It is rare for southwest Virginia history to make front-page news in the “Roanoke Times.”
Nonetheless, it happened on June 26 in an article titled “Questions swirl after museum changes leadership.”
The article reported that the Smithfield Plantation had become a center of controversy following the dismissal of its popular administrator April Martin Danner on May 31 by the Board of Directors of the Smithfield-Preston Foundation that owns and operates the site.
William Preston the surveyor built the now-restored Smithfield Plantation and lived there from 1774 until his death in 1783.
When the article was published, nearly 80 people, including this columnist, had already signed or written letters in support of Danner. Complimentary letters-to-the-editor soon followed.
When the Smithfield-Preston Foundation Board of Directors met on the afternoon of July 25 at Virginia Tech’s Holtzman Alumni Center, demonstrators, some dressed in 18th century garb, showed up at the Center’s main entrance with protest signs and were filmed for WDBJ-TV.
Officers of the local chapters of both the Daughters and Sons of the American Revolution were among the demonstrators. The meeting was closed to the press.
WDBJ asked the chairman of the Smithfield Board why Danner was fired. He only said that it was “part of a staff reorganization,” that the board “has Smithfield’s best interests in mind” and that it “is still a viable organization.”
A board member who is a retired Virginia Tech vice president, and who was “complimentary of Danner’s past performance” was quoted as saying the Board “wanted a blank page to begin with the new strategy. “
These feeble and waffling explanations are entirely unsatisfying. We are unlikely ever to know precisely why Danner was dismissed, but that it was not for good cause seems clear.
As a letter writer to the “Roanoke Times” wrote a few days ago: “[I]t seems that April Danner was doing a very good job and was extremely well liked. Something is fishy here.”
Smithfield Plantation has for many years relied on volunteer help. This columnist was on April Danner’s emergency tour guide list, and was several times called to give Plantation tours on an as-available basis.
The fact that many volunteers are reported to have abandoned Smithfield in the wake of Danner’s dismissal is one of the most distressing aspects of the current situation.
Danner’s reaction to her gut-wrenching dismissal has been very positive. In a recent email, she wrote that she did not want to focus on the negative but rather on ways to move forward.
A July 24 emailed announcement from the Wilderness Road Regional Museum in Newbern welcomed April Martin Danner, who has signed a contract with the New River Historical Society to provide educational services for the museum through her historical consulting business, Fort Hope, LLC.
In addition, Danner will be working with Pulaski Superintendent of Schools Kevin Siers to offer historical programming in Pulaski County Schools.
The web site for Danner’s historical consulting business is www.forthopehistorytourguide.com/. She has two minivan driving trips to the site of the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain set for Monday Aug. 27.
Sadly, few historians or others understand the epic role of William Preston of Smithfield in contributing to the subsequent 20th century world domination of Anglo-America.
In a 2017 article titled “Virginia’s Western Counties and the Making of America” published in the “Journal of the Historical Society of Western Virginia,” this columnist addressed the question “How did Anglo-America evolve over a mere 300 years from a small Tudor kingdom into a global community with such a hegemonic grip on the world today, while no other European power—Spain, France, Germany, or Russia—did?”
He concluded that one answer to that question was the success of the English-derived Virginia county system of government initiated by Preston’s uncle James Patton and spread westward across the continent by Preston and Virginia’s creation of new counties during the Revolutionary period.
Traditional Virginia history does not treat Preston kindly. He continues to have no entry in the online “Encyclopedia Virginia,” and is embarrassingly absent from the 2002 book “Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement,” by David Hackett Fischer and James C. Kelly.
Fischer also missed Preston in his earlier book titled “’Albion’s Seed,” which devoted 178 pages to emigrants from the “Borderlands [of the United Kingdom] to the Backcountry [of Virginia]” and where Fischer misplaced Staunton from the Shenandoah Valley to the Rappahannock River.
Southwest Virginia was the gateway for one of America’s most important internal migrations and the key geographic link in the process of nation building during the early years of the Republic.
Indeed, as historian Peter Wallenstein has pointed out, the region played that role at a time when many doubted a republican form of government could effectively administer such a vast territory as the new America.
On her web page, Danner says her tours will offer an in-depth look into one of the most fascinating regions of the country. It is also one of the most significant regions for the making of Anglo-America.
Jim Glanville is a retired chemist living in Blacksburg. He has been publishing and lecturing for more than a decade about the history of Southwest Virginia.