A Conversation with Dave Ruth, Richmond’s Retiring Superintendent (part four)

(part four of five)

Earlier this week, Dave Ruth retired as superintendent of Richmond National Battlefield—a national park that preserves stories from Civil War campaigns in both the 1862 and 1864. But as Dave explains today, the park’s layers of history resonate even more deeply—and in the most unexpected of ways.

CHRIS MACKOWSKI: I’m thinking of all the different stories you’ve been able to tell and help develop interpretation for, and all the land you’ve been able to acquire. Do you have a favorite story or spot or something that sticks out for you? 

DAVE RUTH: There are a number of those. I think Rural Plains, at the Totopotomoy Creek Battlefield, brought together my role as a historian and a manager together in that story. In 1991, my friend Mike Andrus took me to the site and said, “This is an amazing house and an amazing battlefield,” and when we did our management plan, we hoped someday to place a sign out there. Acquisition of the battlefield was not even contemplated.

As it turns out, one of my tasks is serving as the NPS liaison to the Hanover County Historic Commission. One evening the commission reviewed a proposal that we received from a developer who, we came to realize, had absolutely no interest in history whatsoever. I was asked to serve as an ambassador and go talk to him about his development proposal that would impact if not destroy the Confederate infantry and artillery works on the Totopotomoy Creek battlefield. So I went to meet with the developer along with a Presbyterian minister who also served on the Commission. We asked this tall, rather gruff older individual if, together, we could with historic sensitivity explore preservation as part of his proposal. He said, “I’m not giving you a damn foot. I’m a developer, not a historic preservationist.”

Over the next few months, the Presbyterian minister met with him on his own—they were both Hampton Sydney graduates and the connection was amazing. What evolved was an enlightenment. It was almost like in A Christmas Carol with the ghosts paying nighttime visits. All three of us got back to the table and, suddenly, I realized that this developer became infatuated with the story of Patrick Henry marring the daughter of the owner of Rural Plains and Henry’s association through that part of Hanover County—that was his sudden awakening. Everything in that that part of Hanover County now represented something historically important to the nation.

In fact, he became so enlightened that he set up a foundation, worked with the owner of the Rural Plains house and the surrounding 125 acres of the battlefield, and took the lead with the county supervisors to see to the site’s preservation. One of the strategies we worked out was, for the first and only time in Hanover County, the supervisors agreed to a “transfer of density” program —where the developer was allowed to increase the density for residences on his tract, which was possible since he had a contract on the 125 battlefield acres. Essentially he transferred what development he could get on the 125 acres to his development on the non-battlefield land. That actually gave him more profits, which he moved into the foundation that eventually raised $1.1 million to buy Rural Plains and deed it to the National Park Service for $1.

This effort ensured that not only would Rural Plains and much of the battlefield be preserved but the Confederate fortifications on his 800-acre tract would also be preserved. In addition, the county supervisors made him proffer to build a 430-foot bridge to cross Totopotomoy Creek that connected the Union and Confederate positions.

For me, it became a very strange unplanned situation—how it came to be that this developer who told me he wasn’t giving me a damn foot suddenly becomes one of our greatest preservation supporters.

His work manifested itself at Malvern Hill later when the Civil War Trust was put into a really difficult position when a huge farm that stood in the killing ground of the battle was going to be sold. The family would not agree to break off the northern piece of their property and sell it to the Trust, but required that the entire farm be purchased without subdivision. Well, the Trust could not afford the entire price tag, so once again comes Andy Shield, the developer from Rural Plains, to the rescue. Andy and the Trust worked out an arrangement where Andy purchased the southernmost parcel—the least significant portion—and the Trust bought the northernmost 400-plus acres. The deal happened, and Malvern Hill was preserved.

Additionally, Andy thought about developing his half, but instead placed a conservation easement on the property. And in addition to that, he and his son worked together with the Trust to purchase the second-largest public holding at Malvern Hill that has just recently transferred to the NPS.

So not only did this evolve into the preservation of Rural Plains, but it resulted in many acres being preserved at Malvern Hill that might not have happened if the determination of Andy and the Trust had not been brought together.

I think, for me, that will always be one of the most unbelievable stories, to just have somebody turn around from their initial position of being a draconian developer and not caring a hoot about preservation to somebody who still calls me every month with new preservation opportunities.

Every one of the parcels we have acquired over the years has been a challenge for one reason or another, and there has been a story each time, but none of them has surpassed what happened at Rural Plains and Malvern Hill.

CM: I think [NPS Historian] John Hennessey once said something to the effect that there is a “political will” that will only let parks be a certain size. There’s a certain size that any park can get to, just because of politics—which of course was a major challenge in Fredericksburg because they have four major battlefields. Have you run into that same sort of mindset down here?

DR: No. The political situation is one that, I’ve found, needs nurturing along the way, so that the county’s needs and the park’s needs can hopefully be met. Our original land protection plan, as I mentioned earlier, was extremely conservative and we have already completed one minor boundary adjustment, and several more doubtless will occur in the years ahead.

I think the key for us is to at least annually do a presentation to the board of supervisors and county managers, and meet with individual supervisors more regularly. We explain to them our preservation targets and how any new lands we acquire will be made accessible to the public and why. We also talk about instances where our boundary is insufficient to protect historical important lands and seek the county’s support for any expansion. If anyone doesn’t believe the adage that all politics are local, I am here to offer proof that it is. We often find that if we can help the county to achieve their goals, they will help us with ours. Sometimes there are challenges to be sure, but as long as you are talking, anything is possible. Frankly, the county managers and I talk regularly about all kinds of mutual issues and sometimes just to check in.

And we also talk about land use once we do get a piece of property—where trails will run, where parking lots will be built, and where agriculture will be continued through leases. In most cases, we continue to lease farms back to the current farmer. This provides a wonderful revenue stream for us but also pleases counties who see some indirect revenue coming back to them. We actually purchased a 630-acre farm at North Anna and leased it back to the farmer for a period of 20 years, during which time we will oversee the operations like an easement holder and also do special programs on the property, but not pay the expensive costs of managing the property, at least for 20 years.

One of the challenges in our region has been the fact that sports tourism has trumped heritage tourism. In Henrico, most of that has gone to the western area of the county. In Chesterfield, it’s not been in the battlefield-rich zones of that county, either. In Hanover, we have to work a lot more carefully with that effort. Sports tourism has become a mega “funding source.” It’s one thing we watch carefully and will be dealing with this issue in the future, I’m certain.

As we continue to establish trails in the new areas that we acquire, we find that one of our big supporters are recreational users. And we don’t say “Recreation is against our policy”—because we have a lot of recreational use, and we find that a lot of those recreational users are local and become engaged in the historical value of the properties that they utilize for walking, jogging, or whatever.

By providing these opportunities, I find that the counties see that we help meet their needs in green and open space in a growing suburban area. Some may say that we have sacrificed the traditional mission of the National Park Service, that this is not an area where recreation should be allowed, but frankly we try to manage it extremely closely. I do believe it’s one of the reasons that we don’t come under fire when there’s a major expansion plan, because the counties know that we are an important asset to the community.


Join us tomorrow for our final segment of my interview with Dave, as we take a look ahead to the long game and a final look back at a distinguished career.