Among the 1,500 alumni who had returned to Blacksburg for Virginia Tech’s 1922 golden jubilee, a group of about 15 men stood apart. Dressed in suits and hats and enjoying some shade, they were older than the rest. But despite their dignified dress and station, their cheers rang out louder than any of the other competing class yells:

“Man alive, man alive,
Look who’s here for ’75!
Are we dead ones?
Look and see,
VPI, hoorah, hooree!”

One of those booming cries rose from a 68-year-old tobacco farmer who in 1872 had been one of the first students to enroll in what was then known as the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College. Hardin Harbour “H.H.” Reynolds was from a prominent family teeming with trailblazers. His two older brothers were well known — multimillionaire tobacco tycoon R.J. Reynolds and Bristol businessman A.D. Reynolds, a major in the Civil War whose son Richard S. Reynolds founded Reynolds Metals, the creator of Reynolds Wrap.

H.H. and his 15 siblings were born in the 1843 brick home at Rock Spring Plantation, a sprawling tobacco farm encompassing thousands of acres in Patrick County. Named for the shallow pool of clean water that wells up from the ground nearby, Rock Spring was also home to nearly 90 enslaved men, women, and children whose work in the fields, tobacco factory, and elsewhere on the property built great wealth for the Reynolds family.

Today, as the university celebrates its 150th anniversary, the Reynolds Homestead is marking more than 50 years since the family donated the property to Virginia Tech. The homestead will welcome the public, as well as descendants of Hardin Reynolds and the enslaved community, for a series of events June 17-19 to toast its five decades of service.

The former plantation has been transformed over the past 50 years into part forest research project, part community gathering place, and part educational and cultural center. An old catalpa tree still stands watch over the property, just as it did when enslaved workers laid the home’s first bricks. It has seen history passing by in everything from ox-drawn wagons filled with tobacco to SUVs filled with tourists. But while plenty has changed in 170 years, the community has consistently found a home here. With that gnarled tree, the historic house, and the cool spring bridging the generations, the local community and descendants of both the Reynolds family and the enslaved people have returned year after year to reflect, learn, and connect to both the past and present.

“This is much more than just a historic piece of land. The connection the community feels to the Reynolds Homestead has run through the generations, and Virginia Tech has become a part of that,” Director Julie Walters Steele said. “As a hub for arts and culture programs in Patrick County, it’s a place that brings people of all backgrounds together.” 

H.H. Reynolds
Hardin Harbour "H.H." Reynolds inherited the Rock Spring Plantation and raised his own family in the home where he was born. Reynolds Homestead photo

Roots of an empire

H.H.’s father, Hardin Reynolds, believed strongly in the value of education. Although he didn’t have much education himself, he made learning a priority for his children, sending them to the best colleges in the region.

In 1872, 18-year-old H.H. and Robert Critz, his neighbor and future brother-in-law, arrived in Blacksburg, joining the other 130 students who had enrolled at Virginia’s brand-new land-grant institution.

H.H. stayed for two years, receiving a certificate of session completion in 1874 — a year before the university’s first official graduation ceremony and well before diplomas or degrees were issued. He returned to Patrick County to work with his father.

H.H. and his brothers learned the tobacco business at Rock Spring, but that wasn’t all they learned from their prosperous father. Hardin Reynolds also taught his children how to make a fortune.

“This is the place that sparked the remarkable spirit of entrepreneurship within the Reynolds family,” said J. Sargeant Reynolds Jr., a descendant of Hardin Reynolds.

Hardin had a highly diversified income. The plantation, located on the main road between Norfolk and Bristol, grew and manufactured its own plug chewing tobacco, earned rent off its many land holdings, and ran a mercantile store that carried a wide variety of stock including luxury goods such as nutmeg graters and coffee pots and everyday staples such as corn, flour, and bacon. Hardin further stretched his money by earning interest on cash loans and investing.

His children took that business acumen with them into the world, revolutionizing the economy of the region and the nation along the way. 

The enslaved community

A similar culture of entrepreneurship, commerce, and business was also fostered among the enslaved community at Rock Spring, according to Kimble Reynolds, whose great-great-grandparents Kitty and Anthony Reynolds were enslaved at the plantation.

