Map Diary- 4.16.09

Thursday, April 16th, 2009 was a busy day. This came as no surprise- Thursday has proven to be my busiest day of the week this semester. My regular Thursday schedule consists of three classes, an hour-long voice lesson, and a standing TV/movie night with a group of friends in my dorm room. The lack of large chunks of free time in my schedule combined with the fact that I do not have a car in Williamsburg mean that on Thursdays I generally never leave campus. On most any other Thursday of this semester a map of my daily movements would be a very boring series of straight lines: Jamestown South dorm, class in James Blair, dorm, class in the College Apartments, dorm, class in Morton, voice lesson in Ewell, University Center for a mailbox check and some dinner, then back to my dorm for the balance of the evening to finish homework and enjoy the company of friends.

Thursday, April 16th, 2009 was not what I would consider to be a “normal” Thursday. Because our Williamsburg Documentary Project class no longer meets on Thursdays, an extra ninety minutes of free time was opened up from 11:00am-12:30pm. This provided an ideal window of opportunity to conduct an oral history interview. I took advantage of this free time and on April 16th at 10:30 am Jenna Simpson and I ventured out to the Virginia Cooperative Extension satellite office in Toano, Virginia to interview Mr. Vernon Heath, a retired extension agent. The office is located on Forge Road, literally yards away from the intersection of Forge and Richmond Roads.

It is appropriate that the most notable feature of my campus map and “freeform” map is my midday excursion to Toano. This trip may seem like an aberration in my normal Thursday schedule, but it is an excellent illustration of how the Williamsburg Documentary Project has changed my relationship to the greater Williamsburg community. For example, every Sunday for the last four years I have driven approximately eleven miles straight out Richmond Road from campus to Hickory Neck Episcopal Church in Toano, Virginia. I never appreciated the importance of the Toano community in the lives of the people who live/lived there until I began researching for the Williamsburg Documentary Project.

During our drive out Richmond Road I joked to Jenna that I should create an offshoot of the Williamsburg Documentary Project and call it the “Toano Documentary Project” simply because I have interviewed so many farmers who have roots in the Toano area. As we drove down Richmond Road I played tour guide and pointed out the farms, ancestral homes, and the places of work of the people I have interviewed for the Project.

Throughout the course of my research I have developed a very clear concept of Toano, Virginia as a “place” rather than a “location.” I believe that the idea of “place” is best defined as a geographic location that derives its character, meaning, and purpose from its position in time. Location is a concept that can be answered by the objective question “where is it?” but place is a concept that can be explained by the subjective question “what is/was this location like at a given point in time?”

The intersection of time and space was evident during our tour of the Richmond Road corridor. Using the definitions of location and place that I previously outlined, I acknowledge that many key places on my personal Richmond Road tour no longer exist. Many times I found myself pointing to an important geographic location for Jenna’s benefit, even though the feature that gave the location historical significance in my mind (like a farm, house, or store) was no longer there. As I have interacted with James City County natives I too have begun to absorb some of the local markers of place, even markers that have long since vanished from physical being. My present-day journey down Richmond Road now consists of a series of geographic locations superimposed with images of the past. For example, I used to drive past the Colonial Heritage subdivision without really thinking about why the subdivision is located on that piece of land. I now know that it is the former property of Jack and Virginia Massie who operated a family farm on the land. I will never again think of that property as the Colonial Heritage subdivision; I will now think of it as the old VaJack Farm that was developed into a subdivision. The research I have conducted for the Williamsburg Documentary Project has forever changed my relationship to the geographic locations along Richmond Road.

Considering the importance of my Toano excursion, I was not at all surprised at how my maps took shape. I confess that I am a creature of habit—once I find a routine that works I tend to stick with it. If I had begun this mapping exercise earlier in the semester and continued for an extended period of time I am sure that I would draw uncannily similar maps for each individual day of the week. I also confess that most of the time I feel that I have no compelling reason to leave the geographic confines of the William & Mary campus. I purposely left large spaces of blank paper on my freeform map to represent that I have little reason to venture beyond the boundaries of campus in the course of a normal day. I could easily have included major roads and details of the town in this map, but it would not be representative of my relatively insular, campus-based existence in Williamsburg.

My trip out to Toano is proof that the Williamsburg Documentary Project has shaken up my ideas of Williamsburg as a location and a place. The Project makes it a point of principle to take participants out of their geographic comfort zones and into the larger community. I am extremely glad this has happened because it has made me feel more invested in the community. I truly never expected to become so connected to an area that I have always considered to be a temporary place of residence. My only regret is that I was not able to do this sooner in my college career.


The Williamsburg Documentary Project (WDP) strives to collect and preserve the rich past of Williamsburg, Virginia. By conducting oral history interviews, building physical and digital archives, and creating online exhibits, the WDP interprets Williamsburg’s recent past. The WDP works towards developing a better understanding of Williamsburg by bringing together individuals, local groups, Colonial Williamsburg, and the College of William & Mary.

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