Center for Valley and Regional Studies
The Center for Valley and Regional Studies at James Madison University focuses on the research, interpretation, and public presentation of Shenandoah Valley and regional history and culture. Housed in the Department of History, the center is presently a cooperative effort between the Departments of History and Sociology/Anthropology at JMU. The Center integrates research, teaching,and public service by undertaking scholarly research projects relating to the Shenandoah Valley and surrounding region,providing multi- and interdisciplinary research and learning opportunities for students, and disseminating the results of its research through public programs.For more information, contact Dr. Gabrielle M. Lanier at firstname.lastname@example.org
Shenandoah Valley Regional Studies Seminar
Belle Grove Plantation Site Plan: Architectural Assessment, 2007
Funded by Belle Grove Plantation
In 2007, the Center for Valley and Regional Studies conducted a survey-level architectural assessment of the twentieth-century outbuildings that stand on the grounds of Belle Grove Plantation. Located in the Shenandoah Valley near Middletown, Virginia, Belle Grove Plantation is a National Historic Landmark, a Virginia Historic Landmark, and a historic property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The main house at Belle Grove
The main house, completed in 1797 for Major Isaac Hite and his wife Nelly, sister of future President James Madison, was built with limestone quarried on the property and has remained virtually unchanged through the years. In its heyday, circa 1815, Belle Grove functioned as a grain and livestock farm, encompassing about 7500 acres. During the Civil War, Belle Grove was at the center of the Battle of Cedar Creek. Today, Belle Grove is one of the outstanding mansions in the Valley of Virginia.
Above Left:The approach to Belle Grove Plantation Above Right: Bank barn near visitor's parking lot at Belle Grove.
The plantation today includes the main house and gardens, a small stone building traditionally known as the overseer’s house, original outbuildings, two early twentieth-century barns, several other twentieth-century outbuildings, a slave cemetery, a heritage apple orchard, and open fields and meadows.
Above left: combination shed near Belle Grove mansion. Above right: frame barn near Overseer's House.
Belle Grove Plantation Overseer's House: Architectural Assessment, 2005-2006
Funded by Belle Grove Plantation
The overseer's house with Belle Grove main house in background at right
In 2006, the Center for Valley and Regional Studies completed an architectural assessment of the small stone house that stands southeast of the main house at Belle Grove Plantation. Although this building has traditionally been known as the overseer's house, not much else was known about it. Little or no research on this building had been undertaken previously. Most of what was known was a by-product of research on the main house, more recent archaeological testing undertaken on various parts of the plantation, repairs to the overseer's house, and oral testimony from several people who had lived at Belle Grove in the twentieth century.
The overseer's house in 2006 (left) and in the early twentieth century (right), showing two-story frame addition
The overseer's house was probably constructed around 1795-1810, during the time when Isaac Hite, Jr. was building up his plantation operation and focusing on its management. The building's substantial construction and its conspicuous placement in relation to the mansion also imply that it was intended to serve an important plantation-related function during the Hite period. Although its original stone shell remains largely intact except for some reworked cellar openings, the interior has been heavily altered. Still, enough architectural evidence survives on the interior surfaces to permit reconstruction of the original first-floor arrangement with some certainty.
Property plats showing the overseer's house as a tenant house on the main plantation in 1892 (left) and as part of a separate property parcel in 1895 (right)
Even though the building served as a dwelling or tenant house for much of its later existence, it was not originally constructed to function solely as a dwelling. Furthermore, no evidence has been uncovered to date that confirms that the building was planned as an overseer's house. Instead, the architectural evidence makes a strong case for the building's intended use as a plantation store, or possibly a combined dwelling and storehouse, during its earliest years. Although the building may have been transformed into a dwelling even during the later Hite period, it was probably not intended as such when it was first built.
The Overseer's House is the first building visitors see as they drive along the access road approaching Belle Grove. As such, it constitutes a significant part of the visual landscape, and is arguably one of the most publicly conspicuous features on the site. If it served as a plantation store during the earliest part of the Hite period, this building also would have constituted a major element within the entire complex, and an important part of Hite's increasingly sophisticated plantation operation.
Assessment of Cultural Resources on Willis Hill, Fredericksburg, Virginia
Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, 2001-2002
Funded by Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park (National Park Service)
View of Fredericksburg from East Bank of Rappahannock, 1863. Timothy O'Sullivan, Photographer. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division. Selected Civil War Photographs Collection, 1861-1865. Reproduction NumberLC-B8171-7927 DLC
Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park encompasses an area that experienced heavy and continuous fighting during the Civil War. The park memorializes the battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House. The Willis Hill site, recently acquired by the park, is located behind the infamous "sunken road" and played an important role in the battles of first and second Fredericksburg. The multi-acre site contains the remains of significant Civil War artillery redoubts and infantry trenches, and also houses the archaeological remnants of an eighteenth-century plantation complex established by the Willis family, who were early residents of Fredericksburg. In the late nineteenth century, Captain Charles Richardson constructed his home on the property, and in the twentieth century, this dwelling became the centerpiece of the Montfort Academy, which occupied the property until the early 1990s.
