Another Delivery This Morning!

Jun. 18th 2013

I couldn’t wait until the end of the day to write about this delivery!

This morning at 9am, we had a visit from the Fed Ex man!


He brought us a package addresses to

Brett, Michelle and Hurley!

Inside we discovered a wonderful book from Deborah in California! 

The book, “Dawn’s Early Light” is a romantic novel about a woman who dresses as a man in order to follow her man to war. Set during the Revolutionary War, this is the first in a series that works its way through to World War II.

But what made it even more special was a special treat just for Hurley!


Hurley will be coming to the plantation on Friday this week. He will be staying behind with me because he has a photo shoot coming up June 25th with a bride that will be staying at the plantation in July.

Don’t forget Saturday, June 22nd at 10am


We will be receiving our landscaping by flatbed truck!

If you can volunteer, we would welcome you to come and help us make Belle Grove Plantation beautiful again!

Hurley will be joining us!


Please bring the following if you have them:

Work Gloves



Plastic Rain Barrel if it is empty

Pickup Truck to help move items and water

Lawn Chair

Bag Lunch

We will have ice cold water on hand for everyone!

We look forward to seeing you at the plantation!!

Watch Our Facebook Page today!

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We are getting a delivery of furniture today!

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Darnell History | 20 Comments »

Captain Jack

Feb. 2nd 2013
John Taylor ThornBelle Grove 1894

John Taylor Thorn
Belle Grove 1894

I thought it would be good to get back to the history of Belle Grove and continue this journey. When we last spoke, it was 1906.  In an article from the Free Lance Star of Fredericksburg dated October 4, 1906, we learn that the Thornton Family’s time at Belle Grove has come to an end. John Thornton would sell Belle Grove to Captain J.F. Jack of Los Angeles, California. Captain Jack already owns Walsingham, the plantation just next door. In the time of the Turners, Walsingham was owned by George Turner while Carolinus Turner owned Belle Grove. George was Carolinus’s cousin. By combining the two plantations, there would be 1,400 acres of farm land.

Captain Jack will not take Belle Grove until January, 1907. He would live at Belle Grove in the mansion. Walsingham had lost its beautiful home years before.

In the second article from The Times-Dispatch of Richmond dated October 4, 1906 we find out that Captain Jack purchased Belle Grove for $22,000. Not a bad profit for John Thornton of $13,000.

Belle Grove Sold
Free Lance Star Fredericksburg 10-04-1906
Belle Grove Sold to Californian
The Times-Dispatch Richmond 10-04-1906

But who was this Californian that purchased these two beautiful plantations? This has been a question for us for a long time. In all the research I have done on the plantation, this is one of the owners whose past has been hard to uncover. Believe it or not, I found more on the Colonial Period of this plantation than I have with the owners of the early 1900s.

From what I have uncovered, Captain Jack was an experimental farmer from California. He arrived in Virginia in the early 1900s with the goal to find out if alfalfa would grow in Virginia. As far as the personal side of Captain Jack, the only information I have is that he was from Los Angeles, California. Once again I had to turn to newspapers to build something of a history of him.

The first time we found Captain Jack in the newspaper was in February 1907. He would have owned Belle Grove for about four months at this point. In this article, it reports that Captain Jack has shipped a “carload of very handsome young mules”. It even gives us how many are in a “carload”. There were 24 total and they came from Kentucky.

1907 February 22  Shenandoah Herald

1907 February 22 Shenandoah Herald

The next article gives us more insight into why Captain Jack moved to Virginia. We know he was an experimental farmer, but from reading this article, it seems that he was also here to teach. In the summer months of 1909, The Farmers Institute put on a cruise down the Rappahannock River with the goal to give local farmers the opportunity to hear about new and more modern methods of farming. This cruise which started in Fredericksburg was headed by “Commodore” George Wellington Koiner, Commissioner of Agriculture and Immigration and several instructors. Touring on the good ship “Gratitude” they would touch eight counties and their farmers along the Rappahannock River.

