A Walk Through Time
Click HERE to listen to the history of Poplar Hill created and presented by Audrey Biringer, a communications studies major at Longwood University.
Timeline of ownership
Pictures from the Dunnington family years
Memories from the Dunnington great grandchildren
African Americans at Poplar Hill
Pictures from the Bolt family years
Memories from Mr. Nelson Bolt
Richard Woodson bought 1152 acres from King George II. He built a small, four room wooden house and named the farm Poplar Hill.
Anges (Woodson) Watkins
The house and property was willed to Richard's daughter Agnes and her husband Francis Watkins.
Frances (Watkins) Wood
Francis Watkins willed the property to his daughter and son-in-law Frances and James D. Wood. The original brick portion of the home was constructed circa 1840.
This was a completely separate structure than the before mentioned house.
Stays in the Wood Family
Frances and James passed the property to their son Francis (Frank) Wood and his wife Paulina.
Captain John H. Knight Jr.
Frank and Paulina sold the property to John Hughes Knight Jr., a captain in the confederate army, thus ending Poplar Hill's 100+ year history in the Woodson/Watkins/Wood family. His daughter India was around 4 years old when they moved into Poplar Hill.
India Knight and Walter Grey Dunnington
Captain Knight willed the property to his daughter India and her husband Walter Dunnington. Walter was one of Virginia's prominent tobacco barons. The Knights continued to reside at Poplar Hill with the Dunningtons.
Mr. Dunnington extensively renovated the house, creating the sprawling mansion that is seen today. He added on four rooms and the massive tower and stately front entrance.
It is worth noting that this addition changed the orientation of the house from north/south to east/west. The front of the house now faces west.
India Knight Dunnington
After his death in 1922, Walter willed the house to his wife. The house would remain with India Dunnington until her death in 1960.
At age 103 India passed away in the house that had been her home for the last 99 years, marking the beginning of Poplar Hill's modern history.
Glen and Freeda Bolt
In 1960 the property was auctioned under sealed bid and ultimately purchased by Mr. Glen K. Bolt. The land was logged and turned into an extensive working cattle farm.
Many barns and outbuildings were added by the Bolts adding to the functionality of this beautiful property.
There is even a homemade pen next to the furnace in the basement where bottle fed baby calves were kept warm during the winter.
1960 - 2000
The Bolt Family
Together with his son Nelson, Glen made numerous upgrades to the house including updating the electric, converting the coal furnace to oil and modernizing the plumbing.
The Bolts also renovated the inside of the house, restoring the beauty that had faded as India aged.
Glen and Freeda passed the property to Nelson, who continued to operate as a farm until 2000.
Community Development Authority and Partners
Late in 1998 Nelson and his wife Marsha were unexpectedly approached by a group of local investors who had become interested in the property. They were part of the recently created Community Development Authority and associated LLCs. They wanted to bring a championship level golf course to Farmville.
When Nelson sold the property to them in 2000 he was under the impression that the home was destined to be the grand centerpiece of the newly planned Manor Golf Course and would be well cared for.
At the time of the sale, the interior was magnificent and pristine, having been lovingly tended over the years by Nelson's mother Freeda Bolt.
Early 2000s - Present
Unfortunately the money dried up for the CDA and its partners. Part of the property went into foreclosure and some was sold. The golf course was constructed in 2004 and the mansion was neglected.
The mansion has passed through several versions of corporate ownership over two decades as its former glory has faded. For the last decade plus it has been under the control of foreign investors who have resisted offers to sell the mansion by itself.
The property sold to a group of local investors at the end of 2021. Rumors are that it might soon be up for sale. They are currently working on the house to protect it and prevent further damage from occuring.
Photo Gallery: Pre-1960 Era
Photos Courtesy of the Dunnington Family
All photographs are protected by personal copyrights.
Left: Jack Dunnington Center: India Dunnington
Right: James Dunnington
India Dunnington and her sister Betty Knight. Betty lived with the Dunningtons at Poplar Hill and was known affectionately as "Big Bett".
Memories from the Dunnington Great Grandchildren
Mr. Frank Orgain
The lemon tree:
The lemon tree was in a large pot that was moved from the garden to the green house as the weather changed. The lemons were about the size of a soft ball and looked similar to a small grapefruit. I was told that one lemon was enough to make a lemon chess pie.
The ice house:
During the winter, ice was taken from a lake on the property and stored with straw in a deep hole under one a storage shed behind the house. There was a trap door in the floor of the shed leading to the hole. A ladder was built in to access the ice. As I recall, ice was retrieved throughout the year for household use.
My grandfather, James W., often visited Granny on Sunday. Whenever, I went with him I would say hello to Granny and get a hug. Then I proceeded to the farm area to see what was going on. On my way out, I would fill my pockets with beaten biscuits, which were kept in an egg basket near the door.
