From its completion in the early 1740s, Stratford was a teeming complex of plantation industry. Except for its need of manufactured goods, it was a self-sufficient community. “A towne in itself” was how one visitor described it.
The market that powered its economy was England and the Potomac River was the plantation’s lifeline. The Lees owned or held interest in several vessels which sailed from Stratford’s landing on the Potomac. Deep-draft ships unloaded their cargoes of tea, textiles, metalware, porcelain, tools and other British goods into lighters that ferried them to the “wharff.” Brigantines and sloops of the British overseas commission merchants were frequent visitors. Tied up at the landing were shallops and commercial craft that plied between the river plantations, as well as pleasure craft and gaily decorated row barges. The wharf also housed a ship’s store where captains could replace sails and gear damaged at sea. A large warehouse stored the hogsheads of tobacco awaiting transit. Stratford quickly became an important eighteenth-century trading center.
Tobacco was the principal crop, but, due to wasteful agricultural practices, it rapidly exhausted the land on which it was grown. All too soon, tobacco could no longer be cultivated at Stratford. It was, however, planted on outlying farms which Thomas Lee had to acquire constantly in order to accommodate the ravenous plant. By mid-century, the heyday of tobacco was over and it became necessary to find other marketable products.
Shops of many kinds were kept busy. Indentured craftsmen trained slaves in smithing, carpentry, coopering, tanning, and shoemaking.
Brick was fired in kilns dug in the ground, and a wheelwright made and repaired the wheels broken so easily on the rough Virginia roads.
Ships were built, liquor distilled, furniture made and iron forged for simple tools, nails and hinges. The women carded, spun, wove and sewed year round for the plantation’s population. Stratford’s fields grew wheat, barley, oats, flax and corn. From its kitchen gardens came vegetables and “sallet greens,” and orchards provided grapes, apples, pears, peaches, apricots, cherries, figs, and even pomegranates.
The river and nearby Chesapeake Bay yielded a wide variety of seafood, and the marshes and fields provided abundant game. Sheep, cattle, hogs and chickens were raised on the plantation. The mill ground wheat and corn, and the nearby forests of virgin timber provided and seemingly endless supply of lumber and fuel. A pre-Revolutionary British traveler wrote that because such an economy was based on the labor of slaves and indentured servants, the owner of a large plantation “lives more luxuriantly than a country gentleman in England on an estate of three or four thousand pounds a year.”
Like the house overlooking the Potomac to the north and the fields and forests of a vast continent to the west, Stratford has two vistas in time: it looks back upon three generations that won a dangerous foothold in the wilderness and forward to the generations that brought the nation to birth and saw it welded beyond dissolution in the fires of the Civil War.