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Making a Movie at Morven Park

In the new movie Foxcatcher, which began a slow nationwide rollout just before Thanksgiving, there is a scene in which a helicopter sits – propellers whirling – in front of what the movie’s characters call “the big house.”

helicopter on lawnBut in that scene, what’s hidden from the moviegoer are the employees at this very real “big house” – the Davis Mansion at Morven Park in Leesburg, Va. – huddled behind the front windows, hearts pounding, as the helicopter landed and took off, over and over and over again before the director finally deemed the shot “just right.”

As I tried to stay out of camera range, the sound of the helicopter blades roared in my ears and I struggled to dispel the mental image of the Mansion portico’s four massive white columns shattered into bits by an out-of-control helicopter. But my fears proved to be unjustified. The pilot and the film crew were amazingly skilled professionals.

Director Bennett Miller with Steve Carell

Director Bennett Miller with Steve Carell

Serving as the location for this highly anticipated and critically acclaimed film turned out to be an unimaginable opportunity for the 1,000-acre hidden treasure that is Morven Park. The home of Westmoreland Davis, who served as governor of Virginia 1918-1922, Morven Park is operated by a private foundation, which has preserved the property and presented educational and recreational programming for the public since 1967. Building widespread name recognition for a historic site like Morven Park is not an easy task, especially given the competition in a region that is filled with historic presidential homes.

We first heard about the film in the summer of 2012. As the associate director of development and communications, I took the call from a location scout who was searching for an estate to represent the exterior of Foxcatcher Farm, the family home of John E. du Pont. It was my job to negotiate the contract and to strike the balance between keeping the film crew happy and ensuring the protection of our historic building (parts of which date back to 1780) and the several thousand priceless items within its collection.

While the helicopter scenes certainly were the most anxiety-producing, the first moments of the crew’s arrival (in October 2012) ran a close second. As I stood in the main entry of the Mansion, a swarm of what seemed to be hundreds of workers suddenly approached from the home’s many doors, covering the floors with massive sheets of cardboard, running miles of thick black cable, and piecing everything together with rolls and rolls of duct tape.

equipment in entry hall

After a full day of prep work, the actors arrived and two long days of shooting began. Steve Carell and fellow actors Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo created quite a stir as news leaked out that they were on site. We interacted freely with the actors between takes, and Carell, especially, was gracious and appreciative of our opening up the home for filming. Once in his makeup, though, he was virtually unrecognizable, and I was not the only staff member who gave him a perfunctory glance and hello, thinking this guy must be Carell’s stand-in, completely unaware that I was snubbing the real Steve Carell.

And when a group of Morven Park employees went to see “Foxcatcher” recently, we were dazzled by just how beautiful our historic house appeared. (Admittedly, a few of the employees were equally dazzled by the beauty of actor Channing Tatum, but that’s another story.) See it for yourself, then visit Morven Park to see “the big house” up close!

Do Family Farms Still Matter?

In 1996, fresh out of college, I dreamed of returning to my family’s farm and becoming a farmer. After decades of eroding cattle prices, our Shenandoah Valley farm was barely hanging on. My parents had almost given up, taking jobs in the city just to keep the bills paid. I would be the seventh generation to work the land, dating back to the American Revolution, and took it upon myself to keep the farm alive.

As my friends headed off to graduate school, I pointed my dusty pickup toward the farm. My college advisors shook their heads with well-meaning disapproval. “Go ahead,” they admonished. “Get your hands dirty for a few months. But when you’re ready to decide on a career, the real world will be waiting for you.”

But this is the real world, I insisted. It’s a world of sunshine and rain. It’s a world of physical toil and sweat, and the sweet satisfaction of nurturing life from the earth. After a few weeks back on the farm, I was sunburned and filthy… and utterly blissful. Most importantly, I was certain that I had made the right decision.


I projected our bills for the coming winter, and knew that we needed ten thousand dollars in the bank to carry us into spring. That summer, we planted the farm with corn and soybeans, abandoning our traditional cow pastures for the quicker financial return of grain. The meadows were killed off with herbicide, and the rolling hills cultivated.

In October, trucks whisked away our glittering corn and soy. I was so proud of what we had accomplished: We had saved our family farm. Later that week, I received our paycheck and tore open the envelope.

Staring at the check, I felt my knees buckle. The harvest hadn’t brought in ten thousand dollars. It hadn’t even cleared a thousand. After expenses, five truckloads of grain had made us a profit of eighteen dollars and sixteen cents.

How could this be? How could so much corn bring in such a pittance? Humiliated, furious, I nearly tore the paycheck into bits. At that instant, I realized how utterly broken our family farm was. I made up my mind that, somehow, we were going to fix it.

Seventeen years later, after triumphs and heartbreaks, our farm is stronger than ever. We now raise organic, grass-fed meats, and sell our free-range eggs at bustling Washington, DC farmers markets. Each weekend, I personally interact with hundreds of customers, answering questions and educating about our farming practices. Decades of debt is finally paid off. From where I stand, the future of farming has never looked so bright.


But our farm’s story remains the exception more than the rule. Today, high-yield industrial agriculture dominates the field. Only 1% of the country still lives on a farm, down from 50% just two generations before. If we’re going to save more family farms, we must rewrite the old story, and do it quickly.

It’s time to ask ourselves: What do we value? Do we believe in transparent farming practices, humane treatment of animals, and providing our producers a living wage? It’s easy to sit in ivory towers, dismissing these issues as glorified talking points. But when you’ve stood on your family’s farmhouse porch, and are handed eighteen dollars for an entire year’s worth of work, you begin to understand how truly desperate the situation can be.

