Remembering the Resilient Riddicks

Published 8:05 pm Friday, March 31, 2023

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Story by Phyllis Speidell

Photos by John H. Sheally II

Driving in downtown Suffolk you may have noticed Riddick’s Folly, the tall, majestic brick home standing near the corner of Constance Road and North Main St. While the eye-catching structure is a familiar landmark, you may not be aware that it is also a house museum, open to the public and a treasure trove of Suffolk history. 

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A tour of Riddick’s Folly is an entertaining and enlightening glimpse into the storied past of the city and surrounding area. Constantly evolving, the museum features new and updated displays and events that make repeated visits equally intriguing.

Built in 1837, the four story, 8000 square foot house was home to the Mills Riddick family, descendants of the Col. Willis Riddick who was born and raised in Nansemond County. During the Revolutionary War, Col. Riddick served in the 4th Virginia Regiment of the Continental Army that formed in February 1776, at the Suffolk Courthouse. 

 In 1779 Col. Riddick led a small militia unit, just 200 men armed only with  their personal weapons, which attempted to hold off a British invasion. Outnumbered, outgunned and taken by surprise by the British, the small army made a forced retreat to the outskirts of Suffolk. 

Many of Suffolk’s residents had fled by May 13 when British troops entering the town set fire to homes, shops and magazines of weapons and provisions. Hundreds of barrels of turpentine, tar, and rum, stored adjacent to Constance Wharf, ignited into a horrendous blaze that, fueled by gusty winds, almost consumed the town.

That the town – and the Riddick family – rebuilt after the war and survived other fires and other wars is a tribute to a shared tenacity and resilience. Years later, in 1837, another disaster – the Great Suffolk Fire – destroyed several of Mills Riddick’s buildings including his own modest home. That same resilient spirit may have led him to construct his 21 room Greek Revival mansion, complete with 16 fireplaces, on the same site. Other residents, scoffing at the size and Greek Revival styling of the elegant home, dubbed it “Riddick’s Folly.” But the house, like the Riddick family, secured a respected place in the city’s history.

Mills and his wife, Mary, had 14 children, of which 10 survived to fill the 21 rooms of Riddick’s Folly with life and laughter. Mills worked to increase the family lumber and agricultural businesses. He served as a cavalry captain during the War of 1812 and later represented Suffolk and Nansemond County in the Virginia House of Delegates. 

When Mills Riddick died in 1844, just five years after completing his dream home, his son Nathaniel, 25 and a lawyer, bought out his siblings’ interest in the home and took over the house with his wife and five children, and took over the house. When war came again to Suffolk with the invasion of Union forces in 1862, the family fled for their lives to Petersburg. Their beautiful home became a headquarters for Union General John James Peck and his officers. Visitors to the home today can still read messages both Union soldiers and Confederate prisoners scrawled on the walls.

The Riddicks returned in 1865 to find their home ransacked and vandalized with many of their belongings and family heirlooms gone — taken as souvenirs of war. Riddick’s Folly Director/Curator Edward Lee King estimates that about 90% of the family’s belonging were gone. 

Ever resilient, the Riddicks repaired the house that remained home to following generations of Riddicks for another century. 

In 1967, the family sold the home to Nansemond County to use as office space. An ongoing restoration launched in the early 1980s returned the home to its original grace and charm and led to its new life as the only museum in Hampton Roads dedicated to the early 19th century.

The Riddick resiliency runs strong today in the staff and Friends of the Folly who work constantly to maintain the restored mansion and add to its collections with the goal of sharing the history of the family and the city of Suffolk with the public. Friends of the Folly helps support the museum.

King and Administrative Assistant Joyice Jones, light up with excitement when they recount the retrieval of long missing Riddick heirlooms now returned to the Folly. King found an original portrait of Mary Taylor Riddick, Mill Riddick’s wife, in High Point, North Carolina. A music book belonging to Anna Mary Riddick, Nathaniel’s daughter, turned up in London and returned to Suffolk. A unique piece of artwork, a schoolgirl needlepoint seized by a Union soldier during the war, returned, decades later, to the museum thanks to the soldier’s descendants. 

One of King’s latest coups is the custom silk taffeta wedding dress worn by Ann Willis, Mill’s Riddick’s mother, in 1771 when she married Josiah Riddick. The dress was a gift to the Valentine Museum in Richmond by her descendants. King worked for 15 years to have the dress returned to Riddick’s Folly. He did succeed in getting a photo of the dress which he had Major Signs blow up into a life-size stand-up cutout of the dress so that visitors could photo themselves “modeling” the dress. 

The only alternative had been to have a copy of the dress made – at an unaffordable price of $10,000. When King heard that the Valentine was downsizing, he again pushed for the dress. After two years of museum protocols, the dress finally came home to Riddick’s Folly in September and is now on permanent display there – next to the life-size cutout. Other Riddick dresses on display include only worn by Anna Mary Riddick – with a 14-inch waist. 

In addition to Riddick family displays, the house also holds exhibits about Suffolk native and two-time governor of Virginia, Mills Godwin, and a popular Civil War collection. 

King smiled as he remembered a man, a bit disheveled, stopping by Riddicks Folly for a look around. King struck up a conversation with him only to discover that the gentleman he guessed might have been down on his luck was really a doctor who had come straight from mowing his lawn to offer his collection of Civil War weapons. That collection, combined with Civil War era pieces loaned by other collectors, launched the museum’s Civil War exhibit. 

Beyond exhibits, Riddick’s Folly has a full agenda of special programs from American Girl doll parties to 19th century arts and crafts workshops, art exhibits and a gift shop. The house also serves as a repository of Riddick family archives which are currently being transcribed. 

Fred Taylor, a local attorney and history buff, is President of the Friends the Folly. 

“Not only is Riddick’s Folly a great architectural building,” he said. “It also tells the story of Suffolk over a few centuries as it grew from a town to a city.” 

Riddick’s Folly

510 N Main St, Suffolk, VA 23434

Hours: Hours of Operation

Wednesday thru Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Sunday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Phone: (757) 934-0822