COME ON OUT to Isaac Hite's place in Middletown, Virginia, this weekend. There'll be Mardell Rogers giving pony rides on old "Woodstock," Paul Funk making a racket flailing grain in the barnyard, and right next to him, Bill Wine hewing logs with his broadaxe, and George Seeley hammering away at his anvil in the forge while the ladies fry sausages and funnel cakes and hand out watermelon on the lawn.
"We want to pass on our heritage of early farm skills and crafts," says Belle Grove director Michael Gore. "So it was natural that we started Farm Craft Days."
Now in its 18th year, Farm Craft Days has become a giant two-day lawn party with many attributes of an early 19th-century quilting bee, barn raising, harvest and country fair all rolled into one. Ladies dressed in early 19th-century gowns and bonnets gather in the house where you can watch them quilt, hook and braid rugs, do smocking and decorative stenciling and, in the basement, make soap from fat and lye. In the barnyard other volunteer farmfolk and craftsmen herd and shear sheep, comb flax, make furniture, cane chairs and carve wooden toys.
After lending a hand with the farm chores -- most demonstrators encourage people to have a try at their particular skill -- there's plenty to do that's purely for fun and relaxation. There are pony rides for children and wagon rides, with the Virginia Draft Horse Association providing the horsepower; dulcimer and guitar music and country bands; the wares of 75 craftsmen spread on the lawn to be both admired and purchased. And, of course, there's lunch, best enjoyed on the picnic tables near the ice house, the food either brought from home or bought from vendors on the lawn.
The whole two-day event on the 250-acre spread is a celebration of the farm skills that allowed the Hite family and their neighboring farmers in the Shenandoah Valley to survive in the days before modern farm equipment or even steam power lightened their load.
Isaac Hite's grandfather, Jost Hite, arrived in the Shenandoah Valley in 1732, one of the first permanent settlers to make the Valley his home. The Colonial Council in Williamsburg gave him and his partner Robert McKay 140,000 acres to settle with 16 other families of their choosing. The Hites prospered. In 1783 young Isaac Hite received 485 acres from his father, Isaac Sr., and started plans for his limestone mansion, Belle Grove, to be built on a broad, low hill. With the exception of a few distant farmhouses, the mansion's view toward Signal Nob and the Massanutten Range is essentially unchanged today, right down to the alfalfa growing in the front field.
But more than the view is the same as it was in 1800. Aided by farm documents, Hite's diary and some clever historical detective work, both house and garden are slowly being restored to early 19th-century accuracy. Based on an 1820 drawing, the Garden Club of Virginia has built fences, planted trees and flowers and established footpaths of locally made bricks. Fence posts around the yard have been topped with three-foot-high Lombardy poplar finials, believed to be unique to Belle Grove.
When you go inside the mansion to watch the needlework you can hardly miss the brilliant Venetian red and Prussian blue rooms on either side of the front hall. New technology in paint chip analysis has revealed an early preference at Belle Grove for bright colors, and the previous muted tones were painted over this past year, making Belle Grove's colors "right" both inside and out.
Hite's first wife, Eleanor Conway Madison, was the sister of President James Madison. The future president and his wife, Dolley, spent their honeymoon at Belle Grove in 1794 before the main house was built. Madison wrote to his friend, Thomas Jefferson, requesting that he aid the Hites with plans for the Belle Grove mansion. While it's unknown if Jefferson got involved, the layout of the rooms, the fanlight over the main door, the T-shaped hall and the Doric portico strongly suggest his influence.
In the nursery you'll see an 1830s hooked rug, the type Isabel Brooker will be working on in the library. "The earliest rugs were yarn on linen and were used as bedcovers," explains Brooker. She prefers the "modern" method supposedly developed by 19th- century sailors: They passed the time hooking yarn into sail scraps with a small harpoon. Brooker uses burlap and a crochet hook.
Hooked rugs and braided rugs -- of the sort you'll see Beverly Barris making nearby in the plantation office -- would have been used in the Hites' less important rooms. In the parlor and dining room are the kinds of furnishings Issac Hite and his first wife would have brought from Philadelphia. They went there on a shopping spree in 1796 and spent the equivalent of about $300,000 in today's money.
Out on the lawn David Pine and John Weissenberger will be working on the kind of elegant furnishings that could have been among the Hites' Philadelphia purchases -- Pine on a miniature Chippendale corner chair, and Weissenberger on a Windsor chair. "But I'll also make the kind of everyday things they could have picked up over in Strasburg," says Pine, meaning nearby Strasburg, Virginia, not Austria. But making either type of furniture, both men use only 18th- and 19th-century-style hand tools.
To learn even more about tools, head to the barn, stopping to enjoy the beautiful lattice-fenced demonstration garden behind the house. Inside the barn, Jim DePoy acts as curator to his own collection of old tools, 12 tables full of them. "I've never counted how many I've got -- I don't dare," says DePoy. But here you'll find a tool for making almost everything else that was needed at Belle Grove.
Out in the barnyard, Bill Wine will be heaving a broadaxe as he hews logs. Wine took up log hewing when he was 17 and makes a career of restoring log cabins. Wine points out that American log construction has its origins in Scandinavia and Germany. You can see handhewn logs like Wine's in the posts and beams of Belle Grove's basement kitchen and the craft shop next door.
But before heading for the craft shop, consider buying a split oak basket from Lucy and William Cook out on the lawn. They've been making them for 62 years (the craft has been in the Cook family for four generations), so they're guaranteed sturdy enough to carry home enough crafts from the shop and the other vendors on the lawn to help the Belle Grove trustees pay for next winter's home improvements. City townhouse, suburban home or historic country mansion -- there's always something that needs to be done. BELLE GROVE FARM CRAFT DAYS -- Saturday and Sunday from 10 to 5 at Belle Grove, Middletown, Va. Admission $3 for adults; $2 for seniors; $1.50 for children six to 16; under six free. 703/869-2028. GETTING THERE -- From the Beltway, take I-66 across the Blue Ridge Mountains to I-81, north on I-81 and then first exit into Middletown, then left on U.S. 11. Belle Grove is 1 mile south of Middletown on U.S. 11; about 1 1/2 hours from the Beltway.
Prudence Squier last wrote for weekend on sheepdog trials.