No picnics today!
No picnics today!
In March 2015, the great-great-great-great-grandson of Aaron Thornley, the builder of White Plains in 1786, visited us from California with his family. That visit has since been recorded as one of our favorite days while living here. They brought stories, pictures, and an interest in learning about this special place in Virginia.
At that time in 2015, we had barely scratched the surface to stabilize and restore the old Thornley home. We knew very little of the stories it kept secret.
This past weekend, they came back to visit, nearly four years and many changes later. It was fun to share the recent restoration and renovation work, much of it drastic, since their last visit. We have stayed in touch with them over the years, and it was fun to build on a friendship of other common interests too.
In preparing for their visit, we debated a simple menu that would highlight some of the small farm producers in the Fredericksburg and King George region. We live in an area with many small sustainable farms that care about the produce they deliver.
After a round or two (who’s counting?) of manhattans and a tour through the house, dinner was served. For the main course, I chose coturnix quail from Sassafras Trail in King George. After years of searcing for a source of quail in Virginia, I found Caroline who does an amazing job raising quality birds.
I chose to prepare them based on an old French recipe, Cailles à la Normande, braised in apples, shallots, Calvados, and cream. Giving the plate a southern twist, I served them over locally grown and ground polenta.
While those little birds can be a challenge to eat, the meat is so rich and plays well with the sweet braised apples and creamy broth. After you’ve initially been polite with a knife and fork, it pays to pick them up to get every last bit of that dark delicious meat.
For dessert, I chose not to bake (gasp!), and I let the Red Truck Bakery steal the show with their Lexington bourbon cake with fresh ginger. It has become a household favorite and pairs well with a little bourbon-whipped cream – or a lot, we don’t judge. It was perfect with a sip of the Mary Hite Bowman Caramel Cream made in Fredericksburg by A. Smith Bowman Distillery.
The evening was a lot of fun. We enjoyed the chance to share the Thornley family’s ancestral home with our guests while enjoying some of Virginia’s finest. We can’t wait for the next visit.
Hopefully we continue to make this old house proud by offering hospitality to strangers and friends, both old and new.
One of the greatest challenges in owning an old home is maintaining its exterior, regardless of its materials. In Virginia, you most commonly find wood and brick construction. It is not until you travel into Maryland and, of course, Pennsylvania that you see more use of stone.
After a few years of bandaging issues on the exterior at White Plains, it was finally time to start the conversation of giving the house a fresh coat of paint. I say, “start the conversation” because such an endeavor is not for the faint of heart! Finally by fall, we were ready to get started.
I have learned a lot about historic woodwork and masonry over the past few years, understanding what is required to keep it well maintained and attractive. For wood, maintaining a solid coat of paint adds protection and is essential for its longevity. Similarly, historic masonry needs to be patched and pointed-up as necessary to keep moisture out.
Like many other buildings from the same time period in the Tidewater area, White Plains is a traditional brace-framed house with a wooden weatherboard exterior. It is built over a raised cellar with walls of handmade brick laid in English bond, extending about 14 courses, or rows, above ground level.
While the old masonry has been patched many times over the years, the original portions still retain the 19th-century white wash, as can be seen in the picture above. Upon close inspection, you will notice that the patching appears to relate to the closing or opening of entrances into the cellar and repairing areas of water damage. The changes to entrances likely happened about 1840, when the cellar would have been turned into finished living space, including a fireplace built into the existing chimney. I love all of the layers from decades and centuries of change.
Preparation of the exterior is the most important part before painting. A poorly prepared surface means the paint may not adhere well, causing popping and cracking sooner than it would with a properly prepared surface.
Here, we only employed the use of hand-scraping and the occasional electric hand sander where build-up of old paint was extreme. Although I wanted a well prepared surface, I didn’t want to lose the texture and character that old wood has. Unfortunately, this can be a much slower process, requiring attention to detail and a lot of manpower.
Each of the old shutters was removed and will be prepared in a similar way to the weatherboarding with repairs made to rotten areas and a fresh coat of paint. My current conflict is picking a color that both honors the traditional while giving a fresh look. My current choices are between Essex, Colonial Verdigris, and Waller greens, all Benjamin Moore colors.
I once suggested that we consider a body color that evokes the type of excitement as August Boatwright’s house in Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, but I can reassure everyone that it will remain white. But you never know when color will strike! As August put it in the book, “I had a nice tan color in mind, but May latched on to this sample called Caribbean Pink. She said it made her feel like dancing a Spanish flamenco.” Who doesn’t want to dance a Spanish flamenco every day? But I digress.
