Rare map collector explores evolving idea of Virginia

The first time William C. Wooldridge held an antique map of Virginia, he was a young Army officer taking a meandering, homesick stroll through the streets of Heidelberg, Germany.

Catching his eye from an old print shop window, the early 1600s map based on Capt. John Smith's pioneering original reminded him strongly of the Blue Ridge foothills where he grew up, he says.

And not long after buying this unexpected and pleasantly puzzling souvenir he was completely hooked.

A second and then a third antique map of Virginia followed within a year, laying the foundation for a nearly 40-year-long passion. By the time he stopping looking, studying and buying in 2009, Wooldridge had amassed more than 400 rare examples into what is widely called one of the finest collections of Virginia maps ever assembled by a private collector.

Now on deposit at The Mariners' Museum Library at Christopher Newport University, the Wooldridge Collection is the subject of a new exhibit there as well as a comprehensive new book — "Mapping Virginia: From the Age of Exploration to the Civil War" — which was written by the collector and published in November by the University of Virginia.

Like his own ardent pursuit of example after example over the years, his unusually personal descriptions of more than 300 maps reflect a mind for whom each new purchase provided the chance to grow and discover.

"When you own one of these maps, you have a very different connection to it compared to simply seeing it in a book or a museum. It's not a run-of-the-mill relationship. It's not so transient," the Suffolk collector says.

"What happens over time is that you come back to them. You see things in them you didn't see before. You become attached to them in a way that makes them part of your everyday life."

Wooldridge's long journey of exploration focused on the basics at first, with each new map providing opportunities to learn valuable lessons about rarity, condition and the potential importance of each new buy to the rest of his growing collection.

In many ways, the retired Norfolk Southern Corp. attorney says, he was collecting information as much as the maps themselves, delving not just into the history of printmaking and the development of atlases and maps but also a constantly growing network of scholars, collectors and dealers.

Over time, he learned how to tell good period color from the recent and the old. He also learned to recognize the telltale signs of an early and thus more desirable "strike" made by a printing plate so new, sharp and crisp it would literally squeeze down into the paper.

"Until you look at a lot of them, you don't know what a good map is, what's in good condition, what's rare and what's not," Wooldridge explains.

"And I didn't have a prodigious amount of money, so I did a lot of looking before I bought."

Some 10 or 15 years passed before Wooldridge began to feel competent as a collector.

Not long after that he discovered something else that had been restricting his efforts even more than his untrained eye or his budget.

What he hadn't understood when he started out was the encyclopedic range of reasons why this history-charged place had spawned so maps, and why — over the course of hundreds of years — they had sometimes taken such puzzling forms.

"For the longest time I wanted something that looked liked Virginia, and then I realized that Virginia was much more of an idea than a geographic place," he says.

"There are no neutral maps. None of these maps was made without an agenda."

That realization led Wooldridge to collect not just one map describing the 1781 victory at Yorktown, for example, but a whole portfolio that includes American maps showcasing Washington's tent, French maps underscoring the crucial role of their fleet at the Battle of the Capes and British maps that describe the siege in detail yet seem to ignore the American and French triumph.

He also spent years looking for such curious yet revealing specimens as a 1613 German map that depicts the James River, Jamestown and the upriver settlement of Henricus yet is so speculative about the surrounding landscape that it fills it in with vast expanses of open, cultivated fields and stoutly defended palisades that didn't exist.