One of the speakers was Captain Jack of Belle Grove. They speak of how Captain Jack of Port Conway was a successful alfalfa hay-maker. He was to “explain to the farmers how he came to sell out his possessions in California to come to Virginia soil to make alfalfa and what wonderful success has followed his efforts.” Known locally as “Alfalfa Jack”, he would tell how he came to Virginia in 1906 and spent several months traveling the area and observing “the general conditions with the respect to alfalfa growing.” He had observed that alfalfa could be grown in small quantities, but what he wanted to know is if it could be produced for commercial purposes and in large enough quantities to make it profitable.

Once he had determined that the area was sufficient to justify the venture, he set forth to find the right place to do it. The land he was looking for “must be slightly undulating, but not rough or steep, that would not wash, that was not too sandy or too loose, too stiff or cold and clammy, not too stony, not too spongy, that was not too wet or too dry, that was well drained, not so badly “worn” as to be unresponsive to treatment, that was on good water transportation, within easy access of some of the great markets of the East and where lime could be obtained at a cost that would admit of its use in liberal quantities’.” Whew… He wasn’t too picky was he?

He would find this land in the two plantation estates of Belle Grove and Walsingham. He states that the soils of these plantations were greatly depleted, but he felt that they had a character that would respond quickly to treatment. With the aid of crimson clover and cowpeas and a liberal application of fertilizer and lime, he felt that he could create alfalfa fields that would compare to the best in the East or West.

After two years, however, he found that the soil was more depleted that thought and it was taking a lot longer to ready the soil. At this point Captain Jack had only 300 acres of alfalfa, but was expecting to plant 200 acres more next fall. Plus he had several hundred more filled with crimson clover and cowpeas ready to be plowed under for future fields. Captain Jack felt that with crimson clover and cowpeas as aids, if used throughout Virginia, the state would soon stand “in the front ranks for fertility and production.”

It states that Captain Jack was still working on adding to his acreage and that by one year he was expected to have over 1,000 acres. He stated that the coming year of 1908, he was expecting to yield just under 4 tons an acre and without advertising or marketing and through shipment by steamer from the Port Conway wharf, he felt that the price would be better than most. He also saw that in the coming years the demand and price would increase as the product became better known in the East.

He explained though that before undertaking this crop, one had to know the plant and everything that it needed. He states that alfalfa has a “mind of its own” and it knows what it wants and needs. And if a farmer took on this crop without the right knowledge, he would lose his investment.

Captain Jack summoned up his thoughts:

“For him who understands its language and unsparingly supplied it needs, it will clothe his fields in beauty, supply his herds with food, enrich his soil, multiply the value of his land and lay its richest treasure at his feet in grateful acknowledgment of his toll and care. I believe that before many years Old Virginia will have many income producing alfalfa farms. It is a result well worth striving for. It is the crop which more than all others will redeem the lands of the Southern and Eastern States – lands which in so many ways have been so wonderfully favored.”

1909 May 30 Richmond Times Dispatch

1909 May 30 Richmond Times Dispatch

In 1909, we find our next piece which is more of a social note in the newspaper. It doesn’t talk about Captain Jack, but it speaks of Mrs. C. Shirley Carter who is a guest at Belle Grove. She is visiting her son, C. Shirley Carter. I haven’t had a chance to research this name, but it is strange to me to see both mother and son with the same name.

1909 October 18 Richmond Times Dispatch

1909 October 18 Richmond Times Dispatch

Almost three years has now gone by since the article about how Captain Jack was building his alfalfa fields. By 1910, we see from this article that Belle Grove has become a noted success in alfalfa.

1910 May 19 The Free Lance Star

1910 May 19 The Free Lance Star

In the summer of 1910, another social note in the newspaper talks about a visit from Miss Minnie King of Richmond. She is to be a guest of Miss Lille Taylor of Belle Grove. While this is another name I haven’t done research on yet, we can assume that they are farm hand workers and their families on the plantation.

1910 June 04 The Free Lance Star

1910 June 04 The Free Lance Star

Also in the summer months, not only were farm hands and their families getting visitors, by is seems Captain Jack received a guest too. A local Stafford farmer traveled to Belle Grove and Walsingham to see Captain Jack and his successful alfalfa fields. There had already been a 400 ton cutting that was waiting to be shipped. And in only ten days another 400 tons was to be cut. Captain Jack amazed his visitors with his success and his modern farming methods.

