Claremont Manor sits on the south shore of James River at the mouth of Upper Chippokes Creek in Surry County. The land belonged to the Allen family for more than 200 years. The Claremont plantation encompassed over 12,000 acres, and was sold after the Civil War by the last William Allen to create a real estate development called The Claremont Colony,.
The Claremont Colony consisted of small farms and the Town of Claremont, incorporated in 1886. People came from the north and west to settle there. My great-grandfather, Alexander Pope Mills, was born in Cummington, Massachusetts in 1827, migrated through Pennsylvania to Virginia, and purchased a Claremont Colony “farmette” in 1886.
A. P. has been described as a “hippy” by some of his descendants, but others prefer to think of him as a “New England Transcendentalist”. He was a rugged individualist, little concerned with what the neighbors or anybody else thought. He was honest to a fault, preferring to stuff a rag in a broken window, rather than buy a pane of glass on credit. He read Latin and French, as well as English, and had his own library, which his grandchildren were not allowed to touch. But he told them great stories.
He also liked to go barefoot and he wore a full bushy beard when they were not in fashion, which occasionally elicited uninvited comments. On one occasion, a proper Edwardian lady in the new Town of Claremont chided him about his beard. “Mr. Mills, don’t you think that beard is unsanitary?” A. P. was unfazed. “Madam, don’t you think God knows how to make a man?”
Anna Mills was a woman grown and married when she came to Virginia in the eighteen-eighties. She was born in Pennsylvania and lived there on a farm with her husband, A. P. Mills, and their three children. They were poor, as many people were after the Civil War, and everyone worked at anything that would bring in a little money. Anna kept honey bees and sold honey, but her personal mainstay was knitting. She could knit useful items such as hats, socks and mittens, which she did for her neighbors as a source of income. In fact, she was so adept, and her fingers so nimble, that she could read a book and knit at the same time!
One blustery winter day in Pennsylvania, Anna heard a knock at her kitchen door. When she opened it, there stood a small boy, the child of a neighbor, all bundled up against the cold. Anna hurried him into the warm kitchen and shut the door, leading him over to the fire and asking him for news of his family and the reason for his visit.
He pulled a ball of drab gray wool yarn from inside his coat and held it up to her. “Mrs. Mills, my mother says will you knit me a pair of mittens. Please.” Anna agreed, and after milk and cookies were administered to the little messenger, she walked with him to the door. “Tell your mother I’ll be glad to knit your mittens.”
In the doorway the little boy looked up at her, his eyes beseeching, “And please Mrs. Mills, can you knit them red?”
By 1886 Anna and A. P. Mills were living in Surry County near Claremont, and on January 5, 1918, Anna Mills recorded in her diary, “ Nan and I went down to see the river. It was frozen over and looked cold and dreary.” “The snow is still quite deep, about an inch.” This was the famous James River freeze of 1918. The river surface was frozen so hard that people walked across from Sandy Point to Claremont. One man even drove a car across.
Surry County has many stories yet to be told.