Uncle Jemmy’s cradle of change

In Eastern Virginia, sitting majestically along the banks of the Rappahannock River, is a beautiful old home that will open later this year as a bed and breakfast — Belle Grove Plantation Bed and Breakfast. (pictured below)

When I stumbled across it recently, I was puzzled. I’ve visited Belle Grove — but this house was not the Belle Grove near Middletown, Va., in the Northern Shenandoah Valley that  is a national historic landmark, a destination for history lovers and the home of President James Madison’s sister, Nelly Conway Madison Hite.

So I dug a little deeper.

It turns out, Virginia has two Belle Groves, one in the east and one in the west, and both have ties to the fourth United States president.

The river-seated Belle Grove Plantation to the east is the place where James Madison was born. (The original house of his birth no longer stands.) The future president’s mother, Eleanor “Nelly” Conway Madison was living in Mount Pleasant, Va., with her husband of a year as the birth of their first child neared. Anticipating the event, Nelly traveled to her mother’s home, Belle Grove, in Port Conway. At midnight on March 16, 1751, James Madison Jr. was born.

The Shenandoah Valley’s Belle Grove

The owners of the eastern Belle Grove, an intrepid couple interested in preserving the beautiful old house and its history, have posted much about its heritage on their blog.

The Valley’s Belle Grove was built by Major Isaac Hite and his wife Nelly Madison Hite, the sister of President James Madison. According to one website, this valley plantation was named as a remembrance of the earlier, eastern plantation where Nelly and “Jemmy’s” mother grew up.

The aftermath of July Fourth is a good time to reflect on the impact of Mr. Madison and the legacy of the two Belle Groves, one that cradled a future president and another he likely visited.

Often overlooked and sometimes underestimated, James Madison lived “Be the Change.” His life defined what it means to be involved, to have feet on the ground, to be in the game, to make a difference — all those cliches we use to describe what it takes to create change. If there is a better exemplar for a university to follow, I’m not sure who it is. James Madison set a high standard for change.

And there’s one more historical twist that might will surprise you. It turns out that Michelle Hite (’88), the editor of JMU’s award-winning Madison magazine, is a descendant of the Hite family, the original builders of Shenandoah Valley’s Belle Grove Plantation. The Madisons married into her family, she’ll tell you with a laugh. I’ll leave it to the genealogists to figure out the exact connection, but somewhere up in Michelle’s family tree there’s an “Uncle Jemmy” every Duke can claim.

He’s our Uncle Jemmy.

To learn more about Virginia’s two Belle Groves, click the embedded links above.

And to read more about President James Madison, check out Liberty and Learning: The Essential James Madison by JMU alumnus and Be the Changer, Phil Bigler (’74, ’75M) and Annie Lorsbach (’08M).

%d bloggers like this: