Meet Shirley!

05/11/12 8:39 PM

Just last week, I had the pleasure to meet someone that actually stayed in the mansion at Belle Grove Plantation during the 1950’s!

Allow me to introduce Shirley Armstrong.

Shirley Armstrong

Born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Shirley Ann Nicholson grew up with history all around her. When she was fourteen, she had a photograph taken at the location where the Fredericksburg newspaper, the Free Lance Star is now located.

At age fifteen, she met her future husband, Albert John Williams, age nineteen, who was serving in the U.S. Navy as a Hospital Corpsman. On July 25, 1953 at age seventeen, Shirley and Al became husband and wife.

Al and Shirley Williams
on their wedding day

At the time, Al’s parents Ann and Alton Cooper were working at Belle Grove Plantation as caretakers for the owners, John Palmer and Mary Hooker. The Hookers were from Chicago and had purchased Belle Grove as a summer home. According the Shirley, the Hookers would rarely come down.

Ann Cooper
Shirley’s mother-in-law
Caretaker of Belle Grove Plantation 1951 to 1956

Alton Cooper (without shirt)
Shirley’s father-in-law
Caretaker of Belle Grove Plantation 1951 to 1956

When Shirley and Al married, Alton and Ann stood in as their witnesses. After the ceremony at their pastor’s home, the group went to dinner at a restaurant called “Bruce’s” located just across the river from Belle Grove Plantation in Port Royal, Virginia. For their wedding night, Shirley’s in-laws allowed them to use one of the upstairs rooms in the mansion for their honeymoon. But sadly their honeymoon would not last long. They received a call that night that Al had to report to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina to be deployed with the Marines the next day.

Shirley Williams
working at Belle Grove Plantation
The house in the background is the current caretaker’s home.

Shirley would stay behind in Fredericksburg. She would assist her in-laws as caretakers at Belle Grove too. She told me how she remembers cleaning all the silver for the Hookers in the mansion. Shirley and Al would have four children, two girls and two boys. But their marriage would not stand the test of time. After her divorce, she would meet her second husband and would have another child. Their marriage would last for forty-two years. Shirley’s second husband passed away four years ago.

Shirley would remember Belle Grove Plantation as one of the most beautiful places she has ever seen. She received a post card from her mother-in-law shortly after she married Al Williams. This post card has Belle Grove Plantation’s mansion on the front. Shirley has held on to this post card ever since.

Belle Grove Plantation
Post Card

She has watched the newspaper for stories of Belle Grove Plantation. When we had our piece in the Free Lance Star about a month ago, she would clip out this article and save it with the other newspaper clippings of the mansion she had grown to love. It was through this article that she felt the need to reach out to us.

Southern Belle
Free Lance Star
July 25, 2003

It was a wonderful visit with Shirley. She allowed us to take all the newspaper clippings and filled in some of our missing history of the plantation. Of course she kept the post card. But we are thankful to have such a wonderful story to add to the history of this beautiful and historic plantation. To us, it is the personal history that makes this plantation something special to see and visit.

Belle Grove Plantation Mansion
Before Restoration
Southern Belle
Free Lance Star
July 25, 2003

Restoration in Process
Southern Belle
Free Lance Star
July 25, 2003

We would like to thank Shirley Armstrong for reaching out and contacting us to share the personal history with us. It really means a lot to us!

We would like to send out an invitation to anyone with personal history, stories, pictures, connections with the family or members of past families, please consider connecting with us. You can contact us through this blog, our facebook page or by emailing us at

It is this history that we want to remember and to add to the history book that is Belle Grove Plantation.

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Year of the Virginia Historic Homes | 54 Comments »

54 Comments on “Meet Shirley!”

  1. Dianna Says:

    This is great, Michelle! How wonderful of Shirley to contact you and to share all the information and memories she has of Belle Grove!

  2. Thank you! It really was a wonderful experience.

  3. John Says:

    Great post! It’s so wonderful this woman contacted you about the plantation’s history. Glad I found your site. 🙂

  4. Thank you! We are glad you found us too! 😉 She really is a wonderful lady and we are honor to have had the chance to talk to her.

  5. What a wonderful piece of history and such a great story!!

  6. Thank you! It really is great to have a chance to talk to someone with history at the plantation. We have missed so many chances with others passing away just before we got there.

  7. coastingnz Says:

    Fantastic Michelle. How exciting to get all that history and the newspaper clippings etc.

  8. Thank you! It really was wonderful to meet her and to get this personal history down before it slipped away into past.

  9. terry1954 Says:

    that was a beautiful love story!

