Sebrell historic district to be discussed Aug. 11

Published 8:26 am Friday, July 30, 2010

SEBRELL—A proposal to designate the Sebrell area of Southampton County as a historic district is moving forward with a public hearing to discuss the issue scheduled.

The Virginia Department of Historic Resources will hold a public hearing at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 11, in the board room of the county’s administration building at 26022 Administration Center Drive in Courtland.

The proposed Sebrell Rural Historic District would comprise about 16.5 square miles. Its borders roughly form a peninsula of land with the Nottoway River to the west, the Assamoosick Swamp to the east and Old Hickory Road to the north.

“This is a slice of beautiful Virginia landscape with traditional buildings in it,” Mark Wagner, registers program director for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, said Monday.

Wagner added that if approved, the historic district would be an honorary designation at the state and federal levels.

“It celebrates the area first and foremost, and brings to the attention of the public that there is a special place in Southampton County,” Wagner said.

The historic district would be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which is managed by the National Park Service and the Virginia Landmarks Register run by the VDHR.

Wagner said the State Review Board and the Historic Resources Board would meet in Richmond on Sept. 30 to determine if Sebrell is worthy of the designation.

Dutton & Associates, a Richmond consulting firm, helped compile information for Sebrell’s application. Robert Taylor Jr., a historian with the firm, said he interviewed local residents and perused through books, articles and old photographs for the application.

“I’m trying to establish a history of the development of the area, how it grew and changed over time, how it started from the Barn Tavern into this early 20th Century railroad boom-and-bust village,” Taylor said in a February interview. “Over the years all of the buildings (in Sebrell) changed and housed various different businesses and had different uses,” Taylor said. “It’s kind of hard to keep track because there aren’t a lot of good records.”

Wagner said the process in Sebrell, trying to form a district, “differs from an individual listing (of just one or two buildings). A lot of work goes into a rural historic district because you are working with a group of property owners, and most of them know that they have something special.”

According to Taylor, the village of Sebrell got started around 1906 with the arrival of the Virginian Railway. Some of the village’s original buildings still stand today.

“That village quickly sprang up around the intersection of the railroad and Plank Road at the time,” Taylor said. “There was a rapid expansion of all sorts of stores, businesses and houses (for) not only the people working directly for and on the railroad, but also people that use the railroad to transport their goods and services, farmers and so forth.”

Taylor said the village peaked around 1920, but shortly afterwards began to decline.

“It quickly came to an end just like it started,” Taylor said. “(The decline) began in the 1930s with the Great Depression. That’s when a lot of towns and cities started to fall apart.”

Other reasons for the decline, according to Taylor, included the decision by the state to move Virginia Route 35 around the village and the onset of World War II, a period where people gravitated to cities and left rural areas behind. Sebrell’s steady decline would continue into the 1950s.

“By the 1960s it was pretty much gone,” Taylor said.

Asked how many people once called Sebrell home, Taylor estimates that it could have been as many as a couple thousand.

Taylor said the village of Sebrell was actually preceded by a settlement informally known as Barn Tavern, which once stood about a half mile to the west of Sebrell at the intersection of Barn Tavern and Carys Bridge roads.

“There’s an old building there that potentially served as the tavern itself or maybe was just the tavern keeper’s house,” Taylor said. “The records don’t really determine which it is. But either way, that was the center of it in the late 1700s. It was a colonial tavern at the convergence of the two roads there.”

Taylor said records and documents indicate the tavern was still operating well into the 1800s at a larger Barn Tavern building, but it blew down in the 1830s during a storm. The building that currently stands at Barn Tavern and Carys Bridge may have served as a replacement thereafter.

“The records are kind of hazy,” Taylor said. “But the building that is there now that is all boarded up with the two chimneys was definitely associated with the Barn Tavern as early as the 1760s.”

Wagner said the designation would not affect property owners.

“We notify all of the residents who are in the proposed district, along with folks who are adjacent to it, to let them know what listing means and what it doesn’t mean,” Wagner said. “The district is not going to change anything that a property owner can do with their property; it’s purely honorific. The one thing it will do is allow folks, if they wish, to take advantage of a rehabilitation tax credit if they undertake a substantial rehabilitation of their house or their property.”