My Own Piece of History

Sep. 23rd 2015

September 22, 2015

Belle Grove Field

With all our overnight guests tucked in for the evening, tonight I decided to treat myself to something that I haven’t had in about 2 years … dinner and a movie.

The movie I selected was “90 Minutes in Heaven”. I haven’t really been following the movies in the theatres since I have gotten to Belle Grove. I haven’t even seen the last season of “Big Bang Theory”. Sheldon would not be pleased. But time is a precious thing here, it seems to be in low amounts at times.

The last movie I went to see was just after I got to Belle Grove and ironically it had a similar theme … “Heaven is Real”.
After seeing “Heaven is Real”, I spent the next hour driving back from Stafford, Virginia to Belle Grove, crying like a baby. It was a touching movie in many ways. I had just lost my mother about a year before, so I was still grieving over her loss. And it reminded me of something I had gone through.

With “90 Minutes in Heaven”, I was expecting the same affect. But to my surprise, I didn’t cry.

In “90 Minutes in Heaven”, the main person, Don Piper was going through a totally different struggle. He had died and going to heaven, but when he returned, he was angry God had sent him back. The movie was more about his struggle to come to terms for the anger than the visit itself. Well, I won’t tell you anymore in case you haven’t see the movie.
For me, I can understand the anger, but I don’t identify with it. I felt more connected to the first movie than this one. Because I have gone to heaven … twice.

Okay, I know what you are saying. How can this be? Are you crazy? Where did you eat tonight, I think you might have food poisoning.

But I can tell you, I am not crazy. I ate at Red Lobster tonight and while the last time I ate there in 1992 in New London, Connecticut I did get food poisoning from bad shrimp, I didn’t get it tonight.

How can this be?

The year 1989 would big year for me. On January 1st, I lost my grandmother, Nannie to an abdominal aneurysm. She was one of the most important people in my life. I looked to her for stability, for guidance and for unending love. I was six months pregnant when she passed and she was the first death of someone very close to me that I experienced.
On February 1st, just one month later, Brett and I would face an uncertain future for me and our first child. I had developed Pre-eclampsia in January and had been placed in the hospital the last week of January. The goal was to get my blood pressure under control and to buy time for our daughter to grow more.

That was the plan, but not what happened.

After only a week, my blood pressure shot up. It was growing more and more dangerous for me and for our daughter. So the decision was made on February 1st, the day after my birthday to deliver her by emergency Cesarean, both to save my life and hers.
It was one of the most traumatic times of my life. The stress my body was under was overwhelming. I was at Wright-Patterson Air Force Hospital and they had to transfer me to a hospital, Miami Valley in Dayton, Ohio. They were better equipped to handle her premature birth. Three IVs, a catheter and a Swan-Ganz heart catheter later, the anesthesiologist wanted to do an epidural for the Cesarean. At this point, I was done. I wasn’t going to have any more pokes that night. So I started screaming and crying. The head OBGYN came in and told the anesthesiologist that we didn’t have time for the epidural (thank you God) and we were rushed into surgery.
Brett was a Navy Corpsman at the time, so they allowed him in the room while the surgery was going on. He got to see our daughter born and rushed away. He said she was so tiny that he could harder see her. She was one pound, three and ¼ ounces and eleven inches long.
I was under general anesthesia so I wasn’t aware of anything. Or so I thought.
When I woke for surgery, my very first thought wasn’t how I felt or how my daughter was. I remember that I had had one of the most wonderful dreams I have ever had. The only problem was … I didn’t remember it. I couldn’t recall anything. Not one thing. But I know it was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.

Just a month and half later, I had another dream.

Now let me tell you this. My dreams are very vivid and detailed. Brett is always amazed at how much I remember. I have had this all my life. This dream was no exception.

In this dream, I was back at Nannie’s house in Columbia, South Carolina. I was in the kitchen cooking a meal for my Grandfather and Father, who were seated at the table. The kitchen was a very important place in Nannie’s home. It is where she taught me two of the three main points she taught me in life … cooking and entertaining. The other is history. Now you see why I love history so much.
While I was preparing and serving the meal, the phone rang. When I picked it up, Nannie was on the other end.

She said, “Michelle, I need to talk to you.”

“Wait, you can’t be calling me. You died.”

“Michelle, I need to talk to you.”

“If you can call me, why can’t you come here?”

With that, my Grandfather and Father disappeared and standing before me was Nannie. I know I must have looked shocked.

She said to me, “Michelle, I need to talk to you about dying.”

“Weren’t you scared?”

“At first it was dark, but Michelle, where you are going to go is so wonderful.”

And with that, she took me to heaven. It was for only 30 seconds, but how can I tell you what I saw!
What I saw was like driving down a country road on a sunny day. Before me as a field of wildflowers and grass and in the distance was a tree line. Above the sky was blue with rolling clouds. But the thing was these were all ten time what they are on earth! The smell is more intense, the colors more vivid and the feeling … I can’t describe the feeling. It was just wonderful and amazing all wrapped up in glory.
When she brought me back, she told me that I needed to remember this because I was going to need to tell Granddaddy. I asked when I was to tell him. She told me not to worry, that I would know.

Just before we were schedule to bring our daughter home and after I knew she was going to be okay, I needed to take a break. I longed to go back to South Carolina to see my Grandfather. I was still grieving over Nannie and I needed to go home.
While I was there, Granddaddy kept asking me to pick out things I wanted. Other family members had already come over and started making piles of what they wanted. I didn’t want to do that. To me, Granddaddy was still alive and this was his home. And I really didn’t want anything other than to see him. But he pushed me to look.

