Meet Shirley!

Nov. 5th 2012

Just last week, I had the pleasure to meet someone that actually stayed in the mansion at Belle Grove Plantation during the 1950’s!

Allow me to introduce Shirley Armstrong.

Shirley Armstrong

Born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Shirley Ann Nicholson grew up with history all around her. When she was fourteen, she had a photograph taken at the location where the Fredericksburg newspaper, the Free Lance Star is now located.

At age fifteen, she met her future husband, Albert John Williams, age nineteen, who was serving in the U.S. Navy as a Hospital Corpsman. On July 25, 1953 at age seventeen, Shirley and Al became husband and wife.

Al and Shirley Williams
on their wedding day

At the time, Al’s parents Ann and Alton Cooper were working at Belle Grove Plantation as caretakers for the owners, John Palmer and Mary Hooker. The Hookers were from Chicago and had purchased Belle Grove as a summer home. According the Shirley, the Hookers would rarely come down.

Ann Cooper
Shirley’s mother-in-law
Caretaker of Belle Grove Plantation 1951 to 1956

Alton Cooper (without shirt)
Shirley’s father-in-law
Caretaker of Belle Grove Plantation 1951 to 1956

When Shirley and Al married, Alton and Ann stood in as their witnesses. After the ceremony at their pastor’s home, the group went to dinner at a restaurant called “Bruce’s” located just across the river from Belle Grove Plantation in Port Royal, Virginia. For their wedding night, Shirley’s in-laws allowed them to use one of the upstairs rooms in the mansion for their honeymoon. But sadly their honeymoon would not last long. They received a call that night that Al had to report to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina to be deployed with the Marines the next day.

Shirley Williams
working at Belle Grove Plantation
The house in the background is the current caretaker’s home.

Shirley would stay behind in Fredericksburg. She would assist her in-laws as caretakers at Belle Grove too. She told me how she remembers cleaning all the silver for the Hookers in the mansion. Shirley and Al would have four children, two girls and two boys. But their marriage would not stand the test of time. After her divorce, she would meet her second husband and would have another child. Their marriage would last for forty-two years. Shirley’s second husband passed away four years ago.

Shirley would remember Belle Grove Plantation as one of the most beautiful places she has ever seen. She received a post card from her mother-in-law shortly after she married Al Williams. This post card has Belle Grove Plantation’s mansion on the front. Shirley has held on to this post card ever since.

Belle Grove Plantation
Post Card

She has watched the newspaper for stories of Belle Grove Plantation. When we had our piece in the Free Lance Star about a month ago, she would clip out this article and save it with the other newspaper clippings of the mansion she had grown to love. It was through this article that she felt the need to reach out to us.

Southern Belle
Free Lance Star
July 25, 2003

It was a wonderful visit with Shirley. She allowed us to take all the newspaper clippings and filled in some of our missing history of the plantation. Of course she kept the post card. But we are thankful to have such a wonderful story to add to the history of this beautiful and historic plantation. To us, it is the personal history that makes this plantation something special to see and visit.

Belle Grove Plantation Mansion
Before Restoration
Southern Belle
Free Lance Star
July 25, 2003

Restoration in Process
Southern Belle
Free Lance Star
July 25, 2003

We would like to thank Shirley Armstrong for reaching out and contacting us to share the personal history with us. It really means a lot to us!

We would like to send out an invitation to anyone with personal history, stories, pictures, connections with the family or members of past families, please consider connecting with us. You can contact us through this blog, our facebook page or by emailing us at

It is this history that we want to remember and to add to the history book that is Belle Grove Plantation.

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Year of the Virginia Historic Homes | 54 Comments »