Digging Deep Into NASA's History
In an undeveloped area of NASA's Langley Research Center lay foundations of the past. Beyond Langley's Landing and Impact Research Facility, also known as the "Gantry," and past the Aircraft Landing Dynamics Facility test track, one can only visualize what used to be.

Historic markers near NASA Langley's Landing and Impact Research Facility
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Historic markers have a bit of history itself as their backdrop. NASA Langley's Landing and Impact Research Facility, at which Apollo astronauts trained, and at which technology for the future is tested on a regular basis. Credit/NASA/Sean Smith.

Along the outskirts of Langley's Wythe Creek Road fence, Wythe Landing Loop leads to two brick-lined markers. They give a brief history of the homes of George Wythe, signer of the Declaration of Independence and America's first law professor while at the College of William and Mary. Among his pupils were Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay and James Madison.

On one side of the road are the remnants of a home believed to be where Wythe spent his childhood. Corner bricks and a hole that was never filled from the last excavation remain.

Diagonally across the road is Wythe's later and larger home that was built for his own family. A walk just a few feet away from Wythe Landing Loop reveals layers of broken bricks, overgrown with grass, surrounded by a rusted fence.

Historical preservation piques the imagination and provides greater knowledge of the Chesterville Plantation, which was bought by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in 1950.

Two graduate interns from Langley's Environmental Management Branch, Sarah McCartney and Graham Callaway, have immersed themselves in the center's history, which dates back to the 1600s, long before aviation and space exploration were believed possible.

Their research is being added to NASA Langley's portion of the Cultural Resources Geographic Information System (CRGIS) web site.


This agency-wide initiative is aimed at preserving the history of all of the NASA centers. It began at Langley.

The only remaining photograph of the original home of George Wythe, taken in 1905
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This is the only surviving photo of George Wythe's home. It was taken in 1905. Based on his research, graduate intern Graham Callaway believes that the original home would have been brick with more elaborate features. Credit: Unknown

In 1691, Thomas Wythe I began to purchase land in Hampton, Va., that would become known as Chesterville. George's older brother, Thomas Wythe IV, eventually inherited the property and upon his death it was willed to George Wythe. By 1771, Wythe held 1,050 acres of land.

McCartney, an aspiring historian, explained, "When we think of George Wythe, we think of his house in Williamsburg, Va. But his origins are here at Langley."

She discussed the inheritance of the plantation property, starting with the Wythe family, then the Hudgins family, followed by the Winders, the Schmelzes and finally back into the Hudgins family by way of a marriage between Frances Schmelz and Robert S. Hudgins.

Robert S. Hudgins Jr. lived in George Wythe's house until 1911, when a kerosene stove in the kitchen exploded and the house was destroyed. Hudgins continued to rent out the plantation as farmland until the 1930s.

Even before NACA purchased the land in 1950, it was grounds for notable history.

McCartney shared a Winder family experience that one of the daughters, Sue, documented from the Civil War in 1861. Sue Winder described standing in front of the historic home with a dozen or more children who were "counting the booms" from the battle of Bethel that was taking place about two miles away. Sue recalled her father giving each of the children a kiss and then riding off on a horse with a sword, saying his "goodbye" to the Chesterville Plantation as he went into battle.

Neighboring land housed the roots of the American public school system, as we know it today. The Syms Free School was the first English-speaking school in North America to provide a free education. This school was located to the east of Langley's Plant and Vehicle Support Facility (Building 1199).

Birds-eye view of Chesterville
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Birds-eye view of Chesterville. The highlighted area in the upper-right corner of the photograph is where Wythe's home once stood. At the bottom of the photograph is 'The Gantry,' where the Apollo astronauts practiced landing on the moon. Credit: Bing Maps

Callaway, an aspiring archaeologist, learned from his research that most believe Thomas Jefferson, who was a friend of Wythe, contributed to the design of his second home.

"Another good candidate for the architectural work is Richard Talliaferro, Wythe's father-in-law, who was an architect in Williamsburg," Callaway said. "Very few buildings are attributed to him, but he has been credited as an early influence on Jefferson's style."

Callaway also concluded that the "one and only surviving photo" of Wythe's home was probably not of its original style, which would have been brick with classical, symmetrical elements.

Using LIight Detection And Ranging (LIDAR) technology, Callaway determined elevations and mapped out possible layouts of the plantation site, including ditches and roads.

A major source of information for both Callaway and McCartney was the research done by Frank Farmer in the 1960s and '70s. Farmer established the Langley Research Center Historical and Archeological Society and led early excavation and preservation of artifacts at the Chesterville Plantation into the early 1990s.

Most of those artifacts, such as dishes, forks, bottle bases and ceramic pans, are housed in the Virginia Department of Historic resources.

The interns studied room arrangement sketches of the Wythe home, which originated from an interview between Farmer and Fay Collier.

Each piece of information that they studied, uncovered or researched themselves gives the plantation back some of the life that it once had.

"The genealogy and history here amazes me," McCartney said.

And the hope is for this knowledge and amazement to spread across the agency.

Mary Gainer, Langley's Historic Preservation Officer (HPO), is providing intern support to other centers. NASA's Marshall, Johnson and Kennedy centers are submitting their own cultural resource documents to a historical database. Stennis expects to begin its submissions this spring, and Ames plans to jump on board this summer.

When Callaway leaves Langley in a week, he will go to NASA's Stennis Space Center to help with preservation efforts.

Without these efforts, historical landmarks, such as the Wythe homes, may seem like mere foundations with broken walls. But with them, one can visualize classical homes with roads leading up to them, surrounded by livestock and thriving farms that grew tobacco, corn, wheat and barley and maintained apple and pear orchards -- a family's dream that began in the 17th century.

Denise Lineberry
The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center