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Sunday, October 10, 2004

University acquired plantation in land swap

By Kevin Miller

Reprinted courtesy of The Roanoke Times

Nearly 20 years ago, Virginia Tech acquired the former Kentland plantation in a controversial land swap with developers.

But Kentland is much more than quality farmland: Tech inherited a piece of history.

From American Indian villages to encampments of marauding Union troops, Kentland has seen it all. Archaeologists have found evidence of several American Indian settlements on the property, including at least one large village. White explorers tracked through the property as early as 1671.

Frontiersman and hunter Adam Harman established the New River Valley's first recorded white settlement at present-day Kentland in the mid-1700s, the late Patricia Givens Johnson wrote in her book "Kentland at Whitethorne." When Indian bands attacked Harman and other settlers, they responded by erecting forts on the property.

Because of a natural ford in the New River, Kentland became the "gateway" to the west for white explorers before the "Great Road" opened, said local historian Jimmie Price.

James Randal Kent, a wealthy landowner and slaveholder, built the existing manor house around 1830. Following the Battle of Cloyd's Mountain in May 1864, Union troops ransacked the plantation's food stocks, freed slaves and threatened the manor house.

The property changed hands among Kent descendents during the next century, including Josephine Cowan Scrivenor's family.

"It was a great place to grow up," said 98-year-old Scrivenor. "I don't think you'd find a prettier piece of land."

Later owners tried unsuccessfully to locate everything from a brewery to a steel mill on the site when, in 1986, Tech made an offer they couldn't refuse.

Desperate for additional farmland, Tech secretly traded about 250 acres of research orchards in what would become Christiansburg's main shopping district for the 1,785-acre Kentland property. The developers on the other end of the swap - one of them a former Tech athletics official - quickly sold 40 acres of old university farms for $2.7 million. News of the swap sparked outrage.

Today, Tech raises cattle and grows apples, soybeans and a host of other crops at Kentland. More than 300 acres of the farm is registered as a historic district.

"It's hard to put a price on it for the educational programs it serves," said Dwight Paulette, Tech's farm coordinator. Between the property's size and diversity, Paulette added, "I think we came out ahead."

Johnson expressed similar sentiments in her book.

"The fact that the state now owns old Kentland has saved it as agriculture land," Johnson wrote. "It can be stated that whatever the public believed, or whatever was true, there is one undeniable fact. A factory belching smoke or gushing toxic chemicals into the river, which the people of the area had so feared, will not be built at beautiful old Kentland."

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