In addition to preparing and painting the weatherboarding, almost all of the old windows need to be reglazed. At nearly 30 windows, this is no small task! First, the old glazing has to be carefully stripped from each window pane, hopefully without breaking the glass, and then new glazing is artistically puttied into each groove. After the glazing cures, it can be primed and painted. Not only will this help them look as good as new, but it will increase their energy efficiency, sealing all of the tiny gaps between the glass and wood-frame mullions.
Although we started a little late in fall, we had high hopes that the weather would hold, and we would be able to finish by Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, we barely made it through the prep work on the North side and a handful of windows before consistent rain and freezing temperatures set in.
I was hoping to have everything looking pristine in time for the holidays, it will all have to wait until Spring and better weather. Hopefully that isn’t too far away.
Dave Brown, Thane Harpole, and Libby Cook, “National Register of Historic Places Registration Form: White Plains,” Virginia Department of Historic Resources (March 2018).
On a recent trip to the Denver Central Market, I had my first taste of Shakshuka, a traditional North African dish of roasted peppers, tomatoes, and invigorating spices that creates a beautiful flavor. Two large eggs are perfectly poached in the sauce, something to eat with fresh bread for breakfast or as a hearty cold-weather meal when you need that flavor to give your mood a boost.
Coming home to Virginia, I’ve tried several versions. Of course, I found that Melissa Clark has once again proven steadfast with an easy recipe for any night of the week or brunch. With two fresh eggs from the chicken house, homemade bread, and tomatoes from the summer garden, this meal brought North Africa to the Northern Neck of Virginia. It was a very welcomed visit and perfect when you need a bit of warmth on a chilly fall day!
Here is a modified version of Melissa Clark’s recipe for Shakshuka. It serves 4 – 6 people, but is easy to scale up or down depending on how many you are serving. I highlight recommend a good crusty bread and salted butter served alongside for dipping. If you try it out, let me know how it goes. If you need help, come on over, and we’ll make it together!
I serve my eggs just when they’ve set, allowing the yolks to run and integrate with the sauce, making it rich and creamy. I serve one or two eggs per person.
One of my favorite places on the property is the graveyard. Unfortunately, keeping it cleaned up seems to slip my mind. Granted, I drive by it at least twice per day but once I pull up to the house, a million other things command my attention. Usually it’s an animal or six.
But this week, just a few days before Halloween, the wind blew in just the right direction and I ended up walking down to the old cedar tree that once stood tall, sheltering the graves. All that’s left is the main trunk, splintered from what must have been a loud crash of its upper limbs. Thankfully, after all these years, the last pieces remain. Perhaps because it’s growing in a graveyard. There’s something sacred about graveyards. Either we’re afraid of what might happen if we do too much meddling, or we believe that it’s truly not ours to meddle with.
Beyond meddling, there may even be a certain amount of respect for the very tangible and instant connection to the past that you get by being in a graveyard. The person who slept and ate in the rooms where you now sleep and eat, who planted the trees that you now sit under, and who created a story of his or her own, is right beneath you. You can almost touch them. Or at least their mortal remains. At the very least, you can’t deny their existence or their contribution to the place that you now share.
I spent about an hour pulling weeds, touching the gravestone markers as I passed. They are beautiful. There are larger headstones and smaller footstones, each of stunning white quartz. There is something slightly ethereal about them. They are veined in greens, reds, and golds, sparkling when the sun catches them at the right angle.
One of the graves is the daughter of Randolph and Laura Owens. She was born around October 7th, 1893 and died on October 10th 1893. She was only three days old and buried at White Plains, in the grave by the cedar tree. That was 125 years ago this month.
There are two other unknown graves, marked simply with quartz and then there are the Gouldmans, Alexander and Virginia. I imagine how much they loved this place to be buried here. Either that or they had no choice! But considering the number of church graveyards nearby, I like to think it’s the previous.
Maybe I too will be buried here in the front yard. Maybe White Plains will kill me trying to rejuvenate it! In a 21st-century culture that values the transient nature of things and ideas, who’s to say where any of us will be in another 10 years. So much can change in only one year. But families like the Thornleys, the Gouldmans, the Quesenberrys, and others made their home here and died here. It’s the least I can do to stop by every once in a while to weed.
Although they are all gone now, the daffodils were abundant this year, and the storms stayed away long enough for me to enjoy them longer than usual. My favorite this year is the classic “Flower Drift,” a beautiful double Narcissus that was first registered in 1966, originating in the Netherlands. As the heat of summer sets in, I am already anticipating next spring!