I went up into the attic and had a look around. Nannie was a bit of a hoarder. She was a child during the Great Depression in rural South Carolina and she never throw anything away. I think there were two or three broken toilet seats up there. But while I was up there, Granddaddy started talking to me.

“Michelle, I need to tell you something and I know you are going to think that I am crazy. When I am in the den, sitting on the daybed (they used a back bedroom as the den and instead of having couches, they had two daybeds. They generally slept in here instead of their bedroom. I grew up sleeping on the floor in there on a blanket pallet Nannie would make us.) smoking a cigarette, I will hear the back door open and close. Michelle, I swear I am not drinking. But I will see your Nannie appear in the hall doorway.”

“What does she want?”

“I think she is calling me.”

“How does she look?”

“Young and beautiful”

That is when I knew I was to tell him what she had told me and shown me.

My Grandfather lived seventeen months after Nannie. I was the last to speak to him. My father had gone to Washington DC for a wedding and had asked me to call Granddaddy to check on him on Thursday. My uncle was to be there later that day. Granddaddy had had the flu and had been pretty sick. When I spoke to him, I had reminded him to be sure and drive some Gator-Aid to stay hydrated.

My uncle didn’t arrive on Thursday. He came in on Saturday instead.

Shortly after I spoke to Granddaddy, he must have had an accident and was going to take a shower to clean up. Before he got into the shower, he must have started to vomit and tried to hold it in to keep from getting it all over. In doing so, he aspirated some of it.

My uncle found him, naked and slumped over the daybed in the den in a prayer like position. He had the phone in his hand.

My only solace was that I had helped him prepare for this moment. I know Nannie came for him and took him away quickly.
I have since realized that the wonderful dream I had had during our daughter’s birth wasn’t a dream, but a trip to heaven as well. While I didn’t die, I know the stress I was under. I think God pulled me away and like to see heaven.

So while in “90 Minutes in Heaven”, Don Piper was angry about coming back, I can’t say I share that view.
Since my Grandfather’s death, I have been able to share this experience with many people. Some who have lost a loved one and some who would later face death themselves.

I think one of the reasons I feel so connected to Belle Grove is the fact that it reminds me of heaven. There are days during the spring and summer, I have found myself wondering out into the fields of corn, wheat and soybean. I just sit there and stare at the wind blowing the soybean, making it look like waves coming in on the ocean shore. And at the blue sky with white clouds floating lazily by.

I see heaven everywhere. I see it in the sunset. I see it in the river as it floats by. I see it when a bird appears and sings out to me. I see it in a dragonfly or butterfly that will seem to magically appear to greet me.

And every time I see these things, I smile and say quietly, “Thank you God for this little reminder.”

Is Heaven Real, you better believe it is! But it’s not something that we have to wait for when we die. It is here all around us. We just fail to stop and see it.

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Diary | Comments Off on My Own Piece of History

Surprises around every corner

Sep. 3rd 2015

September 3, 2015
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On Tuesday, after our overnight guests checked out and all my daily chores were completed, I got a few hours to myself. I thought about playing a spirited game of “Where in the World is Michelle?”, but as I got out at noon, it really didn’t leave me much time to enjoy wandering to new places. So I decided to take the day and just go somewhere that I love seeing.

This lead me to Oatlands Historic House and Gardens in Leesburg, Virginia.

Oatlands was a wonderful discovery last year when I was playing one of our “Where in the World is Michelle?”. On that trip, I was headed to Antietam for a overnight stay. When I first saw the sign, I had to turn around to go back and visit. Down this beautiful driveway, my mind raced back to Belle Grove Plantation and our tree lined lane. It was just as it is at Belle Grove. You get the feeling of being transported back in time.

After parking, I head to what I first thought was the main house. I have to say, in my heart I was a little disappointed, thinking that this was all there was. But to my delight, I found that the first place I stopped was the carriage house, not the main house. It was here that I met some of the most wonderful ladies. It was so exciting to meet others who shared in the passion of history and old homes.

Down the walk towards the main house, I wasn’t sure what to expect. There really isn’t many signs or pictures of the main house to prepare you for what you will see. I have to say, I am so glad there isn’t. It would have taken away the joy and excitement I felt the first time seeing the grand old lady. It really did take my breath away.

After touring the mansion and learning about the families and events that makes Oatlands so special, I headed out to the gardens. Again, there isn’t much to prepare you for what you are going to see. The first time I saw it, it wasn’t in full bloom. It was winter time, but in my minds eye, I could see how wonderful it would be once spring came. It was then that I vowed to myself I would return to see it in all its glory.

I have since returned at Christmas this last year to see the Christmas decorations inside the mansion. Many of their ideas helped us dress Belle Grove Plantation for it’s first real Christmas season.

It was also then that I told myself that I wanted to copy the Victorian dress of the young lady’s portrait in the main foyer for my Civil War era dress. I am so excited to announce that I will be having one made like it, but in blue, gold and white instead of the green, gold and white. You will get the chance to see it if you attend our Civil War Weekend and the Civil War Wedding on that Saturday.

But you know me, I can’t go anywhere that I don’t think about bringing you along on my adventures. So I took many photos and videos to share.

Thank you to everyone at Oatlands for allowing me to capture its beauty and to share it with the world. A special thank you to Tansy for being such a wonderful friend and follower of Belle Grove Plantation!

