by Carol J. Alexander
In an age when machinery performs most of our manual labor—from washing dishes and clothes to cutting hay and plowing fields—one struggles to imagine a 4,800-square-foot brick home made completely by hand. Such is the story of Riverlawn.
Slaves began forming the brick used to build this impressive Federal-style plantation house for Jacob Price’s family in 1842. Not surprisingly, it took them five years to make enough brick, fire them on-site, and construct the home with exterior walls four bricks deep.
One step through the front door of Riverlawn, located just outside New Market, and you can almost hear the rustle of women’s gowns, tinkling of the piano and merriment from the parlor as the Price sisters entertain—a skill women in the mid-1800s were expected to acquire.
The expansive entryway at Riverlawn boasts an elegant staircase of white pine. Today, quilts hang from the second story railing and historical photos of this southern plantation house sit proudly amongst photographs of the Shumway family. A chandelier hangs from the center of a plaster medallion, common of the era.
Approaching retirement from a nomadic military existence, Jim and Jane Shumway chose the Shenandoah Valley for their family’s permanent residence. But buying an antebellum house in need of more than tender loving care was not what Jane had in mind for their first home purchase.
“It was very overwhelming,” Jane said, speaking of that first year of overseeing remodeling projects while husband, Jim, continued to commute to D.C. as an Army officer.
“Although we got an incredible deal,” she said, “we’ve sunk a lot of money into the house.” For what, exactly? Jim rattles off a long list of projects they have accomplished since they purchased Riverlawn in 2010: a new first-floor bath, kitchen, well, and laundry room are just the beginning. They refinished all the tongue-in-groove white pine floors and removed yards and yards of wallpaper. Jane’s brother, a drywall and plaster expert, re-did the first-floor walls and repaired others as needed. They also removed century-old boxwoods that were swallowing the house alive, added landscaping with flowers for color and planted a grove of fruit trees.
Originally, the home had five rooms on the main floor and five rooms on the second story, including a formal parlor, library, dining room, and winter kitchen. The three rooms in the dirt-floored basement include a slave’s fireplace. The walk-up attic runs the length of the house.
The interior woodwork at Riverlawn was constructed of white pine and walnut. Skilled slave artisans fashioned everything by hand and fastened it with wooden pegs. The eight fireplace mantels—each of a different design—and the main staircase railing reflect the artistic ability of the craftsmen. (There are three staircases at Riverlawn, two behind doors resembling closets.) The original door locks, from England, and the windows with wooden latches remain.
“We’ve been told they built the house around the windows,” Jane said. “So, to replace them would be an incredible undertaking.” The Shumways eventually plan to replace the windows, however, because many of them no longer open.
The original estate included outbuildings of stone and hand-hewn beams. A springhouse with a trough to keep food cool is all that remains. Once, a summer kitchen with a huge fireplace and slave quarters stood behind the springhouse.
Both Jacob Price and his only son, Berryman Zirkle Price, served as captains in the Confederate Army. Although there is no documentation to prove it, locals say that Riverlawn escaped Union destruction because it was used as a hospital for injured soldiers.
Jacob Price paid $10,000 to have this house built on 600 acres. After his death in 1880, Berryman became the master of Riverlawn. It remained in his family until 1962 when Berryman’s daughter, Lulu, sold it out. Today the estate includes only 15 of those 600 acres.
Only the fourth owner of Riverlawn since the Price family, the Shumways would do it all over again. “It has been a joy,” said Jane. “We consider ourselves caretakers of history. While it is our home, we feel honored to be able to take care of this house until we pass it on to the next person, when the time is right.”