Belle Grove Makes the Presses Again!

Apr. 18th 2013


A tree with a history falls in King George

by Cathy Jett / Fredericksburg Free Lance Star

April 18, 2013

With a sharp crack and a ground-shaking thud, a massive mulberry tree crashed in front of James Madison’s birthplace in King George County on Wednesday.

Matthew Tierney, owner of Mot’s Tree Service and a certified arborist, immediately brushed sawdust off its 4-foot-wide stump and began counting rings.


“It’s 180 years old, maybe more,” he told Michelle Darnelle, who plans to open Belle Grove as a bed-and-breakfast by the end of May. “I’ll have a better idea when I make another cut.”

Darnelle had hoped that the tree was around when Madison had at least visited the plantation, which was the childhood home of his mother, Eleanor Rose “Nellie” Conway. The  house  there at the time  burned shortly after his birth.

“It would have had to be 262 years old to have been here when Madison was born and 223 years old for him to have walked by this tree,” Darnelle said.

Madison’s grandfather, Captain Francis Conway, sold the plantation in 1790 to John Hipkins, who built the center section of what was to become a handsome white frame mansion on the earlier foundation in 1791. Madison probably never visited after the sale, she said.

Tierney still wasn’t sure of the tree’s age after slicing another section from its stump, but could tell that it had been deliberately planted near the house’s circular drive because it wasn’t an indigenous variety.

He and his crew also found evidence that someone long ago had gone to great measures to save it. Not only did they find a cable that had been wrapped around the tree to hold it together, but they also turned up chunks of concrete and a piece of rebar that had been inserted in a rotting section of the trunk.

“It must have been a significant tree for someone to have made that much effort to save it,” said John Crosson of Fredericksburg, who is part of an area woodworker’s guild. Members will turn usable sections into furniture and other objects such as fountain pens.

The mulberry was one of three damaged trees that Darnelle had felled and removed on Wednesday. One was an ash that had lost much of its top in two storms. The other, a red maple, had a honeybee hive occupying its hollow core.

Mot’s left the branches on the maple to help cushion its fall and used a chain saw to free the section containing the hive.


“When they come out, they’re going to be on the angry side,” warned master beekeeper Bob Wernsman of King George. “They’re trapped and they’re disoriented.”

Donning beekeeper hats and veils, he and his wife, Darlene Wernsman, spent much of the morning removing waxy combs filled with honey and larvae as they searched for the queen. They were able to get the bees into a wooden hive, which will be located on the bed-and-breakfast property. Darnelle plans to use their honey in the various recipes she plans to make for guests.

She burst into sobs after Tierney cut a wedge in the side of the mulberry facing away from the house and then toppled it by sawing through the other side. She said she hated to lose the tree, but feared that a storm would eventually knock it into the historic old home.

“I had to weigh between the tree and the house,” she said. “The house won.”

J.C. Forest Products, Inc. in Spotsylvania County will mill salvageable, 10-foot sections of the tree and cure them. The woodworkers’ guild, which it sponsors, plans to use it to craft a table or similar piece of furniture for Belle Grove.

Smaller sections of that tree and the other two will be used to make pens that the Belle Grove Foundation will sell at the mansion to raise funds to restore three outbuildings.

The Historic Pen Company in Manahawkin, N.J., which helped Darnelle locate J.C. Forest Products, also will get a three-foot section.

She and her husband, Brett Darnelle, are leasing the house and 7 acres from the foundation for their bed-and-breakfast operation, Belle Grove Plantation. It features two junior suites and two master suites, all of which are named for the families that lived there.

The Darnelles also hope that the house will be used for special events, such as weddings, and have a handicap-accessible entrance so that those in the military who have been wounded can come there with their families after rehabilitation.

Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407

Thank to Cathy and the Fredericksburg Free Lance Star for coming out and covering us as we made history. It was a great article and I enjoyed our time together talking about the plantation!

If you would like to see more photos from this event at Belle Grove

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Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Belle Grove History, Darnell History | 10 Comments »

Laying Our Gentle Giant to Rest

Apr. 17th 2013


Today has been so exhausting in so many ways.

