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The History of the "Oakland" House and Property

By Peter M. Rippe (revised)


“Oakland” is both the name of a historic house and the title of an equally significant piece of property. Although there is no proof that this name was applied to either entity before 1858, it is an especially convenient umbrella title under which the organizers of the museum will be able to integrate a great variety of historic periods.

Early history

Oakland’s recorded history begins in the early 1800s when this property was a very small part of a much larger tract owned by Samuel Jordan Cabell, the “master” of Soldier’s Joy. Cabell’s great plantation was subsequently divided several times, until it passed into the hands of one of his daughters, Paulina Cabell Whitlock. After Paulina’s death in 1827, her daughter, Sarah Cabell Bohannon and Sarah’s husband, Dr. Richard Bohannon, a prominent Richmond physician and Professor of Obstetrics, inherited the property from which Oakland was to be carved. In 1840, they sold thirty-seven acres of Sarah’s inheritance to George H. Mitchell. The deed describes the property as “being the same tract on which the said George H. Mitchell has lately erected a dwelling house and store house….” From this statement as well as from architectural evidence it is possible to date Oakland House to about 1838, the year in which Mitchell obtained his first license to operate an ordinary (an inn and tavern) “at his house…” Interestingly, at this time George H. Mitchell also held a court appointment as “constable … in and for the County of Nelson.” Being that he was both an innkeeper and a lawman, one would expect that his tavern/ordinary would have been an especially safe haven for both weary travelers and thirsty locals. Nonetheless, in February 1840 George resigned his office of constable for reasons unstated. Almost exactly one year later, George and some of his friends were arrested and cited “for firing guns, drumming in the public road and alarming the neighborhood.” In 1842, a Robert Mitchell joined George as a partner in his innkeeping. Robert may have been George’s brother, nephew, or cousin, but probably not his son. In 1843, Robert was appointed a constable. George, not to be outdone and despite his earlier infraction, was reinstated as a constable in 1844. He continued, however, to operate his ordinary, providing “… good wholesome and cleanly lodging and diet for Travellers and stableage fodder and provide or pasture and provender as the Season may require for their Horses….”

George H. Mitchell’s last one-year license to operate an ordinary was issued on May 26, 1845. After 1846, it appears that he left the business. Currently, there exists considerable confusion as to who owned and ran the Mitchell ordinary between 1846 and 1850. Later records clearly indicate that Robert Mitchell “purchased” the property from the estate of George H. Mitchell, but to date no deed of sale has been located. What is clear is that a contentious relationship existed between the two men, especially after July 28, 1846, when both men appeared in court contesting the ownership of “one sorrel horse.” From that time on, “Ro Mitchell vs. George H. Mitchell upon motion and attachments …” becomes a relatively common entry in the Nelson County Court Order Books until Robert’s death. The case is never explained.

Nevertheless, what is clear is that by January 22, 1849, Robert Mitchell and his family were in full control of the property. On that day, the Order Book records that Andrew L. Fogus, Robert’s son-in-law, was granted a license “to keep a house of an ordinary and house of public entertainment at Mitchell’s Brick house….” This document connects George H. Mitchell’s 1838–1846 period of innkeeping to Robert Mitchell’s proposed disposal of the property in his will, which was proven on August 27, 1849. Therefore, for almost twelve years Oakland was an operating inn and tavern.

The tavern

Mitchell’s Tavern or “Brick House,” as it appears to have been consistently called at the time, operated on what was a well used and an important stage road. Records from 1839 reveal that the “Washington City to Lynchburg Stage” ran past this establishment three times a week on its 200-mile journey from the Federal City via Leesburg, Winchester, Warrenton, Orange Court House, Charlottesville, Lovingston and Amherst Court House to Lynchburg. Mitchell’s prominent hilltop location the west side of the stage road about one hundred and 65 miles south of Washington and about 35 miles north of Lynchburg made it an easily visible and accessible landmark. It was at about the halfway point on the 9-mile run between the Nelson County Courthouse town of Lovingston and the now defunct U.S. post office in the now almost forgotten community of Rose Mills.

