Belle Grove Plantation is Featured in Business Section of the Free Lance Star Newspaper!

Jul. 21st 2013



Written by Cathy Jett

Photos by Robert Martin

July 22, 2013


Home with a History is Ready for a New Chapter

From the moment people enter Belle Grove’s tree-shaded drive, Michelle Darnell wants them to feel enveloped by Southern hospitality and a sense of history.

She and her husband hope to open the stately plantation house overlooking the Rappahannock River in the Port Conway area of King George County on Aug. 1 as Belle Grove Plantation Bed and Breakfast.

Built in 1791 on the site of James Madison’s birthplace, the house and its extensive grounds—694 acres in all—will also play host to weddings, receptions, conferences, retreats and other special activities such as two afternoon teas with Dolley Madison re-enactor Lynn Uzzell on Aug. 24.

“Eventually we may hold public events,” said Michelle Darnell. “I’d love to see an orchestra do music under the stars on the lawn.”

The Darnells, who are from Chesapeake, discovered Belle Grove while looking for a place to turn into a bed-and-breakfast after their children went off to college.

“I’m from South Carolina and had a grandmother who taught me three things: history, entertaining and cooking,” said Michelle Darnell, who used to work as a sous-chef at a Virginia Beach bistro. “It was inevitable that I would run a B&B.”

Awed by Belle Grove’s potential, the couple leased it from Franz Haas Machinery in 2011. The Austrian company had purchased the house in 1988, and later spent $3.5 million to strip it down to the studs and restore its former glory—along with some modern touches.

To prepare the property for its new role, Michelle Darnell has spent the last two years researching its history, which is replete with family sagas and a brush with Civil War history. They include the mysterious 1869 etching in an upstairs window by Caroline “Carrie” Turner that hints at a romance, and an overnight stay by Union officers in pursuit of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth.

Belle Grove Plantation’s history begins with a more than 5,000-acre land grant given to Thomas Chetwood and John Prossor by Virginia Governor William Berkeley in 1668.

Nearly 75 years later, Belle Grove became the childhood home of Eleanor Rose Conway Madison. “Nelly” as she was known, returned there after her marriage to give birth to her first son and the future fourth president of the United States. That house either burned or was later torn down.

A relative, Captain Francis Conway III, set aside 13 acres of the plantation’s land in 1783 to lay out what would become Port Conway. Wealthy merchant and ship owner John Hipkins of Port Royal purchased Belle Grove in 1790 for his only child, Frances “Fanny” Hipkins Bernard and her husband, William Bernard.

He built the center section of the current home over what is believed to have been the Conway house’s basement. A later owner, Carolinus Turner—Carrie’s father—added Belle Grove’s distinctive wings, curved porches and porticos.

The plantation has had a number of other owners over the years, and was used at various points as an experimental farm and a summer home for a wealthy real estate broker from Chicago and his wife.

The Darnells are keeping Belle Grove’s history alive by naming the two downstairs junior suites and one of the two upstairs master suites after the Conway, Hipkins–Bernard and Turner families. The other master suite is named for James Madison.

The master suites will go for $265 Monday through Thursday and $295 on weekends, and the junior suites will run $220 Monday through Thursday and $245 on weekends. A military discount will be available.

Each suite will have a short history of the family that it’s named for, and antique and reproduction furniture typical of what they might have owned. These include a 1730 full tester bed outfitted with a TempurPedic mattress and 600-thread-count sheets in the Madison suite, and an 1885 cheval mirror in the Turner suite that’s perfect for brides to get a full-length view of themselves in their wedding gown.

“I’m trying to pull pieces of what was here,” Michelle Darnell said. “They won’t all be that old, but there will be anchor pieces so you can get an idea of what would have been here.”

Overnight guests will have their breakfast—blueberry and lemon pancakes, perhaps—served in one of the mansion’s two dining rooms. And they’ll have the use of the two “withdrawing” rooms, one of which has a library that the Darnells are filling through a “virtual housewarming party.” That’s actually a request for books posted on Michelle Darnell’s blog,

She also posted a recipe contest on her blog to pick the official Belle Grove cookie that will be served as a nighttime snack in each suite for a year. The runner-up will be served at lemonade socials.

The Darnells held their first open house for Belle Grove on July 4 as part of Port Royal’s Fourth of July celebrations. They were hoping for at least 10 people to show up for each of the four, hour-long tours they planned to give. They got nearly 100.

“I know that I love this place, but for other people to have that passion to be here floors me,” Michelle Darnell said. “People have longed to come here due to family connections or love of history. It gave me great joy to have them here. It made July Fourth kind of cool.”








To See More on Belle Grove and what we are up to at the Plantation

Please visit our Facebook Fan Page

Facebook Link

Please Like and Share Us! 

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Belle Grove History, Darnell History | 18 Comments »

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

Facebook Link

Please visit our Facebook Fan Page!

Don’t forget the “Official Cookie Of Belle Grove” Voting Ends

Sunday, April 21st at 11:59pm Eastern

Did you vote yet?

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