The farm had milk cows, raised hogs for slaughter, chickens for the eggs. On occasion, I was allowed to try my hand at milking, not an easy job. Watching the slopping of the hogs was interesting. The hen house was off limits to us. The boy great grandchildren always had fun when together exploring and at times getting into trouble.
The most beautiful part of Poplar Hill was the lane that led to the house. After going through the woods, fields opened up on each side. The lane was lined with trees on both sides. During the spring jonquils bloomed between the trees. I wish I had a video of that approach.
Every year, the extended family gathered on Christmas Day for fellowship, a feast, and exchange of presents. The food was served on a buffet in the dining room. While there were meats, vegetables, breads and desserts, my favorite was the cracklin' bread. At some point, the doors to the parlor were opened to where the Christmas tree was and presents were exchanged.
The most memorable part of Christmas was the crap game (low stakes but high energy) played on the floor. Granny always played primarily with the men and as I recall generally won. She would have her highball and delight in rolling the dice. I was delighted when I became old enough to participate.
Photographs below (left to right): Original beaten biscuit recipe as written by the Dunnington's butler Lester Bigger, beaten biscuits and India Dunnington playing craps at Christmas.
Mr. William (Buck) Sydnor II
My name is William Jennings Sydnor II , youngest son of Kathryn Chamberlin Dunnington Sydnor. My mother was the oldest daughter of James William and Kathryn Chamberlin Dunnington. James William (Bill) was the son of “Granny Dunnington”. I go by the nickname of “Buck”. Unfortunately I was only 10 years old in 1960 so my memories are limited but wonderful all the same.
I remember sitting next to Granny on the porch listening about her memory of the War Between the States. She described the burying of silver from the Union Army and a family member that was sent home from the Confederate Army for being too young.
I remember playing in the ice house in the middle of the summer with the ice covered with straw and what appeared to be dozens of farm cats.
Christmas was “special” as all of the family returned for the holidays. Uncle Watt and Jack (actually my great uncles) would return from New York with their families. Everyone dressed for a formal meal and in true “southern tradition” there were various tables arranged by age and family status. Obviously I never graduated to the “big” adult table. In addition to the wonderful food a major event was the “craps game” (rolling dice) for dimes in the living room floor. Granny was there on the middle of the game and I was lead to believe she was pretty good winner!
Granny was in remarkable great health surviving a heart attack at age 90. That was the only time she was sick other than the last 10 days of her life.
The green house was a “magical place” that a 9 year old was too young to understand the detail inner workings of the area.
My mother Kathryn told me the story that the 1st golf course in the area was on the grounds at Popular Hill and she was the first female to play golf in Farmville. She was a very good golfer that taught me the game 65 year ago (I play 3-4 time a week today).
Last but least was Poplar Hill was a great place to play hide and seek!
The deteriorating condition is heartbreaking for those of us that have wonderful memories.
Photograph below: Golf at Poplar Hill
Mr. Walter C. "Skip" Sprye Jr.
Some of my thoughts on Poplar Hill...
1. Many Sunday afternoons sitting with Granny in her day bedroom listening to the stories about the northern soldiers coming over the hill towards the home. She said they hid the silver and other things under the strawberry plants.
2. Hog slaughtering days.
3. Watching as they put the ice from the frozen ponds in the icehouse which was underground.
4. Feeding corn to the pigs and getting trapped in the room. 5. Hunting turkeys in the woods close to the road.
6. Having fraternity pledge celebration is the back of farm near the lake and Farmville Road.
7. Wandering around farm exploring as a youngster.
8. Many, many wonderful Christmas celebrations with much of the family and watching Granny shooting dice when she would be leaning on the side of her chair at 95 plus years...
Picture below: Christmas at Poplar Hill in the 1940's. India Dunnington is pictured at the far right.
Mrs. Kathryn Dunnington Sprye Goebel
Mom would visit with granny and I wandered. Once I got lost on 2nd floor. It was a bedroom with nursery connected with no exit. I found my way out. I went into attic.
Mom said that I sat at the piano and played a song with no lessons and Granny always had Hershey's kisses and shared them.
When you are basically an only child you learn to entertain yourself which I did. I sat in middle of strawberry field when they were ripe eating strawberries. Granny grew great strawberries!
There were always country hams hanging off the steps to the downstairs kitchen/basement at Granny’s and 908 high street. It was many years when I realized those pigs made our country ham.
Mr. Southard Shields Brumfield
After the war a Union garrison was established at Poplar Hill. The commander and his wife became friends with the Knights and after the garrison was deactivated the Knights visited them in NYC several times. India was 9 or 10 years old at that time.
Granny died when I was 19.
Below: Captain John Hughes Knight
Member of the Confederate Army and father of India Dunnington
Ms. Ann Shields Stone
This is Christmas Day 1940 on the front steps of Poplar Hill.
Top row, 2nd is my father Watt Shields and Big Nanny - he called her Granny - is next to him. Her sister Bettie Knight - Big Bet- is the next woman, with a corsage, and I think that’s India’s daughter and oldest child Sallie next to her. My grandfather Southard Shields is the last on that row. Southard Brumfield’s father Bob is to the left of my grandfather.
