Visitors to Colonial Williamsburg will now get a chance to experience one of the few examples of Virginia’s war effort to challenge the British: the rebuilt public armoury and blacksmith shop.
Colonial Williamsburg tore down its previous version of the armoury and built a new, more accurate one based on new documents and research. The armoury complex was owned and operated by blacksmith James Anderson, who was appointed public armourer in 1776 by the General Assembly of the newly independent Commonwealth of Virginia. Colonial Williamsburg used information it had at the time to construct the previous Anderson forge in the 1980s, but new data led to a different-looking set of buildings on the site.
“History is a moving target, and as time goes on we’re always getting more precise,” said Garland Wood, Colonial Williamsburg’s master carpenter. “At Colonial Williamsburg, we’re never the same, we’re always changing. We feel that it’s our obligation to put any new information forward.”
Wood has been working on rebuilding the armoury complex and shared some of the new discoveries and changes visitors will see when they come to the new site that opens officially on Saturday.
Some critical pieces of information CW analyzed before reconstruction began on the site were Anderson’s wartime account book, books and ledgers on the public store kept by William Armistead and also those of Deputy Quartermaster William Finnie. Read an in-depth historical study of the armoury done in 2003 by Noel Poirier here for more on the historical documents that helped guide construction.
These documents, coupled with research by archaeologists and a zooarchaeologist, led to discoveries that will be used at the new site. Visitors to the armoury will see a working kitchen that will feed the workers a menu based on bones found in a nearby trash pit and records of food ordered by Anderson.
Wood said that CW has a very good understanding of what laborers ate, down to the unusual detail that the men ate lots of raspberries, based on excavations of the armoury complex’s privy.
The new armoury building is smaller than the previous interpretive building, Wood said, because of a new understanding of archaeological remains at the rear of the site. Two small foundations originally included as forges inside the old building are now understood to be separate buildings that were a furnace and a storehouse for bullet production. This made the new armoury smaller.
The main armoury building with forges and the reconstructed kitchen will open March 31. A tinsmith shop, the outdoor bullet-making forge and building, privy, bake oven and wellhead will also be built over time on the site.
There has been a lot of excitement from the public already about the new armoury complex, Wood said. CW has been sharing the process with the public through a blog (read that here) and a webcam of the site (see that here), and Wood and others have been communicating to people interested in the process.
“We’re doing all we can to get this information online, through our blog and webcams,” Wood said. “Having a big audience outside [the area] helps our research.”
CW found a descendent of 10 French cannon makers who were at the site for several months because that descendant followed the online construction information, Wood said. The man emailed CW once he discovered through the blog that his descendant worked for a time at the armoury.
Wood is excited about the blacksmith shop and armoury complex because it will be snapshot of what life in Williamsburg was like during the Revolution. “We are all familiar with the historic area, but it looked very different here during the Revolution. This [site] is a window into the Revolutionary world; it will be the only place you can see the Commonwealth’s war effort to challenge the British.”
The site will be a bustling place starting Saturday, with blacksmiths, coopers, basketmakers, carpenters, armourers, along with staff from masonry trades and the Historic Foodways program.
A $5 million gift from Forrest E. Mars Jr. made the reconstruction possible. Mars is director emeritus of Mars, Inc. and former CEO of the company. He was elected to The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s Board of Trustees in 2010 and is a Life Member of the Raleigh Tavern Society, a group of generous Foundation friends founded more than thirty years ago.
The grand opening ceremony will be held 11 a.m. Saturday, kicking off with the Colonial Williamsburg Fife’s and Drums marching along Duke of Gloucester Street to the new armoury. CW President Colin Campbell will give opening remarks.
Guests without tickets will be allowed on site until 1 p.m. Saturday.