Belle Grove Plantation is located in Port Conway, Virginia, across the Rappahannock River from Historic Port Royal, Virginia. Belle Grove Plantation is one of many historic plantations located in King George County.
Belle Grove Plantation started as a part of a 5000+ acre land grant given to Thomas Chetwood and John Prossor by the governor of Virginia, William Berkley in 1668. This was compensation for bringing 162 people from England to help expand the colonies in the New World. In 1670, 1000 acres was sold by John Prossor to Anthony Savage and his wife, Alice Stafford Savage. At the death of Anthony Savage, 700 acres would pass to his son-in-law, Frances Thornton and 300 was passed to Frances’s daughter, Margaret to help her establish her own farm with his first cousin, William Strother, II from the plantation next door. This family would hold that 700 acre plantation for 120 years and would become the Conway Family. The plantation received its official name from John Moore, second husband of Rebecca Catlett Conway Moore.
On January 9, 1731, Eleanor Rose Conway was born to Francis Conway I and Rebecca Catlett Conway on this plantation. She would grow up on the plantation and loved it dearly. This is where she would meet a handsome gentleman, who had traveled to sell and ship his tobacco at the shipping wharf located across the river in Port Royal. On September 15, 1749, she would marry James Madison Sr. of Orange County, Virginia. Shortly before giving birth to her first child, Nelly Madison, as she was called, traveled back to Belle Grove Plantation to be with her mother for the birth. On March 16, 1751, she gave birth to James Madison. “Jemmy” as he was later called, would grow up to become the fourth President of the United States and is known as the Father of the Constitution.
In 1783, Captain Francis Conway III set aside 13 acres of land from Belle Grove to lay out what would become Port Conway. In 1784, the Virginia General Assembly passed an act to establish it. Port Conway was set up into 1 acre lots and had a ferry that transported passengers and goods across the Rappahannock to Port Royal.
In 1790, Captain Francis Conway sold Belle Grove to John Hipkins of Port Royal. John was a wealthy merchant and ship owner. He purchased Belle Grove for his only child, Frances “Fanny” Hipkins Bernard and her husband, William Bernard. In 1791, John Hipkins built the center section of the current home over what is believed to have been the Conway house’s basement. Fanny would only live there for ten years. After her death, William remarried and moved his new wife and family to Mansfield Plantation in Stafford County, Virginia. Belle Grove would be rented until the second son; William Bernard III married and moved his family into the home. In 1822, William Bernard II passed and the home was once again leased until it passed to the husbands of his two daughters.
Belle Grove would be sold in 1839 to a very prominent family, The Turners. Carolinus Turner and his young family moved in and quickly made some significant changes to the house. It was this family that gave Belle Grove its porticos and wind extensions. Carolinus would also start acquiring the one acre lots of Port Conway until he had completely reunited the land to Belle Grove.
He would donate part of that land to establish the Emmanuel Episcopal Church, which still stands near the entry to Belle Grove Plantation today. It was during the Turner family’s ownership that Belle Grove would be involved in the Civil War. Because of the narrowing of the Rappahannock River at Port Conway and Port Royal, both the Union and Confederate Armies saw this area as a strategic location for crossing. The area exchanged hands many times. Union Gunboats would patrol the river and it is believed that Belle Grove would serve as a Union Headquarters. Thankfully, Belle Grove Plantation escaped damage and remained intact after the war.
In April, 1865, Belle Grove Plantation would once again become the backdrop for history. On morning of April 24, 1865, John Wilkes Booth and David Harold used the ferry at Belle Grove to cross the Rappahannock River to Port Royal and on to Garrett’s Farm just 3 miles away. That afternoon, the detachment pursuing Booth and Harold, arrived at Belle Grove Plantation. Here Carolinus allowed them to rest in the front yard and offered them a meal. One of the officers, Lt. Everton Congar, was even allowed to sleep in the front hallway of Belle Grove. A short time later, the detachment crossed on the same ferry as Booth and Harold, and on April 26, 1865, the detachment caught up with Booth and Harold at Garrett’s Farm, capturing Harold and killing Booth. The Turner Family would continue to own Belle Grove until Carolinus’ death in 1876.
Belle Grove was sold to John Tayloe Thornton in 1894. He had purchase the plantation to impress a lady he wanted to marry. She wasn’t impressed. He would lose interest the plantation and would sell it to a group who wanted to turn it into an Industrial College for Colored Students. However the group defaulted on the loan and John Thornton had to take them to court to get the plantation back. By this time, he had married and was ready to settle down. He and his family would live at Belle Grove until 1901.
Belle Grove was sold in 1901 to Captain J.F. Jack, an experimental farmer from Los Angeles, California. Captain Jack had already purchased the Walsingham Plantation next door just a year earlier. His goal was to see if he could raise alfalfa in Virginia. He would sell Belle Grove in 1911 to Otto Brant and William Allen, also from California, who would use it to raise corn and wheat. Just a couple years later, Otto Brant would sell his interest to William Allen, who would turn Belle Grove into a dairy farm.
In 1929, William Allen sold Belle Grove to John Palmer Hooker and his wife Mary. John was a wealthy real estate broker from Chicago. They had purchased Belle Grove as a summer home. Mary quickly set about restoring Belle Grove back to the grand old plantation it once was. She installed landscaping and gardens, which she would use later as part of her well known garden tours in the spring. John would later join her and this would become their primary residence until his death in 1974. Mary passed away in 1981.
Belle Grove stood empty until 1987, when it was purchased by the Haas Family of Vienna, Austria. In 1997, the Haas Family started on a large restoration project that would completely restore and preserve Belle Grove for future generations. They took special care to ensure that the house was not damaged down to a special mortar that was used to keep from damaging the bricks of the house. The slate roof that once topped Belle Grove had to be removed because it was becoming too heavy for the frame of the house. It was replaced with a lighter copper roof. In the basement, steel beams were added to the subfloor to shore up the base of the house.
In July, 2011, Brett and Michelle Darnell found Belle Grove Plantation through an online advertisement. Just two days later, they were walking into the front hallway that Lt. Congar slept and many others passed through. It was love at first sight. Since that time, Brett and Michelle have worked tirelessly to create a business that will be worthy of this historically significant home. It is their hope to open Belle Grove Plantation as an elegant Southern Bed and Breakfast in the spring of 2013.
Please follow us on our blog as we work towards opening this wonderful plantation. Read as we make our own history and become a part of this glorious property.
We hope to see you one day at the plantation!
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