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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Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Darnell History | 11 Comments »

A Night to Remember

Feb. 13th 2013

After so many days, months, even years to get to this point, going into the Planning Commission Public Hearing, we still felt the passion we had from the first day we saw Belle Grove. We arrived about 30 minutes early to prepare ourselves.

As we stood in the hall outside the board room, we watched as people started to arrive. One of the first was Jean, President of the King George Historic Society. We had met her and her husband early on in the process. She and the King George Historic Society have been wonderful sources of information for the history of Belle Grove. They also have checked in with us throughout to show their support for us. We chatted with her until the meet going on before ours ended just before 7pm.

As we waited with Jean, a gentleman exited the board room and stopped to speak to Jean. We weren’t introduced, but later Brett told me it was one of the Board of Supervisors members. What caught my ear about this conversation was a comment he said about approving Belle Grove as a Bed and Breakfast. He said, “There are pros and cons, just like any other.” From all those we have spoken with from the local area, we had not really heard any negative comments towards doing it. And while this really isn’t a negative comment, it brought the thought into my mind that there could be someone that didn’t like the idea. And that thought scared me to the bone.

We made our way into the room. At the front was a panel with board members seated. To the right of the panel was a small table with two ladies. One of the two was Heather, a staff member of the Zoning Department of King George. We had met Heather during our meeting at Belle Grove just weeks earlier. When I looked over at her, she gave me a warm smile and waved. That gave me some peace in knowing that there was someone in the room I knew approved. And it was nice to see a smiling face.

People filtered in and took their seats. The property manager for the owner arrived and sat behind us. All told there were about ten to fifteen people in the audience of the board room. I knew at least five of them by name. So that left another five to ten that I didn’t know; ones I didn’t know how they were going to lean. Worry creped in again.

Just as we got ready to go, in came the Zoning Director, Jack. Brett had been working with Jack to get all the required items done and on paper before this meeting. If it hadn’t been for Jack’s continued help and source of endless answers to our many questions, I don’t think we would have gotten this done so fast. Jack came in and turned on his projector and took his seat at the table before the panel. In the back of my mind as Jack sat down, I thought of how people go before Congress to answer questions about one thing or another. I thought of the “grilling” that the members of Congress are known to give to individuals before them and panic slipped in. Would they “grill” us?

The Chairman of the Board called the meeting to order. I stopped breathing. My first thought was, “This is either going to be the best meeting ever or its going to end my dream.” The Chairman called on one of the board members to lead us in the pledge of allegiance. After the pledge, the Chairman called on another board member to lead us in the invocation. We took our seats and it began.

The Chairman went through the required reading of past meetings minutes over December and January and held the vote to approve the minutes. During this time, I started watching each member. I wanted to watch their reactions to hopefully gage their feelings later. After the approval of the previous minutes, they move to our case.

Jack opened our case by explaining what we were there for. First he told how our plantation is zoned as “A1”, which mean agricultural. Our application is asking for a Special Exception to use the plantation as a Bed and Breakfast. He also explained that we could seek either a Bed and Breakfast Exception or a Bed and Breakfast Inn Exception. To get just the Bed and Breakfast Exception would mean we would run the Bed and Breakfast with overnight guests only. The Bed and Breakfast Inn Exception would allow us to do the Bed and Breakfast with overnight guests and have catered events such as weddings. So of course we are seeking the latter.

Jack also explained that we were seeking approval to use gravel on the driveway and parking areas instead of asphalt. He told the board that we had asked for this special exception in order to maintain the historic integrate of the property. He showed what County Ordinances allowed us to ask for both exceptions.

As Jack was going through his explanations and showing different slides, I again found myself watching the board members out of the corner of my eye. I didn’t want them to see me looking them over so I tried to watch the slides as Jack spoke. Each time a picture of Belle Grove would come up, I felt a smile come over my face and the thought, “Look how beautiful.” would creep into my mind. It just gave me chills seeing them up on the screen. As for the members, I had a hard time “reading” them. No one gave me an approving look nor did they show their feeling of displeasure. My thought was, “This is going to be a hard night.”

