by Carter Blackford Filer
Belle Isle State Park, 1632 Belle Isle Road, Lancaster, has long been a place where history whispers and the natural world sings. Now it’s also a rising star in the venerable constellation of Virginia State Parks, thanks to a generous Centennial Grant received recently as the result of a proposal coordinated with the park and made by the Garden Club of the Northern Neck (GCNN) to its parent organization, the Garden Club of Virginia (GCV).
The GCV will celebrate its centennial year in 2020 and is marking the occasion by working directly with Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation to improve state parks, provided projects fit the missions of conservation, beautification, horticulture, preservation, and/or education shared by both organizations. Proceeds from the GCV’s Historic Garden Week, the annual eight-day house and garden tour held across the Commonwealth in April, are funding the grants totaling $500,000 over the next five years.
The Belle Isle project is two-part and will be known as “Belle Isle Abuzz” for the flurry of activity it will unleash in and on behalf of the park.
The park is sited along a singular arc of American history that begins in Jamestown and sweeps northward through Williamsburg, Yorktown and the Middle Peninsula to come to a pleasant pause in the Northern Neck—often called “the cradle of American democracy.” Its 2015 acquisition of the 18th century Belle Isle mansion, its proximity to many other historic properties and its eco-fragile Rappahannock riverside location mean it is positioned to use the newly acquired but as yet unopened mansion and grounds to enhance the park’s overall appeal, bring in new audiences and become a center of research, learning and outdoor fun for visitors of all ages.
GCNN is partnering with the park and the Friends of Belle Isle to tap into a host of local and statewide non-profit and environmental organizations that can help build on and greatly expand the park’s existing mix of educational offerings.
Emphasizing American history and the sciences, site-specific new thematic units will be developed with the goal of bringing Belle Isle’s past to life and promoting environmental literacy. The grounds of the mansion will be made safe for visitors to walk around and for the first time, Belle Isle’s colonial past will be explored and brought to life. Some programs and indeed the park’s present plan for Visitor Center Exhibits will be enriched by donations, including a high powered telescope for birding and the creation of a whimsical Time Traveler to be used for transporting guests while sharing stories of Belle Isle’s past.
One thing’s for sure: once again, as when indigenous peoples went about their lives in respectful harmony with the natural world at Belle Isle, all of it will be open to each of us, beckoning one and all to come and find our own connections to its abundant pleasures.
Whether walking its winding trails, wading its blue waters, or waking in its dancing dawn lights, Belle Isle’s natural and human stories are everywhere with us here, if only we care to look, listen and learn from them. In this hallowed place, man and the natural world are one and we and our children and our children’s children can share in a priceless heritage that is in the process of being preserved, protected and celebrated for future generations.
To contact Belle Isle State Park, call 462-5030, or email BelleIsle@dcr.virginia.gov.
Belle Isle history at a glance
Prehistory to Early 17th Century
• Native Americans of the Powhatan Confederacy likely summer here to fish, oyster, clam, hunt, and grow crops.
• 1608: Capt. John Smith reports arriving at present day Morattico, a stone’s throw across Mulberry Creek from the present day park.
• Colonists begin moving up into the Northern Neck. Belle Isle land is patented in 1650.
• 1692: John Bertrand acquires Belle Isle farm from John Lloyd.
• 1701… Native Americans are largely confined to reservations. John Bertrand dies. The farm passes to his son, William Bertrand.
• Virginia planters begin importing slaves to work the land.
• c. 1759: William Bertrand builds center portion of Belle Isle mansion and bequeaths it and the farm property to his grandson, Thomas Bertrand Griffin.
• 1776: The Revolutionary War.
• 1786: Griffin sells Belle Isle farm to 24-year-old Rawleigh William Downman.
• 1838: Rawleigh William Downman, master of Belle Isle for 52 years, dies, leaving farm to his 8-year-old grandson, William Yates Downman.
•1861-1865: The Civil War;
• 1864: William Yates Downman dies.
• 1918:The Somers family acquires farm, likely from the Downmans, and move into the mansion.
• c. 1938: John Garland Pollard Jr., and his sister, Suzanne Pollard Boatwright, and their spouses purchase Belle Isle farm from the Somers. The Pollard and Boatwright families engage T.T. Waterman, an architectural historian with Colonial Williamsburg, to oversee the Boatwrights’ restoration of the mansion and the Pollards’ design and construction of a colonial revival house, which will be named Bel Air.
• 1971: The Boatwrights place Belle Isle mansion on the National Register of Historic Places and Virginia Landmarks Register when restoration is complete.
• c. 1989: All of Belle Isle farm, including both the Pollard and Boatwright homes, changed hands several times. Ultimately, an owner split the property, retaining the centrally located Belle Isle mansion and 90 acres and selling the rest to Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) to be used as a state park.
• 1993: Belle State Park is dedicated. It includes the original land patented in 1650 with the notable exception of the central 90-acre parcel and mansion.
• 2015: DCR is able to buy the missing 90 acre mansion parcel, completing its land purchase for Belle Isle State Park while restoring the property to its original 1650 patent.
• 2017: Belle Isle State Park receives an inaugural Centennial Grant from the Garden Club of Virginia; begins implementing Belle Isle Abuzz project with the Garden Club of the Northern Neck and Friends of Belle Isle.