by Carter Blackford Filer
LANCASTER—Neither blistering heat nor drenching rains proved any match for the band of determined professionals, community activists, organizations and individuals set on making a difference at Belle Isle State Park over the past few months.
Thanks to monies received from a Belle Isle Abuzz proposal made by The Garden Club of the Northern Neck (GCNN) to its parent, The Garden Club of Virginia (GCV), 2017 was the beginning of a new era in this pristine place where history whispers and the natural world sings.
Results of the project to date are clearly visible inside the Visitors Center and outside the Belle Isle mansion, as is the complementary mix of community-spirited public and private groups and individuals giving their time, talent and energy to help shape a host of ambitious changes that began taking place last spring. With GCV Centennial Grant funds in hand, GCNN continues to spearhead planned, phased efforts in coordination with local park personnel and the Friends of Belle Isle.
Community interest and enthusiasm have already yielded a range of enhancements to and for the benefit of the park, including:
• Landscaping equipment, including power tools such as blowers, trimmers and chainsaws to facilitate proscribed work.
• Hand tools for the same purpose.
• Construction materials for and items to display in the new Visitors Center.
• Media display components for the Visitors Center entryway.
• A high tech spy glass for birding from the Visitors Center Rappahannock River overlook.
• Materials required to launch the Time Traveler, a transport vehicle that facilitates everything from hayrides to historical programming.
• A major exterior cleanup including tree work around the front of the Belle Isle mansion.
As a result of all this activity, I’m heading to the park today to check out works in progress, but before I reach the gatehouse marking transition from private to park lands, I spot for the first time from this vantage point the full façade of the grand old house shimmering up ahead in the soft morning light. Exterior landscape cleanup around it has done its job. This is the 18th Century Belle Isle mansion, a brick beauty acquired by the park in 2015, and although it’s not open to the public, it is now unveiled for all to see from a distance.
The mansion, its dependencies and centrally located 90-acre parcel, unlike much of the land surrounding it that was dedicated in 1993 as Belle Isle State Park, remained in private hands for 22 additional years, ultimately being acquired by the park in 2015. Since that time and before Belle Isle Abuzz kicked off its projects within the park, the mansion continued to stand as it had for decades—peacefully in plain sight, but well hidden behind a curtain of overhanging limbs from massive oaks threatening the structure and its two dependencies, a kitchen and a schoolhouse. Completing this remarkable exterior, English and American boxwoods and native hollies tufted by long years of decline and neglect increasingly resembled French poodles standing sentinel along perimeters of the buildings and grounds.
I know Belle Isle mansion is a prized survivor of regional and national historic significance, that it is listed on the Historic Register and further enhanced by its privileged placement on primordial Rappahannock River shoreline, so I can easily imagine these as viable reasons individuals, volunteer groups and professionals are drawn to make a difference with Belle Isle Abuzz in expanding the park’s existing mix of educational experiences and outdoor fun for visitors.
Still, being able to see the mansion before one enters the park for the first time is a seminal moment. The sight of its façade as I pause to look ahead strikes me as symbolic of new beginnings at the park. But in this moment, the mansion with its newly cleared grounds and exhibit-filled Visitors Center nearby represents something more than long history and a promise of things to come. It also represents Northern Neck community spirit at its best.
GCV’s Centennial grant gifted us all with an extraordinary opportunity to improve our parks, but it also prompted an ever-growing combination of groups, businesses and individuals to get involved, thus becoming part of the Belle Isle story by doing exactly that. These days Belle Isle surely is a rising star in the constellation of Virginia State Parks, but isn’t that just one more reason to come see, celebrate and enjoy this very special place?
Belle Isle State Park is in Lancaster County at 1632 Belle Isle Road, Lancaster.