Visitors will flock to Jamestown Island in the coming weeks and months to participate in activities marking the 400th anniversary of English settlement on the banks of the James River. In the historic area they will find contemplative pleasures a simple brick church; a half dozen statues and monuments; preserved foundations of buildings that time almost forgot; pathways along the water shaded by century-old trees; and, inadvertently, a virtual museum of rustic-fence techniques.
Owned by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) and operated by the National Park Service, Jamestown has never been the stylish attraction that nearby Williamsburg became. In the 1920s, Rockefeller money and the resulting assemblage of talented archaeologists, architects, landscape designers and merchandisers all converged to create an internationally appealing historical theme park, Colonial Williamsburg Inc.
Virginia's storied role in the American Revolution may be the major theme that Colonial Williamsburg promotes, but don't be fooled. High, Anglo 18th-century style and good taste in furniture, accessories and garden design are equally on its agenda. Of course, Williamsburg's heyday, most of the 18th century, was at the pinnacle of the British Empire and a flush time for Virginia, the largest and wealthiest English colony.
Jamestown's story is not nearly so glamorous. For many years, following struggles with settlement in 1607, the place was marked by starvation, disease, fear of the natives and internal bickering. Even if there ever was a Jamestown "style" (and of course there was), 400 years later the material evidence from that era is thin. Jamestown was more of a medieval place; Williamsburg later would reflect the Enlightenment.
What, then, are the aesthetic pleasures of historic Jamestown? Today the island is mostly a broad meadowlike stretch of land. Here and there are mature shade trees, and stubby brick and cement ruins.
But look closely and you'll see that wooden fences, in an array of delightful styles, suggest the division of former house lots and property lines, creating a subtle sense of order and geometry in the landscape. The fences at Jamestown were built for utility, not decoration.
Fences as a group were one of three types of structures that comprised the Colonial homestead in Jamestown and beyond. The first was the main house; next were the supporting structures such as smokehouses, offices, barns and sheds. The third category was fencing. At Jamestown, brick or stone would have been expensive and elaborate. Timber was plentiful and relatively easy to work with.
Within this riverfront landscape of memory and the imagination, the reconstructed wooden fences ground the place and, in the absence of buildings, create a human scale.