A CHANGING LANDSCAPE
investigations at Sudley Post Office provide a glimpse into the domestic
life at the site from the 1840s into the 1930s.
Sudley Post Office offers the opportunity to examine a small rural
hamlet that was part of the infrastructure supporting the local
agricultural community. Associated
with Sudley Mills, this hamlet went through three series of changes:
growth during the antebellum period; social and economic unrest of the
Civil War and reconstruction; and slow growth into the early twentieth
century. The Sudley Post
Office Site offers a microcosm of these changes through the social and
economic landscape created by the households that resided at the site and
the domestic lives enacted on this landscape.
This study has interpreted the history and material lives of these
households within the context of the changing history of the Sudley
community and the regional political and economic setting.
The following is a summary for each of the three households that
occupied Sudley Post Office from the 1840s to the 1920s.
From the mid 1840s to 1871, John Thornberry, a wheelwright, his wife, Martha, and their children occupied Sudley Post Office. During their thirty-year occupation, domestic goods acquired by the Thornberry household, as measured through personal property tax assessments, rose from relatively few possessions, to that comparable to other farmers in the area who owned four to five slaves (McCartney 1992:90). Coinciding with their growth of household income, the Thornberrys were active in the Sudley community, most notably Sudley Methodist Church. The Thornberrys also obtained the maximum social use of their landscape through ensuring the visibility of their home from the public space of Sudley Methodist Church. They also used the landscape through the visibility of their wheelwright shop from the public space of Sudley Road.
At the same time, material and documentary evidence suggests that the household obtained the maximum subsistence use from the landscape through gardens, raising livestock, and preserving foods. The Thornberry's position with the community, both in terms of geographic and social space, served to their disadvantage, however, during the First Battle of Manassas when Federal troops used their home as a field hospital and destroyed all of their household possessions and shop. This event forever altered the Thornberrys' lives and by 1871 the family sold the property and moved to Manassas.
Elizabeth Matthews and her husband, Carson, lived at Sudley Post Office from 1871 to 1903. During their occupation of the property, the Matthews used the structure for both a residence and a post office and store. The Matthew's use of Sudley Post Office as a public space went beyond the visual contact the Thornberrys had with the community to that of the community frequenting the structure for socializing and mail pick-up. The archeological record reflects the use of domestic space for public activities through clearly separated domestic activity areas. The only space that showed evidence for the Matthew's activities is in the downslope midden deposits.
The final use of Sudley Post Office for a full-time domestic abode was by the Davis family from the 1910s into the mid 1920s. The Davis family consisted of Joe Davis, his wife, Lucy, and their children. By the early twentieth century, the structure at Sudley Post Office was in poor condition. Significantly, the deteriorated condition of the property made the structure affordable as a domicile for an African-American household whose head worked as a farm laborer. Despite the run-down condition of the house, the Davises were still in the public eye of the community during a time when racial hostility toward blacks was at an all-time high. Resulting from this social situation, the Davises kept their activities limited to the eastern side of the structure, blocked from the view of the road and Sudley Methodist Church. The exclusive use of this space shows up in the arrangement of material deposits in only the eastern portion of the yard. This use of space gave the Davises more freedom to engage in activities such as entertaining and recycling of goods that might have been unacceptable in a space in close visual proximity to the white establishment.
The Sudley Post Office Site has two significant types of resources: 1) the archeological deposits in the yard of the site and 2) the architectural element of the Sudley Post Office Structure. The historical research undertaken in this project has revealed the diverse and rich interpretive value that these two resources hold. The combination of these three resources, archeological, historic, and architectural, provides a rich dataset for the history of the site's land use and occupation.
The site contains archeological contexts containing information as to how households used the landscape and the nature of material conditions of life for two of the households that resided at the site. While this project sampled the archeological record, there are still significant archeological resources still present at the site. For compliance purposes, the area in the immediate vicinity of the structure is cleared for stabilization of Sudley Post Office along with the proposed utility corridor running to the southwest of the structure. In both of these areas, it is recommended that an archeologist be present during the activities involving subsurface disturbance, such as excavations for the foundation footers and removal of debris under the structure to provide adequate air circulation for the floors and joists. The area to the east of structure where the kitchen and root cellar feature are located should be avoided by heavy machinery and vehicle traffic. This area contains subsurface features that would be negatively impacted by ground compaction caused by heavy equipment. The extent of these sensitive subsurface features will be demarcated by snow fencing.
The structure at Sudley is unique for several reasons. Most rural nineteenth-century houses of lower to middle economic status households have either disappeared from the landscape or have been altered beyond recognition. The structure at Sudley Post Office is an excellent example of vernacular architecture very similar to other structures built in the Virginia Piedmont. Similar houses such as those of the Thornton, Matthews, and Van Pelt are only present in nineteenth-century photographs and drawings (Figure 8.1). The structure at Sudley Post Office is also unique since all phases of construction from the original one-bay structure built in the 1840s to the southern addition that housed the post office are intact
The original two-pen structure that was in existence during the Civil War is still very recognizable and allows for interpretation of the 1862 landscape. In addition, the shed that housed the community post office from 1875 to 1903 is still present on the southern portion of the structure and provides an idea of how the structure looked during its use as a community mail drop. Residents of the Sudley Community still refer to the structure as "Sudley Post Office" and recall family members' recollections of Elizabeth Matthews. The retention of the post office section serves to keep the link between the structure and the wider community alive. Based on the combination of architectural elements of the structure and the associated archeological and historical evidence, it is recommended that all three of the construction sequences (the original one bay built in the 1840s, the northern bay built in the 1850s, and the southern addition built in the 1870s) be kept in-situ and stabilized for interpretive purposes. In light of new findings of the site history presented in this report, the stabilization of the structure should be used as an opportunity to reexamine the architectural features of the structure and critically examine the proposed building sequences as interpreted by this study. When combined with the archeological and historical information presented in this report, the structure offers a setting for the interpretation of a wide range of temporal contexts.
Overall, Sudley Post office provides an unparalleled interpretive focus to understand the changes that occurred in the Sudley area during the nineteenth century. The historical record provides an illustrated timeline to trace the changing households that occupied the structure. The archeological record preserved in the yard contains direct evidence of the domestic history for the site and use of landscape as a mechanism for social survival. Combining this information with the continued presence of the structure on the landscape allows the walls of Sudley Post Office to speak of its occupation by the households of a craftsman, a postmistress and her family, and a farm laborer and his household.