After a brief, calm discussion on what has been a divisive topic of Confederate history, a Town Council committee on Wednesday recommended Lake Culpeper as the new name for the municipal reservoir.
The innocuous name would replace one more controversial: Lake Pelham, which the body of water was named in 1975 for a Confederate artillery officer who died in Culpeper.
Maj. John Pelham (1838-1863) was from Alabama, but had a girlfriend in Culpeper, so he perished in the town of an artillery wound suffered 158 years ago during the Battle of Kelly’s Ford. That American Civil War history is well-documented at various sites tied to Pelham in the town and county.
“Personally, I think we ought to call it Lake Culpeper,” said Vice Mayor Billy Yowell, a town native, during Wednesday’s meeting of the council’s Light & Power and Environmental Services Committee.
From Richmond, Virginia, to the rest of the country, Yowell commented, naming sites or places after people doesn’t work.
“There are too many skeletons in the closet,” the vice mayor said. “Social norms change.”
Councilman Frank Reaves Jr., another Culpeper native, agreed, supporting Lake Culpeper as the new name for the 255-acre reservoir that is the town’s primary source of drinking water.
“Everybody will be happy,” Reaves said.
Pelham’s moniker became attached to the reservoir in the 20th century through a government-sponsored “name-the-lake” contest, according to Star-Exponent archives. The Culpeper County school superintendent’s wife submitted the winning entry just a few short years after Culpeper schools finished being racially integrated.
For most of 2020, Culpeper businessman Joe Daniel had strongly urged local officials to change the lake’s rebel name. His actions followed a nationwide trend of Confederate names being removed from buildings, streets and sites because of their connection to the painful history—especially for African Americans—of slavery and Jim Crow.
Told of the proposed new name on Wednesday, Daniel welcomed it.
“I think that is appropriate and it will be acceptable to the community. It is a huge improvement,” he said via email. “The water will taste better for sure as it will not be tainted by slavery and racism. The action by the Town Council makes me proud to be a member of the Culpeper community.”
In February, the Culpeper Town Council heard from citizens about the issue during a public hearing. Reaction was split among residents of the former Confederate town, which saw fighting and many deaths throughout the war. The council’s vote to change the lake’s name was split, too: 5-4.
Councilman Keith Price, one of the four members who voted to keep Lake Pelham, agreed at Wednesday’s meeting about the new name.
“Culpeper is one word that stands for everybody in the town and county,” Price said.
Councilman Keith Brown, who also voted against removing Pelham from the lake name, was absent from the committee meeting due to illness.
Councilwoman Jamie Clancey was a leading voice to rid the lake of its Confederate name. She felt renaming it could present a positive opportunity for the community to come up with a new name.
Clancey is not on the committee that recommended “Lake Culpeper,” so she could not vote on it Wednesday, but she did attend the meeting to provide feedback.
“I like Lake Piedmont,” Clancey said.
She again urged getting local students involved in picking the lake’s new name.
“We could have a ribbon cutting for the name the community has chosen,” Clancey said. “It creates positive messaging for the town, could be fun and interactive, with so much negative going on.”
Committee Chairman Pranas Rimeikis, who voted for the name change in February, responded that if the majority of the community favored changing the name, that would be appropriate. But public comment was split and so was the council’s vote, he said.
Hosting another naming contest “just extends the controversy,” Rimeikis said.
Councilwoman Meaghan Taylor agreed, noting that the lake was named after Pelham in a contest.
There could be other naming opportunities in which students can get involved, perhaps through the current project to better document Culpeper’s Black history, with which the town’s tourism department is collaborating, she said.
“I’m worried about doing it with the name of the lake,” Taylor said.
Most lakes have geographical names, Rimeikis said, such as Lake Anna, Smith Mountain Lake and Mountain Run Lake.
“I would be against naming the lake after any person, living or dead,” he added. “Keep it simple.”
Reaves made the motion for Lake Culpeper, and Yowell seconded it. The Town Council will vote on the matter during its May 11 regular meeting. Community feedback on the change will be accepted during the public-comment session at the beginning of the meeting, held at 7 p.m. in the County Administration Building.
Culpeper was actually named for a person, albeit a long time ago.
Formed in 1749, Culpeper County was named for Thomas Culpeper (1635-1689), appointed the colonial governor of Virginia by England’s King Charles II in 1679, according to “An 18th Century Perspective: Culpeper County,” published in 1976 by the Culpeper Historical Society.
Culpeper, made a proprietor of Virginia’s Northern Neck by a humongous land grant to his father from the king, arrived at Jamestown in 1680 and returned to England that same year.
He came back to Virginia in 1682 while he was still governor, but left again in 1683, never to return, the county history states.
“Lord Culpeper was not popular with the people of Virginia as Governor because of a number of disagreements involving taxation,” the book says.
Colonial governor Culpeper, in addition, felt the Virginia General Assembly should meet only at the call of the king and not initiate legislation. Also, he felt the king should be allowed to veto any legislation, the county history states.