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Protecting the Forest, Preserving a Family Legacy

Nearly 140 years ago, the Jones family moved to Western Henrico. They didn’t have much at first, but eventually owned more than 1000 acres of land. A descendant is protecting what they have left and sharing his family’s history. 88.9 WCVE’s Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.

Special thanks to Alan Weatherhead for composing original music and scoring this story. All family photos courtesy of the Jones Family.

Transcript:

Behind the sprawling Innsbrook corporate office park is a small forest. White and red oaks, yellow poplars and loblollies rise toward the sky.

Clay Jones Junior: This is where I love it, through here. It’s like the trees are kinda hugging you. It’s like a point of comfort.

Clay Jones Jr. has spent more than seven decades here. It’s his sanctuary.

Jones: Nature is beautiful.

Jones recalls plenty of blueberries and blackberries in the summer. He’d meander the trails to the “big house,” built by his great grandfather around 1908. The boys used vines to swing across the Chickahominy river. They played baseball in the cow pasture. When you got thirsty, you’d head to the spring; the water tasted sweet, like there was sugar in it.

Jones: My cousins and I, we’d spend hours in the woods. I’d spent hours in the woods just by myself. I would sit back on the rock on Rooty Creek, and I would just listen to the sounds of the water rushing by especially when you had a heavy rain and it was soothing and beautiful and godly.

The Jones family history runs deep through these woods. It’s a story of hard work and love of the land; it’s a story of risk and resourcefulness. It’s a story of loss, resistance and a lifelong mission to reclaim the forest.

Jones: The earth is struggling and it’s trying to heal itself but it’s not getting any help and within the near distant future, it’s going to be irreversible, it’s not going to be able to heal itself. I’m afraid we are pretty close to it now.

The Jones family once owned about 1200 acres here, stretching from Nuckols Road to the Meredith Branch stream off Springfield Road. Their land covered all of what is now Innsbrook North. Today it’s down to 42 acres owned by Jones, his mother, sister and son.

Jones: I love it here. If this place was ever sold, I mean already my heart is broke from what has been sold.

Now 74 years old, Jones want people to know the deep and rich history of this land and his ancestors.

Jones: The reason I am where I am now is because of the ones who came before me and we have never gotten an honor for the hard work that a lot of people did in this country.

The Jones family was multiracial with European, Black and Indigenous ancestry. Clay Jones Jr. says his family members were never enslaved. Through his research, he also discovered details about his great great grandfather.

Jones: His name was George B. Mason, and I should say Captain George B. Mason. He was a captain in the Confederate Army. He never married. He had two children, which was my great grandfather and he had a daughter.

Clay’s great grandfather Henry Clay Jones I moved with his wife Martha from Hanover to Western Henrico County in 1879. They brought their five children and had ten more, one every other year until 1894, when Martha gave birth to twins, Clara and Carrie. Like his own father, Henry Clay Jones I was a farmer and a blacksmith.

Jones: So he had a real talent, something that you could always use to make a living with.

An 1881 homestead deed provides some details about the family’s assets.

Jones: One barrel $3, one horse $30, one cow and calf $30, one heffer $25...

They had a wagon and harness, fifty barrels of corn and thirty chickens.

Jones: … amounting in aggregate to $280.50.

Severals sons worked at nearby Gayton Mines. Following an accident, they didn’t want to go back. Lewis along with his brother Joel made a proposal to their father. They wanted to try logging. He agreed and in 1895, they started HC Jones & Sons Lumber Company.

Jones: This is a crosscut saw, this is the one my grandfather used.

Clay Jones Jr. proudly shows a saw used in the family business. It’s about six feet long and required two sets of hands and a lot of body strength to use. It’s still sharp.

Jones: This one’s ready to be used if anybody wanted to use it.

HC Jones & Sons had a woods crew and a mill crew. They used a mobile, steam powered sawmill. A donkey named Jack hauled the logs out of the woods. Horses Bessie, Belle, Prince and George pulled the wagons full of lumber. The company employed many people around Glen Allen, Virginia.

Jones: We had Indigenous people working at the mill, Europeans and African Americans working at the mill. All working together in harmony, all were treated equally. Nobody, no exception, I’ve always heard that and that was a great thing. It’s a part of history that a lot of people don’t realize.

As the lumber business grew, other relatives established one of the area’s biggest farms. Clay Jones Junior’s Great Uncle Morton and Great Aunt Patty bred cattle and chickens. They tended peaches and apples in the orchard. They used companion planting, alternating corn and watermelon on either side of a creek.

Jones: I had never seen that done. It wasn’t throughout the whole corn field, but it was near the creek. It was most the beautiful watermelons, not like the soda-watermelons now. My cousins and I would go [laughs] over there at night and we would bust a watermelon open and we’d eat just the center and it was sweetest thing.

They also somehow coaxed a lemon tree into producing fruit.

Jones: I don’t know how they did it but whatever magic they performed, it was done.

One of the beautiful sights, says Jones, was the wheat. It covered 40 acres.

