by Henry Lane Hull
Frances Simmons had a phenomenal memory with respect to the history of the Northern Neck. She was the ideal spouse for the late historian/attorney, C. Jackson Simmons, who died in 1999. She enjoyed describing her childhood, walking to school, taking challenging classes and reading about the past.
For his part, alongside an illustrious legal career, made all the more memorable by his stentorian voice when arguing a case in court, Jack was a full-time historian. Constantly delving into the past, particularly that of the Northern Neck, he amassed a body of knowledge that probably was unsurpassed by any other individual. I once told his son, Rawleigh, also a distinguished attorney, that I thought his father considered himself a historian as well as an attorney, carefully placing the two professions in that order.
Jack produced two magnificent books on Northern Neck history, Irvington, the First Generation and Speaking of the Northern Neck.
The latter volume was a compilation of his many addresses to historical societies and other groups about specific events and people who characterized our history. Each volume was a profound contribution to the understanding of the past between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers, the land Jack termed “our moated Eden.”
In the composition of these volumes Frances was Jack’s constant collaborator, editing, proofreading and carrying on the business aspects that resulted in the end results. Shortly before his death, Jack said he planned another book, to which Frances announced that she had “retired,” having given her all to the two already in print.
After Jack’s death, Frances continued her own pursuit of understanding the past, serving as the vice president for Lancaster County of the Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Society, of which Jack had been president. She attentively participated in the board meetings and made her usual prescient remarks that always cut to the point of any discussion at issue, albeit complemented by her ironic twist of subtle and wry humor.
When Frances was not involved in the pursuit of the past, she spent much of her time in the garden. She and Jack built an 18th-century-style home in Irvington, clearly inspired by the design of Stratford Hall Plantation, replete with traditional fencing and granite cobblestone curbing in the driveway, in which overall setting they established exquisite gardens and walkways.
Interestingly, Jack insisted that the cobblestones not be set in concrete, which would not have been consistent with past practices and he would regale guests with his having to realign the stones after guests and delivery drivers would have displaced them while parking or passing around the circle.
Jack enjoyed inviting guests to “take a stroll among the shrubbery,” such a tour being an integral part of every evening’s entertainment. Frances and Jack’s vision for the “yard” was encyclopedic, with alleys and parterres meandering between massive boxwood and other plantings. Both the interior and the exterior transformed the visitor to the aura of another century. All of their efforts came from extensive research and travel to historic homes and gardens for them to be able to capture the best of the past from other venues.
Frances was a hands-on gardener. She liked doing the work herself, watching things grow and enjoying the beauty of nature through every season. She extended that interest to working with local garden clubs, the crowning activity of her endeavors each spring being the presentations during Historic Garden Week. Frances was the recognized maven of floral design and placement, visiting the homes on tour the day prior to the opening to the public to give the final seal of approval.
Last week Frances died at the age of 90. Throughout her lifetime she made monumental contributions to the Northern Neck as we experience it today. She was the quintessential Virginia Lady, a person gifted with extraordinary talent, always eager to share it with others, selflessly seeking to do her part to enhance our history and to leave a legacy for the future. In both purposes she succeeded brilliantly.
Frances Douglas Chase Simmons, August 27, 1927 – July 18, 2018. R.I.P.