Belle Grove Plantation makes press!

Jul. 1st 2013



                By Cathy Dyson

                  June 25th, 2013, 3:45 pm

Belle Grove gets some helping hands

Photo by Clara Brabo

Members of the King George Community helped do some landscaping around Belle Grove Plantation on Saturday.

Michelle and Darnell are opening a bed-and-breakfast at Belle Grove, the birthplace of President James Madison. They had a truckload of items coming Saturday morning and needed help with the planting.

Supervisor Ruby Brabo put out a Facebook request on Friday asking for help. On Saturday, 17 residents, including some from Richmond and Chesapeake, showed up to unload the flatbed, then begin the chore of planting cherry trees and hydrangea bushes, roses and peonies.

“We are just so overwhelmed with the turnout,” Michelle Darnell said. “It only makes us more excited to be here and to be opening this beautiful Southern plantation to the public again.”

After the truck was unloaded, Brabo said Michelle Darnell “rewarded the group” with a tour of the house.

The Darnells had purchased hundreds of shrubs, plants and bushes as part of their primary landscaping. They got about a third of the plants and trees in the ground, with the help of the volunteers.

The Darnells had hoped to open their B&B, which is off U.S. 301 near the Port Royal bridge, in March in time for Madison’s birthday. But they were delayed in getting their special exception from the King George Board of Supervisors and have faced other delays as they’ve tried to get the 18th-century plantation ready for visitors.

They don’t own the property, but have a lease to operate from the owners, the Austrian company Franz Haas Machinery.

The Darnells are hoping to open the facility by mid-July. But even before then, Belle Grove plans to participate with the Fourth of July celebration at Port Royal, which is just over the bridge from Belle Grove.

The plantation will be open from 2 to 6 p.m. for guided tours. There is no charge, but donations will benefit the restoration of the 18th-century summer kitchen, ice house and smoke house.

Those interested in tours may advance register by emailing the Darnells at Walk ins Welcome on July 4th.

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Belle Grove History, Darnell History | 10 Comments »

Time to Plant the Landscaping!

Jun. 21st 2013

Tomorrow is the big day!

We are finally getting our landscaping at 10am by flatbed truck!

We have put out a call for volunteers and have to say we are so happy to hear we have people coming from far and wide! We have even had one of the Board of Supervisors help us get the work out! Ruby Brabo placed a call to help on her Board of Supervisors Facebook Page and sent it out through her email list. This resulted in the Free Lance Star placing us on their online blog! A big Shout Out to Ruby and the Free Lance Star for helping us!


June 21st, 2013, 1:04 pm

Cathy Dyson

Volunteers needed for Belle Grove project

Brett and Michelle Darnell, who are planning to open a bed-and-breakfast at Belle Grove Plantation, are getting truckloads of trees, shrubs and plants tomorrow, starting at 10 a.m.

They’re asking that anyone who’s interested in helping them with their restoration plan to improve the landscaping to show up with gardening tools, gloves and shovels.

“Not only is this a great opportunity to demonstrate our sense of community, but if you have ever wondered what was at the end of the long driveway, now is the time to satisfy your curiosity,” said Supervisor Ruby Brabo in an email.

The Darnells will be working all day, until the trucks are unloaded and the plants are in the ground. They will provide water for those who help.

Belle Grove is the birthplace of President James Madison, and is off U.S. 301 near the Port Royal bridge. In March, the supervisors approved a special exception to let the Darnells open a B&B in the historic home.

The Darnells had wanted to open in March, in time for Madison’s birthday, but were delayed in the permitting process. Then, they set their sights on May 1, but were delayed again. They’re hoping to open by July 1, but again are facing delays—this time because they’re in need of seamstresses.

Please See Our Facebook Page for Updates on the Landscaping tomorrow!

Facebook Link

Pictures to Follow on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram tomorrow!

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Darnell History | 10 Comments »

Belle Grove Makes the Presses!

Sep. 29th 2012

Belle Grove makes the Fredericksburg Free Lance Star!

Many thanks to Cathy Dyson and Reza Mavashti from the Fredericksburg Free Lance Star

for taking the time to visit with us at Belle Grove Plantation!

Read their wonderful piece on Belle Grove Plantation!

The Darnells have big plans for the future of Belle Grove Planation, the birthplace of James Madison.

Historic site could have a B&B future
Couple hopes to open bed-and-breakfast in King George County at Belle Grove, the birthplace of President James Madison
Date published: 9/29/2012


Michelle Darnell wants people who visit Belle Grove Plantation to have the same reaction she did when she pulled into the driveway for the first time.

She gasped in awe.

And she wasn’t even looking at the grandest side of the house, which is the “river side” that faces the Rappahannock.

Darnell had arrived on the “carriage side,” accessible off U.S. 301 in the Port Conway area of King George County.

Still, she was amazed by the elegant grace of the home built in 1791 as a basic farmhouse, then later complemented with extended wings, curved porches and porticos, as well as a balcony that runs along a portion of the second floor.

