Belle Grove Plantation, in King George, VA, is a gorgeous place, high up on a bluff on the eastern shore of the Rappahanock River. James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, was born there on March 16, 1751, although the house, which was the childhood home of his mother, Eleanor Rose Conway, where he was born no longer exists. A much grander one was built on the same location -- re-purposing much of the same materials -- in 1790.
The outside of the house -- now run as a bed and breakfast, historic site and special event venue -- conveys elegance and sophistication, with its perfect symmetry and expensive, curved doors -- a unique feature then and now that conveyed the owners' importance and wealth -- and the inside lives up to the promise of the exterior. Last weekend I got the opportunity to visit Belle Grove Plantation, now run by business owners Michelle and Brett Darnell. Wednesday through Sunday afternoons, they also offer tours of the historic house and property.
|The formal dining room.|
|Even in the elegant bedrooms, there are reminders of the plantation's past. Part of the bed's headboard is removable, and was used by two enslaved workers to fluff up the feather bed. Now a more modern mattress resides on the bedframe.|
"When I came to Belle Grove, it was my desire to remember and honor all who lived here," she said. "To leave out one part of our history because it makes me uncomfortable, well, its like acknowledging my face because it looks nice, but never mentioning my feet which aren't as pretty, but [which] work so hard. Each part is important and plays a role in the history."
"What did we know about them? How many were there? Where did they live?" Darnell remembered the visitors asking. "It has always been my desire and passion to tell all the stories of Belle Grove Plantation. To recover and tell what I can."
|The ornate medallion in the formal dining room is a recreation of the original.|
"Belle Grove wouldn't be what it is today without the enslaved people working here," Darnell said, gesturing toward the elegant grand hall, where she greeted the group that had assembled for the Enslaved Experience and History Tour. Her gesture encompassed the house itself, and by extension, the entire plantation.
During the Civil War, the Turner family -- the third family to own the plantation -- where forced out of their home when Union soldiers took over the property; the Turners lost everything. The Turners fled to Chotank, VA. Darnell believes that while the plantation was occupied by Union soldiers. most of the records were destroyed, most likely burned by the Union soldiers.
The lack of records was exacerbated by a fire in the local King George County courthouse in the 1950s, which probably also destroyed important records that could have shed light on the plantation and the people who lived on it. Ironically, the Union occupation that most likely destroyed the records probably ended up saving the house itself, as Union troops traveling down the river fired on the other major properties, but spared Belle Grove.
|Darnell was able to locate some records of the names of enslaved individuals who were kept on the property.|
In the absence of records, Darnell knew that the only ones who should tell the enslaved community's story would be former enslaved individuals themselves. She turned to slave narratives to tell the story of slave-life on a plantation. The compelling and somewhat emotionally intense presentation itself focuses on foods that came over with kidnapped Africans, the experiences of three individuals who survived slavery to write about their experiences, and some of the artifacts and evidence found on Belle Grove itself.
|The old Ice house.|
Darnell is convinced the property still holds secrets, among them the whereabouts of the slave cemetery. She has spent considerable time and effort to locate this important and hallowed place. "When I first arrived, I went to several meetings, historical and civic, just to meet people and ask questions. Oral history is important. But it isn't always correct," she noted, ruefully.
Darnell founded the James Madison Belle Grove Foundation in 2016, a non-profit whose prime mission is to preserve, restore, improve, maintain and educate the public about Belle Grove and its amazing American history. "Our current goal is to restore and preserve the 1720-1750 Summer Kitchen, Ice house and Smokehouse," she said, noting that whereas on other major plantations in Virginia those original structures no longer exist, they still do on Belle Grove.
|Inside the summer kitchen and slave quarters.|
|The old summer kitchen and slave quarters.|
|The hallway on the second floor is almost as grand as the first.|
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|The house's "main" entrance faces the river.|