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.”








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Couch Potato

Jul. 11th 2013

Yesterday, I took off for the day and made my way to Orange, Virginia. If you  have been following the blog, you know that Montpelier and the James Madison Museum are located here. I had read on Facebook that the James Madison Museum was going to have a new exhibition opening on July 7th and in this exhibition was something I would be interested in.


Before I went to the museum, I decided to stop off at Montpelier to meet Matt, the head of the Archeaology Department. I have wanted to meet him for some time now and being in the middle of the week, I knew this might be my only chance. As most of you have read, we have had some really great “finds” lately and I wanted to get his opinion on them.


The first piece I showed was our two plate pieces. I had gotten a date from Mara at Ferry Farm that this was from the time period of 1740-1755. Matt confirmed that it was. This really makes me excited because when we first started researching Belle Grove, we were told that the house that James Madison was born in had long ago disappeared into the river. We later heard that the foundation was located between the house and the current bridge. We recently read a letter from the early 1900s that placed it between the current house and the church. But by finding items that date to this time period it shows that there was active life here near the house from that period. It also gives some credibility to the foundations we have under the Small Dining Room and behind the Garage. Maybe one day we can fund a dig there!

He also answered my question on a second piece. It was a very badly rusted piece of metal that I thought might be a knife. Matt says it looks more like a barrel ring. It came from the same hole as the plate. Maybe we have a small trash pit here! We will have to see!

After my talk with Matt, I headed back into Orange and to the James Madison Museum. I couldn’t wait to see what I came to see!


The James Madison Museum

Orange, Virginia

Bethany greeted me at the door with a warm smile and hug. Then she ushered me back to the new display.


Here before me stood three Virginia Sectional Sofas. The first one was the Salubria Sofa from Culpeper, Virginia. It had been in a home built by the Reverend John Thompson in 1757. Robert Grayson purchased it in 1851. His mother, Sara Mason Cooke Grayson was the granddaughter of George Mason of  Gunston Hall. (Funny how places we go and people we learn about here in Virginia seem to connect together) Robert Grayson was with the 6th Virginia Calvary during the Civil War and his brother, John Cooke Grayson was a surgeon in Farmville, Virginia Hospital. Robert Grayson’s son, Admiral Cary T. Grayson would serve as personal physician to President Woodrow Wilson. It is currently owned by the Memorial Foundation of Germanna Colonies in Virginia and was donated to this foundation by the Grayson family in October 2000. It is currently on loan for a short time to the James Madison Museum by the owner and descendant of Admiral Cary T. Grayson.


The second sofa to greet me was the Port Royal Sofa. This Sectional Sofa from Virginia was made between 1825 and 1840 and is thought to have begun its life in Warsaw, Virginia (just 30 minutes from Belle Grove Plantation) at the Mount Airy Plantation. It is known that it came to Port Royal (across the river from Belle Grove Plantation) in 1911 when Courtneyay Tayloe Crump married Richard Pratt of Camden Plantation in Port Royal. It has been almost two years since I last spoke of Camden, but I had the opportunity to view it in January 2012. This family is connected to Belle Grove through Elizabeth Pratt Hipkins (mother of Fanny Hipkins Bernard, who the main section of Belle Grove’s Mansion was built for in 1791) and Carolinus Turner, whose family married into the Pratt Family. This sofa spent much of its time at the foot of a bed at Camden. This sofa, unlike the other two in the exhibit, is held together with a simple latch to allow it to be used as a day bed. This sofa remained in the Pratt Family until 2007. Today it is on loan from Laura and Hal Stuart.


The last sofa was the one I came to see!

The Conway Settee is entirely original and unupholstered. It is believed that it was crafted and/or shipped in/from Falmouth, Virginia. (20 miles north of Belle Grove Plantation). It was shipped to Mrs. Lucy Conway on October 18, 1848. Lucy Hartwell Macon Conway was married to Reuben Conway during James Madison’s second term as President Jefferson’s Secretary of State. Her mother was Sara Madison Catlett and was James Madison’s sister. Reuben Conway was the son of Catlett Conway. Nelly Conway Madison, mother of James Madison was Reuben’s aunt. The settee is made entirely of yellow pine. They used animal blood based paint on the exposed wood to simulate mahogany. The frame is pegged and it has a slatted wood base. The upper upholstery is a heavy Osnaburgh linen. There is no evidence of casters ever being affixed to it. It has a deep seat box and a simple turned leg with original button-down covering tacked to the frame. On each of the sectional you can see Lucy’s name. This settee is a gift from the Orange County Historical Society.



I have to say I was in awe at this piece! How exciting to see a piece of Conway Family History! 


While I was there, I also saw a very wonderful colonial table. I have seen many card tables in our search for tables for Belle Grove, but this one was very unique.


The top of the table rotates around!


Then opens up and lays on top of the frame!

This table dates to the 17oos and may have been made by slaves. It was on the farm of James B. Daniel , known as “Grandpa Jim”. Mr. Daniel ran the Post Office in the community that was named for him, “Daniel” Virginia. The family used this table for generations until it was donated to the museum. It was a gift from William Downer in 1986.

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Slavery in Virginia and Belle Grove

Sep. 10th 2012
Outbuildings at Belle Grove Plantation

Outbuildings at Belle Grove Plantation

When doing the research on the history of Belle Grove, I have come across a lot of wonderful surprises. Historic events and people that we as Americans need to remember. But with that research we have also come across darker times in our history. Not to include it in the history of the plantation would be a disservice to those who lived it and died by it. It is important to know where it came from and how it evolved and what impact it had on Belle Grove Plantation.

When looking at the history of slavery in Virginia, we can trace it back to the founding of the English colony by the London Virginia Company. The London Virginia Company was an English Joint Stock Company that was established by James I of England on April 10, 1606. The London Company, which was also known as the Charter of the Virginia Company of London was established by royal charter with the purpose of establishing colonial settlements in the New World. It was through this company that a system called “Headright” was put in place to entice settlers to venture to North America.

A “headright” was a legal grant of land that was given to settlers. To obtain a “headright” the settler would not only have to travel to the New World, but also bring indentured servants with them. The amount of land given was determined by the number of indentured servants brought. Most “headrights” were for 1 to 100 acres of land. The most common amounts were 50 acres for someone newly moved to the area and 100 acres for those who previously living in the area. By giving land to the landowning masters, the indentured servants had little or no chance to gain their own land.

Indentured Servant Note

Indentured servitude was a historical practice of contracting an individual to work for a fixed period of time in exchange for transportation to the New World, food, clothing, lodging and other necessities during their term of indenture. The general time period would be three to seven years. Most indentured servants were men and women under the age of 21. Generally their fathers would make the arrangements for them and sign their paperwork. There was no cash paid to the family for the individual. The labor markets were overcrowded in Europe and this system provided jobs to poor young people who wanted to come to the New World for work, but had no way to pay for it. In 1650, there were approximately 4000 white indentured servants working in Virginia. Many would earn their freedom and would receive a grant for 50 acres of land when released from their indentures. Here they would raise their own crops such as tobacco.


African workers were first imported to Virginia in 1619. By 1650, there were about 300 African workers living in Virginia. That was about 1% of the estimated 30,000 population. Some of these indentured servants would go on to earn their freedom and would be able to buy land for themselves.

Just to the south, there were Spanish colonies that had long been using slavery for labor. The first recorded instance of slavery in the Virginia Colony wasn’t until 1654. This was a lawsuit brought to court by Anthony Johnson of Northampton County on Virginia’s Eastern Shore against another land owner, Robert Parker over an indentured servant named John Casor. It was Anthony Johnson’s contention that John Casor, an African man, owed him lifetime services.

