A VISIT WITH NEW FRIENDS IN MIDDLEBERG, VIRGINIA

Me with Beth and Wayne Gibbens and their daughter, Elizabeth

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.

One of the things I love about the East is the rock outcroppings covered in lichen.

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.

These are gravestones of the landed gentry

These are the gravestones of their slaves

A grave stone with a statue by Auguste Rodin

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?

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30 Comments
  1. I love Virginia. It is so beautiful and full of so much history. Great pictures! What a charming house your friends live in! As for cemeteries, I love them too. They tend to be peaceful and beautiful, as well as tell a story with each gravestone from the past. The Savannah area has some very interesting ones.
    A novel? Is there anything you don’t do?!?! I am curious, why Texas as your setting? Do you have a connection there?

    • There is something so wonderful about connecting to our shared history. Virginia is so rich in history and beauty it is very easy to feel that connection when you are there.

  2. Jane, beautifully written, and your photographs take us along on your journey. I visited my niece in Lovetsville, VA and she took to me visit Harper’s Ferry – gorgeous, historic and humbling. This reminded me of that visit. Really beautiful country there.

    I so enjoy your blog – it’s like dessert to me!

    Marcia

  3. Loved the pictures, thanks

  4. Jane you are so gifted with your pictures and words…It has been many years since I was in Virginia… Thanks again for sharing.
    Joe Ross
    Fort Worth Texas

  5. Jane, I think the meditation DVD is opening a floodgate of feelings..lol!
    I felt just like the dog in the picture when I wrote this last week..melancholy-:)

    So many waves……

    My first memories are of my grandmother. She was living in an apartment building at the time , a few floors up, and when we’d leave we’d stop on the sidewalk, turn back and look up and she would be in the window waving.

    I remember my mother and father, standing on the front stairs waving me bye after I came to visit. Or when they baby sat for me and then I’d round up the kids, they’d stand outside waving! “Bye! Bye!” And my baby, with a fat little fist, would wave at my urging: “Wave bye, bye, wave bye, bye!” Maybe my parents were glad to see us go, but I wouldn’t have known it at the time.

    Then all those first day of school waves as the bus pulled away.

    And picking my husband up at the airport after a business trip. I’d be so happy to see him. A big wave, over here!

    Another wave etched in my memory is after I would walk my sister’s dog and I’d be pulling out of the driveway and her husband , who was dying of cancer, would look out the living room window and wave. “Thanks! Bye!”

    A quick wave to a neighbor driving past, even if you rarely get a chance to speak.

    My sister coming to visit from out of state…a wave and a hug when she arrived , and when she left a hug and tears and always the glance back and a wave.

    At the end of a road race, my husband waving and calling, “Bon, Bon, over here!”

    Leaving the kids at college, the one look back…a big wave holding back the tears.

    Running on the beach and seeing the same people year in and out…never speaking but a wave of acknowledgement.

    My daughter leaving in her old red Honda and sitting in the window with our dogs waving and watching until the car was out of sight.

    Today , my son came for a short visit. And when he left, I walked him out and as I stood on the porch watching him back out the driveway, I gave a wave . And he gave a wave back and drove off.

    Waving hello and good-bye to life.
    And what’s in a wave? Love, of course.

    Bonnie

  6. Wonderful photos and sounds like a fascinating area. The only part I wouldn’t like is the fox hunting. I hope it’s not still going on as after having the foxes so near our home this summer, as they raised their pups, I have a great fondness for the little creatures and can’t imagine seeing one be chased ;(. Incidentally I like your hair a little longer. Soft and very feminine.

    • THANKS, RAIN. I AGREE RE FOXES. WHAT I DID AS A CHILD IN GREENWICH WAS ACTUALLY WHAT’S CALLED ‘DRAG HUNTING” WHICH MEANS A CARCASSE IS DRAGGED OVER THE ROUTE OF THE HUNT AND NO FOX IS KILLED. XX

      • thanks for reassuring me 😉 I have heard of mechanical foxes too. Not sure how well that works. Good luck with your book. You are a good writer and I’ll bet it’ll be a book worth reading 😉

  7. When I lived in D.C., I loved to visit Middleburg anytime during the year. But my favorite time was on a cold winter day before Christmas. The decorations there are beautiful. One year we cut our tree at a nearby Christmas tree farm. I hope that you will be able to visit your friends around Christmas one year.

  8. Just wondering… Are you finding writing fiction more or less challenging than writing nonfiction?

    “Changing your hair is a reflection of a shift in thinking.” – Psychologist Marion Woodman
    I read that in a book somewhere. 😉

    • 🙂 YOU’RE FUNNY & WHAT A MEMORY! YES, I GUESS I’, GOING THROUGH SOME TRANSFORMTION. CERTAINLY THE NVEL IS HARDER & DIFFERENT THAN NON-FICTION. AT LEAST FOR ME.

  9. A new novel? You have one certain reader. 🙂 I’m fascinated by how you keep discovering new areas.

    Can you give some hints about its story or is it top secret? If I were to guess, I would say it might be something like The Dollmaker with a true American heroine. 🙂

    • TOP SECRET. HARD TO DO. MAY END UP GIVING UP EXCEPT I LOVE MY CHARACTERS & THE TEXAS SETTING.

