Elizabeth Rust Williams
“The past is never over” as Jacques Le Goff says, in view of its continuing reconstruction and ever-renewed representation, and in fact it is very present, known and unknown, in each of our lives. The life of Elizabeth Rust Williams illustrates this point just as well as the active and visible presence of the past in the cultural landscape of Clermont Farm, and in what she, her family, and ourselves have written (and “forgotten” or discarded) about the history of the place. She came from a family, moreover, that was very conscious of its history and that of its extended kin, as well as of the places in which they lived. Connecting with history through the portal of Clermont can be in part about connecting with Elizabeth’s story.
Citizens of Virginia, and more particularly, the people of Clarke County, Virginia, are the heirs of Elizabeth Williams, whose family lived at Clermont for 185 years. At her death in 2004 at age 59 she bequeathed her 360-acre 18th century homestead to the citizens of the Commonwealth via the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (VDHR), believing that the gift, valued at $10 million and accepted by Act of the General Assembly in 2005, would provide the best long-term protection and study potential for the entire cultural landscape whose human history runs beyond European immigration to at least the Early Archaic period (8,000-6,500 BCE).
On the other hand, she was ahead of her time in believing that the sustainability of most historic sites depends in large part on their integration with and value to the local community. To represent this local interest and to give it standing and a distinct role in the farm’s future under state ownership, she created what became the Clermont Foundation, governed by a dozen citizens from the region, to which she bequeathed all her other assets, to fund and manage the site in partnership with VDHR.
Elizabeth was born in 1945, an only child to a lawyer father whose family had bought the farm in 1819 and to a mother who came from a prominent family in next-door LoudounCounty, both from Scots-Irish and English backgrounds. She had a traditional elite education, starting at Powhatan, a small K-8 school with classmates from the leading families in the County, including Drew Gilpin Faust (southern historian, president of Harvard) and then boarding school at Madeira in 1960. While her parents had conventional views, these included education for women.
Before going to school, she was taught how to read by an elderly cousin, Rose Mortimer Ellzey MacDonald (1871-1953). Rose herself was a model for Elizabeth, who brought the past into Elizabeth’s present. Elizabeth guarded all her life the silk crazy-quilt given to her by Rose, and made by her as a child while traveling in Europe with her father, the US Fisheries Commissioner in the Cleveland Administration. Rose MacDonald was an independent, single (and elite) woman who as a child knew Mrs. Robert E. Lee, was educated at Shepherd College and William and Mary, who catalogued the Fearing Collection on Fish Culture at Harvard, administered the County’s rural schools and invented the first hot lunch program as a teaching device, wrote history textbooks, was a friend of Governor Harry S. Byrd (whose home was in Clarke County), was appointed the County’s first Juvenile and Domestic Relations judge (without any law degree), was an antiques collector and dealer, and became in 1930 the first woman member of the Virginia State Board of Education.
While Elizabeth Williams was the great-grand-daughter of a family who a hundred years earlier in 1860 had 28 slaves on Clermont, as a young adult she faced times almost as socially tumultuous as her great-grandparents did: a country divided over the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, the sexual revolution and introduction of birth control pills, the Women’s movement, etc. She graduated from George Washington University with a degree in journalism in 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive in the war in Vietnam, student protests around the world, and the assassination of Robert Kennedy. She photographed protests at Berkeley in 1969, became a free-lance journalist for the Washington Post and a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News in 1970, spending much of the next ten years in Philadelphia as an investigative and features reporter, and as a free-lance editor and PR consultant.
She returned to Clarke County and married in 1979, but the marriage was untenable. Her father died in 1980 and her mother in 1981, when she inherited Clermont. Not successful in following the life script of her ancestors in marriage and children, she went to law school, an alternative previously limited to a long line of men in her family. Her father Edward McCormick Williams had been Clarke County’s longest serving Commonwealth’s Attorney (1936-72), her cousin Province McCormick the second longest (1840-1865, and had his house burned for it in 1864 by Maj. George A. Custer) and another, Marshall McCormick, from 1871-1880, while yet another, Francis McCormick, served as the County’s Presiding Justice from 1856-1860. She graduated from American University with a J.D. in 1981 and returned to Berryville. She became one of the first two women admitted to the County Bar, developed her own successful rural practice with black and white clients, and became the first female judge (substitute J&DR) of the 26th Virginia Circuit Court. She died in office as Commissioner of Accounts and Commissioner in Chancery for Clarke County.
She received accolades from her peers (President of the Clarke Bar 1983-88, Outstanding Woman Attorney of Virginia 1986, Exceptional Pro Bono Service 1993). She was a hunter and gave an annual hunter’s dinner. She loved her farm and its animals, and she wrote a history of it and the four families who had owned it, which as much as her professional accomplishments would have pleased her cousin Rose MacDonald.
Elizabeth Williams was a highly intelligent woman of very forthright views, not “one of the boys” nor “hail fellow well met” but a loyal friend, regarded by some as rather eccentric, always the only-child she was born as. She had acerbic relationships with town and county officials and others regarding anything she thought might result in intrusion on or development of historic Clermont. She faced an early, unpleasant death from cancer bravely and accomplished in its face the permanent protection and adaptation to a new life for public benefit of the landscape and buildings she and her family had loved so long, and which she recognized were for over a 100-year period built and financed by the enslaved labor of African Americans. For her fellow citizens, she opened another door onto American history through what Professor Warren Hofstra has called an “extraordinary ordinary place”.