Anthony Johnson, also an African man, had been brought to Jamestown along with 19 other African men as indentured servants. In 1623, Anthony Johnson had earned his freedom and in 1651 had gained enough wealth to import five “servants” of his own. This import earned him 250 acres as a headright.

John Casor alleged that he had come to Virginia as an indentured servant and had sought to transfer his obligation to Robert Parker, a white farmer. Anthony Johnson claimed in court that “hee had ye Negro for his life”. The Northampton County Court ruled that Robert Parker had unjustly kept John Casor from Anthony Johnson. It was the Judgment of the Court that John Casor be returned to Anthony Johnson and that Robert Parker would make payments for all charges in the suit. John Casor did return to Anthony Johnson. This was the first known judicial approval of life servitude in Virginia with the exception as punishment for a crime. John Casor remained with Anthony Johnson for the rest of his life.

By the end of the 17th century, large numbers of slaves from Africa were brought to the Virginia Colony by Dutch and English ships. These slaves were placed on large tobacco plantations and would work as field labor, household and skilled workers. Slowly these slaves would replace the indentured servants. As slaves, they not no mutual agreement and no time limit for their labor. Even the children of these slaves were born to a lifetime of service. In 1661, Virginia passed a law that made the status of the mother determine the status of the child. In time, slavery would become an economic factor on labor-intensive tobacco and cotton plantations of the South.

In my research, the earliest record I have been able to uncover of slaves at Belle Grove Plantation dates back to the Will of Francis Thornton, husband of Alice Savage Thornton and third landowner of Belle Grove Plantation. Francis Thornton passed away in 1726. In his will he bequeath the following:

“I give and bequeath unto my grandson Francis Conway one mulatto girl names Bess. Item: I give and bequeath unto the within named George Riding son of my wife Ann, five slaves by name – Mullato James, Negro Dick, Negro Jane, Negro Nanny and a negro boy names Samuel. Item: I give and bequeath unto Margaret Riding, daughter to my wife Ann Thornton, six slaves by name – Negro Charles, a girl named Peggee, a Negro girl names Frank, Negro Susan, Negro Billy, a Mulatto Jacob. Item: The rest of my Negroes I give and bequeath unto my loving wife Ann Thornton during her natural life and after her decease I will and bequeath all my said Negros to be divided by equal portions between George & Margaret Riding, son and daughter of my wife Ann Thornton.”

Alice Savage Thornton passed away in 1692 and Ann Thornton was Francis Thornton’s second wife. His grandson, Francis Conway who received one mulatto girl named Bess would become Belle Grove’s fifth landowner and was Grandfather to James Madison.

The next record of slavery comes with the Will of Edwin Conway, husband of Elizabeth Thornton Conway and Great Grandfather of James Madison. His son was Francis Conway in the below paragraph. He passed away in 1698. In his will he bequeathed the following:

“I also give to my sd sone Francis, three negroes, Sam & Kate & Frank, their child, to him…Item, I give unto the child, or children, whereof my wife now goeth withall, the crop of sweet scented tobacco that is now below at my lower plantation, to be put into the hands of Henry and Edwin Thacker and sent for England, and when money is made from the sale of the same, They, to buy two negroes, such as in their discretion they shall think fit, and to bee delivered to their mother, for the saide child, or children. Item, I give to my sone Edwin, all that estate, both real and personal, which I formerly gave him by deed of gift, recorded in Lancaster Court, with all and every part and parcel of my estate in Lancaster County, not before given, except one negro man named Jack.”

The next Will that speaks of slavery is that of Rebecca Catlett Conway Moore. Her first husband was Francis Conway. Her second husband was John Moore. John Moore was who gave Belle Grove it’s name. She was mother to Nelly Conway Madison and Grandmother to James Madison. She passed away in 1761. In her will she bequeath the following:

“and by virtue of said will did on 16th day July last past make choice of the five Negroes •• I bequeath unto my son WILLIAM MOORE when he attains age of Twenty one and to my grandson JAMES MADDISON junr. when he attains Eighteen years of age to be equally divided between them.”

The last Will that speaks of slavery is that of  William Bernard Sr. He was husband of Fannie Hipkins-Bernard. Her father, John Hipkins built the center section of current manor house for her and her husband. In his will he bequeathed the following to his son William Bernard Jr:

“… to my beloved wife (Elizabeth Hooe)……the use of four of my Slaves that she may choose and the use of two female Slaves she may choose till they arrive to fourteen years of age…and if any of the Negroes she shall have chosen shall die or when the two negroe Girls shall have arrived to the age of fourteen my Executors Suffer her to choose others in their place except such as may be employed as house Servants by either of my Children…all my Negroes & Mulattos be divided……to my Son William I give all the Negroes and their Increase that came by his Mother together with the other half of such as I hold in my own Right.”

William Bernard Jr. never received this bequeath. William Bernard Jr. passed away in 1822 and was the last of the Hipkins-Bernard family to live at Belle Grove. His father wouldn’t pass until 1844.

The last records of slavery that I have found was that of Carolinus Turner. In Federal Census Records, I discovered the number of slaves that Carolinus Turner owned during his time at Belle Grove. The 1840 Federal Census lists Carolinus Turner, age 20-30, along with eleven male slaves under ten, eight aged 10-24, five aged 24-36, four aged 36-55, one aged 55-100, twelve female slaves under 10, eight aged 10-24, five aged 24-36, and three aged 36-55, for a total of 58 in the household, with 31 involved in agriculture. The 1850 Federal Census lists Carolinus Turner at 37, a farmer and worth $100,000. He owned 73 slaves at the time. The 1860 Federal Census lists Carolinus Turner at 47, farmer and worth $272,500. He owned 92 slaves.

Death Records of Slaves in King George County

Death Records of Slaves in King George County

From all the records I found, Carolinus Turner’s time period contained the best documentation. I was able to pull death records for King George and was able to put names to some of the slaves of the Turners. Here is some of the names from this list:

Warner Stuart, son of John and Susan Stuart died on November 20, 1853 at the age of one year, three months and four days of unknown causes.

Charles Washington, of unknown parents died on May 23, 1855 at the age of fifty-five of ulcer in hands.

Richard Martin, son of Joseph and Harriet Martin died on May 14, 1855 at an unknown age from Scarlett Fever. There were several children that died in 1855 from Scarlett Fever; three in the month of May.

I was also able to put a name to an overseer during the Turner period. His name was Baldwin Lee. He had an assistant named Francis Roach. Francis and his wife Ellen lost a child, Francis Roach Jr. to Scarlett Fever at the age of eleven on November 14, 1853. I don’t have much information on Baldwin Lee or Francis Roach. The only information I was able to find on Baldwin was that he took his own life in 1868.

During the Civil War, many slaves were taken by the Union Army. As I was looking through the archives, I came across a file of small sheets of paper. Written on each piece of paper was the number of slaves that were taken by the Union Army from an owner in the area. It was as if they expected to be reimbursed for their loses.

I have been searching for some records or maps of Belle Grove before or during the Civil War that might give me some idea where the slave quarters would have been. I was told that someone has a map that showed a slave quarters located in the middle of the field at Belle Grove. We have several dirt roadways, many dating back to the early 19th Century.

Map of Port Conway and Belle Grove - 1854

Map of Port Conway and Belle Grove – 1854

I have located one map that I feel might tell me that there were quarters even closer to the house than that. On this map, you can see where the manor house is and the roadways are. But in the field, which is now located behind the caretakers house, there looks to be a grouping of some sort. Some have told me it could have been an orchard. But this “orchard” extends down and around a roadway to what I think may have been a wharf for shipping at one time. Also when I was walking the plantation back in March, 2011, just beside this area between it and the driveway on the grassy area that separate it, I found two plate shards that date back to the late 1700s to early 1800s. My thought is that there could have been a trash pit nearby. Could it be one used by the slave quarter?

