Today, entertaining means firing up the grill in the summer or the indoor grill in the winter, hauling out some craft beer and a trendy red, cranking up some tunes pulled off Pandora and setting out a “gourmet” party platter from the local market.
It wasn’t always that easy.
Most of Virginia’s great plantations and large houses were built with guests in mind. Wide center halls, spacious drawing rooms on one side, dining rooms large enough to seat 20 on the other, houses like Woodlawn (built 1732 and restored by Mark and Jeanene Krogh) in Clover, were a cross between county home and hotel.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, visits were planned, and guests often traveled days from places like Lynchburg or Richmond to reach a friend’s home, a trip travelers in 2017 can complete in under two or three hours.
Once visitors arrived, dozens of candles (hand-made) lit up halls, living chambers and chandeliers. Long tables groaned under platters of beef, lamb, mutton and chicken raised on the farm, bowls of vegetables from the homeowner’s garden, bread, sweets and pastries baked in cast-iron skillets warmed by coals, wine and liquors imported from France and England.
“Having people over” was a demanding undertaking, more than a mad dash to the local Food Lion for quick-grab chips and dip.
And after the journey, after the food, before bed—what then?
Home entertainment. And at Woodlawn that doesn’t mean the kind one slip-flips a switch to pull up on a wall-size screen.
No, people were expected to entertain one another — imagine — to trot out their musical, story-telling and dancing skills and give their guests and fellow-visitors a thrill on those dark nights when the flames in the fireplace and the glow of candles, now burning low, were the only stage lights available.
The Krogh family — Mark, Jeanene and their son, Matthew — believe in tradition. So when guests arrived for a genuine colonial dinner party in early November, the candles were burning, the fire was roaring in both sitting and drawing rooms, the food was mostly home-grown, and the entertainment was an 18th century “mystery/comedy play” written and enacted by the master of the house, Mark Krogh, his son, Matthew Krogh, and his daughter-in-law, Juliann Krogh.
The one act play — “Travelers’ Unrest” — scheduled for “Saturday evening, Nov. 5, 1815” was billed as “beginning at dusk and elegantly lit with candles.”
According to the playbill, box seats went for three shillings, pit seats for two shillings and gallery seats for one shilling — a deal.
The main characters, Colonel Coleman, played by Mark; Mr. Scott, played by Matthew, and Ms. Varina, played by Juliann, were outfitted in reproduction finery handmade by Matthew, who said he’d searched long and hard for the right fabrics, buttons and trim.
Dinner guests waited, cell phones off, and willingly went with the illusion, darkness pressing against the windows, silence and the chiming of a huge antique grandfather clock stoking anticipation.
Suddenly the actors, Colonel Coleman, age 70, and his young colleague Mr. John Scott, strode into the room and began to warm their hands in front of the fire.
The narrative was believable, the actors tall and full-throated, and the story began to unfold “live:” the two travelers had been caught on the road between home and their final destination and were now “fortunate, indeed” to have discovered this lovely home and hospitable hosts ready to take them in for supper and shelter them until morning—on a dark and stormy night ca. 1814.
Mr. Scott: “Thank God we found this dwelling on such a blustery evening, Colonel. I do hope they have mutton.”
Colonel Coleman: “I prefer soused hog’s face. My maid, Fanny, makes it perfectly. [he holds up his mug] To our wives and sweethearts, may they never meet.”
Mr. Scott: “As strong as this cider is, we may be ‘soused’ before dinner, haha. After such choice spirits, it may arouse my most intemperate desires. My wife once threatened me with a chamber pot in the middle of the night, as I bravely advanced on her robust loins…but like the British at Craney Island, I was sorely defeated.”
The action was lively, the dialogue hilarious, the actors stalwart and willing, and the play’s denouement — when Coleman and Scott hear ghastly screaming “off-stage” and fear they may have wandered into the house of a murderer and 19th century psychopath who has sworn he will murder his next victim that very night when “the clock strikes six”— was worth every minute the audience spent disconnected from the modern world.
The Kroghs, along with their son and his wife, have contributed more to Halifax County than just the restoration of a historic house.
Their love of history opens a door into the past for friends, guests and visitors to the estate. Travelers who cross the threshold not only enter a place built many generations ago—they also enter another era, with its own now-forgotten manners and behaviors.
It may not take long to get to Woodlawn from the towns of Halifax or South Boston —an half-hour at most — but it’s only after you arrive that you realize just how much distance you’ve really traveled.