New Arrival Donation

Jun. 25th 2014

We are so excited to announce that we will be receiving one of the most amazing donations to date from the James Madison Museum in Orange, Virginia.

Piano forte 1

The Board of Directors have donated an American, Sheraton style, square pianoforte. This amazing pianoforte was made by Loud & Brothers of Philadelphia. It has beautiful gold script above the keyboard which reads:

Piano forte 4

“Loud & Brothers Cabinet and Square Pianoforte Manufacturers Philadelphia”

Piano forte 2

It is made of mahogany and treated to look like rosewood. There are engravings inside on the upper right panel as you open the lid, which date back to 1832/33 for repairs and one from 1941 when it was scripted as “rebuilt”. However. much of the internal and external piece are original. It appears that the note pads (pieces of wood with felt) are younger than the 1800’s. The green painted “cover” for the strings are original. It had all of its legs at the time of the donation to the James Madison Museum in 1983, but is now missing one of the legs. There are no records of what happened and no one on the current Board of Directors has been around beyond 5 or 6 years. The pianoforte is in need of repair for both the missing leg and for the instrument. It currently does not play.

Piano forte 3

This pianoforte was given as a gift to the James Madison Museum by Mrs. Audette Kimball on February 1, 1983 and has been residing at the museum since that time. It was appraised at $3,000 by Lionbridge Antiques and Fine Arts of Charlottesville on January 31, 1983.

The pianoforte is currently at the James Madison Museum at 129 Caroline Street, Orange, Virginia 22960. If you would like to see it before it is moved to Belle Grove Plantation, please stop in and ask Bethany, the Museum Administrator to show it to you. While you are there, make sure you view all the wonderful exhibitions they have there! This is a museum that is seriously overlooked when people are traveling through. With Montpelier just down the road, most miss the opportunity to see the wonderful collection of James and Dolley Madison’s personal items as well as many other wonderful collection pieces. We have written about this many times and love going there as often as we can. Please make sure you tell Bethany that Belle Grove sent you!

We would also like to ask for any volunteers to help us move this amazing piece to Belle Grove Plantation. We do not have the means to do so and would very much appreciate any assistance we could get. This piece is very heavy and will require the legs to be removed while in route to Belle Grove.

We would like to extend a warm and much appreciated thank you to the Board of Directors and the James Madison Museum for such a generous donation. It will grace Belle Grove and be loved for years to come!


Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Darnell History | Comments Off on New Arrival Donation

The End of a Great Weekend

Mar. 22nd 2013
The James Madison Museum

The James Madison Museum

After we finish visiting with the Madison’s at Montpelier, we headed over to Orange, Virginia. Orange is just five miles from Montpelier. We have stayed here several times before. If you have been following the blog, you might remember the Holiday House Inn and Mayhurst. But this time we wanted to go to the first bed and breakfast we stayed in, Chestnut Hill Bed and Breakfast.

Before we made our way there, we made a stop at The James Madison Museum, another attraction in Orange that we enjoy seeing. At this museum, you can see items from James and Dolley Madison as well as others from contemporaries of theirs. The museum as has exhibitions that they carry for a limited time. On this visit, we wanted to see the Victorian exhibition.


Dress, Jacket and Cape

Dark blue taffeta with velvet trim and decorative buttons.

Worn by Miss Mildred Ann Bond when she wed Mr. Edward Virgil Huffman on January 10, 1886



This chair was owned and used in the White House by President James Buchanan



2 Pair of High-Top Shoes

(left) two-toned black leather with grey/green brushed leather buttons

(right) black leather and black satin lace-ups



16 piece composition with bisque head, brown human hair wig and brown glass eyes.

Manufactured by Guttmann & Schiffnie (1897-1924)

The doll has original undergarments and wearing a period party dress



Carriage Parasol

Black silk parasol with lace covering and fully lined; Chinese ivory handle not carved or engraved. Carriage parasols were smaller and could be folded by sliding the brass fitting.


Hump-Back Dome Trunk

The dome lid trunk allowed for the packing of bulky items such as lady’s hat and it prevented other trunks from being put on top. The pictures are ancestors of the lender. Circa 1870s


Deck Chair

Early version of the folding lawn chair, it is hinged to fold in a number of positions. It was made in 1876 of walnut and caned back and seat with beautifully carved sunburst and flower petals.

To see more of the exhibition,

you will need to hurry to the James Madison Museum in Orange.

It is here for just a short time.