Darnell and her husband, Brett, want others to feel the same rush at Belle Grove, the birthplace of President James Madison.

The Darnells, who live in Chesapeake, hope to open a bed-and-breakfast at Belle Grove. They plan to apply for a special exception from the county and are in the process of gathering paperwork. They’ve been told it can take up to four months to get approval.

Michelle Darnell would like to open the suites at Belle Grove by March 16, Madison’s birthday.

“When you think about the history that we carry and the men who might have walked here on this property, it’s mind-boggling,” she said, adding it’s a history that others can share. “How many presidential birthplaces can you go to and spend the night?”


The Darnells don’t own the plantation; they have a lease to operate the bed-and-breakfast. The property is owned by the Austrian company Franz Haas Machinery. Company officials said they didn’t want to be quoted.

According to a 2003 story in The Free Lance-Star, the company bought the home in 1988 and later undertook a renovation to strip the walls down to the studs. Years of neglect and weather had taken their toll, and the Austrians spent $3.5 million to restore Belle Grove.

“This house is a fortress now,” Michelle Darnell said.

Madison wasn’t born in the home that faces the Rappahannock and the Caroline County town of Port Royal. That structure burned and the current home was built.

There’s been some question as to where the original home was, and Michelle Darnell has studied historical documents and newspaper clippings religiously.

The Darnells came across a foundation in the crawl space and believe it may be part of the original home. They’d like to look into it more, once they open the bed-and-breakfast and move onto the property.

Michelle Darnell’s grandmother probably would be proud of the way her granddaughter has taken to Belle Grove’s history as if it were her own.

Michelle Darnell grew up in South Carolina, and when her grandmother took her to the state capital or the family cemetery, she shared stories about past events and the people who carried the same blood in their veins.

Little Michelle became the family historian. She embraced the Belle Grove history with the same enthusiasm–to the point her husband regularly tells her to shorten her history lesson when showing visitors around.


The Darnells hope to host weddings, receptions and other gatherings on the lawn of Belle Grove. The bed-and-breakfast will offer four suites of rooms.

Two are on the ground floor and are junior suites with sitting rooms and spacious bathrooms.

The two master suites on the second floor include one named for James Madison. From the “soaking tub” in the bathroom, guests can gaze out the window at the flowing Rappahannock.

The Austrian company will pay for some of the antiques and reproductions the Darnells will use to furnish Belle Grove, once they get county permission to open.

Michelle Darnell plans to uphold some of the traditions observed by people who once lived there.

She’ll have a wine and cheese reception in the grand hallway every day but Sunday and serve mint juleps. That’s in honor of the Turner family, whose male members gathered promptly at 5 p.m. for refreshments.

On Sunday afternoons, she’ll have a lemonade social, which was the custom observed by the last person to live on the property, Mary Hooker.

“We’re trying to think of every little detail that might make somebody comfortable,” Michelle Darnell said. “We want to make it beautiful.”

Michelle Darnell posts a blog about Belle Grove at

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Year of the Virginia Historic Homes | 57 Comments »

Whirlwind Weekend

Sep. 25th 2012

Well we survived the jam packed weekend at the plantation! What a time we had! There is so much I don’t even know where to begin! All I do know is that I cannot wait to be there full time working towards this wonderful dream!

Saturday was so much fun! We worked all day with the film crew, first showing them around the plantation and giving them the history of Belle Grove. While we were at the church showing them around the cemetery, we met a very nice couple from King George who was there looking around the tombstones. I am glad to know that I am not the only one who enjoys seeing them. But in our conversation with them, I found out that they had not been to Belle Grove yet. So I invited them to come with the families from Port Royal on Sunday at 1pm. After they left and as we were leaving, I noticed another person standing in front of the church taking pictures. I decided to walk over and say “Hi” as I was leaving. She told me that she was in Fredericksburg for her daughter’s wedding and wanted to stop and see the church. She was interested in it age and history. She came to the right person on that account! It really warmed my heart to know that so many are interested in this beautiful place!

Because we were working with the film crew most of the day on Saturday and into the night, Brett and I were not able to go to Stratford Hall on Saturday for the 6th Annual Wine Fest. It was just so much fun working with them. I can’t wait to reveal who they are and what they were filming. (That is coming soon)

Sunset over the River
View from the bluff at Belle Grove

Belle Grove at night is something to see! The only time I have ever been there during the evening or when it was dark was at twilight and just after. And even then there was a full moon so it was almost like daytime. But this time, the moon was about a half so the light was not as bright. But the sky at night!! How can I put it into words? I have always lived in the city so seeing a night sky limits the view of the stars. But here where the cities lights are miles away and there is nothing to stop your view, except a few trees and a passing cloud. It was just breath taking! I stood in front of the manor house and just couldn’t take my eyes off of it. The stars formed a beautiful backdrop with the manor as a dark silhouette. I just tried to image what it had been like to see it through all those years when there was no electric power. Can you image pulling up to the house with only a lantern as your light?