Growing up in the South, I learned about the importance of deviled eggs as a staple at almost every type of social gathering from church picnics to cocktail parties. Like potato salad, every home cook has their own recipe and unique twist on the classic. With controversial ingredients like pickles, mustard, hot sauce, and even the brand of mayonnaise, there’s no shortage of debate when it comes to whose recipe is the best.
While I can’t say that my deviled eggs are the best, for one short time span during the spring, mine are definitely unique. Why, you ask? Goose eggs! Go big or go home sounds like a good theme for these deviled eggs. Although a predator recently took out one of my beautiful American Buff geese, one remains, and she continues to remind everyone of her royal status.
Guess which one is the goose egg!
Because geese only lay eggs for a couple of months during the spring, you must enjoy them while you can. I’ve found them to be the closest in consistency and function to a chicken egg – great for baking, omelettes, and now as an appetizer.
Hard-boiling them the way you might for a chicken egg, at a full thirteen minutes, made them easy to peel. I found the white to be a little more delicate than a chicken egg, requiring steady hands and patience to carefully remove the thick shell.
The yolk was a beautiful yellow and so rich. After removal, I added a few key ingredients but didn’t need much because the flavor was already so good.
For serving, I cut the filled eggs into quarters, offering them as perfect bites to the bourbon cocktails at hand. Like the daffodils, they come in spring only come once a year – enjoy them while you can!
It happens to all of us. Life takes over and we forget where we are sometimes. It’s as if the train is going so fast that the view of the landscape through the window is blurred as it whizzes by. Then there is this moment when you stop to take a breath, usually it’s in one of your happy places, and you remember all of those things you had forgotten. Your senses come alive again as you savor the taste, smell, and feeling of the moment. You breathe. It feels good.
So, here I sit in the peony garden, one of my favorite places to let everything slow down around me. It’s the end of a holiday weekend and a perfect time for catching up.
I saw a friend earlier this year who said, “I’m so glad you’re done with the restorations at White Plains!” I’m not sure if it was the confused look on my face or the involuntary crinkle of my nose, but she followed with, “You are done, right?” I had to break the news to her. Even though it’s been a productive spring, finishing a lot of major projects, it’s been a busy push to the finish line.
One of the first big projects of the year was a structural repair to the eighteenth century timer framing on the north-east side of the house. Having identified some old termite damage in the floors near that area when we first purchased the property, we knew it would be on the docket at some point. Although we had already overseen replacement and stabilization of other major structural beams in other parts of the house, I still felt pretty nervous about this one. Maybe it was the unknown that is ever-present when opening walls of such an old structure or maybe it was seeing my summer vacation budget get converted to an emergency work fund!
Thankfully Jason at Rappahannock Restorations eased my stress from the start and gave us a clear plan on how we would move through the unknown. The first step was to remove siding from the outside to assess what might be happening underneath. Removal began between the chimney and second floor window, where it appears water had been entering for many years, causing not only direct damage but also creating an environment that’s very appealing for termites.
As more siding was removed, almost to the brick foundation, you could easily see the trail that the water and termites took through the framing. They had almost fully dissolved several main posts and beams, requiring a bit more work than we had originally anticipated. Thankfully, the damage stopped just before the impressive locust corner post and ran up to the chimney on the other side. This made access to the problem much easier, tackling it from the outside and without requiring us to break into the interior plaster walls – one of my biggest fears!
Jason and his crew expertly stabilized the compromised framing, replacing and adding as necessary. After the old 1940’s insulation was removed and new added, it was time to replace the siding. Unfortunately, most of the old siding was too brittle to be saved, but we were able to replace it with a new cedar siding in the same colonial bead-board style. Hopefully it will last for another couple of hundred years.
One really cool thing about the excavation of structures is what you find underneath the layers. Here we found the roman numerals used by carpenters to match up the timber frame components. These marks are commonly found at the joint with a matching roman numeral on the corresponding piece. This method ensured that custom-hewn joints and timber sections weren’t mixed up in either transport or when they were installed on-site. You can easily see them in the unfinished attic here, but it’s always a treat to see the hidden ones. I’d guess they don’t get unearthed but about once every one hundred years or so! Check out this post from our friends over at Historic House Blog for more about 18th century construction marks.