After our visit to the museum, we headed to Chestnut Hill Bed and Breakfast. We were excited to see our favorite innkeepers, Troy and Kathleen. Most people don’t know this, but they have been mentoring us since the beginning. We first spoke to them shortly after seeing Belle Grove for the first time. It is these two wonderful people that we come back to with questions and who have helped guide us with their experiences. Brett and I can’t tell you what wonderful examples they have set in helping others reach for their dreams, just as they have gotten theirs. Brett and I hope we too will be able to help guide others as they have us.

Chestnut Hill is a wonderful B&B that sits at the top of a small hill. Many may not know this of Chestnut Hill, but this historic home was purchased by Kathleen and Troy through a city auction for just one dollar. But to see it today, you would never know that it was in such bad need of repair! Wonderful rooms and a grand breakfast await the tired travelers. In the evening, they serve some of the most delicious appetizers along with their wine social!


We arrived just towards the end of the wine social and had the chance to meet several wonderful guests who would also be staying at Chestnut Hill with us. We met people from Hampton, Stafford and Richmond. But it isn’t unusual to see couples from across the United States staying here.


For dinner we headed over to our favorite place in Orange, Elmwood at Sparks. We have been here three times now, but you wouldn’t know that if you saw us enter. We were greeted by staff who knew who we were and got a wave from the open kitchen from the Executive Chef, Randy Cooper. This time we set at the back counter so we could watch the kitchen staff at their craft. To see some of their food leaving the kitchen, it was just too beautiful to eat!

We started our dinner with our favorite, Shrimp and Grits! I just love Chef Randy’s version of this classic Southern dish. Being back by the kitchen, I was able to pull together the recipe for Belle Grove!! What a great dish to serve to our guest!!


We were able to order our favorite entrees, Wild Mushroom Pasta for Brett and Filet Mignon for me. These are the same dishes we have ordered each of the time we have come. Believe me, they have several other wonderful dishes, but we just love these entrees!



For dessert, we ordered Sweet Crepes with Port Butter Sauce, Raspberry Sauce and Vanilla Ice Cream. We should have started with dessert!! Wow! It was just so good that we could have licked the plate if it had not been bad manners.

Our Room at Chestnut Hill B&B

Our Room at Chestnut Hill B&B

Chestnut Hill B&B

Chestnut Hill B&B

Chestnut Hill B&B

Chestnut Hill B&B

After a great night’s sleep and filling breakfast, we sat down for a quick conversation with Kathleen and Troy. As other guests came to say good-bye, it was funny to see each couple lingering in the hall as if they just didn’t want to leave.

Funny, we had the same feeling.

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A Slave in the White House Book Signing with Elizabeth Dowling Taylor

Dec. 12th 2012
Elizabeth Dowling TaylorAuthor of "A Slave in the White House" with Brett and Michelle

Elizabeth Dowling Taylor
Author of “A Slave in the White House” with Brett and Michelle

On Sunday, Brett and I attended a book signing with Elizabeth Dowling Taylor, author of “A Slave in the White House”.

The James Madison Museum in Orange, Virginia

The James Madison Museum in Orange, Virginia

The event was sponsored by the James Madison Museum

in Orange, Virginia.

Elizabeth Dowling Taylor

Elizabeth Dowling Taylor

Elizabeth Dowling Taylor received her PhD from the University of California at Berkeley. She has worked over 22 years in museum education and historical research. She was the director of interpretation at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and director of education at James Madison’s Montpelier. Most recently a fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, Ms. Taylor is now an independent scholar and lecturer. She resides in Barboursville, Virginia.

 A Slave in the White House

Her book, “A Slave in the White House” is about a slave from Montpelier named Paul Jennings. Jennings served as a personal servant to President James Madison during and after his White House years. After buying his freedom in 1845, Jennings would publish the first White House memoir “A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison” in which he described as “a singular document in the history of slavery and the early American republic.”

Paul Jennings

Paul Jennings

Jennings was born into slavery at Montpelier in 1799. His mother, who was African-Native American, told Jennings that his father was Benjamin Jennings, an English trader. As a child Jennings would be a companion to Dolley Madison’s son Payne Todd. At age 10, Jennings would accompany James Madison and his family to the White House as a “body servant”. In his book, Jennings would describe Washington on his arrival as a “dreary place” with unpaved streets. The White House was still under construction and the East Room was yet to be finished.

During the War of 1812, as Dolley rushed from the White House as British troops approached, it was a 15 year old Jennings along with two other men through the direction of Dolley Madison that reportedly helped save the noted Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. It would later become the only surviving item of the White House before the war.

Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington

Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington

Jennings would return to Montpelier at age 18 and continue to serve James Madison as his valet for the rest of the president’s life. Jennings was with James Madison when he died in 1836. He would describe President Madison’s last moments in his book,

I was always with Mr. Madison till he died, and shaved him every other day for sixteen years. For six months before his death, he was unable to walk, and spent most of his time reclined on a couch; but his mind was bright, and with his numerous visitors he talked with as much animation and strength of voice as I ever heard him in his best days. I was present when he died. That morning Sukey brought him his breakfast, as usual. He could not swallow. His niece, Mrs. Willis, said, “What is the matter, Uncle Jeames?” “Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear. His head instantly dropped, and he ceased breathing as quietly as the snuff of a candle goes out.”


Paul Jennings, A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison (1865)

Jennings would marry a slave held on another plantation named Fanny and they would have five children. Dolley would take Jennings to Washington for the winter seasons. He was forced to leave his family behind only being permitted to visit them occasionally. Jennings would be the only slave in Dolley Madison’s will ever named to be freed. But due to her financial struggles, in 1844 Dolley had to sell Montpelier and all its property which included its slaves. It was that same year that Jennings’ wife Fanny would die. Dolley would hire out Jennings to President James Polk in Washington to help her survive financially.

Daniel Webster Purchase of Paul Jennings

Daniel Webster Purchase of Paul Jennings

Jennings would ask to purchase his freedom from Dolley, but she sold him to an insurance agent for $200. Quickly Senator Daniel Webster intervened and purchased him from the new owner for $120. Senator Webster would then give Jennings his freedom allowing him to work off his debt of his purchase.

Dolley Madison

Dolley Madison

It was during the time that Jennings was working for Senator Webster that Jennings would stay in contact with Dolley Madison, who still lived in the area despite her serious financial difficulties. Jennings would describe in his memoir that Senator Webster would instruct him “whenever I saw anything in the house I thought she was in need of, to take it to her.” “I often did this,” wrote Jennings, “and occasionally gave her small sums from my own pocket.”

In 1848, Jennings would help plan a mass escape of 77 slaves from Washington. It was the largest slave escape attempted in American history. Through the efforts and funding of white abolitionists William L. Chaplin and Gerrit Smith, the free black community of Washington would help the slaves escape on a 225 mile journey to freedom in the North on the schooner “Pearl”. However due to poor winds the slaves were captured and returned to Washington. Most were resold to traders in the Deep South. The two white captains, Daniel Drayton and Edward Sayres were convicted on multiple counts of aiding a slave escape and illegally transporting slaves. They served four years in jail before being pardoned by President Millard Fillmore.

Jennings would remarry again to Desdemona Brooks, a free mulatto whose mother was white. She was from Alexandria, Virginia. In the 1850s, Jennings would return to Virginia and reunite with his family. He had three sons who would join the Union cause during the Civil War. John, Franklin, William and daughter Mary would later join him in Washington.

After the war Jennings would work for the newly established Pension Bureau in the Department of Interior. He would handle claims of veterans and soldiers’ families. It was there that he met John Brooks Russell. Russell would help Jennings to gain publication for his memoir as a book in 1865.

As a free man, Jennings purchased a lot and built a home. It was here that his son John would live with him. His daughter Mary would live next door with her two children and his sons Franklin and William would live in the area. After Desdemona passed away, Jennings would remarry a third time to Amelia Dorsey. He would die in 1874 at the age of 75 in Washington.

At the book signing, we had an opportunity to hear how Elizabeth Dowling Taylor completed her research for her book. As she was talking, I found myself smiling in understanding as I too had experienced some of her joys in research. The most enjoyable part was as she described find a member of the Jennings family that was still alive and able to talk with her about her knowledge of the oral history of Jennings and his family. It is my hope that one day I might find someone with the same family history that will be able to give me more insight on the families of Belle Grove.

The author, Beth Taylor, with Sylvia Jennings Alexander, February 2009

The author, Beth Taylor, with Sylvia Jennings Alexander, February 2009

The most exciting part of our visit had to be a lead that Ms. Taylor gave me on a slave that could possibly have come from Belle Grove! In her research, she had uncovered a slave by the name of Billey, who was said to have come from James Madison’s grandmother. Billey would later gain his freedom from James Madison and would take the name of William Gardner. I am in the middle of this research so more to come on this!

We would like to thank the James Madison Museum for sponsoring this wonderful event!

It has provided us with leads on our research and has given us a chance to meet

the author of one a most wonderful book on slavery at Montpelier.

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Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Year of the Virginia Historic Homes | 28 Comments »