Agriculture and Industry
Geologically, Henrico County contains various layers, or strata, consisting of granite and coal along the falls of the upper James River above the city of Richmond, which give way to pockets of clay, sand and gravel. The elevation is higher in the western part of the county and gradually decreases toward the east end. The James River, on the county's southern boundary, is a fast-flowing waterway. The Chickahominy River on its northern boundary has a much slower flow of water and tends to overflow its banks into low marshy lands after heavy rains. South of the airport, the White Oak Swamp serves to drain the area south of the city into the Chickahominy.
Geologists theorize that thousands of years ago, the east end of the county was under water, and over the years, it has drained off, leaving vestiges of nature's drainage system. The soil is generally fine fertile soil with pockets of plasticity caused by the presence of clay deposits sometimes mixed with sand and gravel.
The area that the Airport Connector traverses is generally flat fertile soil with some major clay deposits just north and south of the airport. The first English settlers used the waterways as their highways, and they naturally settled along the banks of the rivers. Later settlers had to move beyond the rivers. Initially, settlers tended to grow what they needed to survive and to grow crops for export. The use of African slaves as farm laborers appeared in Henrico County after 1635, the year the first resident received land based on transporting slaves to the colony.
Eventually, when events in England resulted in the loss of power and influence for those who supported the King, well-to-do members of the King's party came to the colony. Using family influence and money, they acquired large grants of land and increased their holdings by transporting others to the colony.
In Henrico, Richard and Thomas Cocke received land on Curles Neck and Malvern Hill. Henry Randolph resided above Thomas Cocke and John Pleasants received land above Randolph's on Four Mile Creek. William Randolph would acquire Curles Neck and in time, his offspring were given land along the north bank of the river and above the falls of the James.
These large farms, or plantations, were too extensive for the owner and his family to work, so the acquisition of slave labor was necessary. William Randolph had well over 100 slaves. Being on the river, ships could come up to the plantation wharf to deliver or receive goods.
If the crop were some sort of grain, the landowner would construct a mill to grind the grain and make it more compact for shipping. John Pleasants had a mill on Four Mile Creek and Richard Cocke had one on Western Run. Slave labor was used in the fields to cultivate, plant and nurture crops and during the harvest season. However, the main crop for these first families of Henrico was tobacco.
John Pleasants' land extended up Four Mile Creek and the fields on either side of the Airport Connector were cultivated by his slaves. Every plantation where tobacco was grown had tobacco barns for curing the tobacco. The predominant means of shipping tobacco was in casks that could be rolled or pulled by a horse or other farm animal. The size of these casks was regulated so they could be stored on board ships for transport to England. English merchants could house them in warehouses and easily estimate the value based on the number of casks. Planters would receive credit on their accounts and place orders for manufactured items with English firms.
Tobacco was the money crop cultivated primarily by slave labor. Slave owners would provide their slaves a place to live, some clothing and food. Some provided the use of land for gardens and allowed their slaves to grow vegetables. Health issues were usually addressed by the owner or his wife. Only if it were felt necessary would a doctor be called to examine a slave.
Continuous planting of tobacco tended to bleach the soil of necessary minerals, so some planters began rotating crops while others acquired additional land upriver from Richmond. In Henrico, farm products were varied and extensive. Corn, oats, wheat and tobacco were the main crops, while barley and rye were also cultivated to some extent. Clover and timothy grass and hay were also grown in quantity.
Most farms in eastern Henrico had personal orchards for family consumption and canning. Although market gardening increased in areas around the city, dairy and poultry farming increased in eastern Henrico and eventually captured 56 percent of the county's agricultural sales. Henrico became known as the "Dairy County of Virginia."
A large number of the milk cows were Holsteins, but Jerseys were also popular. The Curles Neck Farm occupied land once owned by the Randolph family. It was the largest dairy farm in the county and shipped its milk to Richmond where it was processed and bottled as Curles Neck Dairy. There were a large number of small dairy herds.
Fred Owen Dorey bought land on Darbytown Road just to the west of the Airport Connector. He moved his dairy herd by rail from Wisconsin. It was not long before he offered his dairy products for sale to local grocery stores. He also offered home delivery to residents in the county. Under the business name of Spring Brook Dairy, his delivery wagons could be seen on county roads making daily deliveries. The Spring Brook Dairy continued in operation until well after World War II. Today, the farm is owned by Henrico County and is known as Dorey Park. One of Mr. Dorey's barns has been completely renovated and now serves as the park's administration building.
In addition to milk cows, there were cattle farms and hog and pig farms. The first poultry plant was reported in 1919. Chickens were raised as part of the farm scene to provide food for the family. Any excess eggs were sold locally. There were 1,508 farms in the county in 1910. This figure dropped to 518 in 1960 as land became more valuable for subdivision housing and commercial developments.
There were three different farming communities in Henrico's history. The first one occurred in 1800 when one of John Pleasants' descendents freed all of his slaves and gave them a section of his land that he called Gravel Hill. The ex-slaves were provided land to farm and a school was provided for their children. The community is about five miles east of the Airport Connector and survives to this day.
The other two different communities were cooperative farms in the Elko area. Named Windsor and Lucerne, these communities were set up by Norwegian and Danish immigrants. The land belonged to the cooperative and all members shared in the work and profits. After two years, members decided to divide up the land and farm it as individual families. Some of their descendents still live in the area and hold annual reunions. The Elko community lies some five miles east of the airport.