The plantation has been overrun with people all day and we cut down our three trees.

My first person today was a local teenager who is working on pulling bricks for us. He is doing a great job, but it seems to be slowing down as he is finding it harder to pull ones that are so covered with over grown grass. The next person was the Master bee keeper and his wife preparing for the tree with the bee hive to come down. Then we had a landscaping service come in to give us an estimate on the grounds. No sooner did I finish with him then the tree service people arrived. Then a newspaper reporter and photographer arrived. While all this was going on, our air conditioner/heating company returned to work on the system to prepare it for opening. Then the woodcarvers came in to watch the trees come down. We even have a stray dog show up around mid-day! Needless to say, the plantation has been as busy as a bee hive.

Our first tree to come down was the Red Maple with the bee hive. The Master Bee Keeper needed to be somewhere later so we didn’t want to make him wait. I stood back as I watch Matthew with MOTs Tree Service pull out his chainsaw. That is when the emotions hit. I knew I would be upset and would shed a tear or two. But what ended up happening was really overwhelming.


Matthew started cutting and pulled a small chuck out of the base as a start. Then he made sure the area was clear and called out “All Clear”. This I would come to understand was the signal for the end. He quickly started cutting around the tree in a circle. Then is when I heard the cracking. Before I knew it, our Red Maple dropped to the ground. As soon as the tree hit the ground, my emotions sprang up and slapped me in the face. I had to turn away as I started crying. You would have thought I was watching someone I love die.






After about two or three minutes, I was able to pull it together and watch the Master Bee Keepers at work. Quickly they ran over to the tree in their suits and started searching the hive. But it didn’t take long for me to realize something was wrong. The Bee Keeper turned to me and told me that when the tree came down and because it was hollow inside, the tree collapsed around the bee hive and the bees were trapped in the tree. It turned into a rescue mission to see if we could save the bees.


Matthew came back and started clearing branches from the tree, trying to get to the hive. Once he was there, he started making cuts close to where the bees were in hopes of freeing them. We all held our breath. One cut, nothing. Two cuts, nothing. Three cuts close, but not there. Then he hit it. The bee keeper came back over and started searching again. Still not close enough.


While this was going on, the tree crew started working on the oldest tree, the hickory close to the front of the house. I walked over and sat down on the porch and watched as they dropped branches from the tree to prepare for it to come down. Every cut and ever limb was just like a part of me was coming off with it. By this time, I was also talking to the newspaper reporter, Cathy Jett with the Fredericksburg Free Lance Star. It seemed to help keeping me busy talking about the plantation.


Cathy Jett with Matthew from MOTs Tree Service and John our woodcarver from Virginia

Cathy Jett with Matthew from MOTs Tree Service and John our woodcarver from Virginia

Then the time came. Matthew came in and as he had before cut a chuck from the base. Now this tree is pretty big, so he ended up cutting a total of three chucks out. Then the call from Matthew, “All Clear.” I knew the end was coming. I stood up on the porch focused on the tree. Tears had already started rolling down my cheek and I tried to brush them away without fogging up the camera viewer. Then the crack. I could feel the breath rush out of my chest as I uttered a small cry. Then it happened. The tree dropped to the ground.






I quickly turned my head and cried harder. But what amazed me now as I sit here and think about it was the silence. No one said a word. Not a sound came from anywhere. Not a bird, not a car, nothing. It was silence for just a minute, then two, then three. All you could hear was my crying. I have to say I was shaken by this experience. My whole being was crying out for the loss of this old tree.


Then as I worked to calm myself, I could hear them discussing the age growth rings. Everyone wanted to know. Was this tree old enough to have been standing here when James Madison was born? After a quick count, Matthew said that it looked like it was around 180 years. That would place its starting year to around 1833. It wasn’t standing here where Madison was born. Nor was it here during his years he could have walked by it. James Madison would have been alive at Montpelier during its first years, but he would have been in his final years. Later Matthew would reconfirm that it was around 180 give or take 20 years. This means it could have been standing during his term as president, but still not old enough to have been here during his childhood. Matthew would also confirm that it is not a hickory tree. It is a variety of mulberry trees that are not indigenous to Virginia. This means that it was brought here and planted. It also showed sights of attempts to save it in the past. There were steel rods, cables and even concert inside the hollow where someone tried to keep it together.



