Belle Grove Plantation began with 483 acres given to Isaac Hite Jr. by his father in 1783. By 1824, it had grown to 7,500 acres, producing grain, livestock, flax and hemp. Also on Belle Grove were a grist mill, a saw mill, a distillery, a store, a lime kiln and quarry, and a blacksmith shop. The great commercial success of these enterprises relied entirely on men, women and children the Hite family enslaved. Records indicate that the Hites at Belle Grove enslaved 276 men, women and children between 1783 and 1851, when Belle Grove was sold to another family.
Today, the historic plantation still is surrounded by the natural beauty of the Shenandoah Valley; it is located about a mile southwest of Middletown, just off of historic Route 11. Although the owners of the plantation weren’t themselves particularly famous, the plantation is important historically because of its connection to one of the last Civil War battles: the Battle of Cedar Creek. Belle Grove Plantation is a truly remarkable site, thanks to the charming and talented group of staff and volunteers whose careful stewardship reflects their heartfelt dedication to historical accuracy.
The Hites first arrived in the Shenandoah Valley in the early 1700s. Isaac Hite, Jr, grandson to the first Hite, attended William and Mary College and served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. In 1783, Isaac’s father gave him and his bride Nelly Conway Madison — future President James Madison’s sister — the 483 acres on which Belle Grove Manor House was built, although construction wouldn’t begin until 1794 and wasn’t completed until 1797.
Belle Grove’s design reflects Thomas Jefferson’s influence, incorporating Classical Revival elements, an architectural innovation of the day.
By 1860, the Cooley family lived at Belle Grove. The plantation was occupied several times during the war, most notably by Union General Philip Sheridan in fall 1864 when Belle Grove found itself in the center of the Battle of Cedar Creek on October 19, 1864. MidAtlantic Daytrips covered the Battle of Cedar Creek in 2016, but had visited before Belle Grove was open for the warmer months. At the time, I’d promised myself a return visit, not realizing it would be five years before I’d have an opportunity to return!
Another Belle Grove site undergoing further study is the area believed to be an enslaved burial ground — in fact, the organization running Belle Grove is trying to learn about those enslaved on the plantation, and making the information available. Behind the house several hundred yards away is a fenced area, with fruit trees. Although no records have been found that indicate it was a cemetery for the enslaved, this plot has characteristics of similar burial sites of the time: it is on high ground, in an area not used for agriculture, with field stones to mark the graves (rather than headstones) and the ground is slightly sunken in areas of the burials. A sign lists the names of the enslaved individuals who lived and worked on the plantation.
Even better than the house tour — and that was fascinating — is the website (listed below). Through the website, you can read excerpts from letters written by Isaac Hite Jr’s second wife (with whom he had 10 children). In her letters, she talks about family, sickness and death, the people she enslaved and their relationships with each other and other topics — interesting reading!
Getting there: 336 Belle Grove Road, Middletown, VA
Hours: mid-March through October (check the website below for specific days the house museum opens for the season); guided tours Monday-Saturday 10 a.m. – 3:15 p.m. and Sunday 1 – 4:15 p.m. No guided tours of the house Mondays or Tuesdays through the end of May. On June 1, guided tours of the house will be available Monday though Saturday 10 a.m. – 3:15 p.m. and Sunday 1 – 4:15 p.m.
Website: Belle Grove Plantation