A centenarian oak grove on the hillcrest of McIntire Park’s eastern side has witnessed time’s persistent march turn farm to park, rural outpost to community center, cows and hogs to skateboarders and hikers.
A partnership between the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce and a citizens group has raised nearly half of the $600,000 needed to turn the grove into the center of a memorial to public service.
Approved by the Charlottesville City Council in April 2017, the grove will be the destination point of a tree-lined promenade. More tress will be planted to honor past and future winners of the Paul Goodloe McIntire Citizenship Award, presented annually by the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s a part of the park that most people don’t know about and that’s underutilized,” said Peggy Van Yahres, who is helping to organize the effort. “We’d like to make McIntire Park really the community’s Central Park. Our goals are to have community leadership honored for future generations by the beautiful old oaks, to plant more oaks to honor future winners and create space for everybody to enjoy.”
Simply called The Grove, the project includes a stone terrace beneath the canopy of the nearly 150-year-old oak trees. The names of past winners of the McIntire award, along with those of future winners, will be included.
The Grove is the first phase of a plan to use the park’s east side, connecting it to the city through a cross-town greenway and to Albemarle County via bicycle and nature trails.
Organizers are raising money for the project, which they expect will cost about $600,000. They have raised about $272,000 so far.
“I didn’t quite get the idea of the project until they took me up to show me what they were talking about,” said Elizabeth Cromwell, chamber president. “When I saw what was around me, and the view from the hill, it made perfect sense. It is beautiful. The fact that it would honor civic leadership and urge young people to see the value of contributing to the community really sold it.”
The McIntire award was created in 1975 to recognize outstanding citizen contributions to the region. The first honoree was Mitch Van Yahres, the late father-in-law of Peggy Van Yahres who was a Charlottesville city councilor and mayor who served for 24 years in the Virginia House of Delegates.
The namesake of the award and the park, Paul Goodloe McIntire, was born in Charlottesville in 1860, attended the University of Virginia for one year and moved to Chicago, where he became a stockbroker. He later worked on the New York Stock Exchange and retired to his hometown.
After retirement, he gave nearly $750,000 to UVa, the purchasing equivalent of $9.6 million today. His donations funded the UVa McIntire School of Commerce, the McIntire Department of Music and the McIntire Department of Art.
McIntire also financed the local statues of George Rogers Clark; Confederate Gens. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee; and Lewis and Clark with Sacagawea.
He donated land to the city on which Washington Park now sits.
He financed the city’s condemnation procedure that resulted in the acquisition of the then-89.2-acre tract of land owned by Lena Brice to create McIntire Park. She was paid $16,000 — about $180,096 in 2019 value — from which $4,562 was used to pay off an outstanding bank lien.
The parkland originally was part of a 250-plus acre estate known as Wyndhurst, owned by Margaret K. and Robert F. Mason in the 1870s. The estate grew to more than 300 acres by 1882 and included a home and farm with multiple outbuildings, water tower, cultivated fields and gardens.
In 1880, census records recorded eight milk cows on the property that produced 3,650 gallons of milk a year, eight new calves, four horses and a mule. Of the 100 acres surveyed, 80 were described as either actively cultivated or in rotation with 10 acres of “permanent meadow, pasture, orchards, or vineyards,” and 10 acres of “woodland and forest.”
That year, the farm produced 10 tons of hay, 250 bushels of feed corn, 200 bushels of oats, 150 bushels of potatoes and 300 bushels of apples, according to a Virginia Department of Historic Resources description of the property. An estimated 20 cords of wood were cut and sold for $60.
By 1919, the Masons had died and their children sold the property to Jerry and Lena Brice, who went into debt to keep the farm and other enterprises afloat, according to the historic description. In 1922, Jerry Brice died. That same year, the home was destroyed in a fire. In 1925, the city initiated condemnation proceedings funded by McIntire.
The Masons’ two-story Victorian home was located “within a grove of large trees with its primary elevation oriented along the high ground near the center of their property,” according to the historic description of the property.
The house had a view toward the southeast that included Schenk’s Branch, Brown’s Mountain and other distant mountains.
The Grove trees are located in groups, indicating they likely grew up around outbuildings on the property prior to it becoming a park. Nearby grow younger oaks, born from acorns buried by squirrels or toted by blue jays, said Mike Van Yahres, with the Van Yahres Tree Co., which has maintained the oaks on the property.
White oaks can live to be 200 years old or more, he said.
“White oaks are not forest trees. They are slow growing, long-lived and almost bulletproof when it comes to resisting disease and parasites,” he said.
“It’s going to mostly be open space and trails with children’s playgrounds — not the plastic playgrounds you see everywhere, but natural areas,” Peggy Van Yahres said. “It’s a way for people to get into the parks and really enjoy the beauty that’s in there, from the beautiful old oak grove to the view on the top of the hill.”