Palmyra’s Founding Father

Walker Timberlake was a Fluvanna County official, a businessman, an officer in the State Militia, and a Methodist minister. Most important of all, he was one of the founders of the town of Palmyra. His father, John Timberlake, was originally from Port Royal, Caroline County Virginia. John acquired land in Fluvanna in 1779 and eventually held a thousand acres. He and his wife established their home, Rising Sun, on the Post Road near modern day Wilmington. Their son Walker was born in 1781.

In 1806, Walker married Sarah Maria Strange, the youngest daughter of John Alloway Strange. They had ten children. In 1809, Walker served as a lieutenant in the militia while his brother, Horace, was a captain.

Excitement occurred in Fluvanna County in 1824 when Revolutionary War hero Layfayette visited. Along with John Hartwell Cocke, Walker greeted him at Columbia and conducted him to Wilmington where Layfayette was feted at Cole’s Tavern

Walker, along with others, petitioned to have Palmyra made the county seat of Fluvanna. In 1828, he donated four acres of his land to establish the town and he chose the name from the Greek translation of one of the cities King Solomon built, whose Aramaic name, Tadmor means palm tree (2 Chronicles 8:4). The name was first used in the county in 1813 when Walker and his brother John, Jr. erected a dam to supply Palmyra Mills.

The towns of Palmyra and Wilmington competed to be named the county seat. A rumor at that time persisted that a Palmyra politician toured the county with a buggy full of liquor for the men and shoes for the women, supposedly tipping the 1828 vote in favor of Palmyra: 92 Palmyra, 45 Wilmington.

Walker helped establish the Methodist Church seen now in downtown, historic Palmyra and he was the moving force behind most of the Methodist churches in Fluvanna. He had been converted to the Methodist church at a camp meeting in 1811. The first Methodist first church in Fluvanna was built in 1830. The current church was built after that church was taken down, following the building of the second church in 1888 on land donated by Walker’s daughter, Mary.

In 1828, along with his friend Cocke, he oversaw the construction of the jail now called “The Old Stone Jail.” Cocke drew up the plans for the jail and Timberlake supervised the construction. In 1830, Cocke and he took up the construction of the new courthouse. Once again Cocke drew up the plans and Timberlake supervised construction.

Walker had many business interests that helped Palmyra become a thriving town. Among them was a mill along the banks of the Rivanna. (Remnants of this mill can be seen down below the bridge over the Rivanna River.) He invested in the Rivanna Navigation Company, which constructed dams along the river, so that he could ship his products down to Richmond. He also owned a tavern in Palmyra and even though the Methodist Church didn’t mind this, it became a sore point with his friend Cocke. They didn’t see eye-to-eye on the subject of liquor — Cocke was in the temperance movement and didn’t approve of “demon rum.”

Walker helped in the founding of Randolph-Macon College. In 1830, he became a member of the original Board of Trustees. He died shortly before Christmas in 1863 while our country was engaged in a bitter Civil War. Fortunately, he didn’t live to see the effects this war would have on his beloved Fluvanna. His estates suffered greatly with the collapse of the Confederacy.

The horrors of war touched his family as well as Fluvanna. His grandson, Frank Shepherd, left his studies at the University of Virginia to serve the cause, but was accidently shot and killed by a member of his own unit. His nephew, John Bowie Strange, was killed at the Battle of Boonsboro, Maryland. John Bowie Strange, the first cadet sentinel at Virginia Military Institute in 1839, had been a well known teacher and headmaster.

(Most of the material in this article came from the Fluvanna County Historical Society Bulletin 26-27, Historic Fluvanna pp 20-22)

Bill Jones – Fluvanna County Historical Society