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When tobacco was first brought to Virginia’s shores in the 17th century, plantation owners and their slaves in and around Yorktown needed a way to effectively pack the plant and ship it to England.
The tobacco press emerged as the tool to easily stuff dried tobacco leaves into large barrels, and now a replica is displayed on the Yorktown waterfront in an effort to educate visitors on the history of tobacco and slavery in the area.
Local volunteer Walt Akers teamed up with Dan Smith, the Colonial National Historical Park superintendent when the project to build the replica began in 2011, to display the reconstructed tool.
The tobacco press, built during the course of a year by volunteers and Boy Scouts, now sits adjacent to the Yorktown Pub on land owned and maintained by the National Park Service.
Until January, the National Park Service was on board with the project. Then Smith retired, and Elaine Leslie, now the interim superintendent of the Colonial National Historical Park, is arguing the tobacco press does not belong at the Yorktown waterfront and must be removed from the NPS property.
Leslie’s reasons are twofold: The tobacco press is not historically significant to the Yorktown waterfront and its installation process did not comply with NPS regulations.
The Beginnings of Virginia Tobacco and the Reconstructed Press
Akers and Smith together came up with the idea to build the tobacco press and bring it to Yorktown.
The two first collaborated to reconstruct York County resident William Buckner’s 1711 windmill, which now sits in front of the Watermen’s Museum.
After the windmill project was completed in 2011, the two approached the York County Board of Supervisors with the idea of building a tobacco press that would demonstrate to Yorktown visitors how tobacco plantation owners would pack the plant into barrels called hogsheads before rolling them onto ships headed for England.
Akers and Smith also wanted to tell the story of slavery — a story they said was not being told in Yorktown.
“All of this to me, dovetailed into telling a story of tobacco, of slavery and of the importance of that,” Smith said.
Akers’ research determined thousands of slaves were deposited in Yorktown and would take the Great Valley trail — a path located at the foot of the waterfront where the tobacco press now stands — to the plantations, where they were put to work planting, harvesting, processing and packaging the tobacco.
Tobacco hogsheads would then be rolled back down the Great Valley trail to the water and loaded onto ships.
Disputes over the quality of the tobacco led the British to create the Tobacco Inspection Act of 1730, which required each barrel to be opened and its tobacco inspected before shipment.
Akers said a tobacco press would have been needed at the waterfront in case hogsheads were damaged while they were rolled from the fields, and planters would have had to transfer and repack the tobacco into an empty hogshead.
He said by the time the Act of 1730 was imposed, planters were growing tobacco in Yorktown proper, and a communal tobacco press would also have likely been located around the waterfront.
NPS staff refutes their research, arguing there would have not been a tobacco press on the waterfront. Instead, NPS staff argues the presses would have been found on or near the tobacco plantations, with the closest plantations located 1 to 5 miles away from Yorktown.
Bringing the Press to Modern-Day Yorktown
Akers and Smith said they followed the proper legal procedures detailed in the National Historic Preservation Act, which establishes policies for preserving historical lands.
They provided drawings, maps, historical research and documentation to a cultural resource management specialist at the Colonial National Historical Park, who signed off on the project and passed the documents on to a senior policy analyst at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, who also gave Akers the OK.
As he waited for approval, Akers and a group of volunteers, including York County boys completing their Eagle Scout projects, built the press — made of pine and white oak with iron screws, concrete feet and cedar shingle — in Akers’ front yard.
After receiving the all clear from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the tobacco press was installed next to the parking lot and Yorktown Pub in December with the agreement between Akers and Smith that the press would remain as an exhibit for at least three years.
Akers then began work on writing a descriptive and educational sign, called a wayside, to accompany the press.
When the second draft of the wayside came to Leslie’s desk, she reviewed it carefully and determined the press did not belong on the waterfront.
“Frankly, we just could not find any hard evidence that a tobacco press was at the waterfront,” she said, adding she and her staff at the National Park Service spent hours researching and found the piece was “not a period piece.”
“We questioned if this was the right exhibit to tell a very hard story,” she said.
She also said Akers and Smith did not meet all the requirements for bringing a reconstructed historical piece onto National Park Service land.
Under the National Park Service’s Cultural Resource Management policies, a reconstructed object can only be installed after written approval from the director of the National Park Service.
She also said although the project was made public at the televised November 2011 Board of Supervisors meeting, the two did not properly seek public input through NPS’s Planning, Environment and Public Comment site as required during the planning stages of the project and did not fully comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires federal agencies to carefully consider the effects projects have on the environment.
Leslie wrote a letter to Akers on April 15 alerting him the park would begin to remove the tobacco press by April 27 if he did not respond.
“This decision was not made lightly, but only after consultation and research into historically accurate period pieces and our own National Park Service and Department of the Interior Management Policies,” she wrote.
“This was shocking,” Akers said. “This was such an affront to every volunteer [who helped build the tobacco press.]”
Leslie, Akers, Smith, York County Recreation Supervisor David Meredith and U.S. Congressman Rob Wittman’s legislative aid Joe Shumacher held a meeting to discuss the issue April 30, and Leslie agreed to hold any action until the new Colonial National Historical Park superintendent, Kym Hall, begins July 5.
In the meantime, Akers has received the support of Wittman and, through the congressman, is taking the project to the director of the National Park Service for approval.
He has sent an inquiry to the congressional liaison for the National Park Service and is urging citizens through a website he created called “Saving the Yorktown Tobacco Press” to write to their respective congressman to keep the tobacco press on the Yorktown waterfront, and he has created a website.
Correction 5/12/15: This article has been corrected to reflect NPS staff’s research shows tobacco plantations would have been located 1 to 5 miles away from Yorktown.