A presidential chat

John Douglas Hall, master interpreter of President James Madison chats with a young visitor to Montpelier. (Photo from Belle Grove)

John Douglas Hall, master interpreter of President James Madison, chats with a young visitor to Montpelier. (Photo from Belle Grove)

Last Saturday, during an event filled with dignity, ceremony and the best of history, President Alger and members of the JMU community traveled over the mountain to the home of President James Madison, Montpelier. It was a day where the past and the present met.

The occasion marked the 262th birthday of the fourth U.S. president and the man for whom our university is named. President Alger delivered a speech in which he called for a “Return to Madison” — a serious charge to recapture the kind of productive civil discourse that was so fundamental to President Madison’s success as a founding father. In a society often filled with rude and contentious interactions, it was a timely and important message.

In the audience that day  was a couple who is also working hard to keep alive the memory of James Madison. Michelle and Brett Darnell — an intrepid couple by anyone’s definition — have been working for the past several years to restore the historic birthplace of the fourth president, Belle Grove Plantation located in Port Conway, Va. (We’ve blogged about Belle Grove before.) Although neither Michelle nor Brett is a graduate of JMU, we would be hard pressed not to label them as part of the Madison community. Their work to restore and open the plantation adds yet another dimension  — and destination —  to the important story of James Madison.

Michelle and Brett Darnell

Michelle and Brett Darnell

I follow the Darnell’s Belle Grove Plantation blog and noticed Michelle had written a post about their day at Montpelier. The couple met President Alger and John Douglas Hall, the man who brings James Madison to life. They took in the ceremony, the history and the beauty of Montpelier. (Michelle’s blog also has lots of pictures from the event. See the link above.)

One observation in the blog was especially interesting. She wrote:

As we entered the room, we observed Mr. Madison sitting with a young girl on one side of the room deep in conversation. Her father was sitting across the aisle taping the conversation on his cell phone. Mrs. Madison was on the opposite side of the room also holding a conversation, with a young boy.

It was as if the past collided with the present, one of those rich moments when history becomes real and accessible. When this happens, our challenge is to learn everything we can and apply its lessons wisely, as President Alger suggests.

In addition to marking the day, the event signaled a strengthened association between JMU and Montpelier. The collaboration will benefit historians, students of all ages and anyone curious about history. It will happen in classrooms, over the Internet and wherever people — like Michelle and Brett — are sufficiently interested in history to gather and chat.

You can read more about the Montpelier event in a story by JMU’s Jim Heffernan (’96).

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: