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Patrick Farris: Belle Boyd Cottage a significant historical structure

Patrick Farris

By Patrick Farris

Belle Boyd Cottage is one of the Warren Heritage Society's most important historic buildings and projects. The following is extracted from Laura Virginia Hale's well-known On Chester Street, published in the 1980s and reprinted by the Warren Heritage Society in 2006.

"The Cottage probably was constructed before the 1830s and belonged to Mary Hickman, widow of John Hickman, one of the original seven Town Trustees. Mary operated Hickman's Tavern from 1818-1837. An architect present at the time of the cottage's moving guessed that it may have been a prefabricated structure brought over from England. Dr. Joseph Lacy (1837-1845), Thomas Blakemore (1845-1853), Mathew Smith (1853-1856), George B. Fishback (1856-1871), John Strickler (1883-1914), and W.G. Strickler and wife (1914-1935) also ran the hotel. Its best-known names were the Fishback Hotel and the Strickler Hotel.

"The innkeeper's house, it was attached by walkway to the hotel building proper, a two-story brick building that still stands on Main Street. Constance Buckley, born in the Cottage in 1909 and a niece of Mrs. Strickler, recalled the Cottage being private, tucked away behind the Hotel, and facing a yard with a vegetable garden, grape arbor and small brick walks. She also remembered cattlemen from Rappahannock County driving their herds to the nearby train depot, and the last village smithy, John James Warren, whose shop was on nearby Happy Creek. Franklin Pierce delivered a campaign speech in The Square within site of the Hotel in 1852, Fitzhugh Lee in his gubernatorial campaign in 1885, Major John W. Daniel while campaigning for Grover Cleveland in 1892. All these men possibly quenched their thirst or rested at the Hotel.

"Born in the Cottage was Samuel Rolfe Millar, Sr., whose parents were Susan Randolph - daughter of General Beverly Randolph, a relative of Thomas Jefferson and a hero of the War of 1812 - and Samuel Richardson Millar - a son of a prominent local family. When Samuel Millar died early in life, Susan took young Samuel Rolfe to Iowa to be raised amongst other relations. It was there near Davenport that he had much of his childhood and schooling -- graduating from Griswold College in Iowa and receiving a PhD from Heidleberg University in Germany -- before returning to Front Royal and briefly becoming an assistant editor at the Warren Sentinel. He married Bertha Riedel of Heidelberg, Germany, and was later appointed Consul to Leipsic by President Cleveland.

"He remained in Iowa developing family lands and partly owned and edited the Davenport Democrat while there. He traveled much, lecturing at Washington & Lee and at the University of Virginia, and was offered the presidency of W&L and Johns Hopkins, but ultimately decided to settle for a quiet life in Front Royal, where he built "Mountain View." When his friend and former neighbor Judge Lovell died in 1900 Millar took over the Warren Sentinel, which he owned and edited for the next 30 years until his death in 1930.

"Millar served in the National Guard for 20 years - rising to the rank of Colonel - and served in World War I. With Professor J.S. Gruver he founded Eastern College.
Young Belle Boyd of Martinsburg came to stay during the War with her uncle and aunt who were keeping the Fishback Hotel, having recently relocated from Washington, D.C. when the War began. Belle, who had begun spying in Martinsburg after the town came under Union occupation (and she shot a soldier during a home invasion, resulting in her being placed under house arrest), spied on Union activities from the Cottage throughout her stay. Her big break came in April 1862 when she placed herself in a bedroom above a drawing room (presumably in the Cottage and not the Hotel proper) in which several Union officers, being led by General Shields, were engaged in a council of war. Shields indicated that the Front Royal garrison would be reduced to 1100 men, and Belle saddled up and rode through Union pickets using passes issued to paroled Confederate soldiers, delivering this information to Colonel Ashby.

"US Colonel Kenly was in command of the town and a correspondent named Clark from the New York Herald was an undesirable guest in the Hotel when the Confederates attacked on May 23, 1862. Belle learned of the attack from a slave woman, and from a Union officer learned of the plans to burn the bridges in retreat. At the peril of her life she ran through the skirmishing front lines, shot passing through her blue dress and prayer only sustaining her, to find her cousin Harry Douglas. She informed him of the Federals' plans concerning the bridges, then returned to town to find Clark - whom she had locked in his hotel room - being made prisoner. He later spread much vile rumor about Belle in retribution. After the battle the Hotel filled with wounded whom Belle tended, and CS Major General "Stonewall" Jackson sent her a hasty thank you note for her information. By summer US General Banks had retaken Front Royal, and Belle was arrested while still living at the Cottage.

"E.H. Stokes purchased the Hotel and Cottage in 1948 and tried to give it at that time to the Warren Rifles chapter of the UDC, but money being short this plan did not materialize. In 1981 it was owned by Mike Silek, who sold it to the Warren Heritage Society. Jean Lacy - president of the WHS at the time - saw to the raising of funds and arrangement for building movers to relocate the structure to the grounds of the WHS on Chester Street. Some funds came from the State through Delegates Smith and Guest and Senator Truban and from the Virginia Landmarks Commission. The brick chimney was taken down and reconstructed at the new site, but the roof and foundation had to be replaced, as did the interior plaster walls and much of the woodwork. Architect Warren McNamee designed the Archives to be built on the rear of the Cottage, and Laura Virginia Hale donated her vast files to the new Archives upon its completion, turning down offers from Duke University and the Library of Congress.

Interested in local history? Come visit the Warren Heritage Society in Front Royal. Refer to warrenheritagesociety.org for contact information, hours and location. Patrick Farris is executive director of the Warren Heritage Society. - See more at: http://www.nvdaily.com/columns/


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