This is the first of a series about Buck Island, by Philip Cobbs for First Person Charlottesville.

Last year I passed a milestone, 65 years on Earth. As I reflected on my life, it occurred to me: I had spent most of my life within a football field's length of my birthplace. I was so immersed in the place I took for granted how safe I felt there.

Ten miles southeast of Charlottesville, where Buck Island Creek joins the Rivanna River, our family farm did not have a formal name. It was often called the Garland Farm. When I was born, it was the largest Black-owned farm in Albemarle County, at more than 600 acres. I took for granted that I could walk all day and never have anyone ask me what I was doing there. I belonged there, it had belonged to my family for generations. I felt at one with the land.

Now, I simply call it Buck Island.

Today, there is little evidence of our family farm's existence. Everyday, hundreds of commuters on Thomas Jefferson Parkway pass by it on their way to Charlottesville. A small white church is the little left of a once vibrant community.

A few years ago, when I looked for Buck Island Creek on Google Maps, I was surprised that it was mislabeled. Buck Island Creek begins near Buck Island, but the fork to the west is mislabeled as the Rivanna River. The place I remember so well had disappeared from the map.

But there is hope in preserving the story of Buck Island's past.

A two-lane road with a car approaching, cleared land and some trees to the side, white clouds in a blue sky. In the center of the image, a green road sign says, "BUCK ISLAND CREEK."
A road sign on Thomas Jefferson Parkway identifies Buck Island Creek. There are no markers to signify where the Garland family farm once stood. Kori Price/Dexter Auction Credit: Kori Price/Dexter Auction
A one-story building with a cross on the front, next to a country road. A worn sign reads, "Spring Hill Baptist Church. Est 1803"
Spring Hill Baptist Church, established in 1803, was the Garland family church. Kori Price/Dexter Auction

The Garland farm at Buck Island was truly a family farm from 1835 to 1972. In each generation, one family member held the deed to most of the property. If other family members wanted to homestead, they were given small parcels and everyone shared in the responsibility of operating the farm. In my early youth, there were many homes separated by some distance across the property. As families moved or passed away the homes were abandoned.

The farm had three parts: First, the woods or forest, flanked by the second part, open fields on elevated land grazed by cattle and sheep. That's where most of the homes were located.The open fields overlooked the third part of the farm, the lowground. The lowground was a fertile floodplain on which cash crops grew at the confluence of Buck Island Creek and the Rivanna River.

Those two waterways always fascinated me. All the springs and branches flowed into them. I loved water and I knew the watershed like the back of my hand. My brother and I enjoyed building small dams in the streams. I once skipped school to spend the day on an island in Buck Island Creek just playing in the water. When I was old enough for my parents to trust me on the water, I bought an inflatable raft from the Montgomery Ward mail order catalog. I floated the Rivanna River and saw remnants of dams and locks. I remember seeing a millstone next to the river, the only thing left from a mill that once stood on my family's farm, noted on old maps as “Garland Factory.”

Shrubs and trees on a river bank that splits.
The Garland Farm at Buck Island included the lowgrounds, the floodplain where Buck Island Creek and the Rivanna River meet in Albemarle County, Virginia. Over generations, until 1972, it was the largest Black-owned farm in the county and produced cash crops in the fertile soil. Kori Price/Dexter Auction

I knew the hills and valleys. I knew the springs and branches. I knew the creek and river. We called them names like Aunt Francis Branch and Uncle George’s Hill. Trees had names too, and there were many trees. The woods were a world of its own. Hundreds of acres of pristine old growth forest that had been selectively cut for over a century. It all was a giant playground to me.

In the early 1970s, the Garland family member holding the deed to the farm died suddenly without leaving a will. The fate of the farm was in the hands of the court. It was auctioned and Westvaco, a paper packaging company placed the winning bid. The company gave family members the option to buy property surrounding their homes. My aunt bought a small plot and my parents purchased 38 acres — to me, that felt like the size of a postage stamp. The rest was eventually purchased by a developer.

This is the first of a series about Buck Island, by Philip Cobbs for First Person Charlottesville. Subscribe to get free emails from Dexter Auction with the next installments.

I was 14 then, and I watched the only place I had ever lived be slowly eliminated. The livestock were sold. Most of the homes were dismantled. The woods were clearcut and pine trees were planted everywhere except in the lowground. Looking back, it was like observing someone in hospice die.

The only time in my life that I was separated from the land for an extended period was the three years from 1980 to 1983 that I spent in Japan while in the U.S. Navy on a ship, ironically named the USS Blue Ridge. Even then, my father passed away while I was serving, so I came home for his burial. I have never been away for more than a year and a half.

When I was discharged, I decided to return home. My mother, Elizabeth Garland Cobbs, was alone on the land where she was born and she didn’t drive. Initially, I came home to be near her. As the years passed, I grew to appreciate the place more and more and began to learn its history. My mother was my connection to the past. When she passed away in 2012 at the age of 92, the baton was passed to me.

Now, I know I have to tell the story of this place. If I don’t, its unique place in the rich history of Albemarle County could be lost.

This is how the story of my family's farm illustrates this history: Before roads, waterways were the thoroughfares of the region that is now Albemarle County. The Rivanna River was part of the network that connected central Virginia to Richmond, and then to Europe and Africa. Along its banks were fertile floodplains where cash crops grew. Those crops were worked by the enslaved, and the lowground was their place. The crops were transported to market on boats called batteau and most were crewed by enslaved and free Black men.

When histories are told of the Rivanna River, little is said about the Black communities that lived and worked there. The Rivanna Conservation Alliance, for example, has on its website a 1996 history of the river that focuses on European settlers and the economy of the river, with only passing references to the enslaved people or Black farmers. From the time European settlers arrived, the economy was driven by the river. Enslaved people provided the labor that made it successful, whether it was in the fields working the fertile soil or on the waterways. Over a lifetime of observation, I have come to recognize the elusive signs of the past.

If one is looking for the forgotten footprint of slavery, start at the river, not just on the mountaintop. It’s a footprint that is washing away with each flood.

In 2016, Albemarle County acquired 122 acres of the flood plain of Buck Island from the Nature Conservancy. This is one of several properties Albemarle County Parks and Recreation has slated for future development. In early March, an official with the county told me that there are other projects that have priority and it might be several years before the Buck Island property will be developed.

This land was part of the farm I grew up on, and now it belongs to all of us. What will we do with it? I hope that its history will be incorporated into those plans, however far out they are.

We all now have a stake in Buck Island.

Philip Cobbs was born and raised in Albemarle County, and his family lineage extends back at least four generations in the county. A graduate of Piedmont Virginia Community College, he is a craftsman, author, educator, businessman and farmer.