Once Jack finished with his presentation, board members asked several questions. The first question was about the gravel. One member asked if using pavers instead of gravel would be better. For one the pavers would keep us from having to create a storm run-off area. Jack explained that we could use pavers or gravel, but due to cost he felt we had selected gravel. He also explained that if we wished to change it to pavers we could without having to make any changes to the plan or having to come back in front of the board for approval. Brett and I would later talk about this possible change. We are going to consult with our landscaping contractor, Arrowood Designs of Fredericksburg and Fredericksburg Paving to see which would be more cost effective. If we have to create storm run-off and have to pay an engineer to design it, the cost may come close to just using pavers. And we also thought that if we used pavers instead of gravel, later if we decided to move the parking, we could just remove the pavers and repurpose them somewhere else.

The next question was around what would happen to the other acres that we weren’t using. The member that asked this question looked as if he wasn’t leaning our way or at least that what I “read” in his look as he asked about the acres. Jack explained that we didn’t know what the corporation was going to do with the other acres and that it had no bearing on this application. I started to worry more. Was there going to be someone that would disapprove this application because of the other acres not being placed in historic easement?

After that, Jack took his seat with no more questions from the board. The Chairman then called Brett to speak for the applicants and owners. My heart jumped. Brett confidently stood up and approached the stand. He first introduced us to the members and told a little about our background. How we had been married for 26 years and had a daughter, who was 24 years and a son, who was 21 years and a dog named Hurley who was 8 years. We got a snicker or two from that one. Brett told of our military background, he being a retired Naval Corpsman and my being in the Marine Corps. He talked about our current positions and about my past culinary positions. He spoke about my catering business that we had several years ago with the kids were still very young.

Then Brett explained how we decided five years ago to start actively looking for a home to start a bed and breakfast. He explained how we had always wanted to open one and how we knew it would have to be historically significant. He told how we came across the first Belle Grove in Middletown, Virginia, the home of Isaac and Nelly Madison Hite, sister of James Madison. How we later visited Montpelier, James Madison’s home and fell in love with the Madison History. How we came across an ad on the internet for our Belle Grove and saw it for the first time two days later. He told of our endless hours of research into the history of Belle Grove using the internet and visiting the Virginia Historic Society, The Library of Virginia, the Swem Library at the College of William and Mary and even finding information at the Seaver Center at the Natural Museum in Los Angeles County, California.

He told how through our blog we had been able to connect to past families that lived at Belle Grove and retrieved history that could have been lost to time. He told how we had started our blog in May, 2011 and that we were just sly of 100,000 hits in just nine months, been viewed in 146 countries and have around 3800 followers. He told how we had a Facebook Fan Page that at that time had 906 Likes. He told of our presents on Pinterest, Twitter and Instagram. He explained how we connected with area historic sites such as Montpelier, The James Madison Museum and Stratford Hall and set up to cross promote each other. How we were added as a Virginia Historic Home in the Governor of Virginia’s “Year of the Virginia Historical Homes” Campaign. How we have been reaching out to local farmers and vineyards to serve local Virginia products at Belle Grove.

As Brett finished up, I looked over the members of the board. I looked for expressions of emotion and got none. Brett did a great job. I was so proud of him. He took his seat and the Chairman opened the floor for comments from the audience. I held my breath again.

First up was a gentleman named Jim from Port Royal, Virginia, which is just across the river from Belle Grove. We met Jim first on Facebook and then at a local event. We invited him and his wife to come to the plantation to tour it several months ago. As he spoke, he told the board that he was a member of the Board of Supervisors for Port Royal and there as a representative of Port Royal. He talked about how important it was that Belle Grove be opened and occupied instead of standing empty as it has been since 1987. He told how he felt that we would be good stewards of the property and how it would be a benefit for King George County as well as Port Royal.

The next up was a gentleman named Ed from King George, Virginia. We had met Ed through the King George Historic Society and had also given him and his wife a tour of Belle Grove several months ago. Ed is a former Naval Officer and served on the James Madison submarine. He spoke about the importance of Belle Grove and how this would be a benefit to the local community. He also said, “This couple is the embodiment of the Navy-Marine Corps team. This couple has attacked this project with the strategic planning of an amphibious assault.” I have to say that was our favorite comment of the night.

The next up was a gentleman from a plantation next door to Belle Grove named Andrew. We met him and his wife early on as we research the area. They are wonderful people and even gave us a tour of their plantation home. He spoke about the fear they have had with other possible projects for Belle Grove. But through this, they felt that Belle Grove would be best used.

