The End of an Era

December 9, 2014

This morning, since we didn’t have any overnight guests, I decided to go grab a late breakfast. It’s nice sometimes to have someone else do the cooking for breakfast. I love going to this wonderful American Small Town Diner called Howards Bakery and Restaurant. It is located in King George on Route 3. I wrote about this place last year when I discovered it.

Howards Store Front

It is everything you would think of in a diner. The colors, the counter with the round stools, the booths and menu. Best of all, it is where most of the locals go. Going here, you can see people you don’t normally see and hear all that gossip that is going on in this small community. It really reminds me of the Colonial Coffee Houses and Taverns where people went to find out what was going on in the world and to discuss things.

Howards Bar

I came in and took a booth as I normally do and Teresa, one of the wait staff waved at me as I sat down. Just a minute later, she arrived at my table with a small glass of Coke with a lot of ice. This is my drink order no matter where we go. I had to smile as she set it down on the table and said to her, “It is getting really scary that you know my order before I place it.” She smiled and asked me if I was ready to order. Once again, she really didn’t have to ask. I order the same thing every time. I mean, why “fix” something that isn’t broke? As I told her my order, she just smiled.

After a few minutes she returned with my breakfast. As she set it down, she asked me, “What are you going to do after we close?” It was as if a 2 by 4 had hit me in the head. Closing? What do you mean closing? I must have looked dumb struck as I asked her, “What do you mean closing? Like for good?”


She replied, “You didn’t know? I thought everyone knew.” No, I really didn’t know. Things have been really busy at the plantation. And being so busy, it doesn’t allow me time to eat breakfast out. Which means I am always the last to know things here. Of course being on the plantation and isolated from the world is wonderful, but it does limit my knowledge of what is going on.

I spoke to Virginia, the co-owner and asked her if it was true. Virginia and I have been come friends and even share different recipes for things like scones. She told me that they had put it out on Facebook. Of course I try to keep up with other’s Facebook pages, but things still get past me. That and Facebook doesn’t always post all the postings from your friends on the News Feed like they use to do. So again, I missed out.

But this is truly sad. Virginia and Howard have been open for eighteen years and working there for twenty years when it was owned by someone else. They both have new jobs to go to. Some of the wait staff is retiring and others are now looking for their next job.

As I ate my breakfast, I listen to the conversation going on at the counter. This is how you find out things in a small town diner. The discussion was why they were closing. One thought was that there were too many similar restaurants in the area. There are a few Mexican, a few Italian and maybe one Chinese. But the thought was that because people go to these other locations more often, it was cutting into Howard’s business.

Was it because there was too much competition? Was it because of location? Was it because of the food style? How knows for sure. These days, with the Food Network and Cooking Channel, I think people’s palates are changing. I know my children, having grown up in a home where we cook with a lot of seasonings and spices as well as trying new things, are more into going to places that gives their palates a work out. Could this be the reason?

No matter the reason, one thing is true, the Great American Small Town Diner is on the decline. We are become a population that prefers convenience, fast and cheap. We are all on the move more, trying to get our kids to the ball field or dancing lessons or piano lessons. We try to shove as much into our days as we can. And in doing so, we shove out time to enjoy a meal.

It truly saddens me. I know things change and I am okay with change. But it is sad to see such a place that was the center of a community fall by the wayside. I really don’t think people will understand the loss until that one Saturday morning they get up and want to head down for breakfast. Where does the “heart” of a community go now?

I guess this means I am just getting older. (Notice I didn’t say old- I refuse to get old) But it is funny as I watch things that were staples in my life closing. This was just such a simple and good thing that I thought it would last forever. But one good thing about this is I got a chance to be a small part of it before the doors close. Now I can say, “Hey, do you remember Howards?”

Brett and I wish Virginia and Howard all the best. We also wish the wait staff much luck in finding their new path. We are going to truly miss this one spot in the world where things were simple and everyone knew everyone’s name.

Howard’s will be closing their doors on December 31st. Take a meal and enjoy the simple things in life before they are gone forever.

Check them out of Facebook and let them know how much we are going to miss them!

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Diary | No Comments »

It’s a Wonderful Life

Lantern Snow
December 5, 2014

Phew… it is finally done. Okay, almost done. We have been decorating Belle Grove for Christmas for the past three days. Thank goodness two wonderful volunteers came to my rescue on Wednesday or I would not be as far as we are today. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate Tammy and Claire for sticking with me and getting the major part of the decorating done. Next year ladies… we will be ready!

I am also very thankful to Oakbrow Plantation (just two plantations downstream from us) for allowing us to come and cut as much greenery as we have. Belle Grove Plantation is a huge undertaking when it comes to greenery. It allows us to remember past Christmases at Belle Grove when they used fresh cedars and hollies to deck the halls.