For a long time, little was known about the plantation’s enslaved community, but the homestead has worked to learn more and bring those stories to life. Today, a portrait of Kitty, who was born in 1838 at a neighboring plantation, hangs in a bedroom on the second floor, where docents share stories about her life with visitors. Two works of art honoring the enslaved men and women provide additional opportunities to open further conversations about slavery.

Researchers have uncovered more than 60 potential graves at the property’s enslaved cemetery, while additional study of tax records and other documents has helped identify many of the enslaved people.

“Our goal is to share the stories of as many men, women, and children who served as enslaved laborers on the plantation as we can,” Steele said. “According to tax and census records, by 1840 when Hardin Reynolds inherited his father’s estate, 18 Africans were enslaved here. In 1850, with the addition of those individuals his wife, Nancy Jane Cox Reynolds, brought with her as part of her dowry, the enslaved community increased to 48. By 1863, the number of enslaved men, women, and children was 88.”

Kitty Reynolds’ relationship with Hardin’s family was a lifeline for her and her family. A tale retold through the generations in both the local Black and white communities recounts how as a young woman she saved Hardin from a charging bull. When the bull made to go after Hardin in the pasture, Kitty twirled her skirts to distract it. According to this legend, her bravery earned her the trust of his family and led to her becoming nanny to Hardin’s 16 children.

Following the emancipation of slaves, many of the Reynolds children maintained a close relationship with Kitty. R.J., for example, provided transportation for Kitty and her family to visit his home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Kitty’s connection with the Reynoldses even became part of civil rights history when two of her sons, Burwell and Lee, were arrested after a fight that ended in the death of a white man.

Andrew Lybrook — a Virginia state senator, Hardin Reynolds’ son-in-law, and husband to one of the children Kitty once cared for — defended the brothers in the case that resulted in the 1879 Supreme Court decision Ex Parte Virginia. That decision, which states that candidates for jury duty cannot be rejected on account of their race, was an important step in ensuring a fair trial for any American charged with a crime, regardless of race.

“She had no material possessions, but what she was able to do through her social capital, through her connection to the Reynolds family, is quite remarkable for someone who was formerly enslaved,” Kimble Reynolds said. “She made the most of what she was given in life.”

A man holds a portrait in front of a house.
Kimble Reynolds holds a portrait of Kitty Reynolds, his great-great-grandmother who was enslaved at the Rock Spring Plantation. Photo by Diane Deffenbaugh for Virginia Tech.

Connecting to history

Years ago, as night fell over the old plantation, Kimble Reynolds stood in the lawn between the twisted catalpa tree, the brick home, and the kitchen house, looking up at the stars and thinking of Kitty and her husband, Anthony, and their lives as enslaved workers a century before.

“To look at that North Star and sort of wonder, ‘What was going through their mind at that time? What was a day like for them as the traffic came down that main thoroughfare?’ It’s just something that’s a real strong personal connection.”

His longtime service on the Reynolds Homestead Advisory Committee honors that family connection and adds to his ongoing service to Virginia Tech. Kimble received a bachelor’s degree in marketing management and served as class president in 1988. In 1995, he earned a master’s degree in health and physical education from the university.

After earning a law degree, he opened a private practice in Martinsville, where he also has served as a city council member and mayor. He has remained an active member of the Virginia Tech community, serving as the first Black president of the Alumni Association and also was a member of the Pamplin Advisory Council and the university’s Multicultural Alumni Advisory Board. He received Alumni Distinguished Service Awards in 2008 and 2009.

“Part of my dedication to the Reynolds Homestead is family ties. How do I maintain my ties to this space for my children and other descendants of Kitty Reynolds? But also, it’s important to me that I provide a diverse perspective, especially from the standpoint of being an African American individual in this community,” he said.

For the past 30 years, Kevin Reynolds has visited the homestead for church gatherings and other community events. Ancestors from both sides of his family tree are buried in the enslaved cemetery.

“This is where my family started,” he said. His great-great-grandmother Ida Reynolds was born enslaved at Rock Spring in 1863. His great-great-grandfather Robert Reynolds also was enslaved on the property. “It has been powerful to know I can go back to where my family began,” he said.

Time spent providing community service sparked the realization of how moving that history was. While helping his son build a picnic table and benches near the original spring as an Eagle Scout project, he dipped a bottle into the pool and took a drink of the cool water.