As stewards of this old house, sometimes we have to tackle projects that we’d rather leave for someone else. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that someone else will come along and take care of it in the way it deserves. As we complete the final stage of this restoration and renovation, I’m often reminded that we all have a role to play in the preservation of our historic assets. This work is just a small part of that.
Although spurts of snow and freezing night temperatures persist, signs of spring are starting to appear. Besides the robins that engulf the yard en masse, one of my favorite signs is the buzzing of bees around their hive, beginning to explore for open flowers and fresh pollen. Although a bit early yet, it’s almost time to start feeding them with spring syrup to ignite their drive to make comb, brood, and honey.
Early last fall, after finding the most spectacular bee hive configurations and two queens, I was able to pull two frames of honey to attempt extraction of my first honey harvest. Not having a fancy automatic extractor, heated elements for cutting comb, or other tools that one might use for processing large amounts, I went the old-fashioned route.
With a sharp knife, I ran across the tops of the honeycomb, uncapping the cells to release the honey. I simply let it drain overnight into a colander, catching any large pieces of comb. With a final strain through a fine-mesh strainer, I had a beautiful quart of unfiltered raw honey.
And you can only imagine the first taste. The flavor was not only rich and complex, but I felt so triumphant having been patient for these past three seasons of loss, splitting colonies, and keeping these two hives protected and nourished.
With just two small frames as payment, the return was far more rewarding than I expected. While it’s amazing on toast, my preferred way to enjoy it is simply with a spoon. Here’s to the upcoming season and more honey!
One of my favorite things about living in Virginia is the deeply rooted connection to equestrian sports. You can drive down most any country road and find horses and a rich culture of working, showing, and fox hunting.
I recently visited the Caroline Hunt in Caroline County, Virginia, for its Opening Hunt, the season’s first formal day of fox hunting. Originating in Virginia during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, fox hunting has deep roots in the Commonwealth, continuing today through many active hunts. According to the Masters of Foxhound Association, the oldest continuing hunt in the United States is the Piedmont Hunt of Virginia, established in 1840. As the MFHA points out, fox hunting in North America has evolved to focus on the chase, rather than the kill. Most hunts are no-kill hunts, ultimately trying to ensure safe passage for the fox.
With most hunts starting early in the day, you often wake up before the sun has even considered getting out of bed. Although you have likely bathed, groomed, and prepped your horse the day before, you will still need to get everything together, being sure you haven’t forgotten something important (like boots, cap, or flask!).
Arriving at the day’s fixture, or location of the meet, can be a social affair, seeing old friends and tacking up your horse for the day’s ride. Stirrup cup, or a nip of something to warm the bones on a cold morning, is a fun way to loosen up those tight muscles – and nerves! Depending on the day, stirrup cup can be more or less formal.
Above: An informal stirrup cup and snacks from an earlier fall hunt. Photo by Paige Riordan.
The group then convenes for a blessing of the hounds that is performed each year at Opening Hunt. It is also an opportunity to thank the landowners for their contributions and generosity of allowing passage through their land and along their fields.
Now the group and hounds are ready to hunt. Riders in the field follow a leader as part of a flight. First flight is fastest, includes jumps, and is for experienced riders, while second flight is for those wishing a somewhat slower pace and no, or less, jumping. In Virginia, the terrain can be a mix of hills, wooded lands, open spaces, and jumps such as logs and fences. It’s very common to pass through working farms and planted fields.
Above: Riders at the Caroline Hunt. Photo credit unknown. Above: Riders in the field follow through the woods. Photo by Patrick Heffernan.
While it’s a very social event, there is a technical side that drives the day. The hounds are well equipped and trained to identify the scent and track the fox long distances across the varied terrain. The Huntsman and hounds maintain the trail while hunt staff hold perimeters to ensure safety of the hounds. In a modern landscape, roads, railroad tracks, and other potential dangers are never too far away. When the hounds are gone “away” on a trail, the route can be a fun and exciting journey for riders in the field.
Above: The Hounds are working hard. Photo by Patrick Heffernan.
Above: Tony Gammell, former Huntsman at Keswick, after Opening Hunt in Caroline County. Photo by Patrick Heffernan.
After a long day in the field, there is nothing better than coming back for the Hunt Breakfast, a time to share delicious food and drink with members and guests. The nourishing power of a home-cooked meal and a welcoming community of people committed to the land and nature warms even the coldest of winter days. Thank you to the Caroline Hunt for always being welcoming and hospitable.
For more information about fox hunting, visit the Masters of Foxhound Association website. Also, check out the video below demonstrating riders and hounds of the Caroline Hunt in 2012.