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150 years later, batteaumen are once again bringing life to Scottsville

Two hundred years ago, it was tobacco. The long, flat-bottomed batteau invented to transport the crop down the James River turned Scottsville into one of the biggest port cities in the early 19th-century Virginia.

Now, with a 530-person population and a one-block downtown, Scottsville might not look like much to someone passing through. But on the town’s very own stretch of the James River still float the batteaux, although carrying very different cargo.

The James River Batteau Company offers both midday and sunset cruises in its batteau, paired with charcuterie boards, local history lessons and live music. Since co-owners Will Smith and Will Cash founded the tour company at spring’s start last year, they’ve been booked just under capacity with tourists from Charlottesville, Richmond, Washington and beyond.

“Where I really think the future of tourism in Albemarle County and Charlottesville is the merger of the raw beauty of this area with its unique history,” Smith told The Daily Progress on a recent Thursday evening drifting down the James. “This is a story of a small town that’s got a lot to offer, and we’re bringing the town’s history and heritage to life.”

Bringing history to life

That history begins with European immigrants in the 18th century trying to make their fortunes in tobacco. Settlements expanded from the already-saturated Tidewater into the Piedmont, where space and rich soil for tobacco were abundant.

“The problem is, we’ve moved out to the middle of nowhere, which is what Scottsville would have been by then,” Smith said. “Some people suggest that Scottsville is still in the middle of nowhere, depending on what your perspective is.”

Settlers of the Piedmont got creative with how to transport the cash crop back to Richmond for export: At first, it was by rolling giant barrels of tobacco one by one down the roads. When that proved detrimental to the quality of the crop, they turned to the river.

Construction of the batteau’s predecessor, the double dugout canoe, demanded all the old-growth trees in the area be cut down. That deforestation led to Scottsville’s biggest flood to date. Far surpassing the size of a modern day flood, which might submerge a parking lot and give Scottsvillians a day of fishing from the railroad tracks, the 1771 disaster destroyed all of the canoes in one night.

“But there’s good news,” Smith said, as his modern-day batteau-goers sat, transfixed at his storytelling. “Amherst County, Virginia, has a long history of producing ingenious young men — you have three of them on board with you today.”

Those three young men — not to be confused with Smith, Cash and Luke Johnston onboard — would go on to invent the design for the batteau. Steering the boat from its rear sweep at the stern, Smith pointed out the vessel’s key features: a flat bottom, pointed ends and accompanying long cedar poles, which Cash and Johnston used to propel the craft forward.

The batteaux would go on to revolutionize the tobacco industry and river commerce, bringing wealth, whiskey and the windows of Monticello to the James’ upriver cities. In the modern day, the cargo looks different: up to twelve tourists, buckets of ice for bring-your-own beverages, dripping candles and charcuterie boards.

Modern-day beginnings

Smith, Cash and Johnston have known each other their whole lives. Smith and Johnston were next-door neighbors in grammar school, and all three were friends in high school. Smith’s start with batteaux began even earlier, when his father built the family’s first batteau the very year Smith was born.

“I don’t think he ever thought it was going to be a career path,” Smith said. His father, an industrial arts teacher, built the boat with his students and, in 1987, began participating in the James River Batteau Festival, an annual celebration of batteaux and batteau history. As many as 25 boats travel the 120 miles from Lynchburg to Richmond over eight days, during which the batteaumen share food, songs and stories — and sleep in tents on their boats.

Smith grew up watching his dad at the festival and learning to love batteaux for himself.

“You could imagine as a kid this is like a playground, especially at night out here when the lightning bugs are dancing around in the trees,” Smith said. His first batteau after graduating high school was a “sinking mess,” but Smith and his friends took it out to the festival anyway, spending entire nights bailing it out.

“We’re all 18, 19, and testosterone is pouring out of the boat in every direction,” Smith said. “What has gone from this slightly ‘Lord of the Flies’-on-the-James-River experience has turned into my high school friends’ reunion.”

Smith, Cash and Johnston have been part of the Batteau Festival for 17 years. After that first sinking batteau they built the “Harvest Moon,” one of the two boats now used for the tour company.

