OMG Moment

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”!

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Guest Blogger – Morgan Hockensmith – Take a Walk Through Belle Grove Plantation

Morgan Hockensmith is the talented photographer behind Hockensmith Portraits. Morgan recently shot a wedding here in June 2015. After seeing her work, we decided to ask her to be the one to reshoot our rooms and suites for a new and updated look for our website. The photographs should be ready next week, but here is a sneak peek of the work she had done for us!

Thank you Morgan for the wonderful work!

Joey and I both share an intense love for history, which initially brought us together. What do history nerds such as us do on a day date, you ask? We visit and drool over historic homes, of course. There isn’t many old homes or plantations in Virginia that we haven’t visited. And lucky for us, we only live about ten minutes away from one of our favorites.

Belle Grove Plantation was established along the Rappahannock river in 1670, and is the birthplace of President James Madison. We have been captivated with Belle Grove since the first time we visited a few Winters ago. Since then, we have participated in reenactments there, photographed there and even been through a tornado there. And let me tell you, there is a special kind of bond between vendors that go through a tornado wedding together. I was thrilled when we were asked to take some new photographs for their website. I knew that meant there was a lengthy visit in my future, and there is something beyond the warm welcomes that really draws you to this place.

I spent about four hours hanging out and photographing Belle Grove. Of course it stormed, so there was awhile where Michelle and I just sat and talked in the huge empty house. Only a few lights on, dimmed by the storm like it would have been so long ago. A very comfortable eeriness.

If you ever find yourself in Port Royal and decide to visit Belle Grove, be prepared to completely fall in love with it.

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Belle Grove’s Amazing Race Makes Front Page News

Front Page Journal

“Amazing Race” raises funds for Belle Grove
Staff Report
The King George Journal
Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Belle Grove Plantation, historic site and the birthplace of James Madison, fourth president of the United States, author of the Bill of Rights and the acknowledged “Father of the Constitution” hosted its first annual “Amazing Race 2015” at Belle Grove Plantation on July 18.
The event was a fundraiser to restore and preserve the 1720 Summer Kitchen, Ice House and Smokehouse.

The Amazing Race 2015 was designed after the television show with a few alterations. The competitors, grouped in teams of two-to-four members apiece, gathered at the plantation to kick off the day with a relay race in front of the outbuildings. After that, they traveled to 10 Sponsor Location Challenge Stops to complete challenges and earn points for their team.

Using their Amazing Race Passports, they were given “extra point” challenges that they could complete for additional points. These “extra point challenges” had them looking for a person named “Lucy”, taking a picture with a bald man, playing patty cake with a stranger and other wild and wacky challenges.

While the teams traveled around King George, Caroline and Westmoreland Counties, they would not only complete challenges, but would also collect donations for Belle Grove Plantation’s “Save Our History at Belle Grove” campaign. At the end of the day, the teams collected $468. Three of the sponsors, Community Bank of the Chesapeake of King George, Cindy’s Corner Craft and Collectibles of Bowling Green and Unique Antiques of King George donated funds bring the total funds collected during this event to $768.

After the race, teams returned to Belle Grove Plantation for a much needed rest and meal. During the meal, contestants shared stories of all the wild and wacky adventures each of them had.

Each team dressed up in costumes in hopes of winning the “Best Dressed Team”. Cat bags, mini footballs painted yellow to look like lemons and multi-colored wigs were just some of the wacky outfits that arrived at Belle Grove that day.

last page Journal
To end the day, awards were given to the teams with the most points. First Place winners were the NARFE Incredible. Second place winners were the e-LEMON-ators. Third place winners were the Ruther Glen Rowdies. The “Best Dressed” team was awarded to the Gut Crushers. The “Most Funds Raised” Award was given to the Catwomen.

While the event is over, the “Save Our History at Belle Grove Plantation” Campaign isn’t. The Darnells’ goal is to raise $45,000 to restore and preserve the 1720s Summer Kitchen, Ice House and Smokehouse. The Darnells’ started a GoFundMe Champaign called “Save Our History at Belle Grove” 24 days ago. In this time and with the funds raised through the Amazing Race 2015, their total is now $3,686.


To see more about the Amazing Race visit our hashtag – #SaveBGHistory

To view our “Save Our History at Belle Grove” campaign visit –

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Pictures provided by Chamberlin Photography, Rebekah Beasley Photographs & DG Photography