  10. It really is. But there is something about this plantation that seems to draw people to it. It has such a warm heart that just catches you off guard and then just seems to pull you close.

  11. terry1954 Says:

    I can imagine…………………and sometimes feel it

  12. Ashima Says:

    Wow! How nice of Shirley to contact you and also give you all the newspaper clippings! Must be a great addition to your collection 🙂

  13. It was just such an honor to talk to her. I can’t believe all the history that seems to be coming out.

  14. Another great story about Belle Grove!

  15. I can’t wait to see what is coming around the next corner!

  16. belocchio Says:

    The book about Belle Grove is getting bigger and bigger. I was fascinated by Shirley’s wedding picture, and her collection of news clippings. It is amazing what one saves through the years. You wonder why, and then one day “poof” you discover it was for this. Virginia

  17. Isn’t it great how things just seem to work out! I can’t wait until the next surprise!

  18. pommepal Says:

    Shirley must be so happy to find that Belle Grove is in such loving hands

  19. Aw thank you! Of course it was really my honor to get a chance to meet her!

  20. vanbraman Says:

    What a wonderful surprise for you and a great benefit from your recent publicity.

  21. It really was! I just can’t wait to see what is going to come out next!

  22. I love the old pics, especially the one of Shirley cruising the tractor.

  23. That was a great picture. I knew I wanted to include it when I saw it.

  24. Aurora HSP Says:

    Love the piece and the photos, was like a movie unfolding, thank you!

  25. Thank you! Brett and I have started calling our blog the “reality show” 😉

  26. What a great story. I like this just as much as the tales from Belle Grove’s beginnings.

  27. Thank you! I love that it is part of the history of this grand old plantation. I just can’t wait to make our own history there!

  28. Ray's Mom Says:

    What a discovery to find someone with personal history of this lovely plantation home and willing to share. Enjoyed reading.

  29. Thank you! It was a great discovery. I am hoping we might be able to find more as time goes on.

  30. That is so cool that you got to meet someone who stayed at Belle Grove! Great photos too 🙂

  31. Thank you! It really was! I can’t wait to see who pops up next!

  32. L. Palmer Says:

    So great to find pieces of history.

  33. Thank you! It really is wonderful to find things connected to it.

  34. gooseyanne Says:

    What a wonderful meeting -and how kind of her to share all those memories with you.

  35. Thank you! It really was very nice of her to meet with us. And to share so much with us. It is priceless!

  36. Amy Says:

    Thank you so much for sharing the story of Shirley Armstrong and her precious photos! Enjoyed the reading.

  37. Thank you! It really was a pleasure to meet her and to share it with all of you!

  38. Mrs. P Says:

    I hope more people who have their own personal history with Belle Grove take you up on your offer to contact you. 🙂

  39. Me too! It would be really great to be able to put together personal experience in a book about the plantation.

  40. Mrs. P Says:

    Excellent idea!

  41. Wow, you must have been really happy when you spoke with this lady and looked at these beautiful pictures:-) great post! 🙂

  42. Thank you! It really was an honor to be able to talk with her. Her history will now not be lost to time.

  43. createengwp Says:

    This historical piece is a treasure. 🙂

  44. Yes I have to agree.

  45. mizqui Says:

    Awesome historical story and pics! Wow! How cool is that Shirley had such history on her person that is so relative to your today and future? Thanks for sharing history in the fullest. I certainly enjoyed the insight. There’s never a boring moment on that plantation. Is there? (-:

  46. Thank you! I have to say it really was exciting meeting her. No I don’t think there is a boring day on the plantation. There is always something going on.

  47. Lovely tribute to Shirley. I especially like the photo of her with her new husband. My daughter delivered the Free Lance Star back in the early 1970s. Geo Washington’s great-great-great grand nephew was on her beat. Dianne

  48. Wow! I beat she loved knowing that! That is so cool! Thank you!

  49. Joyce Says:

    What a great story! I love the pictures, but especially the wedding photo.

    Did you write a blog on how you came to own this plantation?

  50. Thank you. It was a pure joy writing this post. She was such a grand lady.

    We don’t own the plantation, we are leasing it. You would have to go back to the start of our blog to see how we came into it. I am going to work this weekend upgrading our blog so it is a little easier to find things. Thank you for stopping by!

  51. I have family, who live in VA.

  52. How wonderful! We hope when you come to visit you might stop by and see us once we open. Thank you for stopping by!

  53. I like that you’re telling the stories of others ~ this is really interesting

  54. Thank you! I find that its the personal stories that make this plantation so rich with its history. Anyone can read dates and people, but its the way those people lived that we look at. It reminds us that they are real and not just words pages. It also shows us that they aren’t that different from ourselves.