One of the oldest homes in Washington County, Virginia, is Walnut Grove, which was the residence of Robert Preston.
Located near Sugar Hollow Park on Highway 11, it was built in the 1790s (according to family information) on The Great Road (stage route connecting the eastern seaboard with the western frontier). Robert Preston was an early and prominent surveyor and citizen of Washington County, Virginia. The house is a ?ne example of high-style frontier architecture. The Preston family had great impact on the development of this region and the role of this area in the country’s westward expansion. Robert Preston mustered with others from the region at the Abingdon, Virginia, mustering ground for the “Overmountain Men” to march to the Battle of King’s Mountain, a decisive battle of the Revolutionary War. He was allowed to remain at home because he had only been married three days.
The Bristol Historical Association purchased the house and one acre of land in 2011. One of the problems with the house was that it was surrounded by property that the association didn’t own. Washington County planners worked with BHA to allow subdivision of the land, so the BHA could purchase the “landlocked” house and surrounding acre. The City of Bristol, Virginia, planners and the adjoining landowner established rights of way and easements to allow public access.
In 2018 the Virginia Department of Historic Resources placed a historic marker in front of the house recognizing it as one of the region’s most historic properties. The Lewis & Clark Legacy Trail designated it as a site on the famous explorers’ travels. On their return journey, they had breakfast Nov. 12, 1809 with John Preston, Robert’s son.
“People who come to visit the Lewis & Clark Trail will see Walnut Grove and all the other great things we have in Bristol. An additional benefit of being on the trail is their website will allow visitors to explore other areas of interest when planning a trip to visit,” says Jan Rainero, a member of the historical association and the Lewis and Clark Legacy Trail board, who helped spearhead the drive to restore Walnut Grove, along with co-chair Isabelle Ladd.
After the historical association acquired the property, they needed to restore it. The building was in deplorable shape. The foundation needed to be repaired, a lean-to was leaning, some siding needed to be replaced, thousands of honeybees needed to be moved, and more.
To add insult to the house’s injuries, Rainero went to open the building so a reporter could see it to write a story. She was about to reach out and show the journalist the hand-hammered wrought iron hinges on the door, when she discovered that the door was missing. Someone had stolen every interior door.
“Luckily I had pictures to go by, so we could have them replaced,” Rainero says.
The historical association commissioned an extensive historic structure report and got the property included on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places. In the initial phase, they removed the lean-to and a front porch which were not original to the house. They also conducted an archeological dig on the property, cleared years of debris from the yard, took down a log structure believed to be the kitchen, restored the foundation and stabilized the house.
Next, they restored the siding, replaced the windows with reproduction glass, installed electric service and security lighting. Once the building was weather tight, they began work on the interior. They replastered walls, repaired and restored flooring and more.
Their only remaining tasks are to paint, build a bathroom for visitors and build the access road. They also need to build a ramp to make the house ADA compliant.
The Prestons were one of this frontier area’s most prosperous and influential families during the 18th and 19th centuries. The Prestons and their descendants have made significant contributions to the broad patterns of our history as a country. Robert immigrated to Southwest Virginia from Londonderry, Ireland, in 1773 at age 23. He apprenticed as a surveyor under the guidance of his cousin, William Preston, at Smithfield Plantation located on what is now the Virginia Tech Campus. In 1774, he served as assistant surveyor in Fincastle County, Virginia, (now Washington County). He fought in Lord Dunmore’s War in 1774 which pitted the Colonial Virginians against Native Americans.
Robert Preston was appointed surveyor of Washington County by Thomas Jefferson, who was then governor of Virginia, in 1779. He served in this capacity until his death in 1833.
He relocated his residence to Washington County about 1780 and later built his home at Walnut Grove. He planned and designed the streets of Abingdon, Virginia, in 1780 and served as sheriff and justice of the peace of Washington County.
Robert and his wife, Margaret, had two children, John and Jane. “The Grove” was built by John who married William Preston’s daughter. Her brother built what is now the Martha Washington Inn. Jane lived with her husband “Irish Bob” at Locust Glen a large farm on Old Jonesboro Road.
Robert donated land for and founded Walnut Grove Meeting House, now the Walnut Grove Presbyterian Church.
He owned vast tracts of land, including areas that would become the city of Bristol, Virginia. He served as one of the first trustees of Abingdon, Virginia, and served on the Washington County Committee as a commissioner for supervising the Presidential election of 1800.
The house he built is one of the only remaining 18th century wood-frame structures in the greater Bristol area and one of the oldest surviving buildings in Washington County
Although it was badly in need of restoration, it retained a significant amount of its architectural integrity, such as original recessed panel wainscoting, elaborate raised panel mantels and a staircase. All of these features have been cleaned up and restored.
“The most rewarding part of this process has been the education in the history of the family and the house and meeting all the people involved,” Rainero says. “It’s been a great and wonderful project for the historical association.”
For more information about the Bristol Historical Association and its projects, visit www.bristolhistoricalassociation.com.