Mary Farley Ames Lee did not want her 662 acres to become a series of waterfront subdivisions. Before her death in 1999, she went to great lengths to ensure that her portion of a peninsula jutting off Virginia’s Northern Neck would not only be conserved but also be a place where others could learn the language of conservation.
Lee enlisted the renowned and recently deceased Virginia Del. Tayloe Murphy to write her will for the property, Hull Springs, formerly known as Hull Springs Farm. The document specified her wishes as well as the unlikely steward she had in mind to carry them out: her alma mater — a landlocked university located halfway across the state in Farmville.
Longwood University has been slowly fleshing out Lee’s vision for the land ever since — turning it into a full-fledged environmental education center for its students — despite the nearly three-hour drive that separates the main campus from this sprawling former farm. In the process, Hull Springs has been shaping Longwood, too.
“Once students go out there one time, they want to go back,” said the property’s executive director, Sherry Swinson. She oversees the university’s work at Hull Springs from an office at the Farmville campus, which sits near the Appomattox River halfway between Lynchburg and Richmond.
Each year, a group of incoming freshmen start their experience at Longwood with a week at Hull Springs, a visit they’ll contemplate the rest of the year while considering their relationship with the land.
Biology majors might log hours at Hull Springs collecting water samples to study. Students interested in environmental science and climatology can pull data from a long-term monitoring program that continuously collects weather and water measurements at both sites. Hull Springs is also the backdrop for long-term research on living shorelines, archaeology and land use.
Students studying biology and environmental science can fill their test tubes with freshwater from the Appomattox River near their Farmville campus or with brackish water from one of the Potomac River tributaries that bound Hull Springs on three sides.
For Longwood students, Swinson said, “it’s good to make the connection that what happens here on the little Appomattox affects the Chesapeake Bay.”
Those connections were made even stronger this fall when the university renamed the property the Gerald L. Baliles Center for Environmental Education at Hull Springs, in honor of the late Virginia governor. In 1987, Baliles helped to craft a multijurisdictional Chesapeake Bay Agreement that set the first numeric goals for reducing pollution. He also championed the state’s Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act. Baliles died in 2019.
The name change became official during an event in October when a new $1.2-million environmental research lab was unveiled at Hull Springs, a stone’s throw from the water’s edge. The lab sits in a clearing where the university plans to add cabins for overnight visitors, additional classroom spaces, and, eventually, a dining hall and commercial kitchen that will benefit the local community.
“Given Baliles’ interest in education and the Chesapeake Bay, it struck me that this might be a way to honor his legacy and stewardship,” said John Daniel, whom Baliles hired as the Virginia’s first secretary of state in 1986. Daniel is also a former member of Longwood’s Board of Visitors and the current president of its real estate foundation.
“I wish he were still here,” he said of Baliles. “I miss the opportunity to [ask him], ‘What should we do here?’”
The answer has unfolded and evolved over the last 22 years since the university received it. Archaeologists from the university had been working at Hull Springs before Lee died, which helped to foment her connections to the institution.
Longwood was still the Farmville Female Seminary Association when Lee graduated in 1938, going on to inherit land from her family’s lumber business. The 175-year-old Longwood campus in the heart of Virginia has seen plenty of change over the years and is near historic sites from both the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement. The same can be said for the landscape of Hull Springs.
When Longwood inherited the property, most of it was still being farmed by renters planting corn or soybeans year after year. The fields, like much of the coastline in Westmoreland County, VA, had historically been a mix of wetlands and forests. Tile drainage systems had been installed beneath many of them to quickly drain excess water — and whatever nutrients accompanied it — to the nearest waterway so dryland crops could be grown.
Over time, as Daniel recalls, students learning about the watershed and the impacts of certain farming practices said, “we gotta do something about this,” and the university agreed.
Turning back the tide
Driving into Hull Springs today, you can see the change on either side of the road. Where crops used to be grown and harvested, there are now sweetgum, maple and cedar saplings establishing themselves, some of them head-high or taller. Feathery stands of dogfennel and small blooms of American asters form a wild sort of edging for the road.
