When you walk across the moors, the clouds scudding in and the turf plush underfoot, you think you’re in a scene out of Wuthering Heights. One imagines Heathcliff emerging from the copse of trees on the rise of a hill. This is not the stern beauty of England at all, but a remnant of England, the fox-hunt country of Virginia, a reminder of times past. The hound dogs frisk about, their tails aloft, looking for action. The food is heavy and filling, something out of Tom Jones. One waits for a trumpet and a stirrup cup.
This is Welbourne, a 200-year-old country home out toward the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia. The local hunt, the Piedmont Foxhounds, is the oldest hunt in the United States, founded in 1840, and there is still the distinct smell of the horsey set in the neighborhood, in the pubs of Middleburg, the county seat, and the antique shops.
Seven generations of the same family have occupied the old home, with its six white pillars, that sits behind a long sweeping driveway and is somewhat reminiscent of Tara, out of Gone With the Wind. Scarlett! Rhett! It is to weep.
Old Virginia is replete with these magnificent mansions, proof of an age when the proudest thing an American family could do was to build an estate that looked as if it had been transplanted from England. In the library there is an oil painting of one Daniel Dulany, a barrister and legislator who arrived from Queen’s County, Ireland, in 1686.
His descendant, “Mizz Morison” as the black maidservants call her, is the current innkeeper. Rising 90, she instructs the visitor on how to pour her evening tipple. There is a special glass with a red line around it. “Fill it to the red line. Past the red line. Put in some ice. Then water. Make sure it’s past the red line first of all.”
Her son, Nat Morison, looks like a bit actor out of the movie Deliverance:
rubber boots, cloth shirt buttoned tightly around the neck, wild hat, scrambly beard. In fact, he left a career as a broker in New York to come back in an attempt to save the 600-acre estate from the worms and the tax assessors. Like all such family homes, nibbled at by the developers, Welbourne is an endangered species. Morison has three children in college in New England—“... they go to New York, they see the bars and the clubs and the theatre .. .’’—and is fearful he will never get them back down on the farm.
His offer is that the family will leave
Welbourne to only one of them, the one who wants to preserve it. That’s the Virginia tradition. Split up the inheritance, and it will be watered down and sold. Virginia requires a direct bloodline.
The Land & Personal Property Tax & Assessment of 1859, for Welbourne, listed, among other things, the following: “31 slaves over 16 yrs.; 41 horses, $4,100; 4 carriages, $630; 2 pianos, $350.” The horses were worth something, the slaves worth nothing.
The house looks like something out of Great Expectations: frozen in time, the silver not dulled and the oil paintings huge on the walls, the fireplaces ample and warm, the china on the sideboard sturdy and expansive. A menu for a hunt breakfast in the 1920s reads: “Saddle of mutton, ham, chicken salad, sausage, scallops in pâté, potatoes au gratin, hot English muffins, caramel and lemon tarts, coffee.”
The English touch, the time for manners, still obtains. Nat Morison leaps—
not stands—to his feet when a lady enters the room. Col. Dulany founded the oldest horse show in the United States, the Upperville Colt and Horse Show. His granddaughter, Elizabeth Lemmon, 92, sister of Mizz Morison, lives just down the gravel road, past the hills that remind one of Heathcliff.
In the 1920s Welbourne was frequently visited by Maxwell Perkins, the now-legendary editor from Scribner’s of New York. He was the mentor who discovered and succored Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. Fitzgerald and Wolfe
often visited Welbourne. Perkins, while married, became fascinated with Elizabeth Lemmon and carried on a 25-year platonic relationship with her by mail. The lady, a woman of discretion then as now, refuses to comment and declines interviews. The mystery somehow fits in with the
atmosphere of Welbourne.
Small boys used to sit on the stone fence and
yell insults at the Yankee soldiers who rode by on their way south in the Civil War. The famed raider, Gen. Jeb Stuart, ate his morning meal at Welbourne on horseback
in front of the porch as bullets ticked off the building’s tin roof. That tin roof today is painted a rusty red, peering through the centuries-old oak trees
that frame the driveway and tower
over the lawns that still contain, on certain Sunday mornings, the hounds and hunters that could be in Kent or Surrey.
The point is that the United States is not as monolithic as painted. It is not all slums plagued by Saturday Night Special gunnings, nor used-car strip developments, nor Joan Rivers vulgarity. Tucked away in all that there are still lovely old homes, on Sunday morning dispensing grits and fried apples and eggs that taste like eggs and coffee out of a silver urn which was passed down seven generations ago by people who thought English manners weren’t bad and perhaps they should preserve them.
An hour from Washington, all that Washington power-tripping could be a thousand miles away. And is.
Allan Fotheringham is a columnist for Southam News.
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