I encourage everyone to make a point to stop and visit this grand home and gardens. It truly is something very special. I promise you won’t be disappointed!

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Diary | Comments Off on Surprises around every corner

Surprise Proposal – David and Jackie – Sunday, August 23, 2015

Aug. 28th 2015

August 28, 2015

One of the best parts of being at Belle Grove Plantation is being a part of so many special moments in other people’s lives. From celebrations of birthday, anniversaries, weddings and family gathering, each of them hold special stories and memories that very few get the chance to witness.
With each of these special moments come new parts of history at Belle Grove Plantation.
In doing the research of Belle Grove Plantation, there were so many times I wished someone would have written down what they witnessed during those events. How exciting it would have been to hear about James Madison’s birth or the marriage of the Turners. Sadly, we can only guess what it would have been like. But because of today’s technology, we are able to record and document these special moments in history.
This story is one of those special moments we were so honored to be a part of.
To view the video of this special memory:

Visit our YouTube Channel

Thank you David and Jackie for allowing us to share in this special time!
Congratulations and we wish you all the blessings in the world!

Photography by
Hockensmith Portraits
Facebook – Hockensmith Portraits

“Best Thing”
Anthem Lights
purchased on

Belle Grove Plantation Bed and Breakfast – King George, Virginia
Voted “Most Romantic Place to Propose” 2015

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Diary | Comments Off on Surprise Proposal – David and Jackie – Sunday, August 23, 2015

Now Featuring on Scoutology – Belle Grove Plantation’s top 12 Reasons to visit!

Aug. 27th 2015

August 27, 2015

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In the past weeks several of our Facebook friends have received a request from us for the top reason they would visit Belle Grove Plantation. We have taken this list and given it to the Scoutology to create their article. Today, this article is a feature on their website.

Check out – Belle Grove Plantation in King George: The Best Bed & Breakfast in Virginia


What is Scoutology?

Simply put, Scoutology is an innovative way to find out about, and participate in, what’s going on near you.

They are a community-specific news, information and engagement platform driven by passionate and experienced new media professionals. Scoutology is revolutionizing the way neighbors connect with each other, their communities, and the national conversation.

What can you do on Scoutology?

• Keep up with news and events
• Check out photos and videos from around town
• Learn more about local businesses and the people behind them
• Participate in discussions
• Share your perspectives
• Submit your own announcements, photos, and reviews

Who’s Behind Scoutology?

Scoutology is run by professional editors, photographers, videographers, and salespeople who live in the regions they serve, and is supported by a great team in our Charlottesville, Va headquarters.

They hope that their websites will strengthen communities and improve the lives of their residents, but they can’t do it without you. They’ve built Scoutology so that you have plenty of opportunities to comment on stories, share your opinions, post photos and announcements, and add events. So get to it! And if you’re a business owner who wants to be listed, just let them know!

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Diary | Comments Off on Now Featuring on Scoutology – Belle Grove Plantation’s top 12 Reasons to visit!

Faces from the Past

Aug. 20th 2015

August 20, 2015

Today I had the thrill of a life time.

As most of you know, I started working on the history of Belle Grove almost from the day I found it online. Where was James Madison born? What happened here during the Civil War? Did John Wilkes Booth make an appearance here before crossing the Rappahannock River? These were just the tip of the iceberg when it came to questions about this beautiful plantation. And just when I thought I could say I knew it, something would come along and lead me to new discoveries.

Some of the questions would be answered quickly and some times with little or no effort. But others would elude me, sometimes for months and even years. The burial site of the Hipkins-Bernard family was like this. Finding the 6 foot monument at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, just at the entry of Belle Grove, was the start of a ten months odyssey of finding their site. After months of searching records, I would find my answer at William and Mary College in Williamsburg, among family records in their Special Collection. Believe me it was so hard not to jump up and down and scream, “I found it!”

In the research I have done, I think one of the most important things I looked for, and sometime hoped for, were photographs of the past residence. I don’t know, but to me looking at the face of a past resident some how helps me to see what life could have been like during their time. For the many families I have found that owned Belle Grove, I have been very surprise at the ease of finding photographs, drawings and painting of them. Who knew that finding Fanny Hipkins-Bernard’s painting would have been so quick and easy. But within in a few months, I held her likeness in my hands. It was a wonderful moment to know that I was looking at the face of the young girl that the original, center section of the mansion was built for.

But one family has long been missing from the mansion. The Turner Family was a very important family to Belle Grove. Of all the past owners, with the exceptation of the current owners, the Haas Family, Carolinus Turner would make the biggest impact on the architectural look of Belle Grove. While he made these changes in the pursue of a wife and to show off his wealth, the lasting effects today makes Belle Grove Plantation of the top 100 Architecturally Significant Structures in Virginia. (We are ranked #29 out of 100).

With all the changes that have happened, I have never been able to find any photographs of the family. You would think with showing off so much, they would have had many photographs of the family as well. My heart longed to see what Carolinus looked like. I have also been drawn to Caroline Turner Jett, Carrie in short. Having her etching in the Turner Suite window made me wonder what she might have looked like and what her story could be. And what of Carolinus Turner’s wife, Susan Augusta Rose Turner? Her final resting place is still a mystery to me. She isn’t buried with the family at Emmanuel. I also know that she was just 17 years old when she married Carolinus, who was 42 years old.

Well, today, this part of my search has ended.

Thanks to Elizabeth Lee of the King George Historical Society, I now can look at the faces of the past. My plan is to reproduce them, frame them and add them to the Turner Suite. What a great day it has been!

