Prince George Heritage Center

Prince George's Hertiage Center occupies the county's 1883 courthouse.

FORT LEE, Va. (July 7, 2011) --Explore Fort Lee's host county with a visit to the Prince George County Regional Heritage Center. Once one of the largest agricultural areas in North America, the county has documented the evolution of its land during the last 37 million years. Visitors can witness the changes and the population groups that brought them about.

Located not far from the A Avenue Gate, the center is housed in the old courthouse that was built in 1883 (6406 Courthouse Road). Court was held there for more than 100 years. Artifacts from the courthouse as well as the jail and bank also housed there are among the items on display at the center, a project of the Prince George Virginia Historical Society.

Prince George County was founded in 1702. At that time, it stretched south to the Carolina border and west to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Native Americans, English colonists, African-Americans and Czech-Slovak immigrants are among the groups that have peopled the county, which has been involved in every major war waged by the United States.

The Heritage Center uses artifacts and modern graphic technology to tell the stories of the county's people from the time before recorded history to visions of the future. Native Americans hunted and farmed the area before the English arrived to establish their plantations and small farms along the James River.

The county has been home to some notable people, including Richard Bland, for whom a local college is named, and Edmund Ruffin, who was an influential agriculturalist and a secessionist. Both residents are featured in the Heritage Center.

Bland, born in 1710, was heir to Jordan's Point Plantation near the area where the current Benjamin Harrison Memorial Bridge crosses the James River. He was a justice of the peace and militia officer before being elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. He served there until the American Revolution. Bland represented Virginia at the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1774 where many of his ideas were included in the Declaration of Rights.

Bland helped draft Virginia's first constitution in 1776 and was elected to the new state's House of Delegates. He died soon after assuming his duties in Williamsburg and was buried in a family cemetery where Fort Lee Soldiers participate in an annual ceremony honoring his memory.

Bland was one of many members of his family to play significant roles in colonial and early American history. For example, a sister was the great-grandmother of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, and his great-grandfather, Richard Bennett, was the only elected governor of Virginia before the Revolution.

Born in 1794, Ruffin served with the Virginia militia during the War of 1812 before taking up farming. Ruffin found much of the soil depleted by decades of heavy tobacco production so he set about learning how to improve it.

He followed the lead of Sir Humphry Davy and experimented with using marl, a deposit of clay and calcium carbonate, to restore lime and reduce the acidity of the soil. Ruffin wrote about his success with this method and became a prominent advocate for agricultural reform.

Over time, Ruffin's political views shifted from a relatively moderate position to one espousing states' rights, defending slavery and agitating for secession from the Union. He was present in Charleston, S.C., when South Carolina troops fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, starting the Civil War. Legend inaccurately credited Ruffin with firing the shot, but he was a popular hero in the Confederate States. About nine weeks after the war ended, Ruffin, whose health and finances were both in decline, committed suicide.

The center holds special events that revolve around archaeology and county history and life. Visit the website, www.princegeorgevahistoricalsociety.org, and check "Events" for detailed information.

The Great Beefsteak Steak Dinner on Sept. 21 commemorates the 1864 Confederate action that "liberated" more than 2,000 head of Union cattle. Tickets are on sale now. Call the center at (804) 863-0212 for details.

Admission to the Prince George County Regional Heritage Center is free. It is open Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday, 1-4 p.m. It is closed on major holidays. Group tours can be arranged for those who call ahead at (804) 863-0212.