Charlie Betts was an original

Published 6:40 pm Tuesday, September 11, 2018

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Smithfield has had its share of characters during the past half century. Some were movers and shakers, some quiet movers, some just shakers and still others, just characters.

One of my favorites was Charlie Betts, longtime owner and final private resident of Windsor Castle. He was a professional engineer, a gentleman and a woodworker whose craftsmanship accompanied him literally to the grave. (More on that in a minute.)

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Charlie’s family, which had purchased the Windsor Castle farm back in 1884, was prominent in local business and founded Betts Department Store.

Born in 1914, Charlie was a Smithfield High School and VMI graduate and, like many VMI grads, became an engineer — his specialty, electricity. He spent much of his adult life — 46 years of it — in other parts of Virginia, working for what was then the Virginia Electric and Power Company. He must have been pretty good at his job because he became a regional vice president for the company before retiring in the 1970s.

Charlie spent much of his vacation time in Smithfield at his historic home place. Using his skill as a woodworker and his love of history generally and the Castle particularly, he undertake a generally sensitive modernization and restoration of the 18th century Windsor Castle Manor House.

Additions that Charlie had constructed in order to make a modern home of the Castle have been removed and a more authentic restoration of the basic two-pile colonial dwelling is being undertaken. That work is in conformity with a historic easement that was attached to the property when it was sold to Smithfield as a public park.

While the current will take the Castle back to its colonial appearance, Betts’ efforts should not be considered unimportant, for had it not been for Betts’ lifelong love of the Castle, there’s a pretty good chance that it would not have survived at all. He not only kept the house intact, but also much of the barnyard fabric that is so popular today.

Charlie never was bashful about his belief in preservation, and when the town of Smithfield had a consultant, the late John I. Cofer, write a Historic Preservation District Ordinance, he was one of the first town residents to buy into the concept.

“I agree quite sincerely” with the proposal, he said. Noting that he had lived in Alexandria and Charlottesville during his career, Charlie said he was quite familiar with similar ordinances.

The key to success, he said, was “good judgment used in each case” that would come before a Board of Historic and Architectural Review or the Town Council.

He was named a charter member of the town’s BHAR and, ironically, so was Roger Ealey, who is now engaged by the town to oversee the detailed restoration work.

That was Charlie Betts, the quiet mover.

Then, there was Betts, the character. Charlie was, as mentioned earlier, a craftsman. His hobby was finding and restoring antique locks, a quirky pastime that started when he was looking for old locks to be used during his version of the Castle’s restoration.

But he was also the only individual I have personally known who built his own coffin. Windsor Castle had some magnificent walnut trees, and some of them became lumber for Charlie Betts’ projects, including his coffin.

He built it in the old, hexagonal shape that you see in western movies, when bodies are lined up for viewing after a shootout. It was carefully dovetailed and — well, just exquisite.

I will never forget watching pallbearers taking Charlie out of Trinity United Methodist Church on July 5, 1998 on his way to the Betts family plot in Ivy Hill Cemetery. It was a grand exit for one of Smithfield’s grand characters.