Stratford Hall
Great House

Sunday morning, we decided to run to Stratford Hall to the Wine Fest for about one hour. I know that isn’t a lot, but we wanted to experience it so we knew what to expect next year. We arrived shortly after they opened at 11am. We came in through the Visitor Center, but didn’t stop to really look through. We were on a mission! We were first greeted by a tent for Wine Stomping. They had a barrel with grapes for kids to stomp the grapes! Then we caught sight of a classic car show. There were some really cool classic cars. But we didn’t spend much time looking at them either.

Classic Cars

Our main focus was the vendors that had been stationed in the yard of the Great House. Most were wineries like Ingleside, Oakcrest, and even Trump Winery. Yes that would be Donald Trump’s winery in the Charlottesville area.

We also had a chance to meet a vendor from a local farm that specializes in cheese. Just what we were looking for! I really want to make sure that our guests have the full Virginia experience when visiting Belle Grove Plantation Bed and Breakfast! So when we serve our Virginia Wines and Mint Juleps for the Wine and Cheese Receptions each afternoon at 5pm, we want to serve local Virginia Cheese as well!

Marshall Farm

There were also several artists and craft vendors there. We are hoping to have artist retreats and arts and craft events at the plantation too.

Creighton’s Creations

Jen Donald

One vendor that I was most excited about was the “George Washington’s Friends”. This organization is dedicated to preserving the times and places of Colonial Virginia. Through interpretations of actual historic persons in Virginia, they bring to life those that most just read about. We are excited to find that there is a “James Madison” and “Dolley Madison” we can contact! Who knows, maybe you will have a chance to meet the Madisons at Belle Grove some day!

George Washington’s Friends

George Washington’s Friends

Another vendor that I was excited about was the “Northern Neck Master Gardeners”. As we start planning our landscape and gardens, we want to make sure that we are using accurate plants for our plantation. We have decided not to go 100% colonial in our plantings, but to have plants that represent the many generations that have lived at Belle Grove. This organization has had experience in working with a colonial garden too! They have a kitchen herb garden that they manage at George Washington’s birthplace, just 15 miles from Belle Grove. So I will be consulting them on questions as we get that part of our plan started.

Northern Neck Master Gardeners –

One and a half hours later (yes, I talk too much and we over stayed our time) we grabbed a quick lunch at one of the food vendors. It smelled so good! It was just like being at a carnival! You could smell the onions, peppers and Italian sausage cooking. So I grabbed a Philly Cheese Steak and Brett got two hot dogs.

Philly Cheese Steak

We made it back to Belle Grove just in time to greet the couple from King George at 1pm. Shortly after they arrived, the families from Port Royal arrived. I had already started showing the property to the King George couple and Brett picked up the Port Royal families. Just as I was finishing the second floor, the reporter for the Fredericksburg Free Lance Star arrived at 2pm. So Brett combined the group and finished showing them the property while I met with the reporter.

I had met Cathy Dyson of the Fredericksburg Free Lance Star while I was at a King George Historic Society Picnic in June of this year. The picnic was the one at Cleydael that I wrote about in a past post. Today she was here to talk to us about Belle Grove and the bed and breakfast. I walked her and the photographer around the property while telling them about the history. As usual, my history lesson ran way over. Brett has told me many times that I get too long winded when talking about the history of Belle Grove. But I find it hard to decide what not to talk about. The way I see it, all the history is important because it is what made Belle Grove what it is today. Cathy was more than accommodating and listened as I talked about this beautiful plantation. When I apologized for being too long winded, she was very sweet and said that it showed how passionate I was about this plantation and its history. It really was a great first interview and I really look forward to reading her piece and having her do more in the future.

Before I left, our caretaker had a little surprise for me. He had pulled out a tray of artifacts that he has found through the years. I was so surprised and in awe of the items! I now have to make an appointment to visit Ferry Farm to id and date all these new finds!

Looks like Burnt Wood

Leather pieces and heel of a shoe


Pieces of clay pipes

Animal Bones


Cup and Plate

Base of a Ceramic Pot (inside)

Base of a Ceramic Pot (outside)

Base of a Glass Bottle (inside)

Base of a Glass Bottle (outside)

Pieces of small bottles

Possible English Wine Bottle ?


Plate Shard

See more of the artifacts given to us by the Caretaker on Facebook!

Brett and I arrived home on Sunday evening around 7:00pm. After unpacking and cleaning up, I was in bed asleep by 7:45pm. I slept until 7:30am this morning! I didn’t realize how tired I was because I had been so excited through each part of the weekend! Now I just can’t wait until the next time we head back to the plantation. What wonderful surprises lay in wait of us? And what new experiences or new friends will we meet? Friday’s just don’t come fast enough anymore!

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Year of the Virginia Historic Homes | 40 Comments »