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.
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.
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
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.