Summer Kitchenbuilt in 1790s

Summer Kitchen
built in 1790s

Our best record of slavery at Belle Grove is our 1790s Summer Kitchen. This kitchen was built with a small kitchen on the right and small living space on the left. What makes me think that it was living quarters instead of perhaps a laundry is the size of its fireplace. The kitchen side of the Summer Kitchen has a very large fireplace that still has the iron rod attached to the back of the fireplace wall and the iron hooks that were used to hang pots to cook. The living quarter side’s fireplace is much smaller and has no iron rod or hooks and has no mantle.

Fireplace on the kitchen side of the Summer Kitchen

Fireplace on the kitchen side of the Summer Kitchen

Fireplace on the living quarters side of the Summer Kitchen

Fireplace on the living quarters side of the Summer Kitchen

Iron Rod with Cooking HooksFireplace on the kitchen side of the Summer Kitchen

Iron Rod with Cooking Hooks
Fireplace on the kitchen side of the Summer Kitchen

My research is not done and I am sure I will find more on the families that lived there. It is our hope that we can restore the Summer Kitchen and convert it into a small museum of what life was like at Belle Grove. Our plan is to house the artifacts and information we uncover on the owners and house in the kitchen side. We would like to devote the living quarters on the left side to the slaves that served Belle Grove. It isn’t the best part of history of the plantation, but it needs to be remembered, lest we forget.

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Year of the Virginia Historic Homes | 204 Comments »

Surprises around every turn…. Part three of four parts

Aug. 2nd 2012

Skyline Drive
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

The next morning we decided to head out towards Charlottesville and James Madison’s Montpelier.  We decided to take a long ride through the Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive. This is a 105 mile ridge drive through the Shenandoah National Park with 75 overlooks that give you a view of not only the Blue Ridge Mountains but woods and farmlands. The highest peak is Hawksbill at 4051 feet. The official ground breaking for the construction of this drive was July 18, 1931. The final construction was completed in 1939.

View from 3400 feet
Skyline Drive
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

The views are just breath-taking. We stopped a few times to take pictures, but mostly to marvel at what a beautiful land this really is. As we drove up into the mountains, the air became cooler, getting down to 71 degrees. Wild flowers were abundant and birds were flying over and around our car. There is a place towards the top center of this drive called “Big Meadow”. To our surprise, you come over the hill and all of a sudden you are in a huge meadow on top of this mountain. There is a lodge there for the public to stay in. They also have camping and cabins along the route. You can hike and picnic as well. There are several waterfalls that you have to hike to and you do have to be cautious of the wildlife. This is black bear country.  As we were driving along, we came across two rangers who seemed to have been tracking something. One of them was carrying a rifle. But we didn’t see what they were looking for.

Skyline Drive
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Lewis Mountian Campgrounds
Skyline Drive
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Skyline Drive
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Skyline Drive
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

We jumped off onto Route 33 at the 65 mile marker so we didn’t take the whole 105 mile drive. One thing, there is a cost to take this drive. At this time, it is $15.00 for a car. I am not sure about other transportation. It is also closed after the first of November until the following spring as they get snow in this area.

As we headed towards Montpelier, we passed through a couple small towns. I was taking notes of their location as there were a lot of antique stores along the way. I see a future trip to go antique shopping! We drove to Gordonsville, Virginia, just a few miles from Montpelier. We have been here many times and know of a great BBQ place to eat called “The BBQ Exchange”. We stopped for a quick bite and started towards Montpelier.

James Madison’s home in Virginia

As we drove in, we realized that we only had a couple hours before they closed for the day, but I wanted to go back to get recharged. When we came in, they had a tour group around in the video introduction, so we asked if we could forego the video, since we have seen it before, and jump into the group when they were ready to move to the house. While we waited, we were treated to costumes from a PBS production about Dolley Madison. What style she had!

Dolley Madison Costume
James Madison’s home in Virginia

Dolley Madison Costume – Back view
James Madison’s home in Virginia

Dolley Madison Costume
James Madison’s home in Virginia

Dolley Madison Costume
James Madison’s home in Virginia

Dolley Madison Costume
James Madison’s home in Virginia

In the Gallery, I walked around and looked at personal items from the Madisons and was surprised by a picture of Nelly Conway Madison. It was a 3D relief of her that I had not seen before. As I stepped back into the lobby, Brett pointed out on a timeline covering Madison’s life, the part about Nelly Conway Madison going back to Port Conway to give birth to James.

James Madison Timeline
James Madison’s home in Virginia

We jumped into the group and headed towards the house. Once on the grand porch, we were greeted by a docent who would lead us through the house. Brett and I have been here so often that I think I could get a position as a docent to lead tours! But the best part is that each docent brings a different take on the history. Our docent, Joann, was warm and would quiz us on the history. Does it surprise you that I got all but one question right? I missed the one on how many grandchildren Nelly had. She had 48 grandchildren.

View from the front porch
James Madison’s home in Virginia

Front door – main entry
James Madison’s home in Virginia

Close up of Front Door
James Madison’s home in Virginia

Nelly Conway Madison’s Front Door Entry
James Madison’s home in Virginia

We started in the sitting room on Nelly’s side of the mansion as we always do, but this time, they had added a different twist. They spoke about a relationship between James and a young slave boy. As we walked into the parlor, I got to see the beautiful wallpaper that I have come to love about this room. It was added after our second visit. I had thought that it would be a beautiful covering for the walls in Belle Grove, but at $360 per 11 foot roll, I don’t think we will be able to do it.

Madison Damask
French or English circa 1800-1815
Adelphi Paper Hangings

From there it was on to the dining room and then the library where they had added some curtains and other items to the rooms.  As we walked into the side room just behind the dining room, we got the best surprise! This room was used by James Madison during the last years of his life. Unable to go upstairs, he had slept here and received guests here and worked on his final papers here. When we were last here, it had been empty with the exception of a bust of Madison. Not wallpaper or curtains were in the room. This time, it had wallpaper, curtains and furniture! And the best part was the bed! It was a white French canopy with burgundy curtains. Joann explained that this was similar to the bed that James Madison had in the room. Brett and I were floored! It looked so regal, so presidential. It must have been suddenly very bright in the room as both Brett and I had the same idea. We had always thought of placing a bed similar to the dark walnut Tester bed that had been the Madison’s bed upstairs. But this bed made a statement and Brett and I heard it so clear!

View from the upstairs library
where James Madison wrote
the Constitution

We followed the group upstairs to the upstairs library located just above the front door. This is the room that James Madison spent his time in working out the Constitution. It is such an awe inspiring thought to know that we are in the room that the majority of this documented was created. To see out of the windows the view that James would have had and to wonder what he was thinking as he crafted one of the most important documents of our history. I still get chills thinking about it.

View of the front lawn from the balcony over
Nelly Conway Madison’s Rooms

We then moved to the balcony that is on top of the Nelly’s rooms. There you can see the front lawns, the slave quarters which are being rebuilt and the backyard with the statue of the Madison and walking garden just beyond. As I started taking pictures of the front lawn, a large bird appeared and flew over and above the trees beside the Temple. I then turned to the slave quarters only to see a single deer quietly eating grass under a tree. It was just a “wow” moment.

