If walls could talk, the Western Ridge clubhouse would have a thing or two to say about death and disease in the mid-1800s, a runaway slave, and a prominent educator who spent the last two decades of her life living in the basement of her home.
The clubhouse is the focal point of the hilly neighborhood just off Route 240: a two-story, wood-frame farmhouse built in 1858, just before the Civil War divided the nation in two. Like many historical homes and buildings in Crozet, it narrowly escaped the bulldozer in 2003 when the homeowners’ association was trying to decide whether to raze the structure to make way for something newer and bigger.
“We pass by these homes every day in Crozet, not realizing the history that lies between the walls,” said Kimberly Gale, a Western Ridge resident who was involved in the decision to keep the home from being demolished. “Their fate lies in our ability to learn their stories and choose preservation. If we don’t learn about them, then who cares?”
The Western Ridge clubhouse was previously known as the Fretwell-Cree House (1850s-1940s) and Lady Walton’s House (1950s-1990s). Although the name changed with the different owners during the past 160 years, the actual structure has remained largely intact. It still has the high ceilings and original pinewood floors that were typical of the Greek Revival style popular at the time. Four large rooms dominate the upper floors, two on each level. The tall rock basement, which used to contain the winter kitchen, is now a storage room, lifeguard room and bathrooms for the Western Ridge pool.
A search of the original land records at the Albemarle County Circuit Court Clerk’s office shows that Burlington Fretwell inherited part of the property after his father died in 1836. After marrying Elizabeth Jarman in 1844, he bought additional acres from his siblings. By 1856, he had amassed 185 acres along Lickinghole Creek in what was then known as St. Anne’s Parish south of Three Notch’d Road.
Fretwell was a farmer and raised crops that his brother, Franklin, a prominent merchant, sold to markets in Lynchburg and Richmond. But life was less than idyllic for the Fretwells. The couple had six children, but only two of them survived into adulthood. Four-year-old Elizabeth died in May 1853 followed by 18-month-old Ludelier Burnley later that year. In 1858, the same year they built the house, there was a measles outbreak in the county. The disease claimed the Fretwell’s 11-year-old daughter, Mary “Kitty” Catherine, and another son, Ritter, two days later.
Letters the Fretwell brothers wrote to each other are among 2900 items that are part of the “Papers of Franklin Fretwell 1819-1886” in the University of Virginia’s Special Collections Library. In a letter dated May 6, 1858, Brightberry Fretwell writes to Franklin about the family’s loss: “Frank, Burl has lost Kitty and Ritter both. Kitty died last Friday about 11 o’clock and Ritter died last Monday about 2 o’clock and little Jimmy is right sick yet and I expect he will die too. The doctor says that he has the brain feaver (cq) and the bowel complaint.” Jimmy Burlington survived the disease and lived until 1918 when he died at the age of 65.
Other letters shed light on what life was like in what would become known as Crozet in those antebellum years. According to the Slave Schedules of the 1850 U.S. Federal Census, Burlington Fretwell owned 12 slaves, ranging in age from 1 to 50. He wrote to Franklin about the trouble he was having with one slave, who eventually ran away after several beatings.
“Dear Brother,” begins the letter dated Oct. 25, 1854. “Harry left here last Sunday and have (cq) not come back. He took up with an old wooden leg woman in Covington in July and has been up there nearly every Sunday since and has been out of place nearly every Monday morning long after the other hands have got to work.
“I gave him 3 or 4 whippings about it, the last one last Monday was a week, and I told him then I would whip him every time he was out of place on Monday morning here after.” He asked Franklin to keep an eye out for the runaway slave.
The Civil War was about to change the landscape and the fabric of the economy in Albemarle County. Most of the county men who enlisted were assigned to Company I of the 7th Virginia Infantry in June 1861. According to historian S.B. Yates, the company was assigned to Pickett’s Division. Its battles included Bull Run, First Manassas, Williamsburg, Second Manassas, Sharpsburg, Gettysburg, and fighting around Richmond, Petersburg and the retreat to Appomattox.
But Fretwell never participated in any of those. He died at the age of 40 at Camp Harrison in Centreville on Aug. 7, 1861, barely two months after joining the Confederate Army. Measles was listed as the cause of death in the muster rolls.
Nearly 20 years later in 1880, John Cree of Limerick, Ireland, bought 160 acres of the Fretwell farm for his wife and three children—Robert, Saint John and Meta. The years leading up to the turn of the century and beyond were marked by a time of prosperity. The region was recovering from the Civil War and the mood was optimistic.
The fledgling town of Crozet, named in 1878 when a train depot was built, was experiencing a surge in tourism as visitors from Richmond and Washington sought to escape the city heat. When the local Liberty Hall Hotel and Crozet Hotel ran out of room, the Crees would put up guests at their home. John Cree built a tennis court near the woods, a flat, grassy area downhill from the house along a small creek. The Western Ridge neighbors now use the space for their annual campout.
Saint John Cree became a talented tennis player and regularly hosted matches against Hugh Flannagan, the boxing coach of the nearby Miller School, who later became the private school’s fifth headmaster. The cadets at the school would often come to watch the weekly games in the 1930s.
