Visitors Center Opening Celebrated

Published 4:49 pm Tuesday, March 13, 2012

PRINCE EDWARD – It is a long and winding journey from the days when an old milking parlor stood at the site, but down at the bend in the road on the Prince Edward-Amelia line just off of U.S. Route 307 stands the shiny new visitor center.

Though its been open for several months, on Friday-with a host of dignitaries, including State Parks Director Joe Elton and other invited guests on hand for the occasion-the ribbon was officially cut for the Sailor's Creek Battlefield Historical State Park.

“…The main theme of this park is to show how the battle of Sailor's Creek led to, eventually, the surrender of Lee's army 72 hours later at Appomattox Courthouse,” detailed Park Manager Chris Calkins at the event.

Email newsletter signup

It was here in the still-sparse countryside, on April 6, 1865, where the last major battles (there were three at Sailor's Creek) of the Civil War were fought. Commanding General Robert E. Lee lost 7,700 men and eight generals that day.

The museum in the new visitor center has a timeline of events from April 2, when Confederates abandoned Richmond and Petersburg, up through April 8, Calkins cited, “because we're hoping people will then leave here and go on to Appomattox to learn the rest of the story.”

The new High Bridge Trail State Park, he also highlighted, will be totally coming on line (the bridge is expected to be open this Spring).

“…You can't talk about the battle of Sailor's Creek without talking about the two engagements at High Bridge,” Calkins said. “And so you will see part of our exhibit deals with that…That's the main part of the museum and we title it 'Silent Witnesses, the Artifacts Tell the Story.'”

Most of the artifacts that are seen in the museum, he further explained, were found on the site of Sailor's Creek and the retreat.

“The day that we were coming out here after the 2002 bond referendum to discuss where the visitor center should be sited,” Elton reflected, “Chris comes up to me and he's carrying a ramrod and I said, 'Chris where did you get that artifact.' And he said, 'Do you see that tree line over there?' He said, 'I happened to be in that tree line and I stopped and looked out over the battlefield and I looked down and it was sitting there just as it had been put into the ground during the battle itself.'”

Calkins, Elton would also recount, told him that when the exhibits are ready for the visitor center that the ramrod would be on display.

“It's in there today,” Elton said.

Inside of the visitor center one can learn the story of Sailor's Creek. Outside, they can visualize the events on the rolling countryside.

Just down the road is also the park's most significant landmark (which will open after the first weekend in April). The Hillsman House, a tiny, white clapboard country home, served as a hospital for Union and Confederate soldiers. Three hundred fifty eight Union soldiers were treated here, 161 confederates. (Union officers, by one account, were taken to a room inside the home with two beds. Union enlisted soldiers and Confederate soldiers were relegated to the lawn.)

Decorated with primitive period furniture, park officials have regained the look and feel of 1865. There are still saturated dark spots on the wooden floor that state police analysts have determined to be blood. (One makes a circular pattern, as if the blood dripped around a bedpost.) It's authentic inside, down to the paint analysis on the baseboard trim (which was determined to be brown in 1865).

Preserved for generations to come and see.

Elton also reflected on the history of Virginia state parks-political leaders who envisioned a state park system to capitalize on the natural and cultural treasures and in the process creating not only a great legacy of history and showcasing natural treasures, but also stimulating outdoor recreation and tourism spending that would be valuable to the economy of Virginia.

“And this is what they were thinking in 1921 when E. Lee Trinkle from Wytheville was governor of Virginia and attended the first national conference on state parks in Des Moines Iowa,” he said. “They were thinking, they were dreaming big that if we build it, they will come.”

Elton wove he history of state parks, reflecting that the first state parks-built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the Great Depression-were opened on June 15, 1936.

Governor George C. Perry, at the opening, Elton recounted, offered: “…What we have done today is opened up a park system for the working man and his family. It will be their deluxe resorts. And what we have also done is we have created places that people will come from far and wide to visit and we will be stimulating our economy going forward.”

Elton also reflected, “He said, if we build places such as this, there will be no place in the United States of America for communism, socialism and fascism. Our democracy will thrive when we take care of the people.”

Today, there are 35 state parks with over 70,000 acres, more than eight million visitors last year with an economic impact approaching $200 million, and a cost last year to the taxpayers of only $17 million.

“…Today, we dedicate this great visitor center which I think will definitely be a contributing factor both to the story-telling of Virginia's rich history and to our economy,” Elton said.

Outside the glass doors of the visitor center is a pristine view. The help of the Real Estate Civil War Trust has helped to preserve that view with the addition of 35 acres that will be deeded to the park. Calkins also highlighted that landowner Jimmy Garnett has worked with Civil War Trust and there is now a conservation easement on Garnett's property.

And, thanks to Garnett, there's even a pullover spot at the Hillsman House.

For those, of course, who would retrace the steps of history.