View of the Slave Quarters from the balcony over
Nelly Conway Madison’s Rooms

View of the Madisons from the balcony over
Nelly Conway Madison’s Rooms

View of bird looking over towards the Temple
from the balcony over Nelly Conway Madison’s Rooms

View of the side yard and deer from the balcony over
Nelly Conway Madison’s Rooms

Brett pointed out to me that the railing of this balcony had the same style railing as Belle Grove’s riverside portico had. It was like a small connection to Montpelier in a way. Then as we finished the tour we talked with a couple of other tourist and two of the docents. It was funny that one docent looked at our picture of Belle Grove and made an observation that if you removed the porches and portico from both Montpelier and Belle Grove; the structures would look very similar. When Brett and I had drove in earlier we had made that same observation.

Montpelier and Belle Grove railings

But Brett and I couldn’t get that bed out of our thoughts. So we asked if one of the docents could take us back to see it again. Standing there, we tried to memorize each aspect of it. Now we are on a conquest to see if we can find one just like it for the Madison room at Belle Grove.

After seeing the bed again, we thanked Joann for her time and headed to the walking garden. This garden was put in during the DuPont’s time at Montpelier. It was in full bloom and just stunning. I found points that I want to add to Belle Grove’s walking garden from this garden.

Detail over Garden Gate

Garden Gate

Garden Lion





Afterwards we headed back to the car. We had one last stop to make before headed out. I wanted to stop at the Madison Cemetery. Nelly Conway Madison is buried here, but there is no tombstone marking her place. She is just to the right of Madison’s large tombstone. I just wished I had had flowers to place there for her. The cemetery was empty and as I walked in you could hear the birds. But it was strange, just as I got to the spot where Nelly is, I softly started talking to her. I was telling her that I hoped she would have been pleased with what we were doing with Belle Grove and that I hoped we were doing what was right in her eyes. It was then that I realized that it was perfectly silent. The birds that had been singing when I arrived had stopped. It was perfect still. I then walked around a moment to observe the other tombstone and made one last stop at Madison’s tombstone. There on the stone were rocks, a penny and a note left by others.

Madison Cemetery

Nelly Conway Madison’s Unmarked Grave is just to the left of the Madison Monument
Madison Cemetery

James Madison’s Monument
Madison Cemetery

Dolley Madison’s Monument
Madison Cemetery

As I headed back to the car, my thoughts turned back to our Belle Grove. There is so much history, so many memories there. I just hope we are doing right by it all. What an honor and awesome responsibility to have. My hope is that future generations will come to understand the lives of these people and the struggles and hardships that they went through to build our great nation. We have so much yet to do and much more farther to go.

Montpelier Temple

This is really a well-disguised Ice House!

As we started to drive out, I asked Brett if he wanted to stay in Orange, Virginia one more night or if he wanted to head back. He felt the need to get home. I could have stayed another month and it would have not been enough. But we headed home. But it was a good thing that we did. Because the best surprise was yet to come….

The Story Continues Tomorrow…

The Best Surprise is the one you don’t see coming!

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Year of the Virginia Historic Homes | 48 Comments »

Surprises around every corner… part one of four parts

Aug. 1st 2012

Special Note:

There was so much that happened this long weekend, it is going to take me four postings to get it all in.

I will tell you the last post will have the most exciting part!

After a very busy week at my current job, I decided it was time for a long weekend. So Brett and I took Monday off and set off on a grand weekend. The best part of the weekend was that we had nothing planned. We took it moment by moment. And I have to tell you, it was wonderful!

Belle Grove Plantation
Middletown, Virginia

When Friday rolled around, I knew that I wanted to head up to Middletown, Virginia. This is the location of the Belle Grove Plantation that was owned by James Madison’s sister, Nelly Madison Hite. It was in part the location that started us on our search for our bed and breakfast.

This plantation got its start with Jost Hite, a German immigrant who came to the Shenandoah Valley in 1732 with his partner Robert McKay to settle on 140,000 acres with sixteen other families. These acres were acquired through two land grants. In 1770, Isaac Hite Sr. purchased 483 acres that would become the Belle Grove Plantation.

Old Hall foundation
Belle Grove Plantation, Middletown, Virginia

The grand manor house was not the first home on this plantation. There was a large limestone home that was built around 1750 for a tenant farmer. The foundation of this home, later called “Old Hall” can still be seen next to the smokehouse. It was in this house that James Madison brought Dolley to for their honeymoon.

Belle Grove Plantation
Middletown, Virginia

Isaac Hite Sr.’s son, Isaac Hite Jr, who attended William and Mary College and served during the American Revolution, married Nelly Conway Madison, sister of James Madison in 1783. Major Hite’s father gave the couple the 483 acres as a wedding gift. The manor house was started in 1794 and took three years to complete. It was through his brother-in-law James Madison friendship with Thomas Jefferson that Major Hite was able to consult with Mr. Jefferson on the design of Belle Grove. Mr. Jefferson’s influence is seen in the final design.  The manor house is built of limestone that was quarried from the property. It is said that Nelly named the plantation “Belle Grove” after our Belle Grove Plantation in Port Conway, Virginia.

Sadly Nelly Madison Hite would not live very long in this beautiful manor. She passed away in 1803, just six years after its competitions. From my research Major Hite and Nelly had three children:

James Hite Jr – Born January 29, 1793 – Died January 11, 1860

James Hite – Born April 10, 1788 – Died December 8, 1791

Nelly Conway Hite – Born December 1, 1789 – Died 1836

Nelly Madison Hite would be laid to rest in the family cemetery in Warren County. Major Hite would marry Ann Tustall Maury. With his three children with Nelly and another ten with Ann, Major Hite expanded his manor house to include a 100 foot façade to the west side of the house. He would also expand his land holdings to a total of 7,500 acres and would have 103 slaves. He would open and operate a general store, grist mill, saw mill and distillery. The house remained in the Hite family until Ann’s death in 1851.

View from the front stairs
Belle Grove Plantation, Middletown, Virginia

After the Hite family, there were several owners. In 1907, the Brumback family purchased the plantation. In the 1920’s they would operate an inn. It was sold to Francis Welles Hunnewell of Wellesley, Massachusetts in 1929. He would carefully restore this manor house in the 1930s and 1940s and later bequeath the house and 100 acres along with a $100,000.00 endowment to the National Trust for Historic Preservation at his death in 1964. The plantation would open as a museum in 1967 and is still operating as a museum and working farm to this day.

Site of the Cedar Creek Battle (also known as the Battle of Belle Grove)
Front field of Belle Grove Plantation, Middletown, Virginia

According to Wikipedi, during the Civil War, this plantation was center stage for the Battle of Cedar Creek, also known as the Battle of Belle Grove. This battle was part of the Valley Campaigns of 1864. During this campaign, this area would exchange hands 70 times! In one day it would exchange hands 13 times! This area of the Shenandoah Valley was important to both sides as it would have given a backdoor to either Washington D.C. or Richmond. During this time, General Philip Sheridan had burned his way through the Shenandoah Valley, destroying crops, livestock and homes, much like that of General Sherman’s march through the South.

Lieutenant General Jubal Early

On October 19, 1864 Lieutenant General Jubal Early launched a surprise attack against the encamped army of Major General Philip Sheridan, just across the Cedar Creek, just northeast of Strasburg, Virginia. During this fight, seven Union infantry divisions were forced to fall back and lost numerous prisoners and cannons. Lieutenant General Early failed to continue his attach north of Middletown and Major General Sheridan, dramatically ridding to the battlefield from Winchester, Virginia was able to rally his troops to hold a new defensive line. A Union counterattack that afternoon route LieutenantGeneral Early’s army.

