The plantation is revealed!

Jun. 14th 2012

Welcome to Belle Grove Plantation Bed and Breakfast!

Belle Grove Plantation is located in Port Conway, Virginia, across the Rappahannock River from Historic Port Royal, Virginia. Belle Grove Plantation is one of many historic plantations located in King George County.

Belle Grove Plantation started as a part of a 5000 acre land grant given to Thomas Chetwood and John Prossor by the governor of Virginia, William Berkley in 1668. This was compensation for bringing 162 people from England to help expand the colonies in the New World. In 1670, 1000 acres was sold by John Prossor to Anthony Savage and his wife, Alice Stafford Savage. At the death of Anthony Savage, 700 acres would pass to his son-in-law, Frances Thornton and 300 was passed to Frances’s daughter, Margaret to help her establish her own farm with his first cousin, William Strother, II from the plantation next door. This family would hold that 700 acre plantation for 150 years and would become the Conway Family. The plantation received its official name from John Moore, second husband of Rebecca Catlett Conway Moore.

Belle Grove – River side view

On January 9, 1731, Eleanor Rose Conway was born to Francis Conway I and Rebecca Catlett Conway on this plantation. She would grow up on the plantation and loved it dearly. On September 15, 1749, she would marry James Madison Sr. of Orange County, Virginia. Shortly before giving birth to her first child, Nellie Madison, as she was called, traveled back to Belle Grove Plantation to be with her mother for the birth. On March 16, 1751, she gave birth to James Madison. “Jemmy” as he was later called, would grow up to become the fourth President of the United States and is known as the Father of the Constitution.

Belle Grove – River side view

In 1783, Captain Francis Conway III set aside 10 acres of land from Belle Grove to lay out what would become Port Conway. In 1784, the Virginia General Assembly passed an act to establish it. Port Conway was set up into 1 acre lots and had a ferry that transported passengers and goods across the Rappahannock to Port Royal.

Belle Grove – Plantation side – Front Portico

In 1790, Captain Francis Conway sold Belle Grove to John Hipkins of Port Royal. John was a wealthy merchant and ship owner. He purchased Belle Grove for his only child, Frances “Fanny” Hipkins Bernard and her husband, William Bernard. In 1791, John Hipkins built the center section of the current home. The home in which James Madison was born had burned to the ground several years before. Fanny would only live there for ten years. After her death, William remarried and moved his new wife and family to Mansfield Plantation in Stafford County, Virginia. Belle Grove would be rented until the second son; William Bernard II married and moved his family into the home. In 1822, William Bernard II passed and the home was once again leased until it passed to the husbands of his two daughters.

Belle Grove – Front Hallway

Belle Grove would be sold in 1839 to a very prominent family, The Turners. Carolinus Turner and his young family moved in and quickly made some significant changes to the house. It was this family that gave Belle Grove its porticos and wind extensions. Carolinus would also start acquiring the one acre lots of Port Conway until he had completely reunited the land to Belle Grove. He would donate part of that land to establish the Emmanuel Episcopal Church, which still stands near the entry to Belle Grove Plantation. It was during the Turner family’s ownership that Belle Grove would be involved in the Civil War. Because of the narrowing of the Rappahannock River at Port Conway and Port Royal, both the Union and Confederate Armies saw this area as a strategic location for crossing. The area exchanged hands many times. Union Gunboats would patrol the river and Belle Grove would serve as a Union Headquarters. Thankfully, Belle Grove Plantation escaped damage and remained intact after the war.

Belle Grove – Formal Parlor

In April, 1865, Belle Grove Plantation would once again become the backdrop for history. On morning of April 24, 1865, John Wilkes Booth and David Harold used the ferry at Belle Grove to cross the Rappahannock River to Port Royal and on to Garrett’s Farm just 3 miles away. That afternoon, the detachment pursuing Booth and Harold, arrived at Belle Grove Plantation. Here Carolinus allowed them to rest in the front yard and offered them a meal. One of the officers, Lt. Everton Congar, was even allowed to sleep in the front hallway of Belle Grove. A short time later, the detachment crossed on the same ferry as Booth and Harold, and on April 26, 1865, the detachment caught up with Booth and Harold at Garrett’s Farm, capturing Harold and killing Booth. The Turner Family would continue to own Belle Grove until Carolinus’ death in 1876. The plantation was then placed in trust until his wife’s death.

