A Rixeyville farm with a storied past will live on in its current state forever.
Robert and Kathy Ellis, owners of historic Clifton Farm, recently donated a conservation easement on the 241-acre property to Virginia Outdoors Foundation. Mrs. Ellis is a fifth generation descendant of the Crigler family to live on the land located at the confluence of the Thornton and Hazel rivers.
The original Crigler immigrant, Jacob, arrived with few—if any—possessions in 1717 as part of a second wave of Germans who settled at Fort Germanna in Orange County, said Kathy Ellis. He crossed the ocean to be an indentured servant for Alexander Spotswood, then lieutenant governor of colonial Virginia.
“I believe his reasons for coming were both for religious freedom and economic opportunity,” she said. “Three generations later, Jacob’s great-grandson was able to buy this farm and build this house and we’re still here today. To me, that sequence tells the story of America being a place of hope to this world. It was important to preserve that.”
Built in 1845 by George Roberts Crigler, likely with the help of slave labor, the Greek revival farmhouse at Clifton Farm also retains one of the largest collections of farm outbuildings in this region, including an ice house, ash house, smokehouse and an original 19th century detached kitchen with an upstairs sleeping loft. Slaves at Clifton once used the two-story structure for preparing meals and lodging, and the kitchen building has since been lovingly renovated.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Clifton Farm once housed a school for boys and it witnessed first-hand action as the Civil War waged around it, nursing both Union and Confederate soldiers in the main house. The son of Clifton’s original owner, one “Gid” Crigler, served with the Little Fork Rangers during the war fighting for the Confederacy and later joined the famed Mosby’s Rangers.
Two Civil War soldiers—one from the south and one from the north—rest side-by-side in the family cemetery at Clifton. On a bank overlooking the river is an unmarked slave cemetery. The remains of a slave cabin have also been identified on site.
A working farm for many generations, Clifton produced high-yield crops and bred horses along with turkeys and hogs, and cream for making butter, among other commodities. Even today, the property retains its sweeping pastoral views and sense of being from another time.
“My wife considers the farm our third child,” said Robert Ellis. “Our sons are grown and have their own lives, but they love the farm.”
Putting the property in conservation easement seemed like the best way to make sure the property will be there for his sons one day, too, he said.
Sherry Buttrick, assistant director of easements with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, said that’s just what the easement will do, preserving Clifton Farm’s open-space values and history for perpetuity.
“The main house and historic outbuildings are protected from demolition, and the farm will remain as an undivided rural property forever,” she said.
Also protected are the two cemeteries, archaeological sites on the property and woodland and riparian areas along the rivers. Environmental stewardship was important in the Ellis couple’s decision to put the property in easement. They previously participated in the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program to fill the buffers with plants that prevent erosion.
“We planted oaks, walnuts, black cherry and apple trees. They all act as a filter to help keep those rivers clean,” Robert Ellis said.
He and his wife have called Clifton Farm home since 2007.
“It turned out to be a very peaceful place to live,” Mr. Ellis said. “Any number of people have told us how welcoming and peaceful the farm is when they’ve come in. It has warmth of spirit, and we wanted to protect that.”
Kathy Ellis added, “We think Culpeper’s proud history of farming and agricultural production is very important to preserve as well.”
Conservation easements are voluntary agreements between private landowners and governmental or nonprofit organizations, according to Virginia Outdoors Foundation. They limit future development while keeping the land in private ownership to be used for farming, forestry, recreation and other uses compatible with open space. Because of the public benefits associated with open space—improved water quality, scenic beauty, wildlife habitat and productive soils—landowners who donate easements are eligible to receive state and federal tax benefits.
The Virginia Outdoors Foundation protects more than 835,000 acres of farmland, forestland, parkland and other open space in 109 counties and cities, including 11,395 acres in Culpeper County.