Carolinus Turner

Carolinus Turner

Susan Augusta Rose Turner

Susan Augusta Rose Turner

Aunt Carrie dau of Carolinus

Caroline “Carrie” Turner Jett – Oldest Daughter of Carolinus and Susan Turner

George Uncle son of Carolinus

George Turner, as a young boy – Only Son of Carolinus and Susan Turner

George Turner -Son of Carolinus and Susan Rose Turner cropped

George Turner, as a young adult – Only Son of Carolinus and Susan Turner

George Turner - Older -Son of Carolinus and Susan Rose Turner cropped

George Turner, as an older adult – Only Son of Carolinus and Susan Turner

Jane Murphy McGuire Turner - Wife of George Turner cropped

Jane Murphy McGuire – wife of George Turner – Only Son of Carolinus and Susan Turner

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Diary | Comments Off on Faces from the Past

Hurley’s Fun in the Sun

Aug. 16th 2015

August 16, 2015

We haven’t written about our favorite plantation dog, Hurley lately. So I am sure everyone is wondering where our sweet boy has been and what he has been up to lately.

Hurley has been staying in Chesapeake, Virginia with our son, Tyler. Really, Hurley is more his dog than anyone else. Hurley will sit by the window and wait for him to come home. But for a golden retriever that will be 11 years old this September, he really isn’t doing too bad!

Today, our son Tyler and his girlfriend, Leah spent some time with him enjoying his favorite activity…. swimming in the pool!

So I thought I would share some pictures they sent to us. You can see Hurley is really struggling with playing in the pool today …. ah… not!

























Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Diary | 1 Comment »

A Love Story – Morgan and Eugene’s Wedding – Guest Blogger – Morgan Hockensmith

Aug. 15th 2015

From mixed tapes every birthday to poems on gas station receipts, the story of Morgan and Eugene is a sonnet of love. A love brought together by music, getting caught in the rain, a Grandmother’s love and a little Dave Grohl. Morgan and Eugene, thank you for letting us play a part in your song.

Venue: Belle Grove Plantation

Coordinator: Brides of Belle Grove Plantation

Catering: Caroline Street Catering

Florist: The Floral Palette

Rentals: Paisley & Jade

Cake: Cakes in Art

Stationary: Beloved Paper

Hair: Carter Hair Design

Makeup: Kimberly Slagle

Photography: Hockensmith Portraits









































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The Heart of the Plantation and Root of Southern Cuisine

Aug. 10th 2015

August 10, 2015

When we started this campaign “Save Our History at Belle Grove” on GoFundMe, I started looking around the internet for information on Summer Kitchens, Slave Cooks and Food from the South. As a southern girl from South Carolina and a chef here at Belle Grove, food and cooking is truly in my blood.

When people ask me why did I become a Bed and Breakfast owner, my response tells it all.

“My grandmother was a grand southern lady, who taught me three things. Entertaining, Cooking and History. It was inevitable that I would become a bed and breakfast owner.”

Betty Ann Dickinson (Hutto) – My Grandmother “Nannie”

So I want to share with you the history around where Southern Food came from and how the Summer Kitchen was truly the heart of the plantation.
I came across an article written in Deep South Magazine called “The Root of Southern Cuisine” by Beth McKibben (December 3, 2012). In this article she is interviewing Atlanta Chef Todd Richards. At the time he was working at The Shed at Glenwood. According to their website, he doesn’t work there anymore.



In their article, they discussed Southern Food and Slavery. Chef Richards had given a talk at the Atlanta History Center’s Folklife Festival inside a slave cabin the previous September 2012 around slavery and Southern Food. He had offered little known facts about slaves and root of southern food.
One fact that was presented in the article:

“And guess what? It ain’t all fried chicken and gravy laden biscuits. In fact, true Southern food is neither fatty nor simple. It’s clean, complex and most importantly, born form the economics of survival.”

According to the article:

“Restaurants around the country try and often fail at presenting truly authentic Southern cuisine. They doll it up with gravies, hot sauces and fry everything that isn’t nailed down in the kitchen. Then, they slap it on a plate and call it “Southern.” For Chef Richards, Southern is more than its Cracker Barrel image, with slavery at the very root of its beginnings. To know its history is to understand Southern food.”

Here are some of the questions and answers from the article:

BM: So you believe the country is reverting back to more straightforward, simpler foods?

TR: Southern food is really not that simple. It is an essential American storyteller along with our government and music. It has a long history. Southern food encompasses many regions, people and economics. It’s good, healing food born from strife and survival. The slaves weren’t creating Southern cuisine in order to make history, they were cooking to stay alive.

BM: How did the slaves influence Southern cooking? What were the typical ingredients they were working with at the time?

TR: You have to look at two things: what came with the slaves on the boat and what they had to work with when they got to America. There was a strong Native American influence in the early beginnings of Southern food when slaves began arriving: crops like corn and techniques like frying. Then, you have crops and techniques that came over from West Africa with the slaves, like the peanut (or goober peas), okra (or gumbo) and stewing techniques. There’s also daily survival ingredients like watermelons, which served as canteens in the fields. It’s 95 percent water. The slaves also used the rind as soles for their shoes. So ingredients like this that are now part of Americana and the Native American influence really started shaping Southern food very early on. But you can’t discount other influences like that of the Spanish and Portuguese through Louisiana or the Latin influence through parts of Texas. The slaves worked with what was available to them and adapted their daily diets accordingly.

