What happens when your greatest wish is to preserve a piece of land?
My Aunt Alice was the owner of River Bend Farm, an approximately 5000 acre piece of real estate located south of Front Royal VA between the Shenandoah River and Rt. 340 Stonewall Jackson Highway. The manor of the farm was built in 1752 and came into our family in the late 1920’s. Aunt Alice loved River Bend Farm and her greatest desire was to preserve the land as she knew it. This is the story of what happens when you write a will that restricts the choices of your heirs.
My Pepaw and his sisters.
When my grandfather was young he was forced to be the man of the house after his father passed away. He had supported his sisters when times were tough and he and his sisters always remained close.
My grandfather and his sisters Virginia and Hattie were interesting characters in their own right, but this story is mostly about Aunt Alice. By all accounts Alice was a beautiful woman and after a youth of struggle and hunger she married an older man who had quite a bit of money.
Eventually her husband passed away, leaving her alone on this enormous farm. The struggles of Alice’s youth must have girded her loins, for she took well to the challenge of managing an enormous farm. She loved the solitude that she enjoyed at River Bend Farm and all by herself she managed the domestics and farm hands that made this a working enterprise.
When my father was a boy …
Fortune had smiled on the pretty girl with the Irish Catholic roots, but my Aunt Alice never forgot how her younger brother Frank helped support the family when she was young.
Her brother Frank had five children one of whom was my father. In those days, Frank Nesbitt had five children, a factory job at Viscose in Front Royal and all the responsibility he could handle. But Aunt Alice helped out in many ways. She paid the tuition so that my father and his brother Frank could attend Randolph Macon Academy, a military private school.
Furthermore, to help the family and to perhaps to groom an heir, she brought my father to River Bend to raise him as her own on her farm.
I was never told why my father was selected to be Aunt Alice’s. Maybe he was her favorite. Maybe he was a bit rowdier than the others and the farm might do him good. I think those siblings left in town with their parents were jealous of his station, but I also think he was jealous of those left in town.
Still, my father always had fond memories of this great farm down by the Shenandoah. My grandfather and father both enjoyed fishing here and nearby at the boat landing at Karo.
When I was a child, we visited Aunt Alice from time to time.
When Aunt Alice died …
It was a sad day for my grandfather when his sister died. He rightly predicted that his other sister and he would follow not long after. Alice’s possessions were parted out among family members, and what wasn’t wanted by anyone was sold at auction. I distinctly remember the items that came from her estate because of their generally high quality and good taste.
More than any possession, my Aunt Alice loved River Bend Farm. It was her greatest wish that this farm never be broken up. To accomplish this desire, she wrote her will with very specific instructions. My grandfather Frank and his sister Aunt Hattie would inherit the farm, but with restrictions. They were not allowed to chop pieces of the farm off to sell. They were not allowed to split the farm between themselves. River Bend was to remain River Bend Farm.
Unwittingly, Aunt Alice ensured that River Bend Farm was no more.
I’ll tell you how.
My grandfather and Aunt Hattie were only a few years younger than Alice, but they were from a little different generation. The last thing my grandfather wanted was to manage an enormous farm. He had worked himself into a leadership position at the factory at Viscose. He loved his house in town just as much as Aunt Alice loved her farm outside of town. Aunt Hattie was an older widow with a house in town as well. She didn’t want the responsibility of managing a farm. My grandfather and Aunt Hattie didn’t own farms, because they didn’t want farms.
Furthermore, there was only one house at River Bend Farm. River Bend was an enormous piece of land, with barns and outbuildings, springhouses and
smokehouses, but there was only one house. Even if they did want a farm, Pepaw (as I called my grandfather) and Aunt Hattie weren’t going to move-in together. They got along well because they knew how to stay out of each other’s hair. Yes, they both liked to visit Aunt Alice — even if they complained about the dirt road and cattle guard on the way to her house. They loved playing bridge together. But they didn’t want to live in the same house. That was out of the question.
So, when Aunt Alice passed away she stipulated in her will that the farm could not be broken up. So instead of dividing the property, my grandfather and Aunt Hattie, sold the property whole to a developer, who later started building houses on the farm.
Aunt Alice herself ensured that the property was going to be developed by demanding that her relatives keep the property together.
River Bend unseen.
The manor at River Bend was always hidden away. It was at the end of a long private drive, tucked between a steep ridge and a bend in the Shenandoah. The house is in a perfect location if you want solitude.
So, for years after the sale of the property, the original house was hidden from view in a meadowy glen on the property at the end of a long private drive.
This weekend, Julie and I were in Front Royal and I decided for some unknown reason to drive to my old school Wakefield Country Day School. It was a lazy Sunday afternoon and I wasn’t paying attention so I accidentally went down the wrong road. Rather than turning back, I told her, let’s drive out to River Bend Farm. I haven’t been there in more than thirty years.
As luck would have it, the remnants of the original farm is now for sale, so we drove down the private road to have a look at how time has been to the old homestead. I’m so glad I made a wrong turn and glad that I had the chance to see the old place.
As you can see it is a stone structure with a metal roof. The stone has held up well. The windows look like they were last replaced by Aunt Alice. I peaked in the window and to my amazement and delight saw that the wall-papers of Aunt Alice were still in place. The old wood floors were in excellent condition, positively historic.
The roof and trim needs paint. The landscaping needs some attention, but ultimately it was a shock how little has changed since Aunt Alice’s day.
A life that might have been.
I look at the house and I see a heritage lost. This breaks my heart.
I look at the house and I see work as far as the eye can see and as long as the day is long. So, I certainly understand why Aunt Hattie and Pepaw didn’t want to live here.
I look at the new houses that have been built on the old farm and I see the possibility of a different life. I see a life where my cousins are my neighbors and where we all live together at the river’s bend.
When I visited I took pictures in such a way as to block out the new houses and buildings. I wanted to see the property the way it was, and I wanted my pictures to be there for my cousins and relatives and friends to see.
In the picture at the start of this article, the house looks stately and the photo hides the flaws that the naked eye can clearly spot. In this picture, the rust on the roof is a little more evident, hinting at the restoration that the home really needs.
It’s bittersweet to visit this place, but I’m glad I stopped by.
The Lesson of Aunt Alice
There is a lesson there for those who have gifts to bequeath to family members. That lesson is: don’t bind your family with restrictions, covenants and instructions.
If my Aunt Alice could see her legacy, she would be heart-broken. The farm is no more. I didn’t see any cattle or horses while I was there. The houses are perched on her best hills and in her cow-fields down by the river bend.
But if she had allowed her brother and sister to do as they wish, things may have turned out a bit differently. Instead of strangers living on her farm, my cousins and my family might have been in those homes instead. Sure, many family members would have rather moved elsewhere, but those who wanted to stay near the homestead could have.
This was Alice’s front yard. There are three trees here that symbolize what became of her place. To the left, at the corner of the fence is a dead tree. In the center is a very old flowering apple tree that Aunt Alice would recognize. To the right is an ornamental tree that was planted after her death and no doubt after the death of one of her fruit trees.
The Blue Ridge Mountains can be seen in the background behind my wife Julie. Beyond the fence hidden in the trees is one of the closest houses.
The land has been chopped down from 5000 acres to 15, but it’s still a great piece of land. To see the listing for the home check here.
|About the Author — Will Nesbitt is the principal broker of Nesbitt Realty and maintains Condo Alexandria. Will specializes in condos, townhouses and single family residences in Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax County, Crystal City, and Kingstowne. Will resides in Belle Haven Estates just outside Alexandria VA in Fairfax County.|