Brown Sign: Belle Grove

Vicar’s Dad and Momma Suzanna arrived on the East Coast this week.  Time for some Brown Sign touring.  Between Dulles Airport and the mountains lies the Shenandoah Valley, which hosts many Brown Sign locations.  We stopped at Belle Grove, which is a manor home adjoining the Cedar Creek National Historic Park.  Of the original 140,000 acre land grant to Isaac Hite, about 250 acres are persevered around the house.  This takes us back to the 18th century for the history of the people and the house. 

People and history tend to be incidental.  Some individuals and places become engraved in our history, such as The Founding Fathers and their homes.  Virginia has many locations where the history of the USA pivoted and the leaders who changed the balance of society.  Jamestown, Williamsburg, Yorktown, Montecello, Monteplier, are places where history occurred.  Washington, Jefferson, Madison were players in the national drama.  Belle Grove and Isaac Hite may draw a blank in your high school history text index.

But, the connections to the historic is close.  Hite married Nelly Madison, the sister of James Madison, our 4th president.  Thomas Jefferson provided Hite with advice about the Federalist design for the house, and Hite commissioned a portrait of Jefferson to hang over the main parlor door, between the larger portraits of the family.  Moreover,  Belle Grove, situated in the lower Shenandoah Valley south of Winchester and north of Strausburg, managed to sit on the sidelines of the first years of the Civil War, which ran up and down the valley as the Union and Confederacy tried to drive each other out.

Column with Bullet Hole from Cedar Creek Battle

But, in 1864 the war came to Belle Grove’s front door, literally, as Sheridan’s Union forces set camp in the fields.  The Battle of Cedar Creek began when Jubal Early’s forces routed the Union in a surprise raid, chasing them a few miles away to Middletown.  Then Sheridan rallied his forces to chase the heavily out-numbered Confederate troops up the valley nearly 100 miles back to Staunton.  Sheridan then began his campaign back down the valley, during which he instructed his forces to burn every house, barn, out building, and field to deprive the Confederacy of the food and punish the Confederate supporting residents.  Upon returning to Belle Grove, he stopped the destruction, persevering the home.

For the house’s history, Hite had it built between 1794 and 1797.  He lived there with Nelly until 1802, when she died, then with his second wife, Ann Tunstal Maury, and his 13 children between them.  Upon his death, his third son administered the house until his mother’s death.  After his death, the house was sold in 1860, a year before the Civil War began.  The house remained in private ownership of a few families, until 1964 when it was willed to The National Trust for Historic Preservation, which completed restoration and archaeological excavations of prior out buildings.  The house and grounds are open for tours April through November.  Our guide, Richard, provided a thorough and engaging description of the history and architecture.

The house is constructed of limestone, quarried a few hundred feet behind the house, and sandstone from near the Richmond, VA.  The extensive woodwork came from locally harvested and milled pine, oak, and chestnut.  While from the exterior, the house appears stalwart and large, its actual living space is modest.  The illusion comes because the lower level is mostly storage and kitchen area, with the front steps rising up to the entry about eight feet above ground.  However, the house has only one level of living space, with an attic, but no second floor.  The seven rooms functioned for every purpose from entertaining, business, sleeping, and rearing children.  The 50 slaves (** two in our party heard “15 slaves” and I cannot find a reference in the guide book, so always be weary of auditory memory and the accuracy of blogs!) whom Nelly received for a wedding dowry, who grew to possibly 100 in a generation, lived behind the house.

Isaac with newspaper; Nelly and James with book of manners

Of the many interesting period furnishings in the rooms, what caught my attention were the four large family portraits, painted by Charles Peale Polk, in the parlor.  Richard specifically pointed out that each family member sat with written text prominently displayed.  Isaac Hite rests his hand over a newspaper from Philadelphia, suggesting his attention to worldly matters of business and politics.  Nelly, with their son James, holds a book of manners with which to instruct her son.  Nelly’s

Nelly Madison with Bible; James Sr with philosophy texts

mother, Nelly Conway Madison, has the Bible open to Psalms, a woman of spiritual understanding.  Her father, James Madison, Sr., has several books of philosophy including Thomas Payne, and an unnamed soft-bound text, maybe his son’s (James Madison’s) Federalist Papers.  This is a learned lineage.  However, in contrast, the smaller portraits in the dinning room, of his son, James Madison Hite and his wife, have a handkerchief and snuff box in hand.  While these may have been gifts that they gave each other, what a different statement in the image: the labor of prior generations passes to the leisure of another.

Well, not to be too serious about our history tour, a good cone of soft ice cream at the Woodbine Market, prepared us for the drive over the mountain.


About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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6 Responses to Brown Sign: Belle Grove

  1. Barneysday says:

    East coast history is so much older than our west coast version. Nice report

    • hermitsdoor says:

      Growing up in CA, the sense of history on the East Coast was part of what attracted me here. Then I traveled to Europe and found buildings and structures that are thousands of years old! CA does have history, though the fast-paced tech-oriented society hides this.

  2. The Vicar says:

    Perhaps in years to come, the Woodbine Market ice cream hut will be the geographical marker that the Republicans and Democrats receded from or pushed beyond in their battle for the hearts and minds of the United States …. or maybe this will be the place where everyone can put aside their differences and find something they can all agree on. Ice cream, yum!

    • hermitsdoor says:

      If the Department of Health and Human Services ever regulates food with a Fat Tax, the vegetable section of the Woodbine Market will thrive but the ice cream stand will take a hit. This may be a little tamer than having 40,000 opposing troups camped in your front yard.

  3. walkingsmall says:

    Beautiful home and lovely piece of history. Now, I can put my recent 1946 purchases into perspective – except that their builders didn’t have the foresight to construct them out of limestone. Hi to the folks – have a great visit.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      Well, you cannot blame the bungalow builders for the difference in geological history that the West Coast has from the East Coast. And, you have your San Andreas, et al. faults and we hurricanes.

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