the house to a family in return for caretaking duties and oversight of his mother and aunt. Julia and Emma grew old in the house, and died.

In 1958, the somewhat neglected and now empty Riverbank went up for sale. It was bought in 1960 by a family that wanted to use it as a summer home but never did. The Morris' bought it in around 1968, and made some startling changes to the house, which had not really been touched since 1850.

They tore off the front and side porches and replaced them with modern ones. They enclosed the north-facing back porch and made a couple of rooms, including a bathroom and office. They ran baseboard radiators on all three floors, blocked up the upstairs fireplaces and rebuilt 3 of the 1st floor fireplaces. They moved a modern kitchen into the dining room, framed out the basement and put up panelling, and poured concrete over the hard packed earth. Upstairs, they drywalled the south parlor and installed carpeting and linoleum on the first floor. They have justifiably been accused of historic insensitivity, but with a large family and farming business, some of the Morris children have acknowledged that historic sensitivity was low on the family's priority list.

In the late 1970's Coors Brewery bought the property. They planned to make Riverbank their guest house, and they had even begun the paperwork to have the property listed as a national landmark, but the project lagged. Then the flood of 1985, which filled the basement but did not reach the main floor, convinced them it was unwise to invest more money and effort in Riverbank. Coors closed the property and abandoned it.

A neighbor on an adjacent tract of land built an expensive new house in the 1990's and, when he finished, complained to Coors that the barn was an eyesore from his new house. Coors tore down the barn, even though it was essentially sound and needed only siding. The barn that survived the Civil War and Sheridan's Burning, did not survive the yuppification of the neighborhood. Although the barn was gone before we bought the property, we miss it sorely.

The house and property were empty and untended until we bought it in 1998. When we made the offer, the company was exploring whether or not to bulldoze the house because it was so shabby, and we believe the house would have been destroyed if we had not bought it. Since then, our lives have been wrapped up in restoring the property, making the house sound, and making the place live again. We were astonished at the amount of original material surviving intact, and the superficiality of the destruction within the house. We still have a lot of work left to do and it will take many years, but we celebrate every small step, and we try to remember to be patient. With luck and persistence, Riverbank will host many generations for another 200 years.

sign by the road




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