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Excerpts by Henry Lane Hull

by Henry Lane Hull

In any effort to produce a listing of the Northern Neck’s most interesting individuals, Muff Muff Van Valzah would make the top echelon. She came here almost a century ago with her husband, Robert, from Wisconsin where he had been a professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

They bought a large tract of land with a mile of shoreline on the Potomac River.  The property included an historic house, known as “The Cottage.” Dr. Van Valzah died in their early years here, leaving Muff Muff to manage the farm. In that arena, she was astounding. The farm included the escarpment that came about millions of years ago as the flood waters receded. “The Cottage” was close to the shoreline, causing Muff Muff to decide to move it to the top of the escarpment.

The move took six months, during which Muff Muff continued to live in the home each day. Once it was in place, she set out to establish formal gardens around it.  She built large brick walls, set out parterres, and hired gardeners to work with her in planting and maintaining the new setting. The entire process was a mammoth undertaking, all of which she took in stride.

Next, determined to make the farm income-producing, she built modern chicken houses, which possibly were the largest ever constructed in the Northern Neck.  Unfortunately, in that effort she did not meet with financial success, and in a few years, she gave up as a chicken farmer.

The Van Valzahs had a wide circle of interesting acquaintances, perhaps the most amazing of them all was the Russian medieval Byzantine historian, Alexander A. Vasiliev, who had fled his homeland after the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917. Living in exile in Paris, he was persuaded to come to America to accept a position at the University of Wisconsin, where he became friends with the Van Valzahs. Later he moved to work at Dunbarton Oaks, the renowned center for Byzantine studies in Washington. After the Second World War, as his health declined, Muff Muff brought him to live at “The Cottage.” When he died in 1953, she arranged his burial in the Confederate Cemetery in Fredericksburg, truly one of the ironies of history.

Muff Muff had sent her daughter, Louise, to finishing school in Switzerland, where she became friends with Princess Frederica of Hanover, later to become the Queen Consort of Greece as the wife of King Paul. When the Greek Royal Family came to pay a state visit to the United States, Lou and her husband, Jim Bernard, who was originally from Fredericksburg, were honored guests at The White House.

On the former site of  “The Cottage,” Muff Muff set up a picnic area, and each summer she would host a large gathering by the river that included extended family and friends. As a child, my parents would take me along, and at one of those events while swimming, eating, or playing badminton, I witnessed my most enduring memory of Muff Muff.

As a property owner, Muff Muff zealously safeguarded her land. On this one afternoon, when she was well into her 80s, she took her binoculars in hand, and saw that some tourists from Fairfield Beach had crossed over onto her property. She loudly exclaimed, “Those people are on my property.”

She commanded her grandson, Robert Van Valzah, who died last year at 80, to take her upstream in her outboard skiff to shoo the trespassers away. Dressed in her flowing bathing suit, she climbed aboard and stood in the prow of the boat, and off they went, a micro-version of Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting, “Washington Crossing the Delaware.”  On the voyage back, she sat calmly on one of the dory seats, pleased with the successful outcome.

Indeed, Muff Muff Van Valzah had become a Northern Neck Original.

Rappahannock Record Staff
Rappahannock Record Staffhttp://www.rrecord.com
From the Rappahannock Record news team

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