A Heritage of Loving the Land Saves Stewart Farms
Photo by Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times
Joe Stewart bought so much land in Montgomery and Floyd Counties, Virginia, in his 91 years that the landscape of those two counties seemed to hang in balance waiting for the decision he or his heirs would make about that land.
When the staff of the New River Land Trust met with other landowners in these counties, the answer to “Who owns that neighboring farm?” always seemed to have the same answer: “Joe Stewart.”
Fortunately for those who value historic places and family farms, Joe Stewart’s daughter and his grandson inherited his love of the land. Today, 1,600 acres of the farmland and river corridors that Joe Stewart acquired piece by piece over a lifetime are forever protected by conservation easements. The easements, facilitated by the New River Land Trust, are held by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation.
Daughter Julia Stewart Milton protected Big Spring Farm in Elliston, an historic home and one-time showplace on U.S. 11 that shipped barrels of watercress from the manicured ponds in front of the brick mansion to New York City. She also conserved White Sulphur Springs on Den Hill Road – the former site of one of Montgomery’s fashionable mineral spring spas – as well as Mill Creek Farm in Riner.
Stewart’s grandson, Jamie Weddle, conserved a 452-acre farm along a mile of the Little River in Floyd County that he plans to farm with his own children.
These easements illustrate a critically important aspect of easements for farm families. A conservation easement can reduce estate taxes by tens of thousands of dollars. A landowner’s heirs can even place an easement on property after the owner dies – thus reducing estate taxes and perhaps saving the family farm.
Julia Stewart Milton was devoted to her father – a longtime member of the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors. That’s how I first met this soft-spoken landowner: She called to object to one of my editorials about some long-forgotten vote by her supervisor father. We immediately discovered a bond in our respect and affection for our fathers who were farmers to the bone.
Julia Milton Stewart’s properties add to the growing cluster of easements spreading along both the Elliston Straightaway and in the Catawba/Ellett Valley in Eastern Montgomery County.
Throughout the New River watershed, over 31,000 acres have come under easement since 2002 through the cooperative efforts of the Virginia Outdoors Foundation and the New River Land Trust.
In Floyd County, Stewart’s grandson Jamie Weddle saw a conservation easement as the means to allow him to ensure the land he and his grandfather loved on the Little River remained farmland and that he and his sons could continue the family’s farming tradition. “I was born into it,” he told The Roanoke Times this spring. ” I love it. It was in my blood.”
For years, neighbors worried about what would happen to Joe Stewart’s land – and to their rural communities if that land were sold. Thanks to his heirs, easements on 1,400 acres now guard farmland, historic places and endangered species for generations to come. Quite a legacy.
Story by Elizabeth Obenshain, Executive Director of the New River Land Trust