Major General Philip Sheridan

The Final Confederate invasion of the North was effectively ended. The Confederacy was never again able to threaten Washington D.C. through the Shenandoah Valley, nor protect one of its key economic bases in Virginia.

Our visit to this plantation was even more special as the plantation was also hosting a Family Reunion for the Hite Family. I had hoped to meet someone from the Hite-Madison side of the family, but I kept just missing them. Brett and I were able to meet several of the wonderful museum docents that we shared our Belle Grove with and compared notes on the families.

Since Brett and I had been there, they had added several new exhibits as well as carpeting in the halls. Believe it or not, but Major Hite had full rooms of carpet in the dining room and main parlor! Major Hite was great at keeping records and had saved the receipt for these purchases. The museum was able to trace the purchase back to the company in England, who are still in business. This company reproduced these carpets and they were installed as they would have been during Major Hite’s time at Belle Grove.

Some other points of interest at Belle Grove are outside. In the mortar on the back door wall, you can see the signatures of Civil War soldiers that were encamped on Belle Grove. There is also a beautiful kitchen garden just behind the house. Down past the barn, you can also see a field of stones. This is the slave cemetery of Belle Grove. Each grave is marked by a single stone with no names or dates.

Cannon Ball hit to the front wall
Belle Grove Plantation, Middletown, Virginia

View of the back of house from kitchen garden
Belle Grove Plantation, Middletown, Virginia

Slave Cemetery
Belle Grove Plantation, Middletown, Virginia

Stone marking the grave of a slave
Belle Grove Plantation, Middletown, Virginia

One last story of Belle Grove that is worth telling is the story of the death of Confederate Major General Stephen Dodson Ramseur. After being mortally wounded during the Battle of Cedar Creek, Major General Ramseur was carried from the field to Belle Grove. There his Union friends Major General George Armstrong Custer, Colonel Wesley Merritt and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander C. Pennington, all whom he had met at West Point sat with him through the night comforting him as he lay dying.

Major General Stephen Dodson Ramseur

Major General George Armstrong Custer

Colonel Wesley Merritt

Lieutenant Colonel Alexander C. Pennington

Once Brett and I finished walking around the house and remembering our first time at Belle Grove, we drove over to the Hite Family cemetery. I have to tell you this is not an easy find. It is located down a dirt road that runs along the river. If you didn’t know where to look, you would miss it. It is a small cemetery that has a flag pole in it center. Just as you walk in to cemetery through a modern chain link fence, you see a small grouping of tombstones to the back left. There towards the middle we found Nelly C. Hite. It first, I wondered why they had not placed her maiden name on the tombstone, but then I remembered that she had passed in 1803. Her brother would not rise to fame as the fourth president until 1809.

Story Continues Tomorrow

A Night in Winchester, Virginia

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Year of the Virginia Historic Homes | 24 Comments »

See Belle Grove Video!

Jul. 11th 2012

Check out our Belle Grove Plantation Video!

See what it looks like as you drive up to the Manor today. Watch for our resident osprey to fly over the house as you approach the front door. See the grounds as they are today, before we start the landscaping. Get a close look at the Summer Kitchen, Ice House and Smokehouse.

Experience Living History that spans 221 years!

Our Indiegogo campaign is 12 days from ending. We ask that you please consider making a small contribution to help us save our three dependencies.

What can $5.oo buy you today?

Depending on where you are, maybe a gallon of gas, or an expensive cup of coffee or even a $5 foot long sub!

But what would $5 alone do for our dependencies? Alone not much, but together with many it can:

  • Remove the remodel damage that the previous owner has done to the Summer Kitchen.
  • Repair the foundations, walls and floors.
  • Replace the walls of the Smokehouse that are now exposed and are only just framing.
  • Repair the chimney and replace the mortar between the bricks that has worn away
  • Uncover the Ice Pit in the Ice House
  • Can fund Archaeological Digs around the dependencies to ensure that past artifacts can be preserved
  • Create a learning environment that will teach children and adults about the lives of our Founding Fathers as well as those families and slaves that came after.
  • Will ensure that we won’t lose these important living examples of our American history.

Won’t you please go to our Indiegogo site and give just $5.oo (or more, if you can)? A $5.00 foot long sub once eaten is gone. But a contribution to our campaign will live on for generations. Please Help Us Save our History today!

Yesterday we had some technical issues with our Indiegogo site. We were informed that we are not able to offer lottery or raffle tickets on the campaign. We have had to adjust the perks to reflect this change. However, we will honor our perks and still offer the following if you chose to make a contribution.

  • $10.00:     Preserve History Supporter – A Personalized Thank you Card and 2 raffle tickets for the Free Weekend Giveaway
  • $25.00:     Plantation Supporter – A Personalized Thank you Card and 5 raffle tickets for the Free Weekend Giveaway.
  • $50.00:     James Madison Supporter – A Personalized Thank you Card and 10 raffle tickets for the Free Weekend Giveaway.
  • $100.00:   Colonial Supporter – A Personalized Thank you Card and 20 raffle tickets for the Free Weekend Giveaway.

For each level, you will also have your name, state or county, and your blog listed on our Patron page under your level of support.

Thank you for your support in Saving our Living History!

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Year of the Virginia Historic Homes | 10 Comments »

Uncle Jemmy’s cradle of change

Jul. 9th 2012

This is a great post from James Madison University about the two Belle Groves of Virginia and James Madison. What a great view of James Madison. It is worth a read!!

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Year of the Virginia Historic Homes | 4 Comments »

Reds are red, Dishes are blue, the Plantation is sweet and Babies make two!

Jul. 9th 2012

Rose Hill Plantation

Wow, what a weekend we have had! First let me give a little update on our progress. As of Friday, the property manager informed us that he had been guaranteed by the attorney that we would have our long overdue contract. Today is Sunday and we still don’t have it. Argh! Let’s hope we will get it on Monday. (fingers crossed) Also just a reminder, the plantation is not open to the public yet. If you happen to be in the area, please don’t drive back to the house. The caretaker and his family are there and we don’t want them over run with visitors… yet.

On Saturday, we had an appointment at 11am at the plantation with our landscapers, Arrowwood Landscape Design ( to discuss the grading of the property around the house, bluff and driveway. We are also working up the design for the landscaping around the property and putting in sidewalks. At the same time, we had the owners of Enon Hall in White Stone, Virginia ( ), Bill and Gay stop by and we showed them the plantation.

Gay’s Chow Chow Relish

Gay brought us a really nice surprise, homemade Chow Chow. If you aren’t familiar with Chow Chow, it is a Southern recipe for a type of relish. It can be made with green tomatoes, cucumbers or cabbage. Its main ingredient is hot peppers. The ingredients are all chopped up and pickled in vinegar.  It’s kind of a sweet and hot favor. I grew up eating it on collard greens, but you can add it to anything from greens to beans to hot dogs to anything you want. I don’t have a good recipe for it, but after tasting Gay’s Chow Chow, I might have to see if I can entice her to giving it up. (Thank you Gay!) Another good thing about their visit was that Bill has the name of a local contractor that works on restoring old dependencies and is going to get us his name. Our poor dependencies, they are in bad need of some attention.

Back wall of the Summer Kitchen
Please don’t forget to help us Save these priceless treasure by visiting our site at A small donation will help us restore and preserve the history at Belle Grove Plantation!

