Situated a few miles south of Martinsville on the Smith River, the 75-acre Gravely Nature Preserve has many stories to tell.
One of these comes from the old tobacco barns and a family cemetery on the property, which bear witness to its 19th-century history as a tobacco plantation.
Another is told by the rich populations of plants and animals that have reclaimed the property since, which speak of nature’s resilience.
Finally, the park amenities that exist on the property now, including an outdoor education center and 2.5 miles of trails with interpretive signage, are testimony to how a local non-profit, the county government, and the community can come together for everyone’s benefit.
This last story starts with Richard P. Gravely, the industrialist and amateur archeologist who owned the property, and whose will provided for its preservation as “a wildlife habitat and nature conservancy.” His heirs donated the property to the Virginia Museum of Natural History and helped to place it under an open-space easement with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation in 1993.
When the museum wanted to sell the protected property in 2008, the Dan River Basin Association (DRBA) saw an opportunity.
“As a natural space, the ecosystem benefits the property provides to the communities of the Dan River Basin are worth preserving, so we approached Henry County Parks and Recreation and they agreed to purchase it,” says Brian Williams, program manager at the DRBA.
“A grant from the Harvest Foundation helped to finance the creation of the preserve, but the rest came from Parks and Recreation and donations in-kind,” Williams says. “Henry County and many volunteers from DRBA contributed in-kind donations for trail construction and maintenance.”
The preserve adds a unique experience to what Parks and Recreation was already managing for public access, says director Roger Adams. “There are 27 parks in Henry County, but most of them have playgrounds, playing fields, and other sports amenities. Gravely is completely different; it’s like an informal botanical garden.”
Spring blooms such as toadshade trillium, bloodroot, and trout-lily are abundant on the property, along with a variety of ferns. But the botanical highlight of the preserve is probably the Rhododendron Trail. In the spring, visitors can pass through a tunnel of flowering rhododendron on their way down a sloping trail to the river. Mountain laurel is plentiful on the slopes, as well.
Hiking clubs meet on the property to walk the trails, and boaters can enjoy the lush views by putting in nearby at the Marrowbone Creek Access and then floating down the Smith River Blueway to Mitchell Bridge or North Carolina.
While people from all over enjoy the recreational opportunities Gravely provides, the preserve remains a community project, Williams says. “Even now, major maintenance needs are handled by Parks and Recreation, but volunteers take care of daily maintenance and clean-up. It’s the community’s park. People have taken responsibility for it.”