BM: So, through a diet based on survival, the slaves really transformed Southern foodways into what we see today?

TR: What people don’t really understand about Southern food is that it is all based off of preservation methods. How can we keep the food for the longest period of time and make sure it’s safe to eat? Africans never ate beef until it was introduced to them in America. Fish, vegetables, fruits were the diets of most African people. Salting and frying meats and vegetables were simply preservation methods they learned from the Native Americans. They adapted to survive, while in the process, unknowingly transforming the Southern diet with the ingredients they brought with them from Africa. They found that they could grow these crops quite well here in the South.

BM: We know slaves were cooking these meals for themselves but do you believe the slaves began to cook using their native ingredients for their masters, or do you believe that began to occur during Reconstruction?

TR: Yeah, they were definitely cooking these meals for their masters. I mean, the thing about Southern food, when it’s cooking, it smells good! I’m sure they brought the best cook up to the house and left the more undesirable portions for themselves.

BM: What Southern cooking technique that survives today can be traced back to the slaves?

TR: Definitely one-pot cooking. Gumbo, cornbread and hoecakes were being done out in the fields. There were no lunch breaks. But, to me, the most essential technique to come out of slave-based cooking is preservation. How the food was preserved is what made it taste so good. But they weren’t thinking about that at the time. The economics of survival was the slaves’ only motivation. Preservation methods are truly what transformed Southern cooking to what we know it to be today.

BM: How did preservation methods influence the flavors?

TR: To me, greens tell the unique story of Southern food. There was no refrigeration, so slaves used meat, mostly pork, and salt to preserve the greens by laying the meat on top. Not only did the pork preserve what was underneath, but it flavored it as well. They didn’t necessarily eat the meat after the greens were finished. They might repurpose it. Frying was another technique. Many people are shocked to learn that fried chicken is not Southern-born but actually Scandinavian and Native American. Animals in West Africa were not fatty. It was hot; they didn’t require fat to stay warm. Frying was a preservation method the slaves adopted.

I found this out when I was up in Louisville, Kentucky, researching Native American foods. They were teaching the method to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It was meant to preserve the meat underneath the skin during long journeys. They would fry rabbits, squirrels, small game birds in bear oil. Slaves in certain regions of the South caught on to this method, finding the skin of the chicken, for instance, to be quite tasty. Jerky is another example of preservation turned tasty snack in the fields. You take the meat off the bottom of the shank, slice it very thin and dry it out on tobacco leaves. They learned this preservation method from the Native Americans, because in the early days of slavery, Africans knew little of preserving meat. The slaves economically had no choice but to stretch every last morsel of food they had. Food preservation is the key to all Southern cooking. It is the essential ingredient.

BM: What do you want people to know about slaves and Southern food?

TR: Southern cuisine is regional and really can’t be categorized under a big umbrella. Key ingredients like greens and preservation methods are the great equalizers in our story but, after that, it’s all regional.

Georgia and Alabama Southern is totally different from Appalachia Southern. Frying is more prevalent in the colder climates of the South than in the Deep South. They have more animals with fat on them whereas in Georgia, for instance, it’s warmer and so our native animals are leaner. Where would the slaves have gotten the oil to fry the chickens? They didn’t reach for a bottle of peanut oil like we do now. Those influences came into the picture much later. There are more cornbread recipes in Georgia and Alabama than in the Carolinas, where rice is more prevalent. In Appalachia, stews are more common. The slaves knew how to preserve and cook with what nature had to offer. Each region had its own micro-climate and trade routes. The food of the South is as diverse as its people.

BM: Do you believe that your slave ancestry has influenced your cooking? Any special family recipes that were passed down?

TR: I don’t really have any family recipes that were written down, but I do know how my family constructed meals. My grandmother and great-grandparents were fantastic cooks. Family meals were big when I was growing up. They were like celebrations. We had barbecue every summer, prepared by my Dad. Everything revolved around food, even the gifts we gave to one another. But there were two different Southern influences in the family. I can’t tell you exactly where each side comes from in the South, but I can tell you the region by the way they cook. My Mom’s side is more Appalachia/Carolinas/Ohio with stews, rice and frying. Whereas my Dad’s side uses smoking methods and vinegars when cooking, like in the mid-South. I can tell my family’s story through food. So essentially, my Dad’s more cornbread, my Mom’s more biscuits.

I’ve never really thought about this before, but I just discovered my family tree through what I do every day: food. This is my family tree.

To read more of this article, please visit Deep South Magazine’s Website

A special thank you to Deep South Magazine for allowing us to reprint some of this article.

Today, we are still raising money for our “Save Our History at Belle Grove” GoFundMe campaign. At present we have just $3,856. A far cry from our needed $45,000.

In May, 2016, we will be holding our Civil War Weekend. This weekend, we will be conducting a “Civil War Bootcamp”. This “bootcamp” will encompass all parts of life during the Civil War time period. Not only will we have reenactors encamped on the grounds, but we will have reenactors to talk about plantation live. It is our hope to have at least the Summer Kitchen completed in time for this event. What a wonderful way to reintroduce this priceless piece of American history and the heart of the Southern Plantation to the general public. We hope to have reenactors to play the enslave people and to tell their story as well.

Help us get our “Heart of the Plantation” beating again.

Save Our History at Belle Grove GoFundMe Campaign

Please consider donating whatever you can. No donation is too small and every penny counts in this effort.

Then help us by sharing this blog and sharing our campaign with your friends and family. We can only raise this money if we have everyone help us spread the word.