The next up was Jean, the President of the King George Historic Society. She talked about the historic importance of Belle Grove and through the Bed and Breakfast how it would be a benefit to the community.

She was followed by three more individuals. Each spoke of the same historic importance of Belle Grove and how the use as a bed and breakfast would benefit the community. One was even from the Northern Neck Tourism Department.

After they spoke, the Chairman called for any more comments. When no one came forward, he closed the floor. I could feel my muscles tensing, bracing for the impact from the board. The Chairman opened the board for comment. The first to speak was a gentleman I had been keeping my eye on all night. Of all of them, he looked like he might not like the idea. He was also the one that was concern about the rest of the acres. At first he reminded the board of the misgivings he had had with the last project that the owner had presented, one that had be rejected by the Planning Commission. But then he said that this project was different. He felt that this project was a slam dunk. He even started to give a motion to accept the applications until the Chairman stopped him to allow others to speak.

There was one other member that spoke. He too agreed that it was a slam dunk and thought it would be a benefit to the area. With that the Chairman closed the comments. Then the first gentleman put a motion on the floor to accept the two applications. The second gentleman seconded the motion. With that the Chairman put the motion to a vote.

The vote was unanimous….

The Motion was passed to approve the applications to be moved forward to the Board of Supervisors for approval.

The meeting with the Board of Supervisors will be on March 19, 2013.

If approved, we will have our Zoning Permit. At that point, we will get our business license and could start having guest the next day. Of course we can’t do that because, well, we don’t want our guest sleeping on the floor or eating on paper plates! We have to get the mansion filled and get the ground started. Once we have the parking and driveways complete, we have to have one on site approval and the Zoning process will be complete. At least until we want to expand!

I have to say when the vote came and we were approved, I fought back tears of joy. How far we have come! I can’t tell you how many “pot holes” we have encountered on this journey; ones that would have easily stopped us. But it has been through support of all our many blog and Facebook friends, our families, our friends in Chesapeake, King George, Fredericksburg and other parts of Virginia that has helped us around those “pot holes” and on to smoother road. We thank each of you with all our hearts.

We have taken the path less traveled and have blazed a path that has led us here. Our strength has come from those that loved and cared for us. Our determination from those that came before us. And our passion that came from the One and Only.

Thank you!

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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

Christmas Dinner Made Easy

Dec. 26th 2012
Hurley watching a Christmas Show

Hurley watching a Christmas Show

With the loss of my mother last month, the one holiday I was dreading most was Christmas. Being that the emotions were still really fresh, I knew that it was going to be really hard getting through it without a lot of tears. So I asked my family if they would help me out this year by not making Christmas a big holiday as we always do. All I can say is I love my family. They sacrificed the decorations, the Christmas cards and the huge meal I always cook each year to help me make it through without being a basket case.

I can’t say I didn’t cry this Christmas Season. One that caught me off guard was when we were visiting the BBQ Exchange in Gordonsville for lunch just before we went to Montpelier for the Candle Light Tour. The weekend had been really nice. It was the first weekend we had gone away since my mother’s death and I was doing pretty well. As we sat talking and enjoying our meal, we could hear Christmas songs in the restaurant. All of a sudden the song, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” came on. I fought really hard. I tried to ignore it. I tried to focus on something funny at the table. I even looked around to see if I could focus on someone else almost in an attempt to draw a smile out of myself. But it wasn’t going to happen. Before I could stop it, tears started flowing. I allowed them to and tried to do it in a way that no one would notice. A few minutes later, Brett looked up and realized that I was crying. It only took a second I think for him to understand why. As I wiped the tears away, I tried to smile and said that I was sorry, the song just got me. The song ended and I was okay again.

But since we didn’t have the huge meal of years past, I wanted to do something special for my family who give up so much for me. So I made reservation at one of our high end restaurants in Virginia Beach. At first, I wanted to go to Ruth’s Chris Steak House, but I was a little late in getting the reservation. So instead we decided to go to McCormick and Schmicks. It was really a wonderful time. We brought my father and my son’s girlfriend along for the evening. If you haven’t tried it, you need to go. The food was out of this world.