We are also very thankful to Mason Florist in King George, Virginia for starting our Christmas decorating off. They were here the day after Christmas to decorate the Formal Dining room. It was their design that truly set the tone for the rest of the mansion. We are still amazed at how beautiful that room really is!

We opened for our Christmas Candlelight tours yesterday and thankfully we didn’t have anyone show. We still had a few things to do and frankly, after being on my feet for two days straight, I was beat. Honestly, I can’t tell you what I had for dinner and don’t remember going to bed. But at least I had the chance to sleep in this morning. I think I clocked about eleven hours of sleep.

We have only a couple more things left to do to finish our masterpiece in decorating. The Riverside Balcony stands undone at the moment. But it will get its dressing in the morning. I need to run out and grab one more rope garland to stretch across the width of the balcony. Then I just need to hang the two swags and wreath. Then we are calling it done.

You should see this mansion! It is beyond beautiful! We have almost all the rooms decorated. There are seven fireplace mantles that are decorated in different themes. The Grand Hallway is a sight to see! With the Christmas tree to greet you and the beautiful garland flowing down the stairs.

In the library we have our Santa collection. I have been collecting Santa dolls for about fifteen years. Each year it is my mission to find that special one to join the group. But it can’t be just any Santa. His face has to “talk” to me. And the details truly matter. I look for glasses or special clothing or just something to set him apart. No, I don’t do the silly Santa dolls that are dressed as cowboys or fisherman. I have already found this year’s Santa. You can see him in the Grand Hall when you enter. He is on special display until another comes to take his place. Who knows, I might find a second or even third this year. The last two years I didn’t find any that I liked so I am due!

But you know, with all this decorating and running around, it still doesn’t feel like Christmas to me. It isn’t Christmas until I see “It’s a Wonderful Life”. There is just something about seeing that movie that gets me in the mood for Christmas. I don’t know what it is. It wasn’t like I watched it as a child with my family. In fact, it didn’t start until our kids were almost grown. But now, after watching it so many times before Christmas, I don’t seem to feel the “spirit” of Christmas until I see George Bailey running through the town of Bedford Falls calling out “Hello” to all the old buildings he once took for granted.

I bought the DVD about five years ago. The day after Thanksgiving, we would pull down all the Christmas decorations and spend the day putting things up and watching the movie. My children grew to hate the movie so much that one year the DVD went missing. But don’t worry, I replaced it.

But things just haven’t seemed to work out for me and the movie over the last two years. Two years ago, my mother passed away at the end of November, just before Thanksgiving. With Thanksgiving, then her birthday on December 3rd and then Christmas, it was just too much for me to handle. My family was so wonderful at that time. I asked for one year, not to have Christmas. I just couldn’t face it. And because they loved me so much, we didn’t have Christmas. Just a quiet dinner with each of us playing “Secret Santa” for one another. That year, “It’s a Wonderful Life” didn’t come off the self.

Last year, we were here at Belle Grove for our first Christmas. We were so honored to have six ladies from Bowling Green, Virginia come and decorate Belle Grove. So there was no time for me to pull it off the shelf as they worked. I don’t think I got to see it on television either.

This year, we have been pushing hard to finish the decorating and “It’s a Wonderful Life” has been far from my thoughts. That is until today. As I was putting the finishing touches on the decorations and sharing Belle Grove with two tour visitors, it struck me how I just didn’t feel like Christmas. I am surrounded by all these beautiful decorations and I just don’t feel like Christmas. I knew something was missing. That is when it hit me. I had not seen the movie.

So I looked up the television guide to see when it might be coming on. And there it was, Saturday, December 6th at 8pm. No! It can’t be! I won’t get to see this one. We will be busy doing tours from 7pm to 9pm.

So that is when I went to the shelf and dusted off my DVD copy that I had hidden from the children. After tours tonight, we are going to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” together. Just Brett and I that is. I know the children will be happy about that.

But as I sit here, thinking about the movie and the plot, I too reflect on our past year here. We have had such a great time getting Belle Grove going, meeting the endless number of people who have come calling at our door, accepting the wonderful donations to our collection, working with some of the best volunteers in the world and bring together the lost history of Belle Grove Plantation. It is my hope that we have been able to give back all the love, encouragement and support we have received in the last year.

So whether we get tour visitors for our Christmas Candlelight tours or not. I can honestly say, it truly has been a wonderful life.

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Diary | Comments Off

Tis the Yuletide Spirit

November 28, 2014

This last few days at the plantation have been so busy as we were preparing for Thanksgiving Dinner with our family and friends. We had guests booked almost every day this week. The only day we didn’t have guests was Wednesday. It turned out to be a rain and cold day with even our first snow flurry. Thankfully, no snow on the ground. After last years snow, I think I am pretty good not to have any at the plantation this year. Here is hoping though I don’t think it will happen.

