Out of all the many historic attractions in the Shenandoah Valley there is nothing to experience quite like Belle Grove Plantation. Since 1797, the Federal-style, limestone manor house has held a commanding presence at the center of an open, rolling meadow that rolls before three distinct mountain ranges and forms the southern end of the Cedar Creek Civil War Battlefield. It's part of the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park.
The American legacy of Belle Grove begins with the couple that built it. Issac Hite, Jr. was an American Revolutionary War soldier and a grandson of one of the Valley's original European settlers, Jost Hite. His wife, Nelly, was James Madison's sister. A Madison family friend by the name of Thomas Jefferson helped design the manor house. Jefferson's touches are unmistakably recognizable.
Early 19th century plantation life there epitomized the “good life” of the time, even after Nelly Hite passed away in 1802. James Madison had honeymooned there. Issac Hite was an energetic renaissance man who held patents on a number of inventions and loved experimenting with progressive farming techniques. Hite's second wife, Ann Maury Hite, help him fulfill his dream of carving out a piece of what was then the American Frontier. As the Civil War literally swarmed up to Belle Grove's doorstep, the idyllic and industrious period of Antebellum prosperity abruptly ended.
The manor house ultimately became the Union headquarters and encampment in the strategically important Shenandoah Valley, until the place was stormed on Oct. 19, 1864 by Gen. Jubal Early's Confederates during the Battle of Cedar Creek. They were goaded into fury after Sheridan's troops laid waste to the Breadbasket of the Confederacy during The Burning campaign.
The youngest Confederate general, Gen. Stephen Dodson Ramseur, had been mortally wounded during that battle and was brought to Belle Grove to die. He lay in state in the library for soldiers from both sides to come and pay their respects. Many had been friends as cadets at West Point. At least for a moment, as the Cedar Creek battle raged, there was no “North” and “South” at Belle Grove.
Incredibly, the house survived the war's destruction in the Valley and it is now one of 28 properties of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The home and grounds are also now open to the public for tours and a busy and varied schedule of special events, many of them annual occurrences.
But it's still a working farm -- it's always been that. Ownership of Belle Grove came into Brumback family hands from 1907 to 1929. Cattle, hay and corn are still raised by Brumback family descendants, and some of the tour guides are associated with Belle Grove through Brumback family associations. The people that keep Belle Grove going have a heart in the place, according to Belle Grove Executive Director, Elizabeth McClung.
“At Belle Grove we try not to just keep this a historic house, but a home. We try to extend the same welcoming, gracious entertaining of our guests who come to visit the house that the Hites did and the Brumbacks did, many years ago,” she says.
People are invited to tour the rooms in a way that allows them to immerse themselves into the living spaces, rather than having to peer at everything from behind velvet ropes.
“And of course, standing on the front porch is such a wonderful experience,” McClung adds. “Because you get to see the Blue Ridge, the Alleghenies, Massanutten Mountain, all of this open space that we, and many who have gone before us, have managed to keep open.”
Visitors take part in guided tours led by volunteer docents and staff 15 minutes past every hour between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday.
Admission fees range from $6 to $10 for anyone who is not a Belle Grove association member. Access to the grounds and gift shop is free. The manor house and grounds are open to the pubic from April through October, with a Traditional Crafts Festival and Antiques Appraisal Fair each November, and special Holiday season events and tours during December.
Civil War history events include a variety of scheduled programs and tours conducted by park rangers throughout the warm months and the annual reenactment of the Battle of Cedar Creek each October. The two-day Civil War battle reenactment is one of the largest in the region. A number of other living history events related to the Virginia Civil War Sesquicentennial are also held at Belle Grove.
Belle Grove is located on the historic Valley Pike at the south end of Middletown, Va., along what is now U.S. Route 11, just north of the junction of Interstates 81 and 66, about an hour and half from downtown Washington, D.C. Middletown is about ten miles south of Winchester, Va.
A video feature about Gen. Stephen Ramseur at Belle Grove and the manor house historic attraction is on YouTube.
A new Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historic Park visitor center opened in Middletown earlier this year. The visitor center is located in the Middletown Courts Plaza at 7712 Main St. Belle Grove's website is www.BelleGrove.org.
Historical images courtesy of Belle Grove, Inc. Photos and story copyright ©2013 by Shenandoah Valley Productions LLC