Belle Grove – Formal Dining Room

Belle Grove was sold in 1901 to Captain J.F. Jack, an experimental farmer from Los Angeles, California. Captain Jack had already purchased the Walsingham Plantation next door just a year earlier. His goal was to see if he could raise alfalfa in Virginia. He would sell Belle Grove in 1911 to Otto Brant and William Allen, also from California, who would use it to raise corn and wheat. Just a couple years later, Otto Brant would sell his interest to William Allen, who would turn Belle Grove into a dairy farm.

Belle Grove – Library

In 1929, William Allen sold Belle Grove to John Palmer Hooker and his wife Mary. John was a wealthy real estate broker from Chicago. They had purchased Belle Grove as a summer home. Mary quickly set about restoring Belle Grove back to the grand old plantation it once was. She installed landscaping and gardens, which she would use later as part of her well known garden tours in the spring. John would later join her and this would become their primary residence until his death in 1974. Mary passed away in 1981.

Summer Kitchen and Cooks Quarters – possibly built 1791

Ice House – possibly built 1791

Smokehouse – possibly built 1791

Belle Grove stood empty until 1987, when it was purchased by the Haas Family of Vienna, Austria. In 1997, the Haas Family started on a large restoration project that would completely restore and preserve Belle Grove for future generations. They took special care to ensure that the house was not damaged down to a special mortar that was used to keep from damaging the bricks of the house. The slate roof that once topped Belle Grove had to be removed because it was becoming too heavy for the frame of the house. It was replaced with a lighter copper roof. In the basement, steel beams were added to the subfloor to shore up the base of the house.

In July, 2011, Brett and Michelle Darnell found Belle Grove Plantation through an online advertisement. Just two days later, they were walking into the front hallway that Lt. Congar slept and many others passed through. It was love at first sight. Since that time, Brett and Michelle have worked tirelessly to create a business that will be worthy of this historically significant home.

Congratulations to the following for guessing the name of the plantation!

(chronological order of correct guess)


Hint One:             Captain John Smith sailed up the river that runs by this plantation in 1608 and noted the Indian settlements along the river bank.

Answer:               The Rappahannock River

Hint Two:             George Washington was a frequent visitor to this plantation.

Answer:               George Washington was born just 16 miles from Belle Grove. His grandfather grew up at Mattox Creek, just nine miles from Belle Grove. We have been told, though not confirmed that Augustine Washington, father of George Washington was childhood friends of William Strother II of Millbank Plantation (next door to Belle Grove) and Margaret Thornton of Belle Grove Plantation. It was also stated in a 1930s survey that George Washington was a frequent visitor to Belle Grove.

Hint Three:         It’s not Williamsburg or the area around Williamsburg.

Answer:               Williamsburg is located two hours south from Port Conway, Virginia.

Hint Four:            Two famous Virginians were born on this plantation. Both were very good with words.

Answer:               President James Madison, Father of the Constitution and Thomas Lomax Hunter, Virginia State Poet Laureate 1948 and grandson of Carolinus Turner.

Hint Five:             The town located across the river from this plantation once was under consideration for the Nation’s Capital.

Answer:               Port Royal, Virginia. This town was under consideration for the Nation’s Capital, but was vetoed by George Washington. General Washington wanted the capital to be located closer to his home at Mount Vernon.

Hint Six:                An assassin passed through this plantation on the way to his death.

Answer:               John Wilkes Booth used the ferry on Belle Grove Plantation on April 24, 1865 to cross the Rappahannock River before traveling to Garrett’s Farm just three miles away. Two days later, he was killed there.

Hint Seven:         Name the Birds

Answer:               “James” and “Dolley”

Thank you to all for being so patient and joining us on this journey! Lots more information to come!

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Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Year of the Virginia Historic Homes | 196 Comments »