      • Don’t give up! And if you have doubts that means you really care and that the material is worthy. Nowadays so many poorly written things come out, where you can see that the writer barely gave a s… about it. You’re a talented, exceptionally author, if your novel is half as interesting and absorbing as your autobiography, it has to be done. (If you need “test readers”, you know how to find me, lol)

        I wish you the best of luck and the muse to grace you with her presence. 🙂

  10. Jane, I’m s sad and mad that you didn’t win the Emmy. Leona Lansing is freakin amazing, all of the awards should go to you.
    Just so you know- I think you should’ve won and I think that you are absolutely amazing and I love you dearly.

  11. <3 Let me know you are hearing me…

  12. A great blog. I always learn so much from you – about practically everything. Thanks.
    Jason

  13. Fascinating travel story–thanks for sharing. So happy to hear you are writing a Texas-based novel. My cousin, Kameron Searle, a Houston lawyer, is President of the Texas Heritage Society and has written extensively on my great-great-great grandfather Martin Parmer, who wrote the Texas Declaration of Independence and chaired the committee that drafted the Texas constitution. Kameron and a California cousin have research that shows Martin Parmer was the original Davy Crockett and that his character was essentially stolen (Martin Parmer was known as the Ring-Tailed Panther and written about extensively in his day). He is buried on the state Capitol grounds in Austin. My other great-great grandfather, Jacob Shepperd was a Texas hero and fought in the first battle against the Alamo. My great-great uncle Charles B. Stewart designed the Tex’s flag. A cousin is a professional genealogist at he Sam Houston Museum in Huntsville. So…..if you need any help in the area of historical research by all means don’t hesitate to let me put you in contact with one of these cousins. I live in Saudi Arabia and am not well-versed in the history, but they could surely assist if needed. My work email here is [email protected]
    Blessings!

  14. If you have the characters and you know where it’s going, you can always set it aside for awhile and mull it all over in your head. A lot of writing is like painting– it happens before you write anything down. And unless you have a contract, you can take time to get the whole thing the way you want it without pressure to make it into one or another thing.

    • Rain, man is that true. A friend gave me a “Character Chart” with 36 questions from date of birth and color of eyes to the character’s self-perception. Just figuring out the answers to these questions forces you to become familiar with you fictional character. It’s kind of like acting, actually. I’m finding ideas come to me at all sorts of unexpected times.

      • Dreams are good too. You just never know from where an idea will come. You are a good writer and have led a diverse enough life that you have a lot from which to draw. I look forward to seeing what you come up with 🙂

  15. In the middle of a grave is a Auguste Rodin sculpture now that in exciting, wonder that story is that about also love the sculpture or carvings in the church love them.

  16. Very nice and interesting pics.
    I shall be waiting for your new novel, in order to translate it into Romanian, as you have a lot of fans in Romania.

    Congratulations for everything you are doing, especially for the recent WMC.

    I’ll be delighted to meet you one day … Aren’t you interested in visiting Romania? I’d love to be your guide for this wonderful country that even Prince Charles (a famous globe-trotter :)), likes so musch !!! Just think about it.

    Keep making all your dreams come true, dear Jane !

    Warmest regards.

  17. Dear Jane:

    I’ve spent many years in Northern Virginia and the Middleburg area. Your photos and commentary capture the atmosphere of that glorious horse country.

    You may know, but just case: the Cinemateque de Nice, Nice, France, is running a JANE FONDA RETROSPECTIVE throughout October 2013. They are screening 24 of your films, among them COMING HOME, one of my favorites. I ran across the notice and wanted you to know. I applaud your work and writings.

    Best wishes,

    http://www.cinematheque-nice.com/programme/index.php

  18. Jane,

    You certainly captured the treasure of Middleburg in your photos. We live within 20 minutes of Middleburg, and truly feel transported back into time whenever we visit, especially this time of year when the changing leaves are magnificent. One cannot drive through Middleburg without associating it with the Kennedy family who cherished their times spent in the Virginia countryside. I am so glad that you had a wonderful visit with your new friends who clearly exemplify Southern hospitality!

    Margaret

  19. I live in Ashburn, VA, about 20 minutes away from Middleburg. Truly beautiful country. Gorgeous rolling hills, pastures that stretch on for miles, lots of historical buildings, and everywhere you look the Civil War beckons. Virginia is a lovely state from the western mountains all the way over to the eastern shore and the beaches. Did you know that Robert Duvall has a horse farm in the same area as Middleburg? He is in residence most of the year unless he’s away filming or in Argentina visiting his wife’s relatives. Somewhere farther south of there is where Cissy Spacek has lived for several decades with her husband and where she raised their 2 daughters. In Middleburg is also the horse farm and estate of Bunny Mellon (widow of Paul Mellon who was a huge philanthropist and left oodles of money & artwork to the Smithsonian museum when he died. Bunny’s farm is simply amazing. Jackie Kennedy was a close friend of hers and Jackie used to go fox hunting at the Mellon farm for many, many years.
    One of the best times to visit again would be in late October when the leaves are all turning their glorious colors.
    So interesting to see your pictures, because I’ve been on those same streets and eaten at the same restaurants.
    I’m an admirer of yours from way back and of your brother, Peter, too.
    Your dad was always one of my favorite actors.
    So happy I’ve stumbled upon this web site! Please keep posting and, btw, you look simply marvelous!

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