“We’ve kind of been scheming on it forever,” Cash said, referring to the company. Working in hospitality and tourism gave Cash and Smith the experience to finally make it happen in 2022. They scoured the internet and Virginia’s historical societies to prepare a story for the tours, which last April through October.

Smith and Cash built their second batteau after the first season proved successful, drawing tourists including Richmonder Lisa Freiman and her out-of-state family from New Haven, Connecticut. In a “staycation” of sorts, Freiman wanted to explore the local area and its history.

“I didn’t even know Scottsville existed,” Freiman said.

Putting Scottsville on the map

Smith said the company is profitable and is booked roughly 85% most days with visitors from Charlottesville, Richmond, Washington and even farther afield. It’s nothing compared to the booming wine country in the surrounding area or the theater and book festivals in downtown Charlottesville, but the tour company is driving business at other spots in Scottsville, such as the local brewery and restaurants.

“People are coming to Scottsville, a place they’ve never heard of or seen,” Cash said. “Then they leave our tours and go spend money in town.”

Laura Mays, a local business owner in Scottsville, echoed Cash’s sentiments. Scottsville has always been a river economy, but tourism has picked up in the past decade through word of mouth and day-trip advertising from the Chamber of Commerce, she told The Daily Progress.

“There’s a lot that goes on here,” said Mays, who has lived in Scottsville her whole life. “It’s a quiet, small town that appeals to people from the busier areas.”

Former Mayor Nancy Gill said she has met tourists visiting from across the country and even abroad. One man hailing from Ireland stopped in Scottsville on a bike trip from Boston to Miami. After Gill introduced him to some locals, he stayed in town for another week.

“I’m hoping that as we move forward, we maintain that small-town quality that makes this place a very interesting and somewhat magical place for people to visit,” Gill told The Daily Progress. “But at the same time, we need to be very thoughtful about growth.”

“What I’m seeing, and I think it’s very healthy, is businesses more or less promoting tourism through what they do,” Gill said. Having done the batteau tour multiple times herself, Gill said the James River Batteau Company has “hit upon a winning business.”

Smith and Cash aren’t the only ones tapping into the James River for recreation. On any given day there are plenty of kayakers, fishers and tubers floating in its waters. The batteaumen scheduled their cruises around the busiest times on the river, learning quickly that Kid Rock blasting on a Saturday afternoon would kill the tranquil experience they were trying to create.

“This area’s got lots of outdoor recreation potential, but it’s also got lots of really unique history,” Smith said. “So we’re trying to bridge some of that, tell a story while keeping people outside.”

First full-time batteaumen in 150 years

As part of that story, Smith and Cash pay homage to the original batteaumen, who were often enslaved Black people and freedmen.

“Tobacco would turn Virginia into a powerhouse of early America, and these men’s role in that often goes untold,” Smith said.

The work of batteaumen was difficult, with long hours in the hot sun spent poling their boats through shallow, snagging parts of the river. It took up to a week to transport thousands of pounds of tobacco to Richmond, and multiple weeks to travel back upriver.

But as many batteaux would make the journey at the same time, there are stories of a community forming on the James — a community Smith and Cash have also found growing up around batteaux.

“A lot of our good friends, we might not be home for Christmas, but we would always be home for the Batteau Festival,” Smith said.

Now, they’ve opened up that community to the public, and they’re not done yet. The company is planning a “farm to batteau” experience later this year, where they’ll cook over a wood fire built right in the boat itself, much like batteaumen used to do.

As ever, the local history will remain an integral part of their tours. While not in any textbooks he has read, Smith said he believes the region’s settlement cannot be understood without first understanding the early economy and batteaux.

Then there’s the pure serenity of the cruises, an appeal for even those who don’t care for the history. Easy conversation over Smith’s guitar, the occasional sighting of a black bear swimming along or a bobcat chasing a fawn into the river water, the smooth white oak of the batteau. The speckled river rippling in the path of the boat, propelled by Cash and Johnston, their beige Crocs flexing on the boards.

The quiet, open feeling as the light fades and the batteaux head upriver, right into the sunset.


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