But don’t worry, by next Christmas we will be in the plantation and will have lots of wonderful decorations and celebrations. New Years is coming and I have a traditional New Year’s dinner planned at home! It’s a new year and a new chapter that we will be starting soon.

McCormick and SchmickVirginia Beach, Virginia

McCormick and Schmick
Virginia Beach, Virginia

McCormick and SchmickBar

McCormick and Schmick

McCormick and SchmickDining Room

McCormick and Schmick
Dining Room

Meet the Family

Meet the Family

Pawpaw and Tyler

Pawpaw and Tyler

Tyler and Leah, his girlfriend

Tyler and Leah, his girlfriend

Alexa and Brett

Alexa and Brett

Brett and Michelle

Brett and Michelle


If  you are hungry, don’t go any further! 

You have been warned! 


Shrimp KissesShrimp stuffed with Pepper Jack Cheese and wrapped in Bacon. It is served on a bed of corn with red and green peppers and a touch of cayenne pepper.

Shrimp Kisses
Shrimp stuffed with Pepper Jack Cheese and wrapped in Bacon. It is served on a bed of corn with red and green peppers and a touch of cayenne pepper.

Crab Soup

Crab Soup

Chicken and Wild Mushroom Cajun Pasta

Chicken and Wild Mushroom Cajun Pasta

Shrimp and Andouille Macaroni and Cheese

Shrimp and Andouille Macaroni and Cheese

Parmesan Encrusted Chicken with Lemon Butter and Capers. Served with Linguine Alfredo and Roasted, Marinated Grape Tomatoes

Parmesan Encrusted Chicken with Lemon Butter and Capers. Served with Linguine Alfredo and Roasted, Marinated Grape Tomatoes

Ultimate Seafood Platter with Shrimp, Scallops, Salmon. Served with Mash Potatoes and Vegetables.

Ultimate Seafood Platter
with Shrimp, Scallops, Salmon and Stuffed Shrimp. Served with Mash Potatoes and Vegetables.

Stuffed ShrimpServed with Mash Potatoes and Vegetables.

Stuffed Shrimp
Served with Mash Potatoes and Vegetables.

See More Food Pictures on our Facebook Page!

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Don’t forget to keep your favorite Cookie Recipe close at hand!

A big announcement coming soon!

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Darnell History | 87 Comments »

Final Update

Nov. 20th 2012

My mother peacefully passed away this morning at 5am.

She was surrounded by love and family.

Rebecca Boykin
1946- 2012

We have finalized the funeral for Monday.

I have been asked to give the eulogy.

If you would like to see a copy of her obituary, you may view it on the funeral home’s website site:

This pass week has been one of the most difficult, yet most beautiful times I have ever had. To be given the chance to spend nine days with her, to make peace with her and to help her in her final hours was something I would never trade with anyone. I held her hand, talked her through moments of distress, washed and brushed her hair and cared for her as she moved through the process of dying.

Soon we will restart our lives, return to the routines and goals we had laid before us. As we work towards our dream of opening Belle Grove Plantation, I know that my mother will be with me and will be proud of what we are doing. She never had a chance to see it in person, but knew how much passion we had for it and “saw” it through our eyes.

To every one of you who sent me love, support, hugs, prayers and words of encouragements, I would like to express my deepest gratitude to each of you. Your words helped me through one of the most difficult times in my life. I came to lean on them as I sit in my mother’s room hour after hour. Thank you just doesn’t seem enough. But Thank you from the deepest part of my heart.

To my sisters Shay and Catherine – I love you both so much. Together we have come through this past week. Thank you for being my shoulder to cry on, my guardian to tell me to eat and go to sleep. I am so blessed to have each of you in my life.

To my brother Patrick and brother-in-law Andrew- I love you both. Through your support, love and endless hugs, we have been able to get through this last week. I am so thankful for you both!

To my daughter Alexa and son Tyler – I love you both. In losing my mother and your grandmother, I now cherish our time together. It goes oh so fast.

To my husband Brett – I love you with everything that I am. You have been there to pick up the slack and to be my rock. You have carried on with what needed to be done with our business and home and I thank you for it with all of my heart.

To my mother – I love you and miss you so much. It is hard to think that I won’t hear your voice or feel your hugs again. But you have made me strong and I will go on.

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Year of the Virginia Historic Homes | 234 Comments »