In our last post on the community along the Sunken Road and Hanover Street that constituted Fredericksburg’s lone suburb in 1860, we focused on what is by far the most famous survivor from the eleven homes and two businesses that made up neighborhood: the Stratton House. Since the war, the area has filled almost completely–the only open space that remains is on the Sunken Road proper–but still a few other surviving homes dot the landscape.
To me, the most interesting among them is the home at what is today 919 Hanover Street–largely because it’s almost completely forgotten. It was built about 1840 for a free black man named James Wilkins, who was a well-known and well-regarded barber in town who had been emancipated from slavery in 1824. Wilkins operated a thriving shop on Caroline Street. The local newspapers advertised him as “a professor of shaving, adept at hair coloring, and a Connoisseur of Perfuming” (I daresay modern Fredericksburg possesses no one who would warrant both the titles “professor of shaving” and a “Connoisseur of Perfuming”.) It is one of only a handful of surviving structures in Fredericksburg that was once owned by a free black. Mr. Wilkins owned the house until 1845. At the time of the Civil War, the place was owned by drayman Monroe Stevens (no relation so Martha, so far as we know), who lived there with his wife Elizabeth and two children. The core of 919 Hanover (quite small) is a rare surviving example of an intact interior of a lower-middle class house in Fredericksburg (another is the Innis House, along the Sunken Road, just a couple hundred yards away).
A vast step up the socio-economic ladder is just east of the Wilkins/Stevens house: the elegant brick home of George Rowe, the central structure on a 400-acre farming operation. Rowe was without question one of the Fredericksburg region’s most interesting figures. His 1868 obituary says of him, “He came to Fredericksburg, nearly a half century ago, comparatively unknown, and without educational advantages, and with no capital but a clear head, honest heart, and an ambitious spirit. He immediately identified himself with the businessmen and business interests of the city. Animation by a stern resolve for self elevation and conquest of adverse circumstances, by which he was surrounded, he devoted himself to work…and swiftly commanded public confidence.”
Rowe was dominantly a cattelman, and he made enough at that endeavor that he was able to retire from the business a wealthy man at the age of 58. That same year he was ordained a Baptist minister, and so a notable second career began. In 1855, when the white members of the Fredericksburg Baptist Church decided to build a new sanctuary on Princess Anne Street, they sold the old building, on Sophia Street, to the church’s black members. By state law, the black members could not congregate without a white man present, so in 1857 Rev. George Rowe took the pulpit as pastor.
He would serve as the pastor of the African Baptist Church until emancipation rendered his continued service unnecessary. When Rev. Rowe died in 1868, a local newspaper noted that “a large number of his former congregation were present at his funeral…” It was likely one of the few times in postwar Fredericksburg that African Americans were present in numbers inside the newer Fredericksburg Baptist Church.
George Rowe was the patriarch of a family that has been central to the town’s history for more than 150 years. His son, A.P. Rowe (also a cattleman, whose house and slaughterhouse stood along the banks of the Rappahannock–for more on that click here) became mayor. Ever since, Rowes of all sorts have been visible in Fredericksburg, most notably in the newspaper business (Josiah Rowe is today the publisher of the Free Lance-Star).
George Rowe’s house was prominent on the battlefield of Fredericksburg–it shows clearly in the famous panorama of the Bloody Plain. Noel Harrison’s book, Fredericksburg Civil War Sites, compiles the most compelling accounts that reflect on the house’s history.
The Rowe House on Hanover Street is still owned by the Rowe family. It is currently undergoing rehabilitation.