Little girl in next row is Sallie Ann Dunnington Whidden, youngest of Uncle William and Aunt Kathryn’s four girls. Next row, 2nd from bottom: third in is Daddy’s sister Lucy with her dog Pat. I think that’s Kathryn Dunnington next to Bettie, leaning forward.
First row, my grandmother Lucie Shields 2nd from left and I think the youngest India and her mother India next to her looking back. Dollie Dunnington next and I think the next is India, mother of the the two other Indias. I’m guessing the man standing to the far right is William Dunnington since three of his daughters are there. The 4th was another India.
I know the farm manager Mr. Dowler and his wife and children are in this picture, and I think the little boy in knickers is his son and daughter with the long braids. He’s one the men in the top row, and I think Mrs. Dowler is behind Dollie
Ann Shields Stone: "I, too, remember sitting at her feet and playing with tin soldiers while she talked."
On left, India Dunnington and two of her children, not sure which son, but I think it’s William. The daughter is my grandmother Lucie Shields. They’re shooting craps on Big Nanny’s 100th birthday. Big Nanny and Grandma were both good gamblers and card players!
This is probably Big Nanny’s 100th birthday in June, 1957. She’s seated on left, and I know the young mother and baby are both named India. Pretty sure Big Nanny’s oldest Sallie is standing and her daughter Sarah seated in front of her. I guess that makes Baby India a great-great granddaughter!
Margaret Knight is the baby on the left and my grandmother Lucie Knight Dunnington on the right. Grandma was born in September of 1887, so I’m guessing this picture is spring/summer of 1888.
There are three cemeteries associated with Poplar Hill and the people who called it home. A Woodson/Watkins/Wood family cemetery resides on land now owned by the Manor Golf Course. There is a farm worker cemetery consisting of mostly unmarked headstones located close the the house itself. India and Walter are buried in the Westview Cemetery in the town of Farmville.
Dr. Ray Gaskins, Professor Emeritus Hampden-Sydney College, has extensive knowledge of the two small cemeteries and has written about them for the Farmville Herald newspaper.
Anecdotally, both cemeteries are neglected and difficult to locate and access. Restoration of these sites is a secondary goal of the Dunnington Mansion Foundation.
Photo Gallery: African Americans at Poplar Hill
Unfortunately, very little is known about the role of African Americans at Poplar Hill. Baron Woodson's father was a documented slave owner. The Watkins/Wood families were likely slave holders as were many of the southern aristocracy.
Anecdotal history suggests that the last person born into slavery at Poplar Hill died in 1935 while still residing there. His name was Jim and he is likely buried in the farm worker cemetery.
Walter and India Dunnington did not own slaves as they were post-Civil War landowners. They did have a large group of African Americans that lived at Poplar Hill and labored on the farm and in the house. Several of the original outbuildings were used for tenet housing during the time of Dunnington ownership.
There is a small photographic history of the African Americans employed by the Dunnington's represented below. Through these, we get a rare glimpse into the lives of those seldom seen in this time period.
Photo Gallery: 1960 - 2000
Photos Courtesy of Nelson and Marsha Bolt
All photographs are protected by personal copyrights.
Memories from Mr. Nelson Bolt 1960 - 2000
Nelson and his father Glen restored the property after they bought it in 1960. They updated the electric, heat and plumbing bringing Poplar Hill into the 20th century. Water was gravity fed from a private water tower. They put in a modern pump system fromthe pond. Coal bins for the previous furnace are still present in the basement. The home was lovingly cared for by his mother, Freeda until her passing in 2019.
Photos Courtesy of Nelson and Marsha Bolt
All photographs are protected by personal copyrights.
Nelson and Marsha said "I do" on the 5th day of July 1995. The wedding was held at Poplar Hill
Photos Courtesy of Nelson and Marsha Bolt All photographs are protected by personal copyrights.
Bi-Annual Cattle Roundup
Twice a year friends and family gathered to work the beef cattle. The ultimate reward was the amazing spread that Nelson's mother Freeda provided. She was a phenomenal cook and her food was renowned. At least one friend would travel in from out- of -state to lend a hand and join in the festivities.
In Loving Memory Of Katie M. Bolt
1939 - 2019
Katie was Nelson's sister. She was born in Farmville, VA and attended Farmville High School, where she excelled in sports and academics. Katie received her Bachelor of Science degree from Longwood University. She was a certified special education teacher and moved to Washington DC to pursue an additional degree in business administration.
She started her professional career as Executive Assistant to the Director of the American Hospital Association. She was a member of the team that drafted legislation resulting in the Medicare Act of 1965 and was present on July 30, 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Social Securities Act Amendments that established Medicare and Medicaid.
Although Katie's career kept her busy in Washington, she frequently visited Poplar Hill and she was very proud of the house and grounds.