People are ready for their farmers to become heroes. Who can blame them? The world needs heroes, those who believe in something greater than themselves. A new wave of farmers can live up to these ideals, and sustainable agriculture can be the story of our time. The shopping choices we make today have the power to alter the landscape for generations to follow.



The book about our farm, Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers Markets, Local Food and Saving the Family Farm, was named a Top Read by The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, and NPR’s The Splendid Table. Click HERE.
News Story

Top 2013 News Stories

As a new year begins, we want to take a minute and reflect on the past year.  2013 was a fabulous year for the Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership, which can be reflected in the media coverage we received throughout the year.  We thank our wonderful media partners, including the numerous local media outlets throughout our 15 county region that covered our events and projects throughout the year.  I have compiled a Top 10 list of the best news stories for 2013, highlighting an article or two for each of our major projects and initiatives, including our educational programs, the Living Legacy Tree Project, our National Heritage Area, the Certified Tourism Ambassador (CTA) Program, and more.  These articles provide a great overview of the respective efforts.

Educational Programs

1.  Daily Progress, Oct. 23

2.  NPS Sentinel, Spring 2013

Living Legacy Tree Project

3.  USA Today, December 21

4.  TCIA Magazine, Sept. 2013

5.  Landscape Architecture Magazine, March 2013

Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area

6.  US FrontLine, June 20

7.  The Stamp Pad, Summer 2013

8.  Park Advocate, November 19

Regional History

9.  Black Meetings & Travel, January 18

Certified Tourism Ambassador (CTA) Program

10.  The Central Virginian, June 20

In addition to the local newspaper articles, there were countless other articles, including write-ups in the Washington Post, bthere, Hallowed Ground Magazine, and Marine Corps Times.  There were television appearances on ABC27, NBC4, NewsChannel 8, Daytime TV, and an NBC29 story, as well as various radio station interviews (WTOP, WFMD, WITF, etc.).

In fact, here are two more honorable mentions that we have to share – thanks to Kate Kelly (Huffington Post) and the New York Times.

Huffington Post, October 1

New York Times, March 8

History Through Art

By Shuan Butcher, JTHG Director of Communications

Art is a powerful tool and has always been an important vehicle to capture history or reflect on history.  As we are in the midst of the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, art is one means for commemorating this country’s most defining moment.  On such exhibit, entitled The Civil War and American Art, is currently on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City through September 2, 2013.  This exhibit, which first debuted at the Smithsonian Institution, examines how America’s artists represented the impact of the Civil War and its aftermath.  Whether it is Winslow Homer’s aesthetic power in conveying the intense emotions of the period in his paintings or Alexander Gardner’s battlefield photography that documents the gruesomeness of carnage and destruction, each artist’s work portrays the triumph and tragedy of the American experience during the 1860’s.

But you do not have to travel to New York City to see an art exhibit chronicling the American Civil War.  Within the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area, there are three art exhibits currently on display that explore this subject matter.  Here is a brief description of each:

The Gettysburg Collection: Rebecca Pearl Art ShowRebecca Pearl's Robert E. Lee
National Museum of Civil War Medicine

Through July 12, 2013

Based on the equestrian monuments located through the battlefields of Gettysburg National Military Park, nine original watercolor paintings will be the anchor pieces of the Rebecca Pearl Art Show. Additionally, eight landscape views of the battlefield will be on display.  This special exhibit is open to the public and Rebecca Pearl’s artwork will be available for purchase.  For more information, visit



John Rogers Mail Call“Valley of the Shadow”
Washington County Museum of Fine Arts
Through July 28, 2013

With 23,110 casualties, the Battle of Antietam remains a day of great loss for America and stimulated a chain of events leading to the Emancipation Proclamation and the Battle of Gettysburg. This extensive exhibition brings together works of art, such as Eastman Johnson’s (American, 1824-1906) “Study for ‘The Wounded Drummer Boy'” on loan from the Brooklyn Museum and objects of material culture, such as weaponry, musical instruments and clothing, to tell the stories of the war, from the soldiers who fought in its battles to the women and children who remained at home. Loans from public and private collections and the museum’s collection will come together in our largest gallery, the Groh Gallery, to create a “museum within a museum” commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Maryland Campaign of 1862 and the Gettysburg Campaign of 1863.  For more information, visit



“Images of the Civil War”Antietam flag bearer by Susan Ruddick Bloom
Carroll Arts Center
Through August 6, 2013

The Civil War conjures sentiments on both sides, the issue of slavery, artillery, battles, the role of women and children, uniforms, portraits and more.  The 150th Anniversary of the Civil War is being honored in Carroll County with an exhibit by local artists entitled “Images of the Civil War.”  For more information, visit

In addition to the art exhibits, there are other exhibitions worth checking out.  A new exhibit that just opened on June 16th, entitled Treasures of the Civil War: Legendary Leaders Who Shaped a War and a Nation, offers a rare glimpse into the personal and professional lives of 13 individuals who shaped a nation: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses Grant, George G. Meade, John Reynolds, George Pickett, Alexander Webb, William Tecumseh Sherman, George Custer, John Mosby, Frederick Douglass and Clara Barton.  This exhibit offers 94 historic items from seven different outstanding Civil War collections throughout the United States – all being exhibited together for the first time at the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center. Visitors can look at Lincoln’s face mask; Meade’s frock coat and slouch hat he wore at Gettysburg; Pickett’s spur; Grant’s sword for the Vicksburg victory; Reynolds’ kepi worn at Gettysburg; a lock of Lee’s hair and his horse Traveller’s mane; and an original copy of Douglass’ autobiography “The Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass,” to name a few.  For more information, visit