In the spring of 2001, JMU faculty and students from the departments of Sociology/Anthropology, History, Geology and Environmental Studies, and Geographic Science began a multifaceted project designed to assess the cultural resources on the Willis Hill site. Historical research into the property and the families that have occupied it will help researchers to assess and interpret the cultural resources within the project area. History graduate student Shaun Mooney (left) documented the Richardson House with a series of measured architectural drawings.
Archaeological testing with ground penetrating radar has revealed what may be remnants of Confederate infantry trenches and artillery batteries. In addition, archaeologists have located the foundation and cellar features associated with the Willis plantation. The sketch plan at right, recently recovered from a 1796 Mutual Assurance Society policy, shows in unusual detail the structural attributes of the main house and outbuildings on the Willis Hill plantation. Global Positioning Systems technology has also been used to map and identify cultural remains within the study area.
An architectural assessment of the Richardson House (shown at left and below), its outbuildings, and its surrounding landscape features, conducted by JMU students and faculty working through the Center for Valley and Regional Studies, developed an historical analysis of the buildings and their environs and provided recommendations to the National Park Service for management and use of the site.
The Richardson House, which stands prominently atop Willis Hill, commands a view of the city of Fredericksburg and also overlooks the adjacent sunken road and national cemetery within the Fredericksburg Civil War Battlefield. The two-story building, the earliest portion of which dates to the late nineteenth century, stands within a terraced and partially reworked landscape that exhibits archaeological remnants of Civil War-era military operations as well as evidence of an earlier eighteenth-century plantation complex. While the house initially appears to have been constructed in a single building campaign, closer inspection reveals evidence of multiple building periods.
The Gilmore Cabin at Montpelier, Interpretive Planning and Continuing Oral History, 2001-2002
Funded by an African-American History in Virginia Mini-Grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy to Montpelier
The Gilmore Cabin at Montpelier, Documentation of Extant Architectural Fabric From Demolished Frame Addition, 2001-2002
Funded by the Montpelier Foundation
This small nineteenth-century log building at Montpelier was the home of George Gilmore, an emancipated African American who had been a slave belonging to James Madison. The Gilmore cabin stood unoccupied for many years, but in the spring of 2000 JMU history students and faculty began researching the dwelling and the family history surrounding it.
In 2000, a group of four JMU student interns, funded by a grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy to Montpelier, produced an historic structure report on the cabin for the Montpelier Foundation. Research for this report involved oral history with Gilmore descendants as well as architectural and documentary research. In 2001, two more JMU history students, working under the guidance of Montpelier staff and with the Center for Valley and Regional Studies, built upon this research by undertaking further oral histories with Gilmore descendents and developing several interpretive plans for the cabin. Montpelier hopes to use some of this research as it develops its interpretive scheme for the building.
The museum undertook extensive work on the cabin by dismantling the semi-ruinous frame addition and stabilizing, re-roofing and restoring the log section. In 2001-2002, two JMU students, working with the Center for Valley and Regional Studies, documented the remains of the demolished frame addition for Montpelier through measured architectural drawings and photographs. At this building, which is unique to the 2,700 acre estate and one of the few remaining "freedman" cabins in the Piedmont, Montpelier hopes to share with its visitors a more comprehensive discussion of African-American history by examining the critical decades after the Civil War and Emancipation--an often under-represented segment of the African-American story in Virginia.
This early twentieth-century photograph of the cabin (right) emerged during the course of research and shows the house as it was when the Gilmore family still lived there. Note the beehives in the front yard. The large log building to the rear no longer stands.
Photograph courtesy of Alfred E. Mills
The Gilmore cabin stands on land that once belonged to Dr. James A. Madison, great-nephew of President Madison. Initially George Gilmore was a tenant, but upon Dr. Madison's death in 1901, George purchased the building and 16 acres in fee simple. George, his wife Polly, and their three children lived and worked here. The property remained in the Gilmore family until 1920 when it was purchased by William du Pont, although the Gilmore family retains ownership of 2.6 acres containing the Gilmore family cemetery.
Several Gilmore family descendents generously contributed their family photographs, genealogical research, family memories, and stories to this project. Pictured below (left) is Bertha Tinsley Gilmore, George Gilmore's daughter-in-law and wife of William Gilmore. Pictured below is a portion of the Gilmore family tree (center) and a family gathering of George's grandchildren Mildred, Marsha, Ollie, Philip, Onie, and George William (right).
In early 2001, Montpelier dismantled the Gilmore cabin's frame addition, shown intact in this June 2000 photograph (right), in preparation for restoration work by Heartland Millwork and Restorations, Inc. The pieces of the addition were broken down into a series of separate sections.
While some of the building sections were largely intact, others were rotten, semi-ruinous, or unsalvageable. Montpelier worked with Heartland to restore the cabin, as shown in these post-restoration photographs (below), in time for a visit by Gilmore family descendants in the spring of 2001.
During the stabilization and removal process, limited archaeology uncovered remnants of some of the family's activities such as the sewing implements and toy animals shown below.
In the fall of 2001, in preparation for the possible rebuilding of the frame addition at some point in the future, students and faculty from the Center for Valley and Regional Studies documented the remains of the dismantled sections. Two JMU history graduate students learned the basics of architectural documentation as they worked to record what was left (below, top) with photographs and measured architectural drawings (below, bottom).