Thank you so much for all your support and encouragement. We truly appreciate everyone!

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Diary | Comments Off on The Heart of the Plantation and Root of Southern Cuisine

Surprises around every corner

Aug. 6th 2015

August 5, 2015

Monday and Tuesday this week, I finally had a chance to take a breather. I love this time of year, but with the National Geographic Diggers episode, we have really seen a jump in weekly tours as well as overnight stays. It’s been keeping me as busy as one arm paper hanger.
Of course, I may have had the day off, but that doesn’t mean I am going to just lay around. I spend my time off generally going somewhere that might help me learn more about history or put me in touch with people who might enjoy coming to see us at Belle Grove.

Tuesday was no exception.

I had the opportunity to spend the day in Colonial Williamsburg. I know what you are going to say, “Were you just there on Friday?” Yes I was, but Tuesday I had the chance to visit some of the other places I enjoy in Williamsburg.

The whole idea of me being there started with a new tour we are about to open. We have tours of the mansion and grounds Wednesday to Sunday from 1pm to 4pm. But really, how many times can you come and see our beautiful antiques in this grand home?
Okay for some of you, the answer would be a couple hundred times.

But for most, once or twice is all they need. Let’s face it, our history doesn’t change. So we wanted to add some other tours that might interest people. One of the tours we are going to be adding is a Ghost Walk Tour.

Since being on SyFy Channel’s Ghost Hunters, we have had many people come and see us. Or at least to try and see our ghosts. Some of them are kids as young as ten. We do our Paranormal Investigations in October, but only for people over 16 years old. Our ghosts can be very interactive and we don’t want young ones growing up scare of the dark.

So we thought it would be good to have a more “family friendly” tour that talks the ghost stories of Belle Grove. Something the whole family can enjoy.

So my main focus Tuesday was to do the “Tavern Ghost Walk Tour” in Williamsburg. I have never really been on a Ghost Tour so I wanted to see how they conducted the walk and what the reaction was of the people on the walk.

When I arrived at Colonial Williamsburg, I made sure to get my ticket early. I have heard these tours tend to sell out. In talking to the young lady at the ticket window, we discussed that I was from Belle Grove Plantation, birthplace of James Madison. Come to find out, not only did she know of Belle Grove, but she is familiar with the gentleman who plays James Madison from Montpelier. John Douglas Hall has been our “James Madison” from the beginning. But she was nice enough to give me a single day ticket as a courtesy; from one museum member to another.

I had not planned on spending the day in Colonial Williamsburg. Frankly a stroll down the Duke of Gloucester would have resulted in me being covered in sweat and hotter than I really wanted to be. But I did know that one of the Founding Fathers would be giving a speech at 3:45. Last Friday, I had hoped to go and see it, but I found out that Patrick Henry would be speaking.

I decided not to attend. What can I say? I am “Team Madison”.

But I thought I would ask who would be speaking today. When she informed me that Thomas Jefferson would be speaking, I think I lost my breath for a moment! The gentleman that plays Thomas Jefferson, Bill Barker, is the embodiment of Jefferson. I have long wanted to meet him. He is also a friend of John Douglas Hall. John and I have spoken of him many times. It is our hope to get him and John to Belle Grove one day. So heat or no heat, I would be attending this one!

In need to lunch and a place to stay cool, I headed down Richmond Road and grabbed a bite to eat at Kyotos. There I met a wonderful family from Washington DC. One of the two boys, around 9 or 10, spent most of the time questioning me on Belle Grove and our ghosts. But there were a series of questions that I think his mother would have preferred he not ask. In fact, at the last question, I think she would have preferred to slide right under the table.

After several questions about Belle Grove, this young gentleman asked me, “Is your husband as old as you?” I laughed a bit, knowing what he meant. Mom just said that we don’t ask questions like that. I told her that it was okay and said, “Let’s think of a better way to ask that. Let’s say, is your husband an adult like you.” Mom agreed and I answered yes. Then he asked, “How old are you?” Mom quickly said don’t ask that. He looked back at me and I said, “Well, you really shouldn’t ask a lady her age. Most women don’t like saying how old they are. But I am okay with tell you. I am proud of the years I have lived and proud of each of the ones I have earned. I will be 50 years old in January.”

The young gentleman said, “Oh wow!” Mom started to slide under the table. I just laughed.

My next stop was to Williamsburg Antique Mall. A great place to waste time and stay cool. There were so many things I could have used. But no worries Brett, I left my credit card in the car.

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Before I knew it, 3:45 approached. I parked in the tavern parking and sat for about 20 minutes trying to freeze myself out of the car. I just thought, “If I can get cold enough, maybe, just maybe it will last me for some of the time I am sitting at the presentation.
As I walked over to the stage area, my theory was disproven. I was hot and started to sweat by the time I got a seat. At least it was close and in the shade.

Shortly after, Mr. Jefferson appeared.


It was a wonderful speech. He was everything I had imaged and then some. I could see why people look to him as a historic performer of Thomas Jefferson.

During his speech, he even made a “little” joke about Madison. Poor James, people always recalling his height instead of the “heights” he brought America to.

Afterwards, I met Mr. Jefferson. I gave him a message from John Douglas Hall (James Madison) and wished him “hello” and that we hoped he would consider a visit to our plantation. I gave him one of our new brochures and left him to the crowd.