Because I knew the Wednesday was going to be cold and wet, I decided to do all my shopping on Monday and Tuesday. You know, just in case we got a freak snow storm that socked us in for the day. Don’t laugh, it would be my luck. On Monday, I spent take looking for some things we need for our Christmas decorating here at the plantation. I needed mostly to find some LED light strings that were battery operated and had a timer on them. Our power outlets are limited here and I know I didn’t want to run around turning on and off Christmas lights this year. I also need some small black lanterns with shepherd hooks to line the entry lane. I thought my best bet would be to hit “And That”, a discount store in Fredericksburg that carries just about anything.

As normal, I was pushed for time on Monday and I debated going or not. But I knew if I didn’t, I would find them there later and they would be almost sold out. So I thought, “I will just run in and see if they have it or not.” You know to rule them out later if I needed to look elsewhere. So in I rushed, knowing I had only 30 minutes to get in and out. We had guests arriving between 4pm and 6pm and I needed to get back.

I did find the lights I needed there, but as always when you need lots of them, they only had two. I pulled a sale person aside and asked if they might have more in the back. She said no, but she thought we could order them. Order them? I didn’t know you could do that at this store! Big question was, when would I get them? This week? Really? Let’s do it! Of course they didn’t have the black lanterns that I needed. But at least one thing can be marked off the list.

I decided not to leave without taking the two lights I found. You never know if you might need them. When I went to get in line, the customer service line had two ladies with carts overflowing with items. I walked down to the two cashier lines that were open only to see both had two customers in each line with their carts overflowing. This wasn’t good. I had just ten minutes to get out and on the way. So I walked back to the customer service line and ask the cashier if they had an express line. She replied, “This is the express line, but it doesn’t always work that way.” While she was telling me this, the lady in front of me, looked at me and my two items and turned her back on me.

I looked at the first lady in line and saw that the cashier was only half way through her cart of items. So I stood there for a minute or two thinking, “Should I wait or should I ask them to hold these until I returned for the others? Or should I just put them down and go.”

Then it struck me. The lady in front of me knows I have only two items, yet she turned her back on me as if not to care. Now don’t get me wrong, I didn’t expect special treatment. I believe in waiting my turn like everyone else. But had this been any time expect before Thanksgiving and Christmas, the lady ahead of me with ten thousand items in her cart would have offered to allow me to go ahead of her. Yet because it was before the holidays, she turned her back on me.

“Tis the Yuletide Spirit”

You know what I am talking about. That time during the holiday when the sweetest old lady turns into an aggressive monster that pushes and shoves her way through the store to get that last Christmas item before you. That kindly gentleman that turns into an angry ogre as he cuts you off to get that one parking spaces that you had been waiting on as the previous person pulled out.

This morning I woke to read about the Black Friday Shoppers that started on Thursday during the Thanksgiving Day specials. Violent skirmishes fighting over bargains on televisions, tablets and even Barbie dolls! In one location two women started pushing each other over $5 Barbie dolls! In another store, a woman was arguing with a man over a Sony subwoofer speaker while a store employee in a safety vest tries to mediate the situation.


Whatever happened to this time of the year being about love, hope and giving? In the past years, I have come to avoid stores and malls at this time because frankly, people have lost their minds! I have come to hate the commercial side of Christmas. Why is it so important that we get that last “Tickle me Elmo”? Remember that one? I bet you can’t even remember that toy is today that you spent four days camped out in line at Walmart for? So what do you have to show for it?

Well, lucky for me, another cashier came along and took me out of line so I could get out on time. She was so nice and I think she could see the stress in my face and I pondered over what to do. So despite that “Yuletide Spirit” that others may show at this time of year, I know that is hope. There are those out there that feel and live the true meaning of Christmas.

I know I want to make sure I am one of them.

With this thought, today I will be spending the day doing tours of Belle Grove from 1pm to 4pm and then greeting our overnight guests between 4pm and 6pm. In between, I will be working out our Christmas decorations. We will be working on getting things in placed for our December Candlelight Tours starting on December 4th to December 21st. Our Candlelight Tours will be from 7pm to 9pm Thursday – Sunday.

We are excited that we have two florist, Mason King George Florist from King George and The Flower Guy Bron from Richmond helping us with the interior decorations. Dawn with Mason Florist is decorating the Formal Dining Room and Bron from The Flower Guy is decorating the Ladies Parlor.

If you are crafty and would like to volunteer helping us decorate the outside of Belle Grove or the interior Grand Hall way, please let me know. We will be working on getting the fresh greenery cuttings this weekend and will be decorating this weekend until Thursday morning. We would love any help that we can get! The more the merrier! Just contact me at 540-621-7340 or email us at

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Diary, Uncategorized | Comments Off
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Pictures provided by Chamberlin Photography, Rebekah Beasley Photographs & DG Photography