“I realized I was drinking from the very same spring as my enslaved ancestors all those years ago. Here I was with my own son helping to preserve this place for the community. History had come all the way back around,” he said.

Black and white photo of a crowd sitting outside a brick house.
In June 1970, a grand dedication on the lawn marked the gift of the property from Nancy Susan Reynolds to Virginia Tech. In doing so, she set a mission calling for programs designed to improve the quality of life in Patrick County “culturally, economically, and practically.” Reynolds Homestead photo

The gift

The historic buildings, the catalpa tree, and the gentle spring where it all began endure because of a careful plan to preserve the Reynolds Homestead and give it to the university. Through collaborations between Virginia Tech and local organizations, the property remains a force in the Patrick County community.

The last Reynolds family descendant left the property in the 1960s, and the house sat vacant for several years until, in 1967, a local schoolteacher stopped to check on it and found a pony living in the home alongside the Reynolds family’s antique piano. Nannie Ruth Terry started a quest to save the historic landmark and wrote a letter to R.J.’s youngest daughter, Nancy Susan Reynolds, to invite her to visit. That sparked a friendship and a plan to save the homestead.

Nancy Susan Reynolds purchased the property and renovated the house and several outbuildings, including a kitchen, an ice house, a creamery, and a granary. Today, the restored home is filled with Reynolds family heirlooms and displays of 19th century life.

But she had more in mind than just preserving her family’s history.

At the grand dedication on the lawn in 1970, Nancy Susan Reynolds deeded the property to Virginia Tech. In doing so, she set a mission calling for programs designed to improve the quality of life in Patrick County “culturally, economically, and practically.”

“That’s the smartest thing she did. That’s what has kept it going and how it remained preserved,” said Richard S. “Major” Reynolds III, Hardin’s great-great-grandson. “If it had been passed down to family, it inevitably would have eventually been broken up, but through Virginia Tech it was preserved and has become even more important to the community.”

Today, as part of Outreach and International Affairs, the Reynolds Homestead serves as a place of learning and culture in a rural area where residents don’t have easy access to theater, art exhibits, and other cultural experiences.

“Nancy Susan Reynolds realized that this community didn’t have the opportunities that she had growing up. So, she really weighed heavily in our mission to offer arts and culture and history and to offer opportunities for education,” Steele said.

Today, residents of Patrick County and beyond celebrate their weddings on the homestead’s lawn and enjoy nature along the 1-mile LEAF trail. They attend concerts, festivals, and lectures. The surrounding 780 acres of woodland serve as the Reynolds Homestead Forestry Resources Research Center, where Virginia Tech researchers and students study forest biology.

The long-standing ties between the Reynolds family, the university, and the community remain strong with the Reynolds Homestead Advisory Committee, which helps steer the homestead’s future.

Major Reynolds said he feels deeply connected to the property where his parents and brother, Virginia lieutenant governor J. Sargeant Reynolds, are buried in the family cemetery. More than 50 years ago, he listened to his brother speak at the homestead’s dedication, and ever since he has watched it “really become a place of good for the community.”

Over the years, the Reynolds family has continued its support, including building the homestead’s Community Engagement Center in 1978 and an addition in 1992. The two-story building holds several meeting spaces where community members can gather. Support of education in the community is also upheld through the Nancy Susan Reynolds Scholarships, which have helped hundreds of Patrick County high school seniors attend college.

“The Reynolds Homestead fits very well into the types of things for which our family cares deeply, such as helping the community and people who have fewer resources,” Major Reynolds said. “I think Nancy would be very happy to see it as it is today. She would see it as a very important part of her legacy.”

A lifetime of learning

With staff members who are deeply embedded in the community, the homestead works hand-in-hand with nonprofit, business, and government organizations to address local needs.

“We aren’t just working to fulfill Virginia Tech’s land-grant mission; we’re living it every day,” Steele said.  

The homestead intentionally keeps the community deeply involved. Dozens of residents volunteer at the homestead, and others serve on the advisory board.

When Janice Pendleton moved to the area in the 1980s to teach in the local school, she had no idea how much the homestead would come to play a part in her family’s lives. Her children became “regulars” at summer camps and art classes, and she took on a summer job as a docent leading tours.

