Last spring, a group of women who’d been assembled by my friend Edwina Johnson, spent 5 days at my New Mexico ranch. They had made a winning bid for this visit at an auction to support my non-profit, The Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power & Potential. One of the women, Beth Gibbens, was there with her daughter Elizabeth. She is a close friend of Edwina’s because their husbands, Tom Johnson (publisher of the Los Angeles Times and later, President of CNN) and Wayne Gibbens (who worked with Texas Governor John Connelly) had both been part of the Lyndon Johnson administration.
In the course of the visit, Beth told stories of her childhood growing up on a ranch in West Texas. The stories were were so original and surprising that I couldn’t get them out of my mind. I have recently started to write my first novel which is Texas-based and so I called Beth to ask if I could adapt some of them for use in my novel. She said she’d love me to and invited me to visit her at Innisfree, the Gibbens’ farm in Middleberg, Virginia so I could interview her and hear even more stories. This is their farm house.
I have spent precious little time in Virginia and from the moment we got out of the Washington, DC environs and into the green, rolling hills, my heart burst open and I was smitten, not just by the lush beauty of the place but because I found myself in the heart of some of this country’s fiercest history—the revolution and the Civil War.
Virginia, for those of you who’re unfamiliar, is horse country—fox hunting and steeplechase horses in particular. Even the cemeteries have horse heads for grave stones.
You can’t go a mile along the black fences (black fences are easier to maintain than white ones) and not pass one or more places where fences have been modified to accommodate jumping. (I forgot to take any pictures) Some were logs, some wide stone jumps, some high fences, some required jumping from a high place and landing several feet lower and within a few feet of the paved road. “I’d be terrified of my horse skidding on the pavement,” I said to Beth’s daughter Elizabeth who’d come down to participate in my visit. She agreed that it can be very dangerous.
I used to fox hunt as a thirteen-year-old in Greenwich, Conn, and remember always being terrified but not wanting my best friend (a far better rider than I) to know it. Elizabeth admitted she was always scared, but we also shared our love of the ceremony, the hunt rituals…the blessing of the hounds, the smells of early morning on the fields, the mist, the red jackets of the Whips and MFHs (Master of the Fox Hounds) velvet hats, the bugles, the fancy hunt breakfasts afterwards where there was always much imbibing. (That’s where I saw my first drunks). It all came back to me as we drove.
These fences are pre-revolutionary, wood over rock.
When we got to Middleburg, I made Elizabeth stop constantly so I could take pictures of the historic, picturesque town that changed hands seven times during the Civil War between from Union forces and Confederate forces. There was so much burning and pillaging, all the mills were destroyed, animals slaughtered. People really suffered. Signs with the letters GTT could be seen on many homes: GONE TO TEXAS.
The Red Fox Inn is one of the oldest, continually used hotels in the country. After the Kentucky Derby, the colors worn by the winning jockey are put onto the jockey statutes you see.
Middleburg got its name because it is right in the middle between Alexandria, Virginia’s port, and Winchester, a town in the Blue Ridge Mountains which was quite big for colonial days. Winchester was the place where you bought your Winchester rifle, supplies and wagon, as it was last town before Indian country.
The brick church above is very old but still very much in use. Each family in the congregation makes a needlepoint kneeling stool that represents something that’s meaningful about the family…military service, fox hunting, wishful thinking…
This is a statue commemorating the Civil War horses who died. The statue is in the garden of the Library of Revolutionary Times. I was very moved by the statue, the plaque which you should read and the fact that the people of Middleburg have honored those horses.
Goose Creek Bridge was built between 1801 and 1803 during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson and is a Virginia Historic Landmark. It is the longest remaining stone turnpike bridge in the state and one of the oldest in the Commonwealth.
Most of this area was in Confederate hands or were Confederate sympathizers. Unbeknownst to the Union Army, Robert E. Lee, with thousands of his troops and horses was camped in the town of Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley, the Ashby Gap, the pass between two of the Blue Ridge Mountains which you can barely see in the distance above the trees in the photo below. His intention was to circle around the main Union army and capture the city of Washington DC and then the war would be over. Lee’s scheme failed and his presence was discovered at Gettysburg where the deadliest battle of all was fought.
As anyone knows who’s followed my blog for any time, I have an inordinate fondness for cemeteries. The ones in and around Middleburg they are so old and wonderful.
Here’s an old “two hole” brick outhouse, meaning that two people could go at once.
Here’s the revolutionary era library which is now open one day a week in a town near Middleburg.
Below is an Episcopal church built by Mrs Paul Mellon, a copy of one she saw in France. It is made from rock imported from France. The pews and pillars are beautifully carved with flowers, herbs and animals from the region.
How beautiful and intricate is this alter cloth! Even up close it looks like a painting. It reflects the community’s love of animals. There’s even a Corgy in there!
The Gibbens are avid advocates of native wildflowers and grasses. Perhaps Lady Bird Johnson, the president’s wife, had an influence. They have been rigorous in getting rid of non-indigenous plants and bringing back these natives onto their farm and as a result, they are seeing many more species of bees, butterflies, and birds.
They call this tree a woodpecker condo.
My visit was all too short. It was memorable for me both because of what I learned about Middleburg and the surrounding area but because my hosts, Beth, Wayne and Elizabeth were among the nicest, kindest, most generous people I’ve ever met. I believe we will be life-long friends. We even are making plans to go to Texas together where they will help me even more with research for my novel.
As my bags were put in the car and we were about to drive away, this was the last face I saw. The dogs knew at least an hour before that there was going to be a departure. Doesn’t that little face look melancholy?
Tags: Beth Gibbens, Elizabeth Gibbens, Middleberg, Research, Tom Johnson, Virginia, Wayne Gibbens, writing