After our appointment and time we spent share Belle Grove with Bill and Gay, we headed over to another plantation on the other side of the Rappahannock River called Rose Hill Plantation. This plantation has also been called Gaymont Plantation. The house of this plantation was originally built in 1797 by John and Elizabeth Pratt Hipkins. You may remember their names from “A Father’s Love” post. John was who bought Belle Grove in 1790 from Captain Francis Conway. In 1791, he built the center section of our current home for his daughter, Fannie Hipkins Bernard and her husband William Bernard. You can see Rose Hill Plantation from the Riverside of our house on a hill across the river. I always say that when John placed his house there, it was to watch over Fannie.

When John passed away, the plantation passed to his grandson and namesake, John Hipkins Bernard and his wife, Jane Gay Robertson Bernard. When John Bernard took possession of Rose Hill, he renamed it Gaymont in honor of his wife, Jane. The recent owners decided to change the name back to the original when they purchased it. John Bernard and his wife, Jane, traveled quite a bit in their life time. When they visited Europe, they brought back furniture and items as well as ideas for their landscaping. Of the four children of Fannie and William Bernard, John Hipkins Bernard was the last surviving member.

Rose Hill Entry
For more picture of Rose Hill not shown in this posting, please visit our Facebook page at!/pages/Belle-Grove-Plantation-at-Port-Conway/

I was lucky a few weeks ago when I went to Ferry Farm to come across the entry to Rose Hill and found two workers there. They were able to give me the name of the caretaker, who I contacted about seeing Rose Hill. Douglas took time out of his busy Saturday to come and walk us around the plantation. I didn’t know at the time, but we couldn’t have had a better guide.

View from Rose Hill’s front yard

Rose Hill Main House

As we pulled up to Rose Hill’s main house, our jaws must have scraped the floor. The main house sits on a hill that overlooks the river valley. What a beautiful view it has! To the back of the house, there is a large, I mean really large English walking garden laid out.

Rose Hill – This is only half of the English walking garden! I couldn’t get the whole thing in the picture!

To the left of the house, you could see a small brick house, which we learned later was their Summer Kitchen. It later serviced as the caretaker’s house. Woodson Jones was a African-American caretaker of the Bernard’s. He lived in this one room house, which has only one fireplace and a small loft, with his wife and twelve, yes I said twelve, children. He and his wife lived there until his death in 1925 at the age of 72. He was so loved by the family that they allowed him to be buried in the family cemetery on the plantation. His grave site is in the cemetery, but is sectioned off by fence to keep it separated from the family.

Small House (was Summer Kitchen) that belonged to Woodson Jones

Douglas had be friends with the last owner of Rose Hill for many years. The last owner was James Patton. His wife, Frances Bernard Upton Patton was related to John Hipkins Bernard. James Patton took Rose Hill (then still called Gaymont) and work tirelessly to bring back all the family furniture and items that he could. He also worked to restore Rose Hill to what it was before. Rose Hill had burned in 1958, and all of the house that remained was the frame of the house. During the fire, the family had been able to get most of their belongs out before the fire destroyed them. By the time of his death, he had filled all but one bedroom with the Bernard belongs. He had also compiled the family history which is now preserved at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. James and Frances passed away with no children. James gifted Rose Hill to the Preservation Society of Virginia, who were to safe guard it and to sell it as one whole piece, furnishing and all. Today, you can see the fruits of James’s labor.

Rose Hill’s Fron Doors

As Douglas walked us through the house, he was able to tell us story about some of the furnishing and décor. In the dining room, the wallpaper was from another home. It was going to be trashed until James Patton saved it and brought it to Rose Hill. In the library, you can see all of John Hipkins Bernard’s books that he collected in his lifetime. The painting in the library is of the USS Virginia. It was purchased and brought to Rose Hill by the current owner.

Rose Hill’s Dining Room

Close up of the wallpaper

Rose Hill’s Main Hall going back to the Music Room
Does the arch look familiar? Our arch in our Main Hall is the same. Could they have had the same builders? Our house was built in 1791 and Rose Hill was built in 1797.

Rose Hill’s Music Room

Rose Hill’s Main Hall from Music Room to Front Door

Rose Hill’s Library. All these books belong to the Bernard Family

Rose Hill’s Library

Rose Hill’s Library – The painting is of the USS Virginia

Our first big surprise at Rose Hill came in the first bedroom. There we saw the painting of Sarah “Sallie” Bernard Lightfoot. I have a copy of that painting, but never knew where the painting was. You may remember that I also have copies of Fannie Hipkins Bernard, William Bernard II, his wife Sarah Dykes Bernard and Jane Gay Robertson Bernard.

Rose Hill – Original Painting of Sarah “Sallie” Bernard Lightfoot, daughter of Fannie Hipkins Bernard and William Bernard. She was born at her grandparent’s home before moving to Belle Grove with her mother and father in 1791.

Our next big surprise came upstairs in the last bedroom. There on the wall, I saw two prints of a man and woman. As soon as I saw the woman, I knew it was Jane Gay Bernard from her other painting I have. But I wasn’t sure who the man was. I told Brett; wouldn’t it be so cool if it is John Hipkins Bernard? I have long searched for his picture, but have never been able to find one. This is really unusual since he was such a well-traveled and educated man. Douglas told us to look on the back of the print, since he knew James Patton was good about noting who painting were. There we saw it was indeed John Hipkins Bernard! Our long lost picture! I was so excited!

Rose Hill – John Hipkins Bernard, son of Fannie Hipkins Bernard and William Bernard. John was born at Belle Grove Plantation and died at Rose Hill Plantation.

Rose Hill – Jane Gay Robertson Bernard, wife of John Hipkins Bernard. Rose Hill was renamed in her honor as Gaymont by her husband.

After our tour the house and small brick house to the side, we walked back to the front of the house. I took the steps, made of four mill wheels, which Douglas said were original to the plantation, down to the lower terrace to take some pictures of the house. As I started back to the steps, I looked down and there at my feet was a plate shard! It was larger than the ones I had found at Belle Grove and from the markings looked like a Flow Blue plate or saucer. I walked back up to Brett and Douglas and showed them. When I went to hand it to Douglas, he told me to keep it! I said I couldn’t because it belonged to this plantation. But he told me that the owners wouldn’t mind if I took it with me. I was so excited! If it dates to the time I am thinking, it could have belong to the daughter of John Hipkins Bernard!

Rose Hill – Caretaker’s home and former Summer Kitchen

Rose Hill – Mill Wheel Steps

Rose Hill – Front view from second terrrace

Rose Hill – Plate Shard found. The markings look like Flow Blue.

From there we walked down the drive to a grove of large Tulip Poplar Trees that from their looks were ancient old soldiers that have been watching over this plantation for years! I almost tripped and fell as I walked under them, looking up through their out reached “arms”. It was so breath taking! As we passed through them, Douglas told us that there are pictures of Civil War soldiers sitting under them eating their meals.

Rose Hill – Tulip Poplar Tree

After we passed through the trees, we head down a slope into a wooded area. Here we came to the family cemetery. As we walked through, I saw names like Bernard, Lightfoot and Robb. I knew these names from my research of Belle Grove. The first person we came across that I knew was France Bernard Upton Patton. She was James Patton’s wife. Then we saw James beside her. We also saw the fenced off area with Woodson Jones. Then we saw them, John Hipkins Bernard and his wife Jane Gay Robertson Bernard! I just knew they were here! I had known that John Hipkins, his wife Elizabeth Pratt Hipkins, France Hipkins Bernard, William Bernard II, Eliza Bernard (Fannie’s youngest daughter) and five of William Bernard II’s infant children were buried at Belle Grove. But we had never known where John Bernard and his wife Jane were.

