Step back in time at Belle Grove Plantation
by Tom Chillemi
For those attuned to history, the past lives in historic structures such as Belle Grove Plantation—the birthplace of James Madison— make such places especially attractive.
The spirit of colonial times is evident in this restored southern plantation that stands proudly on the north bank of the Rappahannock River in King George County near Port Royal. About 20 miles south of Fredericksburg, the river narrows where a ferry once ran and large boats landed at Port Conway, named for the ancestors of James Madison’s parents.
On March 16, 1751, Elanor Rose “Nelly” Conway gave birth to her first child, James Madison Jr., who was also known as “Jemmy.” He would become the fourth President of the United States.
George Washington visited Belle Grove.
This “hidden jewel of the Northern Neck,” located just a few hundred yards off Route 301, is now a bed and breakfast where rooms are decorated in antiques that enhance guests’ feeling of visiting the past. Sleep in a canopy bed that dates to 1730; place your belongings in a Queen Anne chest from 1720. Several antique pieces reflect a time in the history of this grand southern mansion.
Richly adorned suites with adjoining luxurious baths pamper guests.
In one room, a bride etched her name and the date on a window pane.
Don’t plan on dieting while at Belle Grove Plantation, advises its website, which describes the breakfasts in one word, “decadent.”
Guests will find a blend of comfort and sophistication at the formal breakfast table. Classic southern flavors take on a modern twist, all made with made with the freshest ingredients. Homemade breads are served with fresh tea or coffee, fresh fruit combination, and a sumptuous hot entrée.
Guests and visitors can enjoy afternoon tea surrounded by more than 200 years of American history.
History is waiting to be discovered at Belle Grove where tours are scheduled Wednesdays through Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m.
Walk through the mansion that Union soldiers seized for use as headquarters early in the Civil War, thus sparing it from destruction.
Stand on the bowling green where Union soldiers set up camp. View where Abraham Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth rode the ferry across the Rappahannock River on his way to Garrett’s Farm. Learn about the Union detachment pursuing Booth that stopped to rest, eat and sleep at the plantation. Stand in the grand hallway where one of those officers slept.
Research into census records, wills and death records indicates slaves who lived at Belle Grove. Now visitors can hear about one of our darkest times in Belle Grove Plantation’s history. The “Enslaved Experience and History Tour” will cover not only the Belle Grove Plantation’s enslaved community, but will take visitors on a historic tour of the experiences that slaves endured during this time in American history. See artifacts, both from Belle Grove and other areas, with known slave connections. Learn about how Africans changed the way we ate, with foods and cooking techniques they brought with them.
“The subject matter can be graphic at times and is not recommended for the young or easily offended,” states the website.
A restoration effort is under way to preserve the slave quarters and summer kitchen that date to between 1720-1750 and is a focus of fundraising events.
Ghost hunting tours
A tour docent at Belle Grove Plantation said there are friendly spirits around and many people and paranormal teams have tried to verify this. Even the SyFy Channel’s Ghost Hunters has investigated. All have the same answer . . . there is definitely something there, including a pair of cat spirits.
“We have seen apparitions,” states the Belle Grove website. “We have heard voices and sounds. We have seen a ball of light in broad daylight! We have photographs that just can’t be explained. Now we are challenging you to find out for yourself!”
Paranormal enthusiasts are invited to investigate, to discuss past experiences, share photographs, videos and electronic voice phenomenon.
Excellent bird watching abounds in the wooded area, river side and fields where birders will delight as they catch a glimpse of species from bald eagles to house finches. March through September the resident ospreys, “James and Dolley,” come back to Belle Grove to nest and raise their family.
Belle Grove has started documenting the nearby bird population, and they encourage visitors to identify the many species. There is no cost to visit, sit and watch.
Upcoming events at Belle Grove Plantation:
October 26-27—Halloween Ghost Hunting Weekend. Argos Paranormal will ghost hunt.
October 28—Not So Wicked Witch Tea Party. Wear your costume and enjoy tricks or treats.
November 22—Thanksgiving dinner is served in the historic mansion.
December 8 & 15—Holiday tea and tour in the mansion decorated for Christmas.
December 31—New Year’s Eve masquerade casino night.
January 1—New Year’s Day good luck dinner.