Legacy Lost at River Bend Farm


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.  
Will Nesbitt 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.

Why I recomend MBH and Ryan Stuart for title and settlement needs

MBH title
MBH is in Old Town

What is a settlement company?

A settlement company processes and records transactions such as home sales or mortgages and refinances. One such settlement company is MBH Settlement Group L.C. Ryan Stuart of MBH tells me, "The settlement company's primary role is to insure the conveyance of clear and marketable title from the Seller to the Purchaser.  Further, as a settlement service provider, the settlement company prepares documentation incident to the closing, conducts the settlement, records the deed and necessary loan documentation in the land records, and disburses all funds in accordance with the HUD-1 settlement statement."

Who do you recommend for settlement?

MBH in Alexandria VA is located on Washington St. in a historic structure in Old Town. When clients ask me for a recommendation for a title company I often suggest MBH because I've been pleased with the service at MBH.

Why did you choose MBH in the first place?

MBH title
Inside MBH
I met Ryan Stuart of MBH because a fellow realtor recommended Ryan at MBH to me. Ryan Stuart is counsel to MBH and handles many closings for them. My colleague said that Ryan had "the best closings in Alexandria". Not knowing Ryan at the time I really doubted this claim. Her endorsement was so enthusiastic, I almost wondered if she was taking a kick-back from him! Of course, I knew she was not receiving any such payment from MBH or Ryan. It's important for consumers to understand that enticements and payments for endorsements like these are illegal in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The colleague that recommended MBH and Ryan is a highly ethical agent who works for a reputable brokerage. I knew I had to give MBH a try.

Why do you tell your client's about MBH?

MBH title
MBH is in Old Town
My brokerage makes nothing off of settlement, and so long as the transaction is smooth and professional, I personally could care less who does your title work. The client has a right to choose any company for settlement and I encourage clients to take advantage of that right. However, most clients ask me for a suggestion when it comes time to pick a title company. I tell them the truth. The services provided by the title companies are nearly identical anywhere you go. (More on this later.) There is very little difference in pricing on title work. What I like about MBH is that there is very little hassle dealing with them. I submit the title order to them and then forget it. But, I would expect no less from any title company. What I love about MBH is how Ryan handles a closing.

Ryan Stuart of MBH

Ryan at closing
Starting a closing with Ryan Stuart
From the time Ryan settles in to the time the last document is signed, it's obvious that that Ryan is a professional. He knows exactly where the money is going and where it's coming from and it's all spelled out on the documents. One of the duties of a settlement agent is to explain the transaction in a way that the layman can understand the paperwork. I find that many settlement agents use industry terms that make perfect sense to myself or other real estate professionals, but Ryan goes one step further. He breaks down the transaction using simple English that anyone can understand and this is his real value add. He doesn't get frustrated with questions, and he doesn't rush the signers. He will work with the client until there is a full understanding by all parties at the table.
closing with Ryan Stuart
settlement agent
I asked Ryan, why do property owners need title insurance. He told me, "A title insurance policy contains a statement of the condition of ownership of real property. A title policy indemnifies you against loss or damage incurred as a result of title defects on your property. In the event of a lawsuit challenging your ownership interest, the title insurance company provides a legal defense for the policyholder and, if the suit is lost, pays all valid claims or losses insured by the policy." For example in a recent closing, a property was sold with only the signature of one spouse. Years later, heirs or the missing spouse could come back to make a claim against the title. Title insurance protects against this kind of a claim.
Jane is relieved
When settlement is over, Jane is relieved.
It's a huge relief when all the ducks finally line up and the property is yours.

Will Nesbitt 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.

Fire at Huntley Meadows Park?

Huntley Meadows Huntley Meadows is a 4500 acre park in Fairfax County, but today the park service only maintains about 30 acres of meadows. The remainder of the park is following the natural life cycle of the land. In the days before Columbus, Northern Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley were mostly a sprawling meadow, and even here on the East Coast we had bison herds. The meadows are not the natural state here though, and they were maintained by natives who burned and cut the forest from time to time to leave room for the big herding animals. Left on its own, the land here will slowly revert to a hardwood forest. In Huntley Meadows, visitors can explore this forest by way of many trails and paths. Huntley Meadows trees The change to forest happens over time. When the meadows first fall fallow, weeds rush in. In a few years brambles and honeysuckle mix in with fast growing trees like locusts or cedars. Eventually the tree canopy grows so thick that the vines and undergrowth begin to die off. In dry months, this undergrowth becomes brittle and fires are easy to start. Left unchecked, nature will start its own fire to clear the undergrowth and to replenish the hardwoods as they grow. vines and duff The forests of Huntley Meadows are young. This is evidenced not only by the diameter of the trunks and by the types of trees that are tallest. It's also evidenced by the duff, or undergrowth, that is heavy in parts of the forest. The park's management recently ignited a number of controlled burns to clear up the duff and to help keep the forest healthy. fire at Huntley Meadows You'll see signs of the fire along many paths in the park. feathers at Huntley Meadows Huntley Meadows is also popular with birdwatchers. I found these feathers scattered along the trail. Perhaps a fox found a meal here? I am curious what type of bird this might have been.

Neighborhoods near Huntley Meadows

Here are a few resources for house hunters in Northern Virginia:
  • Huntley Meadows --- a map of the park with homes for sale nearby
  • Kingstowne --- condos, houses and townhouses for sale in and near Kingstowne
  • Hayfield Farm --- Single family homes near the Coast Guard station
  • Woodstone -- Townhouses and single family houses near Huntley Meadows
  • Stoneybrooke -- Single family homes between Groveton Hieghts and Huntley Meadows

Will Nesbitt 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.

Washington in bloom

Washington Monument through blossoms Spring is a great time to visit Washington DC. The weather is mild and the world-famed cherry blossoms are beautiful. Here you can see the Washington Monument (and it's reflection). The Monument is hidden behind blossoms, but the reflection is obvious.
One of the best spots for viewing near the Tidal Ponds at the Jefferson Memorial. There are paddle boats here that are fun to rent and a great way to get away from the crowds. Jefferson Memorial
paddle boats in the tidal basin