Rose Hill Cemetery

Rose Hill Cemetery – John Hipkins Bernard

Rose Hill Cemetery – Jane Gay Robertson Bernard

As we drove out, my heart was so full. It was such a great day for us. The house give us some inspiration on how to decorate our plantation and it filled in holes of my research to help us come closer to knowing these families that curved out Belle Grove. We could have been more appreciative of the time Douglas gave us!

Once we left Rose Hill and grabbed some lunch in King George, we had some time to kill as we waited for our son and his girlfriend to arrive. Our son, Tyler wanted his girlfriend, Leah to see our plantation. So with an hour or so to kill, I dropped Brett off at Belle Grove and yes, headed out to a new antique store! It’s call A Unique House and it is located in King George, Virginia.

It is an antique mall with lots of things to see. The most important thing was the level of service I got at this store! Most antique malls, you just walk around and never see anyone. But the owner came up as I was browsing and asked if there was anything I needed. I thanked him and said no. He then asked me if I would like something cold to drink. With it being 100 plus outside, I have to say I was a little thrust. He ran and got me a bottle of water, for free, that had been allowed to ice up inside! What a welcome that was! And what a surprise at the customer service level! I did get to look for about an hour and Score! I found a tea pot, ten butter pats and four tea cups! What else could have made this day more perfect?

Butter Pat Plates

Belle Grove – Our son Tyler and his girlfriend Leah on the Plantation side front portico

When I got back to the house, we walked the kids through the house and grounds. While we were up on the Riverside balcony, I was able to capture some pictures and a video of our new babies! Yes, James and Dolley our resident ospreys have two babies. They are big enough now to peak out of the nest and be seen. Earlier in the day, while the landscapers and Bill and Gay were at the plantation, we saw two eagles come in towards the nest. It was a tense time as Dolley flew over and sat on the nest and James challenged the eagles. Finally James was able to lead the eagles away from the nest and all were safe.

Belle Grove – Our baby ospreys

Belle Grove – Our baby osprey
Check out the video of the babies on our Facebook page!

After we finished at the plantation, we head with the kids over to Port Royal for some dinner. We have found one of the best new restaurants in the area! It’s called River Haven.!/RiverHavenVA

River Haven – Steve and Dave, owners

River Haven – Port Royal, Virginia

It just opened in March and we have had several opportunities to eat there. Dave and Steve, the owners, were two chefs from Fredericksburg that decided to open this place. Their food is to die for! For dinner I had the Supreme Macaroni and Cheese, made with three cheese, penne pasta, and applewood bacon and bread crumbs. Brett had a Crab Melt on an open face English muffin and fries. Tyler had Stuffed Flounder with Scalloped Potatoes and Cheese. Leah had Pull Pork BBQ with Baked Beans and Cole Slaw.

River Haven – Port Royal, Virginia – Tyler’s Stuffed Flounder and two side orders of Scallop Cheese Potatoes

River Haven – Port Royal, Virginia – Brett’s Crab Melt and Fries

River Haven – Port Royal, Virginia – Leah’s Pulled Pork BBQ, Baked Bean, Fries and Cole Slaw

River Haven – Port Royal, Virginia – My Supreme Mac and Cheese. You can’t tell it, but this bowl is huge!

And you couldn’t beat the view of the Rappahannock River and our plantation just across the way! We have jokingly considered a ferry that travels to and from our places so they can deliver their food for us!

River Haven – Port Royal, Virginia – Just to the left of the window, you can see a little of Belle Grove Plantation.

As we drove home, hearts and stomachs filled, I just couldn’t image any better day than this. That was until we got up the next day and decided to go look at antique furniture in Gloucester, Virginia and ended up somewhere new.

More tomorrow on our Sunday surprise!

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Year of the Virginia Historic Homes | 41 Comments »

Happy Independence Day!

Jul. 5th 2012

Happy Independence Day!

This morning when I woke up, Brett informed me that someone on our Belle Grove Plantation Facebook page had sent us a message. He is from White Stone, Virginia, which is about one and a half hours from Belle Grove. Since 1999 their site has chronicled the restoration of 18th century Enon Hall in Lancaster County, Virginia by a family descended from its original residents.

Thank you to Enon Hall for reminding us about the 4th of July celebration in Port Royal!

In his message, he mention that he and his family were heading to Port Royal, Virginia for their annual 4th of July Celebration. I had remembered reading about this in the Port Royal Historic Society Newsletter when I first started researching Belle Grove. So true to form, I jumped up, got dressed and headed to Port Royal. Brett stayed behind to get dinner ready when I returned around 6pm. He is such a great husband.

Civil War photo of the Evacuation of Port Royal. The house on the other side of the bank is Walsingham Plantation

You may remember Port Royal, Virginia from our hints at the beginning of our blog. Port Royal is located across the Rappahannock River from Port Conway and Belle Grove Plantation and is located in Caroline County.

According to Wikipedia:
“Port Royal is one of the area’s more historic towns. It was first established in 1652 as a port on a navigable portion of the Rappahannock River during an era when waterways were the major method of transportation of people and property in the British Colony of Virginia. It was an important point for export of tobacco, Virginia’s cash crop.

Local tradition holds that Port Royal was named after the Roy family. Dorothy Roy and her husband John owned a warehouse chartered by the crown, a ferry service across the Rappahannock River to King George County and a tavern. In the 21st century, the chimneys of the Roy house are preserved landmarks in the town.

Port Royal was incorporated as a town in 1744. The “town green”, upon which stands today the Town Hall and the firehouse, was forever reserved “for public and civic use”. Shipping of property from the port began to decline after completion of railroads which began in Virginia in the 1830s. The last scheduled passenger ship service ended in 1932, supplanted by highways. However, Port Royal was served by the new highways which became U.S. Route 17 and U.S. Route 301, with their crossroads at Port Royal.

Probably Port Royal’s most notable claim to fame is that John Wilkes Booth was killed about two miles outside town by Sgt. Boston Corbett, part of a contingent of federal troops, at the now obsolete Garrett farmstead (look for prominent markers along northbound Rt. 301) on April 26, 1865 after Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln on the night of April 14, 1865 in Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC.”You

You can also see more history on Port Royal at their website:

The Port Royal Annual 4th of July Celebration was free to the public. This festival was a celebration with period dress from Colonial to Civil War periods. They had patriotic music and speeches and 18th century dancing. There was even a horse drawn carriage for you to tour Historic Port Royal in. As you tour the town, you can see these beautiful historic homes, which have dated sign for you in front.

The Lekie House 1775

The Pearson House 1775

The Riverview House 1846

The Tavern 1750

The Timberlake 1750

The Townfield House 1745

The Brockenbrough date unknown some time before 1765

St Peter’s Church 1835

St Peter’s Church 1835 – Interior

St Peter’s Church 1835 – Interior

St Peter’s Church 1835 – Interior

I meet some really wonderful people who shared their love of history with me. I also met the mayor of Port Royal, Mrs. Nancy Long, who welcomed me to the area and told me that they were excited that we were opening Belle Grove. Brett and I are looking forward to becoming part of this celebration next year!

The Rappahanock Colonial Hertage Society –

The Rappahanock Colonial Hertage Society –

Westmoreland Long Hunters

Caroline County Minute Men

Time Traveler

13th Virginia Infantry Co A Montpelier Guard –

13th Virginia Infantry Co A Montpelier Guard 5 –

23rd Regiment USCT –

23rd US Colored Troops – and 54th Mass Volunteer Infantry Reg Co B –

Hundley Carriages, Inc –

Port Royal Mayor Nancy Long

Afterwards, I made a quick stop at Belle Grove, to see what damage we might have had from the recent storms. Happily I can report that Belle Grove is safe and sound. Two hundred twenty-one years, and she is still standing strong. We did lose a branch from one of our older trees at the front entry. This tree has had damage from a lightening strike as well, so I am sure that had something to do with the branch breaking off. We also lost one of the Cypress trees that lines the front drive in. The caretaker had already removed it, but you can see the way the wind just twisted this tree off. Wow.

