Belle Grove welcomes Hite descendants with historic exhibit
By Josette Keelor -- firstname.lastname@example.org
A family reunion at Belle Grove this weekend not only will attract members of the Hite family from 16 states, it also has sparked a public exhibit of historic artifacts from the last 300 years, said Elizabeth McClung, president of Belle Grove Plantation.
"They only come every three years, and so we like to do something in their honor," McClung said.
One of the first families to settle in the Shenandoah Valley, the Hite family descends from Jost Hite, whose grandson Major Isaac Hite and wife Nelly Madison Hite (sister of President James Madison) built the manor house at Belle Grove Plantation in 1797, according to Belle Grove's website www.BelleGrove.org.
The "Treasures from Belle Grove's Collections" exhibit includes two dresses that Sarah Clark Macon Hite wore, one in her wedding to Judge Mark Bird on Oct. 21, 1834, and the other the following day.
The wedding gown, McClung said, "is one of my favorite things."
Made of dotted Swiss cotton batiste, the cream-colored dress is so fragile, McClung said, that she and guest curator Jillian Tucker have it displayed lying on a four poster bed in the Gold Bedroom on the second floor.
"They wore white and ivory," McClung said, although white wedding dresses didn't officially became popular until 1840, when Britain's Queen Victoria wore white for her wedding.
Also on exhibit is Mrs. Bird's "second day dress," a gold gown made of silk damask she wore to receive guests the day after her wedding, McClung said.
Nearly as fragile as the wedding dress, the second day dress was, until recently, kept in its storage box until McClung and Tucker were ready to position it on a mannequin in the parlor, where the couple married before moving to Woodstock to live in what historians and locals call The Bird House.
It was traditional for newly-wed couples to receive guests the day following their wedding, McClung said, and the bride would have a special dress made for the occasion.
"It's nice to be able to tell a story about one couple, from the time they were married," McClung said, adding that a goal of the exhibit is to "tell stories of the family through their artifacts."
"We're opening this exhibit in time for the Hite reunion," she said. As of Tuesday, the count of guests was 120.
"It just grew by leaps and bounds," she said.
The reunion will take place Sunday, but the exhibit will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 1 to 5 p.m. on Sundays through Sept. 30. After that, the period dresses, books and documents will go back into dark storage.
"It's so neat to have these come back to us, passed down through the family," McClung said. "It's a wonderful opportunity for neighbors of our region to see things that are normally stored away."
The museum has brought out some of the fragile artifacts previously, such as for the triennial Hite reunion and for a costume exhibit, McClung said, but she does not recall another exhibit at Belle Grove including so many historic Hite antiques at one time.
"We have never had the Jost Hite documents on display before," she said, and the larger of the two had not been unfolded for more than 100 years.
"We had it done by a professional paper conservator who knew how to handle it and what to do," said McClung.
The Handley Regional Library in Winchester keeps historic Hite Family papers and books in archival and climate controlled storage when they're not on display, McClung said.
"We bring them to Belle Grove as needed," she said.
With Tucker, said McClung, she was looking for an expert curator to help staff set up the exhibit. The museum hired her using a grant from the Hite Family Association specifically for the exhibit. Other staff members helping with the exhibit are Chelsea Kashani and Dennis Campbell, McClung said.
"So it's been a team effort," she said. Helping with the reunion are private homeowners from the area hosting open houses for reunion guests, as well as the Hite Family Cemetery at Longwood and St. Thomas Chapel in Middletown.
Dan Tullos, chairman of the reunion and vice president of the Hite Family Association for the last 12 years, traveled from Searcy, Ark., a week early to help with finishing touches.
"It's wonderful to see some of these things for the first time," he said on Tuesday. "To be able to see them and for them to be displayed during the reunion, that's tremendous."
Besides the items on temporary display, McClung said, "We're also drawing attention to the portraits."
The permanent collection of paintings in the parlor hang where they did while Major Hite lived at Belle Grove.
Charles Peale Polk painted the portrait of Major Hite -- donated to Belle Grove by Hite Family descendant Emory Niles; a portrait of Nelly Madison Hite and her son James Madison Hite, and a portrait of President Madison's parents Col. James Madison Sr. and his wife Nelly Conway Madison.
The last portrait in the collection, that of Thomas Jefferson, is a reproduction of the original, McClung said.
Tullos said this year's expected turnout for the reunion is greater than usual and might be the family's largest ever.
"You never know," he said. "You always hope, and we're thrilled."
For more information about the exhibit or the Hite reunion, call Belle Grove Plantation at 869-2028.