@ArchiveReynolda: The Reynolds Homestead

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@ArchiveReynolda: The Reynolds Homestead

By Bari Helms, Director of Archives | @ArchiveReynolda

Reynolds homestead near Critz, VA

R.J. Reynolds is remembered in legend, if not in fact, as the poor southern boy made good, and as the man who was able to rise from the obscurity of the Virginia backcountry to become a national business leader. But what is the real backstory behind the success of R.J. Reynolds? At the Reynolda House Archives we are fortunate to have the papers of R.J.’s father, Hardin William Reynolds (1810-1882). These papers provide invaluable insight into R.J.’s familial roots. And, last month I had the opportunity to explore the space R.J. Reynolds occupied before becoming the hugely successful tobacco baron with a visit to the Reynolds Homestead near Critz, Virginia. So, did R.J. really pull himself up by his bootstraps out of nothing? Or, as with most tales, is the story much more complex and human?

The Reynolds Homestead, located just past the Virginia state line in Patrick County, faces No Business Mountain and was once properly known as Rock Spring Plantation. The brick house standing today was built in 1843 by Hardin Reynolds for his new wife Nancy Jane Cox (1825-1903) on land settled in 1814 by his father Abraham Reynolds (1771-1838). While largely devoid of prime farmland, this landlocked area proved to be quite adept at producing bright leaf tobacco. A tremendously ambitious man, Hardin was a successful farmer, merchant, and banker. Hardin, who processed his first tobacco at the young age of 18, set up a tobacco manufactory on the Patrick County property, and by the 1850s, tobacco was his principal form of income. Hardin also operated a thriving country store on the land selling corn, oats, coffee, sugar, cloth, clothing, bacon, flour, peaches, boots.

H.W. Reynolds, father of R.J. Reynolds

While a forceful man, Hardin, by all accounts, was a devoted father, even if he did have high expectations and standards for his children. The few letters remaining between R.J. and his father do little more than report back the receipt of product or funds; however, letters between R.J.’s older brother A.D. Reynolds and their father illustrate that the two brothers were eager to follow in their father’s footsteps and prove themselves to possess his entrepreneurial spirit. One such letter was written by A.D. on 11 March 1869:

“By the hand of providence I find all things right the officer that [seized] our tobacco has been removed for some of his rascality and our papers prooved satesfactory [sic] to the officials at Knoxville and I expect when McWhiney left he would [have] taken the deposit of he could have got it but when I deposited in bank I did it in my name when I gave the check I assigned it in the name of firm so when he wrote to the bank to know if there was any money for H.W. Reynolds they told him there was not and so they come to the conclution [sic] that I had beet [sic] them at their own gaim [sic].”

Hardin also proved to be an especially litigious man, constantly seeking out the help of Virginia local courts in maintaining his success and fortune. The bulk of archival matter in Reynolda’s collections concerning Hardin is devoted to his various legal proceedings: decrees, declarations, courts summons, attendance certificates, and various other documents submitted as evidence to support his cases. In July 1876, Hardin sought suit against John Trent for fraudulent bankruptcy and failure to pay for one case of licorice. This prompted Trent to take up his pen and air his complaints against Hardin’s aggressive legal tactics, sentiments that might have been shared by other Virginia residents: “Sir, if you are trying to scear [sic] me you have waked up the rong [sic] man. Sir, I will pay you as soon as I can but you can’t scare me and you will get your money sooner by not making [threats]...” Even Hardin’s own children were not exempt from honoring their debts. Son R.J., listed as Dick Reynolds in an account book covering the years 1877-1878, owed money and was expected to pay for rent and corn.


By 1860, when R.J. would have been just 10 years old, his father owned nearly two dozen properties consisting of 8,000 acres in Patrick County and 3,000 acres in nearby Stokes County. His 59 slaves made him one of the largest slaveholders in that area of Virginia. So while R.J. may have come from the Virginia backcountry, his father was a large scale land and slave owner and a successful tobacco planter and merchant with the finest house in the county. R.J. forged his own way in the New South, creating an industrialized fortune out of his father’s agricultural success. The fact that R.J. did not create his business from scratch but his own imagination and drive does not make his story any less compelling. Instead his truth is complicated by his relationship with his enterprising father and his connections to the slaveholding South.

The headstone of William Lee Reynolds, one of the African Americans who worked on the estate.

In 1970, R.J. and Katharine Reynolds’s youngest daughter, Nancy Susan Reynolds, chose the name Reynolds Homestead and deeded the 717 acre property to Virginia Tech to be  used as a Forestry Resources Research Center and a Community Enrichment Center, providing arts workshops, performances and events, and continuing education classes. Today, the site is a National and State Historic Landmark run by Virginia Tech. Staff interprets the Reynolds family through the restored 19th-century house filled with original furnishings, covering the legacy of the two industrial barons in the family--R.J. Reynolds and A.D. Reynolds’ son, Richard S. Reynolds, who developed Reynolds wrap. Work is also underway to further the interpretation of the African American community that lived and worked at Rock Spring Plantation in slavery and freedom. In 2001 Archaeology faculty and students from Radford University used ground-penetrating radar to identify possible locations of graves in the African American cemetery on the property. The study revealed, but did not disturb, 63 potential grave sites, four of which have engraved headstones marking the place of burial. Additional excavation work is planned in hopes of discovering the locations of slave quarters on the plantation property.

Julie Walter Steele, Director of Reynolds Homestead, with Allison Perkins, Executive Director of Reynolda House Museum of American Art

Tobacco at Reynolds Homestead

Images: photograph of Hardin, photographs taken at Reynolds Homestead, scans of account book.

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This is so interesting. Having lived here all my life, I am surprised that I have never heard the back-story of R.J. Reynolds' beginnings. Thanks! 

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