1910 June 25 Free Lance Star

1910 June 25 Free Lance Star

Another article in the summer of 1910, just three years after the “Farmers College” tour down the Rappahannock, the first report of the success of that “teaching cruise” had started coming in. It talks about the apparent success of farmers all the way from Fredericksburg to the Chesapeake Bay giving evidence of this success from the appearance of houses, barns, fences and fields along the river.

In Port Conway, after proving his modern method, Captain Jack has also started showing signs of success. He has built a new wharf for shipping his alfalfa and a new more roomy warehouse. He has also installed an ornamental lake on the property.

1910 July 15 Irvington’s The Virginia Citizen

1910 July 15 Irvington’s The Virginia Citizen

It seems that the summer of 1910 was attracting many to Belle Grove and Walsingham to marvel at the success of Captain Jack. Another visitor, Professor Carrier visited the plantations in August. There he found that Captain Jack had already two cuttings of alfalfa that season and was already cutting a third. He also explained that Captain Jack was expecting to get two more cuttings before the season was out.

In his inspection of the plantations, Professor Carrier reported that the word of the success of the crop had not been exaggerated. He praised Captain Jack’s method of farming and expected if others in the State followed suit, they too would meet with the same success.

1910 August 23 The Free Lance Star

1910 August 23 The Free Lance Star

In October, 1910, another social note from Belle Grove. Miss Annie Gwathmey paid a visit to her cousin, Miss Lille Overton Taylor at Belle Grove. I have noticed that the social notes of what I think are farm hands and their families seem to appear in smaller columns, while visitors of Captain Jack are writing in stand-alone articles.

1910 October 02 The Times-Dispatch

1910 October 02 The Times-Dispatch

Here we see that Captain Jack has received visitors in November, 1910. This large party of seven from California paid a visit to Fredericksburg to see the sites. I wonder what locations they would have seen. Was Kenmore Plantation open at that time for visitors? Or did they stop at the Rising Sun Tavern, owned by Charles Washington, brother of George. Or did they visit the battlefields that lay around Fredericksburg to see where past family and friend fought the Civil War?

1910 November 05 The Free Lance Star

1910 November 05 The Free Lance Star

In February, 1911, Miss Lilly Tayloe of Belle Grove had family from Richmond visit. Again, it is in a smaller column so I am assuming a wife of a farm hand. We will have to see with some more research.

1911 February 23 The Free Lance Star

1911 February 23 The Free Lance Star

The last newspaper article I found on Captain Jack was that of a fire in the barn at Belle Grove. The barn and 250 tons of alfalfa were lost along with a large amount of farming equipment. The origin of the fire was never known. It resulted in a $10,000 loss. Captain Jack did not have insurance on the barn or equipment.

1911 July 20 Free Lance Star

1911 July 20 Free Lance Star

From here the trail grows cold. I have not been able to find any other information on Captain Jack. We know that he sold the plantations in 1911, but do not know what month. Could this fire have been the “straw that broke the camel’s back”? Could he not recover from this loss? Maybe he was ready to do move to the next venture. Only time will tell as we hope to under the mystery of whom Captain Jack was and where he ended up.

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Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Belle Grove History | 39 Comments »

More Progress

Jan. 4th 2013
Landscape Plan dating back to the restoration in 2003. This will give you an idea of the lay of the grounds at Belle Grove. We aren't using all these ideas, just some.

Landscape Plan dating back to the restoration in 2003. This will give you an idea of the lay of the grounds at Belle Grove. We aren’t using all these ideas, just some.

Tomorrow we head back to the plantation… YAY!

We are meeting with the landscape contractor we have selected to help us turn Belle Grove Plantation back into the showplace it once was. I was very excited to find out that the person who is going to help us design the landscape is a licensed horticulturist. She is able to tell us what we have and how to best use it. She is also able to help us know what we need and what will look best. I am very excited!

