In 2007, when the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation sold Carter’s Grove, a 750-acre plantation outside Williamsburg, to CNET founder Halsey Minor, they placed the estate under a historic preservation easement to protect the 1755 house once occupied by Carter Burwell, grandson of colonial tobacco baron Robert “King” Carter. In a letter to the Virginia Gazette, Minor accused Colonial Williamsburg of establishing such a strict easement in order to reduce competition with other historical sites, because he intended to open the property to the public. Since purchasing the house in 2007, Minor has made no changes to the property to make it more serviceable as a historic site, and is the number one delinquent taxpayer in the state of California, owing more than $14 million in unpaid taxes. CW maintains that the easement is only for the conservation of the property.
In 1969, the Rockefeller Foundation gave the plantation to CW. Since then, CW has had numerous archaeological surveys performed to ensure that sites of historical significance are inventoried with the state.
During one such survey, Bill Kelso, an anthropologist working at the site, discovered the remains of the slaves’ quarters of Carter’s Grove. Sub-floor pits, a basement type structure, are evidence of the layout of the quarters. The quarters were later reconstructed based on archaeologists’ speculation and research. Plowing has disturbed all other evidence of the quarters, such as hearths or foundations.
These surveys provided the basis for the conservation easement that was drafted into the deed when the plantation was sold in 2007.
According to a letter Minor released in The Virginia Gazette, “The deed prevents the public from touring the site as a historical attraction, thus depriving Americans in perpetuity of their rights to visit. From the moment I signed the contract, I have looked for a way to return Carter’s Grove to the public trust, and ironically it is bankruptcy that holds the greatest promise.”
Many people question CW’s decision to sell a property so rich in historical significance in the first place. Dr. Marley Brown, professor at the College of William and Mary and Carter Grove’s old Director of Archeological Research, speculates that the Foundation had economic motives, and sold Carter’s Grove for income to reinvest in more liquid forms.
“[CW] can second-guess their decision to sell, but the quality of the easement, they can’t second-guess that,” said Brown.
He believes that CW did not intend for the plantation to remain open to the public after the sale, but rather to serve as Minor’s residence. The preservation easement was put into the deed to ensure that Carter’s Grove’s rich history would be preserved.
In 2004, CW designed and opened Great Hopes Plantation, which is similar to, albeit smaller than, Carter’s Grove. Great Hopes is located adjacent to the Williamsburg Visitor’s Center, and therefore draws larger crowds than Carter’s Grove (which is about 15 minutes away from CW) did. Great Hopes, however, contains no original structures, being built to portray a statistically average colonial plantation. Great Hopes is the new location for many of the African-American interpretive programs and rural trades. CW did not, however, reconstruct the Winston Rockefeller Archeological Museum that was open to the public on the Carter’s Grove site before the 2007 sale.
When describing Carter’s Grove, Brown said, “It was the first of its kind and I think the best of its kind. But economics don’t always necessarily allow you to preserve that.”
After defaulting on the last two payments, Minor declared bankruptcy. The case is supposed to be heard in California, although CW recently requested that the petition be moved to Newport News. Minor must have a plan for reorganization by June 2, the date of the hearing.