But one thing we do know. It was standing here during the Civil War and would have witnessed the Union Army encamped at Belle Grove. It would also have seen the detachment chasing John Wilkes Booth that stopped and rested at Belle Grove. They could have easily slept under or even against its massive truck at that time.


By this time, the bee keepers had gotten into the hive and had started recovering the honey combs and bees. They started moving worker bees to the new hive, but still the queen had eluded them. So they set up the new hive close to the open trunk in hopes they would move to the new hive.

Then we headed to the Ash. This tree has seen many bad storms and had lost two of its main sections on top. The trunk was also cracked in half and looked to be hollow. I have to say, I didn’t cry as this tree came down. Not that it didn’t mean as much to me as the other two. But this was almost like a mercy cutting. It was in such bad shape that it was just sad to see it suffer as it was.





When the tree came down, we were greeted by a huge cloud of yellow pollen. All I could think about was how I was going to be sneezing tonight! When it came down, the crack in the trunk just twisted leaving part of the trunk standing. As I walked over, Matthew called out. Inside the trunk you could see what looked like dirt. From this he pulled out this huge larva. It was almost scary! Next they found a beetle and we realized that we had found a nest of Rhinoceros beetles.


The larval stages of this beetle can be several years long. The larvae feed on rotten wood and the adults feed on nectar, plant sap and fruit. The females, which have no horns, can lay 50 eggs on average. The males have the horns. Males can live up to 2 to 3 years. Females generally die not long after they mate.


Matthew collected several of them and will be taking them to a place called the “Bug Box” in Fredericksburg. Here they will keep them to educate children on the species. I think that it is wonderful that we were able to provide a new home for them.


All that was left after this was to grind the stumps and cut the pieces for transport. The woodcarvers that were here today are from Virginia. They will be taking most of the wood to have it milled. From there, the wood will be made into either furniture or historic pens. Part of this wood will also be going to New Jersey to another Historic Pen Company to produce more pens. These companies are doing this free of charge and will be offering these pens and items for sale later. The part of the funds from the sale of these items will be given back to Belle Grove to go into our “Restoration Fund” for our three outbuildings. One of the best parts is the woodcarvers from Virginia will be making us a small colonial table from the wood.

We have gotten a lot of comments as to why we decided to cut these trees down. Believe me, if we could have saved them, we would have. But all of them showed sights of decay. If we had left any of them, they could have fallen at any time. If the Red Maple had fallen, we could have lost two other health trees. If the mulberry tree (what we thought was a hickory) had fallen, it could have damaged this 221 year old plantation mansion. We didn’t take this decide lightly and we loved them very much.

The old mulberry tree (what we thought was a hickory) on the inside

The old mulberry tree (what we thought was a hickory) on the inside

The inside bee hive in the Red Maple

The inside bee hive in the Red Maple

The inside of the trunk of the Ash

The inside of the trunk of the Ash

So now, I am sitting here in the formal dining room trying hard to get use to the new view of the bowling green. It looks so much larger without the two trees in it. If you stand and look at the mansion from the bowling green, it also looks so much bigger. We still have all the wood sitting in piles in and around the bowling green waiting for transport. I can’t image what it is going to look like after it is clear. The Bee Keepers have left the new hive near the old bee hive in hopes the bees will move to the new. They never were able to find the queen. They said if we are lucky and because they are exposed, they might move to the new hive. We will see tomorrow when he returns.


What I do know is that I will miss that old tree. I have only been around it for two years, but with the tears I cried today, you would have thought I planted it. But with is downing, so too goes the last witness of so many years. Children coming and going, families standing in its shade, soldiers resting after a long ride, storms and years of quietly waiting for the next family. If this tree could talk, what stories it must have had to tell.

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Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Belle Grove History | 77 Comments »