Behind the Stanchions | The House, B.D. (Before Davis)

When families gather, dinner table conversations often turn to the universal boogeyman, politics. After such a long and polarized election, the chances are as high as ever for a strained relationship with your uncle and/or mashed potato stains on your dining room wall.

I plan to avoid the topic altogether and instead talk about history. There can’t be controversy around an event that happened more than 100 years ago, right?

During tours of the Confederate White House, visitors often ask about the home’s owners prior to the Davises. The family that lived in the mansion on the corner of 12th and Clay in the immediate pre-war years was that of Lewis Dabney Crenshaw. Crenshaw purchased the home from James Seddon in 1857, and promptly renovated it with all the latest fashions and technologies of the day.

But by the time Crenshaw purchased the mansion, he was one of the most well known businessmen in Richmond. Born in 1817 in Lynchburg, Virginia, Lewis followed in his father’s footsteps as an entrepreneur and savvy tradesman, mainly exchanging high quality Virginia flour for South American luxury items such as coffee and guano.

By 1853, Crenshaw’s prosperity allowed him to enter into a flour milling partnership of his own. Quickly finding success, he merged his operations with those of one of the largest in the city, the Haxall mills, forming the Haxall, Crenshaw, and Company in 1858 (see one of the mills pictured above, with Crenshaw himself inset). Once joined, this company became the jewel of Richmond’s world-renowned flour industry.

Crenshaw augmented these achievements by opening a textile factory in 1860 and the Spotswood Hotel in 1861, which quickly became known as one of the finest lodgings in the city.

When war broke out in April 1861 and Virginia joined the nascent Confederate nation, Crenshaw offered his business empire in service to the Southern cause. His woolen factory provided much needed cloth until it burned in 1863, and trade ships belonging to the family ran the Union blockade, bringing vital military supplies in from England.

Crenshaw’s largest holding, his flour mills, proved invaluable to the Confederacy, especially as food shortages increased during the latter parts of the war.

Fortunately for him, the fire that swept through Richmond on the night of April 2, 1865, spared his mills. Their existence, in addition to large amounts of money deposited in foreign banks during the conflict, allowed Crenshaw to quickly reestablish his trade after the war.

In addition to looking after his commercial interests, Crenshaw helped to oversee the rebuilding of the burned district of town and served as one of the first directors for the Richmond Chamber of Commerce. Working tirelessly to improve not only his own, but also his city’s and his state’s commercial interests, Crenshaw died due to liver disease in 1875.

Well, once again, I am out of time (and words). I hope this story provides a useful foil for political discussions at your next family meal.