Trevilians, Virginia -- it's a scene straight out of the Old South. Driving up a quarter-mile roadway with stately boxwood hedges marching along the gravel path, you find nestled in an English tree garden of rare magnolias, tall tulip poplars and giant beech trees a rambling yellow manor house from Scarlett O'Hara's dreams.
In fact, the place dates from 1732 and once boasted 1,576 acres of prime land; it was a prosperous wheat plantation. But after the Civil War, the slaves scattered, Prospect Hill broke up into hundreds of smaller farms and homesteads and the once wealthy owners began taking boarders in the 1880s.
Prospect Hill still is a country inn today, a 40-acre retreat 30 miles east of Charlottesville. Richmond is 50 miles to the east, the Monticello and Ashlawn historic homes a short drive to the west and Appomattox 80 miles to the south. Skiing, horseback riding, golf, good hiking and camping facilities abound in the area. Or you can just relax in a hammock and enjoy the haven that is Prospect Hill. In fact, the inn is smack in the middle of the Green Springs National Historic District (designated by the National Park Service), a bucolic world of stately homes, lush pastures and meandering streams with a serenity too often missing from modern life.
But while Prospect Hill may evoke vivid thoughts of the past, it is in reality a modern, if modest, inn of comfort and charm for the 20th-century visitor. And the kitchen turns out a flawless and original vision of dining.
Today's owners are an American-born Irishman from New York, Bill Sheehan, and his French-Italian wife, Mireille. They bought the place eight years ago. The 45-year-old Sheehan says, "I hit 'mid-life crisis' and realized that I didn't want to be a middle-management success story. Mireille and I understood that the things we enjoyed most were people, dining and being responsible -- in the most compelling sense of the word -- for ourselves.
"So we found this beat-up old plantation and dumped into it every penny of our life savings and all the borrowed money we could find. Dedicated to good food, good wine, good friends and no pretentions, we were determined to sink or swim on those simple terms."
After spending a few months scraping and painting, the couple opened the inn with two guestrooms and one bath. "Then we renovated each of the former slave quarters -- three outbuildings next to the main house -- and finished renovating the house," Sheehan says. "We added air conditioning, heating, bathrooms, but retained the original character, including fireplaces and verandas."
Now they have one suite and two rooms in the main house, and one suite and three rooms in the outbuildings -- all with private baths.
The idea propelling the kitchen to near greatness is to pattern dining here after the famous relais et chateaux of France -- the independently owned inns and castles that offer authentic local dining.
There is one seating for dinner, at 8 p.m., preceded by stemmed glasses of wine from the silver tray of a tuxedoed butler. Everything offered is fresh and local, all carefully crafted by the Sheehans themselves. The inn seats 48 for dinner, and entrees change daily. Only one entree is served with the four-course meal, but Sheehan says special diets are accommodated.
One evening found guests enjoying an elegant homemade onion soup. Next came a wide plate of Boston lettuce and bits of green garnished with garlic and basil dressing, a recipe straight from Provence. Boneless loin of pork seasoned with rich thyme sauce and accompanied by a perfectly realized broccoli followed. Then everyone oohed and aahed when Sheehan marched in with his homemade chocolate amaretto mousse..
The next morning, after a breakfast of country griddle cakes, bacon and fresh-squeezed orange juice, some of the guests trooped out to see the ghosts Sheehan slyly mentioned in easy conversational tones.
One big stone turning green from time carried this announcement: "To Commemorate The Loyalty and Faithful Services Rendered By Seventy Five Slaves That Are Buried Here Especially Mammy Katie Aunt Maria And Sanco Pansy Scott Who Followed His Young Master Through Four Years Of War 1861-1865."
Up the road in Louisa, the county seat, the Louisa County Historical Society maintains a museum next to the courthouse. The small building, formerly the county jail, has a room tended by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and another by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Each is filled with pictures, old records, diaries, letters, old clothing, toys and uniforms -- captured scraps of time.
"Maybe the best thing about all this," says Sheehan, "is that even outsiders like my French wife and I can appreciate and understand all that took place here before us. Being here now, we're a part of that history which is yet to come."