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After a quiet dinner at a local Italian restaurant and a chance to cool off again, I headed back to Shields Tavern for my Ghost Tour. I was surprise to see the young guide dressed in modern clothing. I was expecting someone in period dress. But she told me that the tales we were going to talk about were modern so they decided to dress for the times.

So what do you think? When we do our Ghost Tours, would you like to see us in 18th century clothes or modern clothes? The tales we would be sharing would be that of our time so do we dress as we do today?

During the tour we stopped at five locations and heard five stories. At the Kings Arm Tavern, we hear a tale of a lady ghost that requires respect and common courtesy. The story is if you cross her, she lets you know by pushing or tripping you.

But the best part was when we walked up to the front. As the guide started talking, my eyes were drawn to a window on the second floor. Standing in front facing it, it would be the second from the left side of the building. I looked up and there staring back at me was an African-American woman. I could make out her face, her neckerchief and her mop cap. I wasn’t sure I was seeing her as she was leaning to the right, watching out the window.

So I looked away.

Then I looked back.

She was still there.

When the guide said that the ghost lady’s room was on the second floor, I thought maybe this has something to do with her. So when she finished, I asked her which window was the ghost lady’s window. She told me the one on the end. I just shake my head and smiled. We moved on.

Just as we were walking to the last stop, another tourist came up to me and said, “You saw something didn’t you.” I smiled and said yes. It gave her a thrill.

After the tour, when everyone else was gone, I walked back to Shields Tavern with the guide. We discussed what I saw. She told me that others have seen a man, but this was the first time they had heard about an African-American lady. I told her that I didn’t know about others, just what I saw.
I head to the car and started on my way back to Belle Grove Plantation.

All I could think was, “What are the odds that you see a real ghost on a ghost tour? And what’s more, on your first Colonial Williamsburg Ghost Tour.” I don’t know the odds, but it was really a great way to end my trip.

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Diary | Comments Off on Surprises around every corner

OMG Moment

Aug. 2nd 2015

August 2, 2015


On Friday, July 31st, I had the opportunity to spend half a day in Colonial Williamsburg. Brett held down the plantation and checked in our full house while I spend the day walking around Duke of Gloucester and visiting some of the shops I had yet to see.

My first stop was to Mary Dickinson Store. I wanted to see what the cost was for some of the colonial clothing. Or see what I need to find to complete an outfit. I am working on a colonial outfit to wear during our new “Ghost Walks” tour. The visit was so much fun, but sadly, as I find most places, my size is hard to find. But the young girl was very helpful. Come to find out, my shirt from our first Civil War event will work for the “petti coat” skirt. Now I just need to find a long or fancy jacket to match, some leggings and a pair of buckle shoes.

My second stop was to the Cabinet Maker’s Shop. A few weeks ago, a father and daughter came to stay with us. When she introduced herself, her father told me that she was a reenactor in Colonial Williamsburg. Of course I was interested in talking with her. Brett always said that if I had not opened a Bed and Breakfast, I would have ended up working in Colonial Williamsburg as a reenactor. She told me that she worked in the Cabinet Maker’s Shop making harpsichords. So knowing that, I had to stop by and say “hello”. It was wonderful seeing her and it was a nice surprise for her. It was amazing to see how much work goes into making a harpsichord!

Before I drove down, I did check the website for possible Founding Fathers speaking during the day. Lucky for me, there was in fact a Founding Father doing a presentation at 3:45pm. Perfect timing! But I found out the Founding Father speaking was Patrick Henry. When the ticket agent told me who was speaking, I jokingly said, “I guess I will be missing that speech.” She looked at me funny. I told her that I was from President Madison’s birthplace. She still didn’t get it. I had to tell her that Madison and Henry didn’t get along. Then she understood. But I will tell you that is not why I didn’t go to see him speak. After walking just a short time along, I was so hot that I knew I needed to sit down and cool off. I also had not had lunch so I needed some food.

The main reason I came for the half day was because there was a special presentation called “Becoming Madison” at the Art Museum. A friend of ours in Chesapeake had seen it and sent it to me. Of course as soon as I saw that it was on a Friday, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to go. Plus we had a full house that night. But something kept at me about going. For some reason, I knew that I needed to go.

Now when I get those “feelings” I have learned that it is important to listen to them. Event time I do, I generally hear something or meet someone or see something that helps us to the next level in our business. So knowing that, I asked Brett to help me out.

The presentation “Becoming Madison” was a presentation with the author of this new book, Michael Signer. Together with Colonial Williamsburg’s “James Madison”, it was to be an evening to discuss and celebrate one of our nation’s most enigmatic and brilliant historical figures.

According to the authors profile in “Becoming Madison”:


“Michael Signer is an author, advocate, political theorist and attorney. He holds a PhD in political science from U.C., Berkeley, where he was a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow; a JD from the University of Virginia School of Law; and a BA in politics, magna cum laude, from Princeton University. He has taught political theory, leadership, and governance at the University of Virginia, Virginia Teck, and the University of California. He was counsel to Governor Mark Warner in Richmond, senior policy advisor at the Center for American Progress, and a candidate for lieutenant governor of Virginia in 2009. Signer is the author of Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies (2009). His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, The New Republic, and USA Today, and he reviews books for the Daily Beast. He has appeared on MSNBC, Fox News, the BBC, and NPR. He lives with his wife and twin boys in Virginia.”

The book “Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father” (Public Affairs – 2015) takes a look at the life of James Madison. Mr. Signer’s focus is on Madison before he was thirty-six, the years in which he did his most enduring working. It was during this time that Madison battled Patrick Henry over religious freedom, introduced his framework for a strong central government, became the Father of the Constitution and provided a crucial role at Virginia’s convention to ratify the Constitution.