Business and industrial enterprises are a part of the area the Airport Connector traverses. In the colonial and early national period these were more like cottage industries. The presence of clay naturally led to the establishment of potteries where large storage jars were a major product. Potteries along lower Four Mile Creek and Bailey's Creek near Curles Neck produced pitchers, chamber pots, storage jars of all sizes as well as drinking mugs and dinnerware. A pottery on the western edge of Dorey Park made flowerpots and small storage jugs. These were manufactured for local use.
Several of these potteries manufactured limited supplies of bricks. There were several brickyards in and around the city of Richmond, but it was not until the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad line in 1881, just south of the present airport, that large clay deposits were opened up on either side of the track and a freight station, known as Fort Lee, was built just south of the airport.
A mile west of the Fort Lee station, C. H. Oliver opened a brickyard where the clay lay on the surface and a 12-foot bank of clay was exposed for harvesting. The clay was common brick clay, which was easily dug out by hand, formed into bricks and fired in kilns. Another brickyard next to Oliver's, molded the bricks by hand, and then they dried them before baking them in kilns.
The Fulton Brick Company on the north side of the railroad tracks utilized a tram rail system. Workers loaded the clay into tramcars and transported it to the plant where it would be molded and baked. These three yards were in operation during the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth.
Another brickmaking enterprise appeared on the Henrico scene shortly after 1900. Edward T. Mankin acquired 95 acres on Oakley Lane just north of the airport. Using brick manufacturing machinery, Mankin increased production to about 25 million bricks a year.
Mankin's bricks were used locally and shipped by rail to Norfolk where they were transported up and down the east coast. He later became interested in the craft of brickmaking as it was practiced in the early seventeenth century and began the production of hand-formed wood-mold bricks. Keeping this part of the operation separate from the machine-made bricks, he actually operated two plants on the property.
The quality of his bricks sold themselves, as did his reputation as a brickmaker. His colonial style bricks were used extensively in restoration work at Williamsburg, Jamestown, Stratford Hall and Carter's Grove. Mankin hand-formed brick was also used in the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York, and his brick was used extensively in residences, museums and academic buildings in Richmond and Charlottesville.
Early in the 1920s, Mankin decided to build a house for his family on the brickyard property. He built it of brick, and the house served a dual purpose, both as a residence and as a monument to the brickmaking craft. Built entirely out of brick, the house was completed in 1924. Mankin continued to manufacture bricks; however, after World War II, he only produced a limited quantity of hand-formed bricks.
After his death in 1951, the brickworks were sold, and the new owners were not successful as brickmakers. They sold the property, and today only his house, called Mankin Mansion, survives as a privately run bed and breakfast inn.
Another major industry came to Henrico during World War I. Between the Fort Lee station on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad and Seven Pines, the federal government purchased a 12 square-mile area for the construction of a powder packing plant. An additional 400 acres adjoining the plant tract was acquired for construction of approximately 2,000 homes for housing the workers employed in the plant. Row after row of warehouses were built and miles of railroad tracks were laid in the construction of the United States Bag Loading Plant, No. 3, at Seven Pines.
The United States Housing Corporation acquired 600 acres and began constructing the town of Fairfield. Plans called for 230 six-room bungalows with bath. In all, 427 buildings were constructed. In addition to the bungalows (100 of which were pre-fabricated at the factory in Bay City, Wisconsin) there were 10 large dormitories, a post office, a drugstore, firehouse, police station and an eight-room schoolhouse.
Even before work was completed on the entire plant complex, women in the county and city were encouraged to enlist in the Women's Munition Reserve. On August 22, 1918, 25 of the women were called into active service to begin training at Plant No. 3. The women had to load smokeless powder into silk bags and prepare black powder igniter charges. By assembling the two, they produced a propellant charge for use in firing projectiles.
The plant was formally opened on October 12, 1918, and continued production at full capacity until November 26, 1918, when production was cut by 50 percent. The signing of the armistice had negated the need for propellant charges. It was not long before production ceased. Although short lived, Power Packing Plant No. 3 left its mark in the development of the town of Fairfield. Citizens would later change the name to Sandston.
It was not long before some of the land acquired for the plant site would be developed into what is today Richmond International Airport. On January 20, 1927, Captain Roscoe Turner, a flamboyant racing pilot, circled the village of Sandston looking for a possible airport site for the city of Richmond. Landing, he found the ground very level and ideal, so he recommended the site to the city council. While members of council debated the issue, Turner purchased land next to the site he recommended and opened Richmond Air Junction. The city purchased 100 acres, leased an additional 300 acres and constructed a hanger and service building.
On October 15, 1927, the airport was officially dedicated as the Richard E. Byrd Flying Field. It was on that same day that Charles Lindberg landed his Spirit of St. Louis while on a national tour. Thousands of citizens came to see Lucky Lindy and his famous airplane.
Pitcairn Aviation operated out of Byrd Airport beginning April 1, 1928, offering airmail service to Atlanta, New York and other eastern cities. Pitcairn Aviation was sold and survived as part of Eastern Air Transport, which began operating out of Byrd from 1930 until January 1942 when the airport was leased to the federal government for a dollar a year. It then became Richmond Army Air Base. The U.S. Army Air Corps utilized the airfield as a fighter-training base.
After the war, the War Assets Administration returned the airport to the city. When the airport reverted to civilian use, it was still known as Richard E. Byrd Flying Field. The name was changed to Richard E. Byrd International Airport and to Richmond International Airport. Today it operates under a Regional Airport Commission and is one of the most modern and well-equipped airports in the eastern United States.
On the grounds of the airport is the Virginia Aviation Museum, which contains exhibits and airplanes related to aviation in Virginia. The Virginia Aeronautical Historical Society has its headquarters in the museum and maintains an extensive archival collection relevant to the history of aviation.