Belle Grove Plantation – Tree at the front entry gate

Belle Grove Plantation – Tree along the front drive

I am also happy to report that James and Dolley’s nest on top of the chimney is still there. With the high winds, I expected it to have been blown away. I am also happy to report that both James and Dolley were at the nest. We are glad to see James back. He had us worried that something had happened to him since we had not seen him the last several times we were at the house. The caretaker also told us that the eagles have been flying around a good bit lately. Could be that they are looking to pick off James and Dolley’s nest.

Belle Grove Plantation – Dolley on her nest

On my way home, as I rode into Tappahannock, I noticed an antique store that was opened. So you guessed it, I had to stop. And score! I found two more wonderful tea plates to go with my tea cups and saucers.

A to Z Antiques – Tappahannock VA

A to Z Antiques – Tappahannock VA

I arrived back home, just in time as the food was coming off the grill and got to spend some family time with our son, his girlfriend and my father. I have to say for a Wednesday, it was a really good day!

Brett and Hurley

Brett, and I and even Hurley want to wish each of you’re a wonderful 4th of July. Next year, who knows, we might have to have our own cookout at Belle Grove Plantation!

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

Family Feud

Jun. 27th 2012

Wikipedi Hamilton Burr Duel

There is one more story I want to tell you about before we move on to a new family at Belle Grove. This story involves Francis Fitzhugh Conway, son of Captain Francis Conway, founder of Port Conway and his wife Elizabeth Fitzhugh Conway. This story takes place several years after the Conway’s had already sold the plantation to the Hipkins-Bernard family in 1791.

After Captain Francis sold Belle Grove, he and his family moved to a plantation in Caroline County called Mount Scion. This plantation had been in his family for some years, have been built by his father, Francis Conway on a piece of land that was part of a land grant to his grandfather, Edwin Conway. In 1794, Captain Francis Conway passed away. Elizabeth Fitzhugh Conway would remarry to Colonel James Taybil, date unknown.

Elizabeth Fitzhugh Conway

Another person involved in this story is William Thornton. William was a cousin of Francis Fitzhugh Conway. Their connection was through Francis Thornton, who married Alice Savage and was the second owner of Belle Grove. William’s Great-Great Grandfather, Rowland Thornton Sr. was Francis Thornton’s brother. Francis Thornton was Francis Fitzhugh Conway’s Great-Great Grandfather.

The incident in question was a duel between cousins. This form of dueling started in Early Modern Europe. It general started with an offense occurring to which the offended would demand “satisfaction” from the person who had caused the offense. The person who was offended would signal his displeasure with an insulting gesture such as throwing a glove down before the other person. This is where the phrase “throwing down the gauntlet” come from.

The two parties would then select a second to represent them and a field of honor would be determined. The weapon would then be selected. The seconds would later check the weapons before the duel and then make sure the rules were followed. The offended would then select the conclusion of the duel. This could be one of the following out comes:

  • To first blood, which means the duel would end as soon as someone was wounded, even if the wound was minor
  • Physically disabled opponent
  • To the death

In the case of pistols being used as a weapon, there would be one round of shots fired. If neither were hit, the challenger would have the right to stop the duel or to continue until one or both parties were wounded. It was considered barbaric to shoot more than three times so few duels ever went beyond that.

The story of Francis Fitzhugh Conway and William Thornton occurred in December of 1803. The offense involved the affections of another cousin. Now I have read this story and the name of the cousin has been different in a few of them. The first story I read states the name of the cousin was Lucie Madison. The other name I saw as Nellie Madison. In doing some research, I have concluded that Lucie was far too young to have been the object of affection. At the time of the incident, Francis was 31 years old, William was 25 years old and Lucie would have been only 3 years old. On the other hand, Nellie Madison would have been 19 years old and a more appropriate age. Nellie Madison was the daughter of James Madison’s brother, Ambrose Madison, making her James Madison’s niece and cousin of both Francis and William.

National Park Service – Chatham Manor

The offense occurred in Fredericksburg, Virginia at Chatham Manor. Nelly was visiting the manor for Christmas and there must have been a Christmas party that both gentlemen were invited to. Both gentlemen had arrive on horseback and had had their horses stabled. To impress Nellie, Francis had purchased a new bridle (some stories say saddle) and had planned to unveil it that evening to Nellie. Francis had made the mistake though of boasting about the purchase before hand to which William heard.

When it came time for the gentlemen to leave, the horses were brought out. But to Francis’s surprise, the groomsman had switched the bridles. William’s horse had the new bridle on and it made a great impression on Nellie. Francis quickly accused William of the deed stating that he had bribed the groomsman to make the switch. William’s denials only aggravated the disagreement. Feeling offended, Francis challenged William to a duel. The duel was settled to occur at Alum Spring with pistols. John Spotwood Wellford, William’s half brother acted as his second. It is not known who acted as Francis’s. – Alum Springs Duel Path

The site they chose is a narrow pathway between a rock cliff and a pond. There was only one round of shots fired. Both shoots found their mark. Both gentlemen were wounded in the lower abdomen.The pistols belonged to Robert Patton, who after the duel threw them into the river opposite of the old mill. William was able to make it back to Fredericksburg to his stepfather Dr. Robert Wellford’s home. In fact, one of the witnesses stated that William did not even know he was wounded until he reached home and found blood in his boots. It is unsure if Francis died on the spot or if he was taken back to town and died. William lingered for two days and then died. According to family tradition, William and Francis both dead from their wounds the same hour. It is also said by family tradition that William had a miniature of Nellie Madison on him at the time of his death.

It is said that Nelly would never speak of the incident with anyone as would anyone connected with her. Her feelings for either of the gentlemen were never known. Nelly would later marry Dr. John Willis.

Family tradition says that Elizabeth Fitzhugh Conway had a premonition of the death of her son. She woke and told of a dream of a man riding up on a white horse to give her the news of her son’s death. Shortly after she walked to the window to see the messager riding up. She fainted at the window.

William Thornton was buried on Willis Hill, but sadly no markers can be found for him. Mary Thornton, sister of William, cut a lock of William’s hair and placed it in a gold locket with the inscription “William Thornton, born 24 September 1778, died 27 December 1803. You that have lost a Brother pity me”. It is thought that Francis was laid to rest with his father in the family cemetery on Mount Scion.

A few days later the Virginia Express Newspaper in Fredericksburg, Virignia ran this article:

“Thursday, December 29, 1803

With infinite regret, we communicate to the public, an event, the most distressing in its nature, and fatal in its consequences of any within the compass of our recollection. On Monday last Mr. William Thorton and Mr. Francis Conway met, in consequence of a previous misunderstanding, in the neighborhood of this town, and sorry are we to announce that the event proved fatal to both parties. By their untimely fate two weeping Mothers are left to deplore the loss of two dutiful sons, their children two affectionate brothers, and society two most promising citizens. The surviving relations are in a situation easier to be imaged than described. We sincerely regret the frequency of a custom so prevalent in our country, and hope the melancholy catastrophe, here related, will prevent others from endangering their own lives, or embittering the days of their surviving relations.”

Two months later the Virginia Hearld newpaper carried a notice that a brace of brass-barreled pistols were found near Alum Spring. It was undetermined if they belonged to Francis and William or could have belonged to another duel that occurred there.

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Year of the Virginia Historic Homes | 20 Comments »