In 1776, George Hairston, a wealthy tobacco planter and one of the largest slaveholders in 18th-century Virginia, founded Beaver Creek Plantation near what is now the city of Martinsville. Enslaved men, women, and children worked together in Beaver Creek's tobacco fields, growing and curing tobacco. Enslaved workers raised livestock, tended the kitchen garden, produced household goods and commodities, and cared for the seven white Hairstons who lived in the large plantation house. At one point the enslaved blacks of Beaver Creek were tending a thousand yam plants; in one day they made 660 candles.
Beaver Creek's enslaved population also manufactured textiles, producing cotton, flax, and wool, which they turned into cloth. Two enslaved women, Grace and her daughter Julia, did much of the spinning and weaving. Other women made clothing, blankets, household linens, and carpets.
Some enslaved blacks on Hairston plantations were able to earn small amounts of money. Two wagon masters, Ned and Clem, earned money by hauling extra loads for other planters. Clem was also a beekeeper, amassing enough savings to buy his own honey press, which cost $10 and two gallons of honey.
Sam Lion, a field hand and father of 10 children, raised and sold enough of his own crops to buy a set of woodworking tools, including an auger. Shortly before Christmas in 1842, a new overseer at Beaver Creek asked to borrow the auger. Lion refused, then defied the overseer when he tried to whip him. The overseer attacked Lion, who killed him with the ax he was using to chop kindling. Lion might have saved himself by fleeing North, but his large family could not have accompanied him. He spent two cold winter months hiding in the forest before turning himself in. Although another Beaver Creek overseer testified in Lion's defense, he was convicted and sentenced to hang, then shot while trying to escape. Sam Lions Trail in south-central Martinsville is named for him.
Enslaved blacks were constantly faced with painful choices between protecting their families and risking everything for a chance at freedom. Prior to the well known Nat Turner revolt, a band of enslaved blacks in and around Beaver Creek plotted a rebellion of their own. In 1812, as George Hairston, a Revolutionary War captain, was headed back to the war, his neighbor was murdered by an enslaved man named Tom. After he was captured Tom revealed a plot to poison Hairston and murder nearby slaveholders, timed to coincide with a hoped-for British invasion of the area.
Beaver Creek's enslaved workforce deserted the plantation after the end of the Civil War. Ann Hairston recorded in her diary her astonishment that no former slaves had applied for work at the plantation, and that they had quickly found employment elsewhere.
The grand Classical Revival mansion on the site was constructed in 1837 after a fire destroyed the original home. Located north of Martinsville on Route 108, the home is now owned by Bank Services of Virginia. The home and gardens are sometimes open for tours during Historic Garden Week in Virginia, held annually in April. Two enslaved house servants who remained in service to the family after Emancipation, the husband and wife Surry and Esther Hairston, are buried in the adjacent family cemetery.
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