Cathy Dyson writes about King George County.
Belle Grove’s July 4 event supports effort to restore outbuildings
Belle Grove Plantation is hosting a July 4th picnic and concert on the lawn to celebrate Independence Day and to begin raising money to restore three historic outbuildings.
Belle Grove is the birthplace of James Madison, the fourth president of the United States. It was established in 1670 on the banks of the Rappahannock River as a tobacco plantation.
The property fell into disrepair over time. The mansion was restored in 1997, and Brett and Michelle Darnell opened a bed and breakfast on the property last year.
Now, the two are turning their focus to the oldest structures there: the summer kitchen, ice house and smokehouse. The three were built between 1720 and 1750 and were in use when Madison was born there in 1751.
The kitchen, half of which was used as slave quarters, is falling off its foundation, and portions of the inner wall have fallen away. The fireplace on the kitchen side still has the iron rod on the back fire wall, along with the rods that hung down and held pots.
“It really blows my mind to think what meals would have been prepared there and who they served,” said Michelle Darnell in an email.
The condition of the smokehouse is just as bad. Two walls already have fallen away. The icehouse is in the best condition, but its bricks have come loose and fallen around the window and back wall. Along with the kitchen, it’s suffered damage from animals making their dens there as well as from the weather.
The Darnells want to raise money to restore the buildings and to create a living museum where visitors could experience life on a plantation. Any artifacts found in the restoration would be placed in the summer kitchen, along with a memorial, naming those who were enslaved at Belle Grove over the years.
The Darnells have enlisted the help of a volunteer intern, Lauren Souza, to head up the restoration and preservation project. She has a master’s degree in historic preservation and has worked at Mount Vernon and Montpelier as a restoration specialist.
Initial estimates suggest the work will cost between $50,000 and $75,000, the Darnells said.
“It is killing us to stand by and watch as the board start popping [and] bricks start dropping away,” Michelle Darnell said. “The only thing stopping us from rescuing these historic treasures is funding.”
Belle Grove will begin the drive to raise money with its “Red, White and Blues” concert and picnic under the stars on July 4. The concert begins at 6 p.m. with Mike Mallick of Maryland and his old-school rock band. They’ll be followed by the Alexis Suter blues band from New York City.
Through Friday, tickets are $15 for adults and $5 for children. After that day, the prices go up to $25 for adults and $15 for children between the ages of 5 and 12. Tickets are available on Belle Grove Plantation’s website, by calling 540/621-7340 and at the event.
Families are encouraged to bring lawn chairs and blankets.