Based on architectural remains still present in the old house as well as on descriptions of other contemporary ordinaries, the Mitchell Tavern was probably arranged as follows: on the lower floor, the so-called English basement, guests were received, provisions were stored and servants were accommodated. One of the two rooms on this level was probably the inn’s kitchen. Travelers would have been greeted and registered on this floor and then ascended an outside stairway either at the front or the back of the building to the second or main floor level of the tavern. On this floor, two large rooms were divided by a central hall. Judging by the more refined details of its fireplace mantle, the south room was possibly a lady’s parlor. The north room was probably the bar and main dining area. The public sleeping areas would have been on the third level with as many guests as possible sharing the beds that would have been available. Meanwhile, the innkeeper and his family might have lived in one of two rooms on this upper floor or, as is more likely, they lived above a stable area that would have been located directly behind the house in a separate building which was originally called the “storehouse.” The remains of this dependency, I believe, are still contained within the now adjoining frame structure which was put on new foundations and attached to the house in the early 20th century.

In the aforementioned will of Robert Mitchell, he directed that his brick house and property be sold and that the proceeds should be divided equally between his three daughters: Mariah Phelps, wife of James M. Phelps; Martha Mitchell who was then a minor but who later married Jefferson Mays, and Stella Fogus, wife of Andrew Fogus. (At the time of Robert’s death, Fogus was operating the Mitchell Tavern, as noted above. George H. Mitchell seems to have been completely out of the picture.)

An inventory of Robert Mitchell’s estate was filed in the Nelson County Courthouse on September 27, 1849. It lists a considerable amount of household furniture including eight feather beds, all completely furnished. Using this inventory as a guide, it should be possible to furnish Oakland relatively accurately using a “Mahogany Side Board,” both Windsor and split bottom chairs, a “Woodin” clock, a pine cupboard and other interesting pieces. The inventory also lists an assortment of farming equipment and some 25 slaves spread between the Oakland property and other land that Robert Mitchell owned in nearby Amherst County.

Interestingly, it took Robert Mitchell’s heirs nearly eight years to settle his estate. Finally, on May 7, 1857, the property was deeded out of the estate. James M. Phelps and his wife Mariah, one of Robert Mitchell’s daughters, reached an agreement with her sisters, Martha and Stella, that “in consideration of the sum of one thousand dollars to them in hand paid . . . ” she and her husband became the sole owners of “some Thirty acres with the buildings and Appurtenances and Known as the ‘Brick House,’ it being now occupied by James M. Phelps and being the same … property divided by the will of Robert Mitchell.”

Arthur Hopkins and his heirs

Less than five months later, James and Mariah Phelps signed a deed transferring what was then estimated to be thirty-seven (not thirty as above) acres to Arthur Hopkins. Dated September 18, 1857, this document describes the property as “Being the same Conveyed to George H. Mitchell by R. L. Bohannon and wife … purchased of said Mitchell’s Trustees by Robert Mitchell (very confusing, considering the aforementioned litigation) and devised to said Phelps…. ”

Dr. Arthur Hopkins was a fascinating character who had been practicing medicine in the town of Lovingston since about 1825. Although born Arthur Pollard, at about twenty years of age he changed his name to fulfill the terms of the will of an eccentric and wealthy grandfather, Dr. James Hopkins of Amherst County. Arthur Hopkins named his new home “Oakland” and presumably resided in the house until his death late in 1862. There is evidence in the form of an unpaid bill that Dr. Hopkins may have kept a medical clinic in his home. Perhaps he was treating sick and wounded Confederates during the first couple of years of the Civil War. To this day, rumors persist of soldiers that are buried at the rear of the property.