John Cree passed away in 1906, but the Cree Family continued to live there until Saint John sold the property in 1945 to Dr. Thomas H. Alphin, a physician at the University of Virginia.
Lady Walton House
Leslie and Lady Walton bought the house and farmland in 1952. The couple raised purebred Hereford cattle, some chickens, several horses and vegetables on the property. But they were much better known for their contributions to education in the county.
They met while working for Scottsville School, he as the principal and she as a teacher, and married in 1940. They had no children of their own, but Lady said they counted the scores of students they taught throughout their careers as their children. Leslie Walton served as assistant superintendent for Albemarle County Schools for 22 years. When Paul H. Cale, a Crozet resident, retired in July 1969, Walton took over as superintendent. He made his mark championing innovative ideas such as merit pay raises for teachers and year-round schooling.
Sadly, he never got the opportunity to see those ideas take shape. He died suddenly of a heart attack on a Saturday afternoon at his home. The date was July 11, 1970. He was 64 and only a year into his new position. Schools across the county closed the Monday following his death out of respect for the man, for whom Walton Middle School is named.
Lady Walton was left to manage the farm on her own. No shrinking violet, she was a renowned educator in her own rite. She had graduated from Longwood College at Farmville. Following teaching stints in Greenwood and Scottsville, she became head librarian in the Albemarle school system and served as president of the Virginia Library Association in 1967.
“It’s just a plain, white house,” she said in describing her home for a story in the Daily Progress on Aug. 16, 1961. She was being recognized for her work as a librarian, which landed her in the “Who’s Who of American Women.”
“It’s very comfortable, but don’t get the idea we have an estate,” she said. The article said the house was an interest of Lady Walton’s, but she didn’t go in for a lot of decorating. “Except for the kitchen table and that I keep piled high with newspapers, magazines and books.”
A friend and fellow member of Mountain Plain Baptist Church, where Lady Walton taught a men’s Bible class, used to visit her on the farm after Leslie Walton died.
“As long as I knew her, she lived in the basement of that house,” Gloria Strickler said in a recent interview. “Maybe she moved to the basement after he died. I never went to the house when he was alive. I figured she had what she needed downstairs and it was too much trouble to climb up the stairs.
“She had tons of books. Being a librarian that should be expected,” Strickler said. “She would always offer you something to drink.” Strickler said Lady suffered several strokes before she died in 1993 at the age of 83.
Western Ridge Clubhouse
In October 1994, Highlands West, a limited partnership that included real estate developer Hunter Craig, paid $541,500 in cash to Lady Walton’s estate to purchase the house, its outbuildings and 144 acres.
Craig left the interior of the house intact, but made significant changes to the property. He
took out the railroad grade crossing from Route 240 and built a new entrance to the property with a bridge over the tracks. A new road, Lake Tree Lane, connected to the house; the front of the house became the back and the back became the front.
A huge wraparound porch and French doors were built onto the new front facing Lake Tree Lane. In went a swimming pool, playground, tennis courts and a gravel parking lot during the spring of 1997. The former carriage house was converted into a fitness center for the neighborhood.
By January 2003, most of the initial 100 lots had been sold and the developers turned over the property and all its amenities to the Western Ridge Owners Association. It was now up to the WROA to decide what, if anything, to do with the house.
“When they conveyed ownership of the entire house and grounds to the association, people started to think what can we do to maximize its use,” said Kimberly Gale, one of the neighborhood’s early residents. The volunteer board of WROA surveyed the homeowners to ask their opinion. According to Gale and her husband, Lee Gale, who served on the board, there were three options on the table: 1) Remove and rebuild the clubhouse; 2) gut the interior and modify, or 3) add on to the existing structure.
“We did none of those options,” Kimberly Gale said. “Ultimately we voted to make as few alterations to the original house as possible. We chose preservation.”
At the time, the property included numerous outbuildings. K. Edward Lay, an architectural researcher and professor at U.Va., did an extensive study of the property for a chapter entitled “The Greek Revival (1830-1860)” in his book, The Architecture of Jefferson Country.
“It remains one of the most intact post-Civil War farm complexes in the county and includes a family cemetery, icehouse, smokehouse, carriage house, and apple storage houses,” Lay wrote in the book, published in 2000.
Sadly, the WROA had to tear down the icehouse and smokehouse in 2007 when they became unsafe. It is now the site of a sheltered picnic pavilion and fire pit. “They were so dilapidated it was a safety hazard,” said Lee Gale. “We had so many little kids climbing in and out. It was the biggest safety risk ever.”
The upkeep on such an historic house hasn’t come without a cost. Financial records show the neighborhood spends about $10,000 per year alone on utilities and maintenance on the house. In 2003, they replaced the aging metal roof with a copper one for $30,000.
The neighborhood believes it is money well spent. Most days, the clubhouse is abuzz with some kind of activity. Over the past two decades, it has served as the site of countless birthday parties, scout meetings, board meetings, book clubs, bible studies, poker nights, summer camps, pancake breakfasts, and even a wedding.
“It’s history come to life,” Kimberly Gale said. “It maintains the character of the original farm and property. It’s a constant reminder of how people lived simpler times in smaller spaces.”