Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Henrico approves $17M purchase of historic Varina Farms

An old, brick building in the colonial styles is pictured from above. Trees surround the building, and a river can bee seen nearby to the left of the photo
Henrico County
The centuries-old Varina Farms property along the James River in Eastern Henrico County was purchased by the county's government for preservation.

The county will acquire the 2,100-acre estate listed on multiple historic registries.

For more than 200 years, Varina Farms was a plantation suited for tobacco growth that got thrust into conflicts including the Civil War. Now, the centuries-old property will become part of Henrico County’s growing portfolio of historic agricultural resources.

On Wednesday, the Board of Supervisors approved the purchase of the nearly 2,100-acre property in southeast Henrico following a public hearing on the historic grounds. The $17.25 million purchase agreement between the county and Varina on the James LP represents the county’s single largest investment in land preservation.

Board Chair and Varina District Supervisor Tyrone Nelson said the purchase marks one of the most important days in the county’s history.

“Today is a great day for our county and for the preservation of our historic and natural resources,” Nelson said. “While there are many who continue to question what we do with our environment and whether we care, we continue to add thousands of acres of land into the county stock for preservation and conservation.”

In 2019, Henrico made a similar investment in its cultural landscape by purchasing Wilton Farm — a 1,184-acre property also along the James River in Eastern Henrico. However, Varina Farms is nearly twice that size and holds a significant place in history.

Varina Farms, also known as Varina Plantation and Varina on the James, was established during the 17th century by Thomas Dale — the Virginia Colony’s deputy governor. Located around 50 miles from Virginia's first colonial settlement at Jamestown, the surrounding fields were home to the married couple of English settler John Rolfe and the Powhatan Tribe’s Pocahontas, as well as former Gov. Thomas Mann Randolph.

In 1853, a mansion was built on the property that was later bombarded during the height of the Civil War. During the war, it was known as Akin’s landing and used to hold prisoners during Union Gen. Benjamin Butler’s advance toward Richmond.

The exterior front entrance of an old, brick building in the colonial style sits on a flat landscape with moderate tree coverage
Henrico County
The two-story house on the Varina Farms property was built in 1853.

The once privately owned farm is on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register. Varina Farms also served as headquarters for Henrico’s government from 1632 to 1752.

County Manager John Vithoulkas said the property will serve as a place to contextualize the county’s past and preserve a valuable historic resource.

“Our chairman this year, and this board, has challenged our staff to tell our story, to magnify the great things that are happening in our county and why we operate unlike other local governments in the Commonwealth,” said Vithoulkas. “Just now, our Board of Supervisors took an action that is a forever play.”

Vithoulkas made a special thanks to Stoneman family, who stewared the property for multiple generations in the 1990s.

Wilmer Stoneman — family spokesperson and executive director of the Virginia Foundation for Agriculture — recalled how important the property has been for his family and expressed hope for the county to revive some of its long standing traditions.

“There are family members scattered all over this commonwealth… It has been a joy to us for 100 years and it has been a comfort to us in sad times,” Stoneman said. “This is a historical moment in this county. It's a historical moment for our family. We're turning the page, but I think it's a good page.”

Though the county has no immediate plans for the property, a portion of the purchase agreement allows Engel Family Farms — which currently leases the grounds — to continue farming and other uses of the property for five years.

The board did express desire for a museum and other public amenities for recreational purposes like fishing or hiking, as means to highlight the grounds historic significance.

Lyndon German covers Henrico and Hanover counties for VPM News.