Belle Grove director retiring after 17 years

By Ryan Cornell

MIDDLETOWN — Before Elizabeth McClung set foot in the Shenandoah Valley or even left her home state of Pennsylvania, the path leading her to Belle Grove Plantation had already been blazed.

McClung would spend time with her grandparents at their farm in Chester County, Pa. They had a farmhouse, built in 1812, she described as having deep fireplaces and being made of beautiful old stones from the nearby Brandywine River.

She said the house was sold out of the family in the early 1980s and was torn down shortly afterward.

“From that moment on, I was like Scarlett O’Hara with the potato, saying ‘I’ll never be hungry again’ — I will do everything to preserve places that matter,” McClung said.

“It’s really been my privilege and joy to provide stewardship for Belle Grove,” she said. “I’ve been able to put my heart into it because I lost a place that meant something to me.”

After nearly 17 years of serving as Belle Grove’s executive director, McClung’s path will come to an end when she retires on July 31. She said she gave notice of her retirement to the board of directors in March.

In her term, McClung raised $1.2 million to buy 183 acres of land and nearly tripled the size of the property. She saw Tim McGraw film an episode of his genealogical TV show, “Who Do You Think You Are?” on the site, when he discovered he was related to the Chrisman family. She helped write legislation that created the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park. She practically became part of the Hite family tree, attending its reunions every three years. She even researched Isaac Hite’s whiskey recipe and has started selling the whiskey along with whiskey chocolates.

McClung recalled her first days of working at Belle Grove in January 1997. “I came in and there were boxes of file folders in no particular order. There were records being kept in physical ledger books; not a computer in sight. The house was having moisture intrusion problems. It was clear from the beginning that we needed to get some architectural preservation work done.”

She quickly set to work rebuilding fences, installing new roofs and foundations for structures and restoring the house to how it had looked in 1815.

“When I got here, everything was basically either beige or hospital green,” she said. “We started a research project, with a physical outcome, to discover the original colors the woodwork was painted, original textiles in the house, floor coverings and window hangings to try to bring it back.”

McClung compared managing Belle Grove to a team sport. She said that since they work with a small budget, it requires them to bond together and be passionate in what they do. She credited her small group of volunteers as vital to the park’s success.

One of these volunteers, Doris Acker, was working at the front desk on Wednesday. She and McClung both hail from Bucks County, Pa., though they didn’t meet each other until Acker started working at the park three years ago.

“She’s always brought a great spirit to the house,” Acker said. “She’s one of those people who works well with many personality types. I think her guiding hand is going to be missed very much.”

“We always like to say, ‘We are here to tend the fires and not the ashes of the past,'” McClung said. “So we try to keep this place a home and not just a house and that really takes all of us volunteers, staff and board members to enliven it.”

McClung, who has worked in museums and nonprofits for 44 years, previously served as Development Director at the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton and worked for eight years at the Smithsonian Institute.

John Adamson, chairman of the board, equated McClung’s position to the Chief Operating Officer of the park.

“It’s not a regular job,” he said in a phone call on Wednesday. “Her position requires all kinds of strange hours and visits to supporters and donors. She gives tours. She represents the park at Frederick County meetings.”

The chairman added that much of McClung’s legacy will be tied to her preservation of the building and grounds, professional management style, drafting of the founding legislation for the national park and limitless energy.

“She’s a lot of fun to be around,” Adamson said. “She has a quick sense of humor and has a knack for seeing the good side of things.”

He recalled instances when a tree would fall down on the property or a leak from a rainstorm would develop in the 200-year-old roof. Another time, she had to remove some snakes from the mansion’s basement before a tour group arrived. She knew just what to do and was never flustered, he said.

“When she told me she wanted to retire, I knew she was eligible for that, but I wish she could keep working here forever,” Adamson said. “My heart sank, because you just can’t replace Elizabeth exactly.”

Adamson said the board is close to selecting a successor to McClung and will make an announcement sometime next week. He said the job opening is in a competitive field and is a desirable position for people in the preservation world.

The board narrowed down its candidates for the job based on education, experience and passion, Adamson said. McClung said she had been sitting in with the search committee as a quiet advisor.

“We were seeking someone whose experience suggested they could come in and start working at Belle Grove quickly,” he said. “We were also looking for someone with a passion in history, someone who senses the beauty in the Shenandoah Valley.”

As a former Girl Scout, McClung said she learned to always leave a place better than you found it. She’s pretty sure she followed the rule at Belle Grove. “Things are in the best shape they’ve ever been in,” she said. “Now that things are coming back around and we’re on an upward movement, it’s a great time to hand it off.”

McClung, who specified her age as “a good age to retire,” plans to spend time on her drawings, watercolors, etchings and woodblock prints at her house in Highland County. The bachelor’s degree graduate in printmaking from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia said though she’s seen Belle Grove as a four-dimensional art project, she’s looking forward to enjoying some unstructured time with her husband, Kent.

Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rcornell@nvdaily.com