For more than 40 years, Peter Agelasto III has combined his passion for history and environmental conservation in his community.
He helped to establish the Rockfish Valley Foundation and played a key role in the development of such entities as the Nelson County History Museum — now called the Oakland Museum — and the Central Blue Ridge chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalists.
“I have always been interested in public service,” Agelasto said. “I have grown as a person, for better or worse, through productive roles one after the other. Like so many that I know and respect, the experience builds you.”
“I feel like Rockfish Valley Foundation is the culmination of my life work,” he continued. “So many people have worked with me and been supportive over the years. They are also due major credit. The reality is I must transition to give it the chance to become sustainable under new leadership and build capacity to match the success we have had. The challenge now is to find additional community-minded trustee leadership.”
Agelasto’s love of history was cultivated in the Tidewater area, where much of Virginia’s early history occurred. School trips to Williamsburg and Jamestown prompted him to investigate his own Greek heritage. Through his research, Agelasto has traced his family back to the 1300s.
He completed his undergraduate degree at Washington & Lee in 1962, then graduated from the University of Virginia law school in 1965.
He practiced law for 25 years before retiring to pursue other interests in the nonprofit sector, including education and the arts, and, more recently, in land conservation and historic preservation.
In 1977, Agelasto bought a farm, Elk Hill, one of the earliest extant farms in Nelson County. It dates back to the 18th century and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.
He put all of Elk Hill’s land, on both sides of Route 151, into a conservation easement with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation to protect it from development.
Agelasto created public trails along the Rockfish River and through the fields. In 2006, those trails were recognized by Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (now known as the Department of Wildlife Resources) as part of the state birding trail system and eventually were named an important birding area in the United States by the Audubon Society.
Richard Tilghman, who’s known Agelasto since he was in eighth grade, said he was with his childhood friend and his wife in Colonial Williamsburg when they announced that they had purchased Elk Hill.
“The reaction was thoughtful and caring,” Tilghman said. “[I thought], ‘are you crazy? Where is Nelson County? Do you know anything about farming?’ Well, our reservations began to wane when we celebrated Peter’s 40th [birthday] with a great weekend at Elk Hill. Wintergreen emerged as a ski resort, but Elk Hill was the base camp for many novice skiers and was a clear success.”
Agelasto helped to form the Rockfish Valley Foundation in 2005 with the aim of preserving the natural, historical, ecological and agricultural resources of the valley, including the Rockfish Valley Loop Trail system, Spruce Creek Park and lands associated with them.
“The trails have been immensely popular all year-round, and with the pandemic this year, they have added so much to the community and also to the surrounding communities of Charlottesville, Albemarle, Crozet, Waynesboro, Staunton, Lynchburg and beyond,” Agelasto said. “I saw the need for these trails as I made the decision to put them in, but the success of the trails has been a million times more than I could have ever envisioned.”
While at Washington & Lee, Agelasto took a course in geology and became more interested in the natural world. He already owned the Wintergreen Country Store and believed it would make the perfect place to create a small museum. He worked out an arrangement with the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville to share exhibits. The arrangement proved to be a rousing success for many years before funding was cut.
“I am extremely proud of all that I have created, with the help of so many friends, volunteers and donors,” Agelasto said. “I am extremely proud of how much it has contributed to the community also, but I must add there would be nothing without those with whom I worked, believing in the mission and the future of RVF.”
The 80-year-old also was instrumental in the growth of the Oakland Museum.
“I participated in the formation and purchase of Oakland by the historical society, was co-founder of the Camille Research Center and promoted the merger of Oakland and the Nelson County Historical Society,” Agelasto said. “Betsy and I have participated in many of their annual house tours, including opening Elk Hill, Three Ridges Farm, where our son lives, and the old Wintergreen County Store, which is now the Natural History Center.”
Agelasto’s hard work doesn’t stop there.
Over the past four decades he’s continuously served the communities in which he’s lived. From founding the Virginia Beach Rescue Squad Foundation to serving on countless alumni boards to helping lead the fight against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, Agelasto has strived to make a difference.
“My wife says I have more energy than any person she knows,” he said. “All of these roles built upon each other and I would say gave me the confidence to create and build the Rockfish Valley Foundation. But I was embarrassed when they put my name on the building cornerstone.”
Christine Nardi, executive director of the Center for Nonprofit Excellence in Charlottesville, said Agelasto’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“Peter and I both live in Nelson County and I appreciate Peter’s deep commitment to the rural and natural beauty of our county,” Nardi said.
“Peter envisions what’s possible and rallies community members to take collective action to preserve and protect our local natural resources and to get outside and enjoy them,” she said. “Through RVF and his leadership, he’s brought our small, rural county the National History Center, Spruce Creek Park, the Rockfish Valley Trail System, our family kite festival and the Central Blue Ridge Master Naturalist chapter.”
“He’s indefatigable, and Nelson’s better for it.”