Jones: And you always remember the wheat, when the wind hit it it, it was like music if you hear a real good song, and especially if you listen to nature and you put the wheat together with it. And of course it turned that kinda golden brown, you know that real pretty color and you could just see it, when the wind would move, the wheat would move.

(Ambient: walking outside)

Jones: That was my room, there were two bedrooms on the second floor. There was a parlor which was converted to the bedroom on the first floor and another bedroom, then there was the front room and the kitchen, and that was built first.

 Clay Jones Jr. stands in front of his great grandfather’s home, built more than a century ago and 15 years after the family started HC Jones and Sons. All the wood, inside and out, came from the mill: the siding, lath boards, flooring, doors. It was positioned perfectly to get sun on all four sides. But there’s something missing.

Jones: It was never actually finished. That’s why there’s no windows on the Southern side. That’s the only house I’ve ever seen in my life, except for the kitchen and the front room, with no windows. And that was because my grandfather was extremely superstitious. It was started in 1910, it was finished in 1912 and he would not let them lay a hand on it in 1913. And he got married in 1912, December the 31st. He did not want to get married in 1913 and he didn’t want anything else done to his house. [Laughs]
 
Still standing in front the home is a giant white oak.

Jones: This was here when my great grandfather and my grandfather. I would say that's maybe 125 to 150 [years old].

The limbs reach up and out in all directions, gently curving and bending like many outstretched arms.

Jones: Do you know why the white oaks are still here? Deep roots...

The Jones family mill and farm flourished for decades, helping many in the community get through the Depression. But after Clay’s Grandfather had a massive stroke, HC Jones & Sons started to suffer. It shut down in 1942. After Lewis Jones passed three years later, partition suits divided up the land and family members sold most of it. The once sprawling “forested wonderland” is now encircled by development, two highways, a landfill and the sounds of construction.

(Ambient: walking outside)

Jones: To watch it be destroyed is heart wrenching. Subdivisions kill the earth and they kill the forest and they kill the animals. The land can not breath. And for them to build a city around a city, it’s somewhat mind boggling, but in this country I understand it and I understand why - which makes no sense to me. Because eventually a divided nation will fall.

Though only 42 acres remain, Clay Jones and his wife of nearly 50 years, Linda, have continued the family legacy. They’ve raised six children here, one son lives down the street, named Jones Road.

Linda Jones: I love the land and I would to like to see it preserved.

In his youth, Clay Jones thought about going into the logging business, reviving the family legacy. Plus, he loved to be outdoors. But his father, who ran an electronics repair company, talked him out of it. After getting an advanced degree in mathematics, Clay Jones Jr. spent 35 years teaching including more than 25 as the Math Department Chair at Richmond’s George Wythe High School. During this time, he continued to research family history. Afternoons and summer breaks were spent digging through archives at the state library and the old Henrico Courthouse on Main Street. The more he learned, the more he wanted to buy his family’s land back. He got a real estate agent to contact one of the new owners, who had more than 300 acres.

Jones: He put me on the other line so I could hear the conversation and that is when I gave up any hope of buying the land, the homeplace back. [He said] tell him I wouldn’t sell him an acre, but I’m buying. And that was it.

Jones was crushed. But he did manage to reclaim six acres of another plot that came up for sale.

Jones: I paid a lot for it, it was only six acres but I paid $1500 an acre for it. That was the first land I purchased.

He says it took him three years on his teacher’s salary, plus night jobs, to pay for those six acres. He kept working, saving money, starting up a janitorial company and a firewood cutting business. Clay and Linda decided if they couldn’t buy back the family land, they’d look elsewhere. They walked thousands of acres searching for the right tracts, the details of many still vivid.

Jones: When I visited that site and I got out of the truck, it was raining and I began to walk and I felt my feet get wet, I had holes in my shoes [laughs]. And when I got to this opening where the trees had been removed but replanted, it was like the sky had opened up. And I got this big feeling that I always get and I said, this is the tract. I had no idea that I would end up with it.

Today, Clay and Linda Jones have more than 900 acres of forestland in eight counties across Virginia. They’re looking at another tract that will put them over 1000. They were also recognized by the Virginia Century Forest Program which honors families who’ve maintained land for 100 years or more.

Jones: I wanted them recognized for the hard work they did. Sawmilling, logging is hard work, it equates to mining. I don’t which one would be the most dangerous but they’re both just hard work and for somebody to do that and to have done it in the time in which they did and as successful as they were and in who they were is the most astonishing thing to me. That’s why I’ve tried to follow in those footsteps.

(Ambient: Jones calling dog, walking outside)

Jones: I tell you, it was absolutely beautiful when I was growing up on this place. I’ve never found a place since and I’ve looked, I’ve walked a lot of land.

With his dog Achilles at his side, Clay Jones Jr, walks the trails of his family’s homeplace everyday. It’s hard to remember the past, running through the wild, drinking water from the creeks, being nourished by the family farm. But he can still come into the woods, connect with nature, connect with God. 

Jones: It’s just serenity. I don’t have the words, I’m not educated to the point where I have discovered the words to express my feeling to what God put here for us, it is just magnificent.

For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.