Camille's innocent: And so is Agnes, says resident

Columbia, Fluvanna County's only town, is so small that, according to one resident, a "landslide" election victory means the candidate's votes hit double digits. Nevertheless, the little village with a population of 70 once marked the eastern edge of a 100,000-acre estate that continued all the way to the West Virginia border.

Lindsay Nolting, a Columbia resident since 1972, has done extensive research on the town and its founder, David Ross, a Scottsman who supported the Continentals in the Revolution. She says that Ross owned not only all of south-central Virginia, but also huge tracts into Kentucky including what is known today as Big Bone Lick, in Boone County.

After William Clark returned from his famous expedition with Meriwether Lewis in 1806, Thomas Jefferson commissioned him to begin an archaeological dig at Big Bone Lick, so named because it is a repository of prehistoric fossils.

Before Clark could begin, however, Jefferson wrote to Ross seeking permission for the dig on his property. Some of the more than 300 specimens collected at the site now hang in the great hall at Monticello. Others found their way to L'Histoire Naturelle in Paris and the American Philosophic Society in Philadelphia.

In more recent Columbia history, a real estate ad in the mid-'80s offered for sale almost all of the large shops, warehouses, and residences on the north side of Route 6, the main street through town. One of the buildings was once a private home where Yankee officer George A. Custer slept, understandably not a point of pride for townspeople. Another of the buildings, a large double-porch Victorian, according to Nolting, had been a boarding house.

Nolting– an artist who lives at Gum Creek, a house built in 1797 by David Ross for his son James– says it was lack of a sufficient water supply and sewer system, not the threat posed by the river, that thwarted the previous owners. Even in the worst flooding of the James the river has not reached those buildings, but they have nonetheless fallen into disrepair and decay. "Agnes and Camille," she says, "took the rap for owners who let the buildings go."

Like most residents, Nolting is cheered by the HUD grant and the attention Columbia is receiving in official circles. She has a vision for how the place can be revitalized.

"We have to accept the river as part of the town," Nolting says. "We have to make the river the dominant feature." She also offers a suggestion for future businesses. "I think a canoe livery would be a great idea," she says. "If worse came to worst, and the river did come up, the inventory could just float."