The book also examines the leadership tools used by Madison and shows him as a role model for today’s leadership. Mr. Signer shows that even through personal challenges, Madison was able to overcome and become a leader. According to the brief summary of his book, “Mr. Signer’s brilliant analysis of the “Madison Method”, the means by which Madison systematically destroyed dangerous ideas and left in their stead an enduring and positive vision for America is wholly original and uniquely relevant today.”

I headed over to the Art Museum at 4pm and bought the book. I spent the next hour and fifteen minutes devouring his Introduction and first chapter. In the Introduction, Mr. Signer reveals his “Madison Method”. And I have to say, it really is brilliant.

“Find passion in your conscience. Focus on the idea, not the man. Develop multiple and independent lines of attack. Embrace impatience. Establish a competitive advantage through preparation. Conquer bad ideas by dividing them. Master your opponent as you master yourself. Push the state to the highest version of itself. Govern the passions.”

I have to say, when I read this, I thought to myself, “This can be applied to almost anything!” I could event apply this to our business and some of the challenges we have been facing. So of course I thought this was what I needed to come find out.

(This wasn’t the OMG Moment)

I made my way into the auditorium. I grab my seat, second row center. I didn’t want to miss this one!

The presentation was wonderful. Mr. Signer spoke about his book and introduced James Madison. The young gentleman who portrays President Madison is Bryan Austin. Bryan contacted us just as we were opening Belle Grove two years ago. He was just starting to study for his role as James Madison. While at the library in Colonial Williamsburg, one of the librarians had told him about our location, letting him know that we were the birthplace of Madison. The librarian was following us on Facebook.

I met Bryan about a year later in character on Duke of Gloucester Street. Low and behold, I didn’t realize it at the time, but we had known Bryan since he was young. He had attended our church in Chesapeake as a young boy. What a small world. We hope someday to get him up here to Belle Grove. But being President Madison in Colonial Williamsburg can be a little busy.

During the presentation, Mr. Signer spoke about the strong ladies in young “Jemmy’s” life. He spoke first about his grandmother on his father’s side, France Madison. After the death of Ambrose Madison, her husband and James Madison Jr.’s grandfather, at the hands of slaves (he was poisoned by his slaves), France had taken over the plantation and ran it just as good as man. In fact, Col. James Madison Sr. had worked for his mother on the plantation until he owned it after her death. (Something I didn’t know).

He also spoke of his mother, Nelly Conway Madison. How she was also sickly like James Madison and prone to illnesses. It was during this part that I caught a statement that made my ears perk up. He said, “For the first two years, James Madison stayed with his grandmother.” The topic changed from there so I didn’t have a chance to understand which grandmother.

So I had to wait until the book signing to ask my question.

Now, let me give you a little history. According to my research, nineteen year old Nelly left Mt Pleasant (the first home at Montpelier) in December 1750. She was six months pregnant. She headed back to her mother’s plantation (Rebecca Catlett Conway Moore and her second husband, John Moore lived at Belle Grove Plantation) because there was a smallpox epidemic that was going through Orange County. Three days over rough roads, it is a wonder that she didn’t miscarriage James.

She stayed at Belle Grove and had James Jr. on March 16, 1751. Three months after his birth and after he was christened, she left for Mt Pleasant.
I have been asked many times about the time period that James Madison was here. To this point and to my knowledge, I only knew about the first three months of his life. However, I had found Rebecca Catlett Conway Moore’s will early on. She had outlived her first husband, France Conway I, Nelly’s father and James Jr.’s grandfather and her second husband, John Moore, who gave Belle Grove Plantation its name. In this will, she names two grandsons. One of them is James Jr. She gives him five slaves of his choice.

Now, Rebecca had many grandchildren. What always got me was why was James named? It wasn’t like he was President of the United States yet. When Rebecca died, he was just ten. Brett and I had always theorized that it was because he was one of Rebecca’s favorites. But if he left at three months, that means he would have had to come back to Belle Grove Plantation often or she had to have traveled to Mt Pleasant several times. We just didn’t have an answer.

So after the presentation, I waited to be the last to get my book signed. I wanted to talk to Mr. Signer and didn’t want to hold anyone else up. When I stepped up to have him sign my book, I was first going to tell him who I was and where I was from. But James Madison (Bryan Austin) had beat me to it. I stepped up and Mr. Signer said, “So you are from Port Conway.” I was thrilled.
We talked for a few moments and then I asked my question, “When you said that James Madison spent his first two years with his grandmother, did you mean Francis Madison or Rebecca Conway Moore?”

I held my breath.

“I meant Rebecca.”

This would be the OMG Moment!

I said it over and over, wanting to confirm what I heard.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes” and he showed me a part of the book that speaks about it.

“OMG! I can’t believe it! So what you are telling me is that Nelly Madison had James and left him with her mother at Belle Grove for two years!”



I looked over at Bryan and said, “Did you know this?”

Bryan replied, “Yes”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

He smiled.

What a profound moment. After hearing this, the will made more sense. If Rebecca raised James for the first two years, then he would have become a favorite of hers.

Now why did Nelly leave him for so long? We can try and figure it out, but no letter or diary is available at this point. Most likely they were worried about smallpox epidemic.

No matter what the reason, we now know that James Madison spent more time here than we knew.

It truly was an “OMG Moment”!

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Diary | Comments Off on OMG Moment