All of that land was still farmed by renters when Dina Leech, an associate professor of biology at Longwood, started bringing students to Hull Springs. Over the six years since, trees planted to achieve a density of about 400 per acre have thrived. Other former fields have been converted into wetlands that generate credits — and income for the land managers — as part of a wetland mitigation program. All of it will be monitored for years to track the changes.
One of the first major changes Longwood made at the property was installing a living shoreline along Lower Machodoc Creek on the northeast bank of the property, which was losing as much as 2 feet of land a year to erosion. The 100-meter stretch of living shoreline, built in 2008 and withstanding several storms since, is still used as an example of best practices by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
Longwood professors and their students, meanwhile, are on hand to see and measure the impact of these landscape changes in the coming years.
“I think it’s really giving my students hope,” Leech said. “Sometimes, as faculty in the environmental sciences, I find myself saying, ‘Here’s another example of how humans are having a detrimental effect on our planet.’ So it’s good for me to go to Hull Springs and see this example [of how] we can reverse the negative impacts … if we think carefully and thoughtfully.”
Hull Springs has also inspired specific avenues of research for Leech, who said access to its unique ecosystem was part of what drew her to Longwood.
Leech and her students test waters both near campus and at Hull Springs to better understand the impact of a process called brownification on the organisms that live in these waters. Brownification, much like it sounds, describes waters getting browner in color as surrounding landscapes leach more organic matter into them. “It’s kind of like your tea bag — the longer you leave it in the water, the more it releases,” Leech said.
At Hull Springs, Leech and her students saw firsthand how organic matter in freshwater aggregates into miniscule clumps when it meets saltwater, a process called “flocculation.” That phenomenon can promote bacterial growth and contribute to the growth of algae and oxygen-starved “dead zones.” In both types of water, their research indicates that browner waters impact the health of zooplankton and larval fish.
“This was a completely new avenue of research that Hull Springs opened up to me,” Leech said.
Having a lab at Hull Springs means researchers like Leech don’t have to hustle their water samples back to a lab in Farmville three hours away. They can hang up their hip waders and look for zooplankton under a microscope right onsite.
Ken Fortino, an associate professor of biology at Longwood, gave a tour of the lab during a visit in late October.
“This is an area where you can come and get messy,” he said of the new lab’s not-yet-dirty mudroom. “Here, there will be racks to hold aquaria.”
Two lab areas include long countertops, interspersed with sinks, where students can learn hands-on skills in a lab/classroom setting. A screened-in porch on the backside offers a view of the water, where kayaks are waiting for users and a dock leads to underwater sensors.
The university is raising money to turn the cleared area around the lab into student and faculty housing as part of a larger field station. Swinson, the center’s director, said she has worked with contemporaries at other university research stations in Virginia to plan the station’s future.
Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rice Rivers Center sits on nearly 500 acres along the James River southeast of Richmond. In 2018, George Mason University opened a 50,000-square-foot research facility on the banks of the Potomac River near Woodbridge, VA.
Fortino was at Longwood’s new lab in late October to pull data for a project he’s been working on for nearly seven years, called the Longwood Environmental Observatory, or LEO. The program deploys environmental sensors at the property and at the university’s Farmville campus to continually monitor changes in the water, the air and the weather. Fortino and students regularly retrieve data from the sensors and upload it to a publicly available website. Soon, that process will be automatic.
Along with providing high-quality data about a changing ecosystem, the project gives students access to the sort of big data that is used in the real world to measure climatic changes.
The goal is to “get students to start thinking about science not as this activity of a lone researcher in a lab, but as an endeavor where we all contribute,” Fortino said. “We all share resources.”
This, also, is in the spirit of Hull Springs. Lee’s will expressly states that the property be used for education, as well as “agriculture, archaeology, forestry” and “natural resource conservation.”
Leech and others are beginning to see the benefits of such a long-term vision and, as a professor, Leech hopes it will inspire her students to consider the potential weight of environmental work.
“The impacts we see are reversible if we decide to take that path.” This place, she said, “is leading by example that we can do something to make a difference.”