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By Amber Marra -- firstname.lastname@example.org
MIDDLETOWN -- He's looked forward to his next 30 years, and now Tim McGraw can look back to his roots in the Shenandoah Valley.
In a carefully planned visit in October, McGraw traveled to Belle Grove Plantation with NBC's "Who Do You Think You Are?" to uncover his ancestry. The show, which is just beginning its second season, takes viewers on the long, and at times emotional, journey to figure out how family trees sprouted and where branches have extended. Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica Parker, Spike Lee, and Emmitt Smith are just a few of the names that have identified with their pasts through the show.
Alexandra Orton, a researcher with the show, began looking into McGraw's family history last May, giving her a little more time to dig for census records, wills, and trace genealogy than some of the other celebrities profiled on the show.
"Once a celebrity signs on, they give us phone numbers and e-mail addresses of family members who can give us some of the family myths and that leads us to the person who knows the most, who is the keeper of family stories and photos," Orton said. "That way [family members] turn into characters instead of just names and dates."
But don't think McGraw was aware of how he is connected to the Shenandoah Valley throughout the making of the episode, which is scheduled to run next week. Like Elizabeth McClung, executive director of Belle Grove, and the everyone else involved in the research process, McGraw was blindsided by the revelation that he is a distant cousin to the Hite family.
"I think it'll really be interesting to watch Friday night because it showcases our region and the place we know and love and it'll be interesting to watch Tim McGraw because he didn't know his ancestry at that point either," McClung said.
The Hite family, who came to America from Germany, made their way to the Shenandoah Valley in the 1730s, according to McClung. Though Orton says McGraw is not a direct descendant of the Hites who founded Belle Grove, parts of the episode were filmed there and his ties to the area are still strong enough to be fascinating to viewers.
"He's definitely a product of some of the major Hite characters that will be recognizable to people who are really interested in the history of the Shenandoah Valley," Orton said.
Helping McGraw unearth his family history wasn't the only positive outcome of the episode. Hand-written land transactions dating back to 1750 that tell the story of how immigrants came south from Pennsylvania and New York were pulled by Rebecca Ebert, of the Handley Library and Stewart Bell Jr. Regional Archives, and salvaged by a professional conservator. This was not an easy process, as the documents had been folded for hundreds of years, and the cost of handling such fragile antiques came to $600 -- which the show happily picked up.
"That was something we had always wanted to do but couldn't because of the cost, so this was kind of a boon," McClung said.
Besides Belle Grove, other homes belonging to the Hite family and areas within the Shenandoah Valley, including Massanutten Mountain, are featured in the episode.
According to McClung, Belle Grove was chosen as the main setting for the episode because it is the lone Hite family home open to the public and is the main hub for the Hite Family Association.
"Who Do You Think You Are?" featuring McGraw and the Belle Grove Plantation, airs on Friday, Feb. 11, at 8 p.m. on NBC.