January 13, 2015

All in the Family: What Oatlands Means to the People Who Grew Up There

  • By: Katherine Malone-France, Vice President for Historic Sites

A snapshot of Oatlands Plantation after a winter snowfall

Over the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to visit with several of the families who gave their properties to the National Trust to become historic sites. These families, who owned our sites before they were open to the public and made the choice to donate them to the National Trust, have a unique perspective on these places and our work.

One such site is Oatlands, a National Historic Landmark in Leesburg, Virginia, that was donated to the National Trust in 1964 by the Eustis family, who had owned the property since the early 20th century. However, the connection between the Eustis family and the National Trust runs even deeper; Margaret Eustis, one of the final generation of the family to own the property, was the wife of David Finley, the founding chairman of the National Trust and an important figure in American cultural life in the 20th century.

David Finley served as the first director of the National Gallery of Art and the founding chairman of the White House Historical Association. He’s also credited for much of the success of the Roberts Commission, of which he served as vice chairman, in saving great works of art in Europe during WWII. (Here’s a great post on Finley’s role in the Roberts Commission, whose story was told in the recent film “Monuments Men.”)

For the first post in a series of Q&As with some of the families connected to homes that have become National Trust Historic Sites, David Finley Williams, a retired attorney and the grandson of David Finley, was kind enough to answer a few questions about his family’s connections to Oatlands and to the National Trust.

Margaret Eustis Finley and her sister Anne Eustis Emmet, the sisters who donated the property to the National Trust, in the Oatlands garden.

What are your favorite memories of Oatlands before it became a National Trust Historic Site? What is your favorite place on the Oatlands property?

Oatlands became a National Trust Historic Site when I was 13, so my memories are childhood ones. My top and most indelible memories come from the barnyard area, because Oatlands was a working farm. I have vivid memories of Lincoln Sutphin, who was the top farmhand, and a giant of a man who used to ride around the place on an equally giant Tennessee Walker horse. He had a big personality, a big smile and laugh, and a big belly.

Lincoln kept many animals -- cows, goats, sheep, chickens, to name a few. But my favorites were the pigs. One of my most vivid memories, for understandable reasons, was coming down to the barnyard one afternoon in the fall and seeing several dead hogs gutted and hung up by their hocks on a massive rack. That was a cycle of life lesson for a little kid growing up in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. On a much more cuddly note, I also remember feeding baby lambs with milk from a baby bottle. Cute!

I used to have birthday parties at Oatlands and Little Oatlands [another residence on an adjacent property where the Williams family lived] because my birthday was in July. It is impossible to imagine now, and parents these days would be arrested for criminal negligence for allowing such a thing, but I had something called the "Silo Club" for my birthday parties when I was 8 or 9. To be a member of the Silo Club, you had to climb up the ladder on the outside of the Oatlands silo (the white structure in the field beyond the 20th Century Barn) and touch the hoop at the top, which looked like a basketball hoop. It was at least 100 feet off the ground, or more, and there was no safety railing or anything remotely like it.

I am happy to report that no one died becoming a member of the Silo Club. In fairness to my parents, I am not sure they even knew about the Silo Club.

Edith Eustis (Gran) at the sundial in the Oatlands garden

Finally, I remember coming to the Oatlands mansion to pay visits to my great-grandmother Edith Eustis, whom I knew as Gran. Gran was invariably dressed in a long flowing black dress, and typically would be lying on a chaise longue in the drawing room (she was in her 80s at the time). I thought that both Gran and the Oatlands house were very grand indeed.

My favorite place on the Oatlands property: wow, that is a tough one. I think I would have to say the area in the garden below and in the immediate vicinity of the English Oak. The oak itself is such an extraordinary specimen, even though it has lost a limb or two. I always think of that place as the heart of what for me is one of the most beautiful gardens, and places, I have ever seen.

Does your family still visit the Oatlands property? Do you have any favorite events that happen at the site?

My family visits the Oatlands property all the time. My family and I frequently go on long walks in the Oatlands garden and fields, and there is nothing more delightful than taking friends visiting Little Oatlands over to Oatlands for a tour of the mansion, garden, and outbuildings. They always fall in love with the property and its history and beauty. Favorite events include the point-to-point races every spring, the Oatlands Gala that takes place every April, and the Harvest festival in October.

I am very excited about our upcoming Gala on Saturday, April 25, 2015, at which we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the gift of Oatlands to the National Trust. Everyone who loves Oatlands or who wants to learn more about Oatlands should come to that event. It is going to be a great party! [Ed. note: Keep an eye on the Oatlands Event page for more details.]

(Left) David Finley sitting with his wife, Margaret Eustis Finley, in a gazebo in the garden at Little Oatlands. (Right) A young Margaret Eustis and her brother, Morton Eustis, play on the Oatlands garden gate.

How does your family feel about Oatlands' designation as both a National Trust Historic Site and a National Historic Landmark?

We are thrilled that Oatlands is a National Trust Historic Site and a National Historic Landmark. These are great honors that help preserve Oatlands not only in our lifetimes but for generations to come.

Is the next generation of your family involved at Oatlands or in historic preservation?

I have three sons and they all love Oatlands and have been there countless times. They share my passion for, and strong belief in the enduring importance of, historic preservation.

The creation of the National Trust in 1949 is a significant part of the legacy of your family. How do you want to see the organization grow and change in its second half-century?

In the last several years, starting primarily with Dick Moe and his leadership team but continuing with Stephanie Meeks and the current leadership team, the National Trust has been expanding its reach and vision beyond the preservation of great historic homes (though that is and should be a continuing critical mission), into areas of broad national relevance such as environmental stewardship, landscape preservation, sustainable agriculture, the preservation and strengthening of Main Street communities and strong community fabrics, and problems of international scope such as climate change.

This, in my view, is the right direction. The base remains preservation, but the scope broadens as the National Trust rises to meet the complex challenges of the 21st century. I am truly excited about what the Trust is today, and what it is trying to achieve going forward. Keep up the great work!

By: Katherine Malone-France, Vice President for Historic Sites

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