For the first time in nearly five years, an iconic Route 231 landmark and historic mansion’s doors will open to the community – well, to generous and education-minded members of the community, for the moment.
Sarah and Jim Wildasin are hosting a Belle Meade School fundraising supper from 5 to 8 p.m. Saturday, May 12 at Montpelier in Sperryville. The historic home was built in 1746 by Francis Thornton. The grand house overlooks the nearby Blue Ridge and scenic F.T. Valley. Thornton’s legacy is still evident, with his initials listed on road signs from Sperryville to Madison.
A limited number of tickets are available for $100 per person; and ticket underwriting packages are available for individuals/corporations (visit bellemeadeschool.org for ticket and other detailed information).
“We are grateful to the Wildasins for graciously offering their hospitality to benefit Belle Meade School,” said Susan Hoffman, who with husband Mike Biniek heads the school. “This event offers all an opportunity to tour this wonderful Rappahannock landmark for the first time since the Wildasins purchased and renovated the well-known historic house in which many of Virginia’s early notables, including George Washington, were frequent visitors.”
Guests from Rappahannock and surrounding counties including Culpeper, Fauquier, Madison and Page are invited to tour Montpelier. The design of the house is a single, spacious room, wide on three floors, which allows mountain air to flow through – in hopes of lowering the incident of diseases such as malaria, back then. In so doing, a classical, elegant and unusual mansion was built, with magnificent views of Old Rag Mountain and the surrounding countryside.
The fundraising event for Belle Meade School, located nearby, will help the nonprofit continue its respected tradition of academic excellence, sustainable living and successful students. Belle Meade is a unique, green school which specializes in teaching students required academics through experiential learning. Students also learn about the natural world, and about the need for respecting one another in a community. School founders Hoffman and Biniek, along with a skilled teaching staff of professionals, interact daily with students to ensure academic success. Students thrive in small classes and many informal mentoring relationships with adults.
For the evening of May 12, Belle Meade has planned a “country casual” dinner celebration on the grounds of the historic mansion, with live music by the locally celebrated band Dontez Inferno. As guests tour the restored house and barns at Montpelier, Chef Sylvie Rowand will feature an inspired menu of farm fresh food from Belle Meade Farm, accompanied by local wines.
This opening of the house and grounds is the first in nearly five years since previous owners Roger and Sophie Scuton invited visitors to the tour the house and grounds. Montpelier is the most prominent of the three homes Francis Thornton built here, after moving to land he obtained from Lord Fairfax in the early 18th century. Others include Thornton Hill in Sperryville and Champlain near Old Rag Mountain in nearby Madison, which burned to the ground in a sad Christmas fire. That event reportedly sent George Washington, who was attending the party, off on his horse “Buckskin” to spend the rest of the holidays at Montpelier with his Aunt and many Thornton cousins nearby.
Later, in 1822, Francis Thornton’s grandson Dr. Philip Thornton, inherited Montpelier. While visiting in Richmond, he rescued a beautiful French girl Caroline Homassel from another tragic fire – a horrific theatre conflagration which claimed the lives of the governor and many other highly regarded Virginians.
In that noteworthy chapter of Montpelier’s history, Caroline expressed her gratitude to Philip. Although she still pined after the death of her fiancé Alfred Madison, nephew of President James Madison, she agreed to marry her rescuer and come live with him at Montpelier. Her memoirs report that she regularly visited the Madisons at their Montpelier home in Orange County. Why the two houses bear the same name remains a mystery. With her husband, Caroline also spent time with the Madisons in Washington, D.C., and was treated as one of the family. An elegant and well-educated lady, Caroline Thornton had numerous children and grandchildren, who years later encouraged her to write her life story.
In an intriguing memoir, she writes of her forebears, who were Protestants in France jailed in the Bastille during the French Revolution (who did escape the guillotine but apparently, had difficulty in doing so) and fled the country to safe guard both life and religious beliefs. In the tale, she also discusses her ties to, faith in, the F. T. Baptist church in Sperryville, and about daily life on the Montpelier estate – detailing the visit there of exiled Louis Philippe of France, who for a short tenure later, ruled as King.
Also noteworthy is her later recollection of the Civil War period when the great house and farm were taken over by Generals Siegel and Milroy of the Northern Army with 600 soldiers bivouacked on the property. The soldiers commandeered all the family’s live stock and produce. During the much earlier Revolutionary War, Hessian soldiers stayed at Montpelier under Brtitish command, and some were credited with creating the decorative, faux painting to found in the home.
There were a number of financial documents found at the home, detailing 52 slaves owned in the time of Philip Thornton. Sadly, not much is known of their lives and experiences, although historic documents may yet reveal more. The Shackelford family acquired the property following Caroline Thornton’s death. And later, the Fletchers – a prominent Rappahannock family – owned the estate.
Another, more contemporary bit of Montpelier history, shows that a small adjacent cottage was the home of the Jackson family their ten children – one of whom, John Jackson (1924-2002), was a gifted blues singer and guitarist. Jackson was honored for his African-American musical traditions by the National Endowment for the Arts with a National Heritage Fellowship.