According to the November 11, 1862 will of Arthur Hopkins all of his estate, “real and personal,” was left to his wife, Elizabeth R.C. Hopkins during her life. At her death, his property was to be divided between his son, James W. Hopkins and his daughter, Ann Maria Hite. However, at the time of the writing of his will Dr. Hopkins had not heard from his son for several years and his property was left in his daughter’s control with the stipulation that it was “for her sole and separate use, free from the control of her husband and not liable to his contracts or debts as if she were unmarried …” Ann Maria was both to take care of her mother, who was appointed Executrix of her late husband’s will, and to search for her lost brother so he could receive his fair share of what was at the time a rather rich inheritance.

After the Civil War

In 1863/64, the house is identified on the J.F. Gilmer Confederate Military Map of Nelson County as “Hite House.” With the fall of the Confederate States of America there came a great depreciation in the fortune of the Hopkins/Hite family. Poor Ann Maria could no longer afford to keep Oakland. Despite the fact that she was able to locate her brother and obtain his interest in the property, a deed dated October 1, 1867 describes the sad situation: “…And whereas at the time of the death of the said Arthur Hopkins … he was the owner of several valuable slaves, since liberated by the result of the late Civil War besides a small tract of land his homestead containing 37.2 Acres, some household and kitchen furniture, plantation utensils, and debts due him … which in the ruined state of the country there is no hope or prospect of realizing … and as soon as the stay law expires, the household and kitchen furniture and the small live stock must be sold to make up the deficiency whatever it may be … ” In effect, Ann Maria and her mother were forced to sell what was left of their estate to pay off back taxes and debts and to obtain enough money to continue to exist in what must have been, at least to them, a new and strange world.

It was not easy to sell Oakland at a time when very few people had any money. Early efforts resulted in a series of temporary and ultimately abortive sales involving several possible purchasers including the Alexander Baker family of Augusta County, Virginia, and the Daniel Mosby family of Pennsylvania. Eventually the property reverted again to Ann Maria, her husband J.J. Hite, and E.R. Hopkins (the widow of Arthur Hopkins). On January 2, 1871, what ultimately turned out to be a reliable purchaser was found. James C. Pettit’s deed to “a certain tract of land … called ‘Oakland’ … ” was signed and sealed. Although Pettit first appears to be just another defaulter without enough cash on hand to complete the purchase, his relatively new father-in-law, William H. Goodwin, came to his rescue. Records show that Goodwin took over Petitt’s deed on September 9, 1871, and the “… parcel of land called ‘Oakland’ lying and being in the County of Nelson which said Arthur Hopkins resided at the time of his death … ” passed into the Goodwin family.

In October 1872, Edwin Goodwin purchased the same thirty-seven-acre tract from his father William H. Goodwin. In 1901, Edwin willed Oakland to his nephew, Charles N. Goodwin. He in turn in 1920 willed Oakland to his wife Rosa Belle Stevens Goodwin (1876-1967) and their children. One of the children, Elizabeth Goodwin Coco (1907-2000) received title to the house and approximately eleven acres of the property in a partition deed dated March 12, 1963. Mrs. Coco was the aunt of Josephine Goodwin Campbell who inherited the house and its 11.63 acres on November 27, 2000. It is this Josephine Campbell who sold the house and property to the Nelson County Historical Society.

The present

The Nelson County Historical Society and its partner, Oakland: The Nelson County Museum of History, have restored a portion of Oakland House to its ca.1840 period: a typical ordinary/tavern from the first half of the nineteenth century. The men and women who would have used the services of the tavern and the inn keepers who kept the tavern going will be represented in the building’s story. Furnishings, etc. will be in keeping with the times as well as with the aforementioned Robert Mitchell inventory. The house and its immediate surroundings will be a study in travel through Nelson County before the coming of the railroad. It will represent “life on the road one hundred and seventy years ago, Nelson County style” … an actual and symbolic beginning of a journey into an admittedly ambitious project.

Historical Research Document, 10/24/04, by Peter M. Rippe (revised)

Copyright © 2005-2016 Nelson County Historical Society

Updated 2 April 2016.