Each December, scores of children visit the homestead’s Victorian Christmas celebration, which draws up to 1,600 kids each year. Other hands-on experiences, such as a Native American Powwow and living history exhibits, allowed her students to explore other cultures and fit right into classroom studies, Pendleton said.

After Pendleton and her husband retired, the homestead provided a way for them to stay engaged with the community. “The Reynolds Homestead has provided lots to keep us busy and help us feel useful,” she said. The couple help in the kitchen during events, set up art exhibitions, and decorate for Victorian Christmas. They also participate in the College for Older Adults program, which provides lifelong learning for adults 50 and older.

“Volunteering is my way of giving back to a place that has been a meaningful part of my life for more than 38 years,” Pendleton said. “It really is a special place for this rural community.”

Sarah Wray, the Reynolds Homestead’s community engagement, partnerships, and programs manager, said the community is the true magic behind the homestead’s success. Many efforts, she said, are sparked by ideas from community members.

“When we are able to leverage their insights and expertise, and then empower them to do it, they begin to feel an ownership,” Wray said. “The homestead endures on the trust built through the generations.”

Artisan Billy Ray Sims demonstrates how to weave a basket in the Community Engagement Center.
Docents dress in Victorian-era clothing to give tours of the home in December. Photos by Diane Deffenbaugh for Virginia Tech.

Engaging the community

Like so many others in the community, Wray first came to the homestead as a youngster on a school trip. She says that as an adult the homestead helped her get plugged in to the community after she was away for several years.

“In a rural area, there aren’t a lot of places to go and meet people. That social aspect of creating natural opportunities for people to come together, network, and form relationships is really important,” she said.

Anna Lester also grew up in Patrick County and visited the homestead as a small child. “I can remember sitting cross-legged on the floor of the center watching ‘The Nutcracker,’” she said. Like Wray, she returned to the area as a young professional and found that programs offered at the Reynolds Homestead truly changed her life and deepened her connections.

Leadership Patrick County, a program that promotes civic engagement, introduced her to local businesses and organizations and encouraged her to become an active part of the community.

An AIR:Shift workshop propelled her even further. Built to boost creative economies, AIR:Shift brings the myriad perspectives of community members, civic leaders, and business owners together to brainstorm ideas for projects and highlights different ways of doing business while celebrating creativity. The program has supported the startup of several new businesses in the region.

Lester said the ripple effect of connections she formed is invaluable. Through the program, she met her business partners and started a farm-to-table restaurant, Pickle & Ash, in nearby Stuart.

“The homestead is a force. It puts life into the community. I don’t even know where we would be if there was no Reynolds Homestead,” she said.

A growing future

As the Reynolds Homestead looks to its next 50 years of service, it is continuing to grow and change as the community’s needs shift. By listening to area residents, Steele and her team balance new programming opportunities with continued support of events that have become traditions.

Thanks to funding from the Reynolds family through the Richard S. Reynolds and Virginia S. Reynolds Foundations, the Community Engagement Center is preparing to break ground on a nearly 1,500-square-foot commercial kitchen, opening the door to a wide assortment of new opportunities to support rural Patrick County.

Major Reynolds, president of the Richard S. Reynolds Foundation, said the kitchen is important for the homestead’s growth.

“We saw the utility of the kitchen and that it’s something that is important for the future of the center. That lined up with the anniversary, and it seemed like the perfect time to make it happen,” he said.

The kitchen will house an assortment of industrial equipment to prepare food for events, and a large portion will be dedicated to teaching with eight cooking stations outfitted with ranges, sinks, refrigerators, and other tools needed to follow an instructor’s guidance. 

“This multifaceted facility will provide space for catering demonstrations, culinary-based courses and programming, workforce development, and local value-added agricultural production," Steele said.

Another homestead initiative is exploring the possibility of converting a historic home in Critz into a community center. The tiny community has the county’s largest minority population and is also the only community in the county to not have its own park. Through connections with Virginia Tech resources such as the Community Design Assistance Center, the homestead is helping Critz residents envision the possibilities.

“We are working every day to expand our mission, diversify our programming, and meet more people where they are so we can engage with a broader base of the community,” Steele said.

A timeworn catalpa tree has stood at the Reynolds Homestead for generations. Photo by Diane Deffenbaugh for Virginia Tech.
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