Every May the Richmond-based private nonprofit organization Preservation Virginia announces a list of what it considers Virginia’s most endangered historic places. This year the old Pulaski jail in Newbern made the list.
Preservation Virginia says that its vision is to make historic preservation an integral part of everyone’s life and that its mission is to make “Virginia’s communities and historic places of memory stronger, more vital and economically sustainable through preservation, education and advocacy.”
Founded in 1889 as the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA), the organization’s original goals were to preserve and restore the historic Jamestown site just south of Williamsburg and repair the desolation and neglect that had settled on Williamsburg in the decades after the Civil War.
The APVA actively aided the long, slow process of rebuilding the Virginians’ sense of self-worth that they had lost in the wake of secession and occupation.
Today, Preservation Virginia claims to have a proud legacy of saving, preserving, promoting and advocating for more than 160 Virginia places.
While Preservation Virginia has had its successes, it was unable in 2016 to save the William Preston home site at Greenfield in Botetourt County, or prevent the moving of the slave cabins there, despite the Greenfield location being on the National Register of Historic Places.
Among the 2017 Preservation Virginia nominees are two statewide categories of buildings: historic school buildings and African American Cemeteries. Also nominated, were three specific historical sites: 1. The Lincoln Homestead Farm in Rockingham County where in 1778 President Abraham Lincoln’s father was born and which currently needs new preservation-minded owners. 2. Masons’ Hall in Richmond, which was built in 1785, and is the oldest Masonic building in America incontinuous use, and needs substantial repairs. 3. Newbern jail in Pulaski County, which was built in 1848.
On May 17 of this year, Gov. Terry McAuliffe held a public ceremony in Capitol Square in Richmond to call attention to HB 1547, which he had earlier signed after it had been patroned by Delegate Delores McQuinn and passed unanimously by the 2017 General Assembly.
HB 1547 provides for the maintenance of the African American East End and Evergreen cemeteries in Richmond and is a start on Preservation Virginia’s goal of saving African American cemeteries statewide.
The Newbern jail is Pulaski County’s oldest remaining public building, having been built in 1848, just nine years after Pulaski was created from parts of Montgomery and Wythe counties in 1839.
Newbern was the first seat of Pulaski County with the now demolished county courthouse standing on the lawn in front of the jail. Incidentally, Newbern was one of the first planned communities in America.
Today, the jail is owned by the New River Historical Society. The Society also owns the Wilderness Road Regional Museum, located across the road from the jail.
In its day, the now lightly used Route 611 (Newbern Road) that runs between the courthouse site and the museum was part of the great road of southwestern Virginia. Down that road, many pioneers made their way west to Tennessee, Kentucky and beyond.
The stagecoach stopped in Newbern for many years, and the famous “My Dear Rush” letter, written by Letitia Preston Floyd to her son Benjamin Rush Floyd in Wythe County in 1843, was almost certainly mailed from Newbern post office. In 1843, Mrs. Floyd lived at the Thorn Spring plantation, located about a mile-and-a-half west of the Newbern post office.
Benjamin Rush Floyd served briefly as the first Commonwealth’s Attorney for the newly formed Pulaski County before he moved to Wythe County.
Newbern jail is sagging and overall is badly in need of help. Specific work needed to preserve and restore the jail includes fixing its deteriorating walls and repairing its damaged roof members.
The roof members have suffered in spite of Pulaski County putting a new roof on the building several years ago.
Donations intended to help preserve the jail should be sent to the New River Historical Society, PO Box 373, Newbern, VA 24126.
Jim Glanville is a retired chemist living in Blacksburg. He has been publishing and lecturing for more than a decade about the history of Southwest Virginia.