Our goal is to use as many Virginia native plants as possible. We have several trees, but sadly a few are going to have to go. We are going to try and preserve as many ancient trees that we can.

Trees on the Bowling Green

Trees on the Bowling Green

But we have to look at the placement and remove those that might threaten the house. We have one just in front of the front entry. If a good wind came along, it could end up in the front hallway. So we are going to have to sacrifice this one. I don’t think I can be there when they do it though. After doing so much research and knowing about how long it has been there, I would be in tears as it came down. But don’t worry. It won’t be going far. The tree is large enough that we can have it milled to make boards to use on the Smokehouse or Summer Kitchen. So it won’t be gone, just changed in form.

The Tree that will need to be removed is to the right of the horse and buggy.1906

The Tree that will need to be removed is to the right of the horse and buggy.

The Bowling Green looking toward Mansion1906

The Bowling Green looking toward Mansion

So what kind of plants would you recommend? I love crepe myrtles. I am looking to use them around the Bowling Green (the large circle of grass on the Carriage side of the house). I also love flowering plants and want to use ones that will keep the yard filled all year around if possible. We are also looking at putting in a Formal Walking Garden. In the center of this garden will be a smaller version of Montpelier’s Temple. It is our way of remembering James Madison in the yard. It will also be a great place to take wedding pictures!

3D Drawing of grounds ideas dating back to 2003We are not going to follow all the ideas, but use it as a starting point.

3D Drawing of grounds ideas dating back to 2003
We are not going to follow all the ideas, but use it as a starting point.

Here is a copy of the landscape plan that was done back in 2003. This was just an idea of what they were thinking about doing.  The walking garden at the Riverside of the house isn’t going in at that place. We are thinking of moving it to the right of the house behind the garage area. This will leave open the grounds between the house and the river. We want this to be a three terrace step from the main grounds to the bluff over looking the water. It will also leave space for weddings at the Riverside with a view of the river and wooded area across the river. It is so beautiful.

If you look to the left of the house, you will see a pool. The three buildings around the pool are the three 1790s outbuildings, the Smokehouse, Ice House and Summer Kitchen. The pool isn’t there yet. Right now, there is only open ground. Under that open ground is an older inground pool that runs from the side of the house to the Ice House. But it was filled in for some reason years ago. So before we can put in the new pool, we will have to dig up the old one and remove it.

Current area around Outbuildings

Current area around Outbuildings

The pier you see at the waters edge isn’t there either. There use to be pier there many years ago. In fact I was told by a local man that he use to come to Belle Grove to swim in the pool with the owners son. He would travel from his plantation home downstream up to Belle Grove by boat. We hope in the future to add that pier back. It would be a great place for guests to get down to the water’s edge to watch the birds or do some fishing.

The trees around the Bowling Green aren’t all there yet either. Those will be the crepe myrtles that I love. This will be my touch on Belle Grove that came from my heart. There are also more trees on the Bowling Green that aren’t showing on this plan.

Trees that are still on the Bowling Green -picture date - 19061. Tree to be removed 2. Maple 3. Elm 4. Hickory

Trees that are still on the Bowling Green -picture date – 1906
1. Tree to be removed 2. Maple 3. Elm 4. Hickory

As you can see, we have a lot to talk over and a lot of work ahead of us! Our first task is driveway, sidewalks and grading. We also need to get some drainage work done on the guttering system. Right now it just comes down at the base of the house. This isn’t good for the foundation or the basement that dates back to the Conway period (1670 to 1790).

Whew.. just talking about it, I am already tired. But it will be a labor of love for us. And just think of the wonderful artifacts we are going to find! I can’t wait to get my hands dirty! Anyone what to come “play”?

To see more picture of Belle Grove Plantation

Please visit our Facebook  Page!

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We have also created a new “ABOUT BELLE GROVE PLANTATION” page!

Located just under the “About Us” page on the left hand column!

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Don’t forget to enter the “First Annual Official Cookie of Belle Grove Plantation” Cookie Contest!

Just Click on James Madison for entry information and rules!

Cookie Contest 2013

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Darnell History | 54 Comments »