When J. Tayloe and Catherine Emery moved into his family’s ancestral home of Mount Airy Plantation years ago, they knew creative thinking was needed to bring in enough income to keep the Colonial estate solvent.
First came guided hunts of various kinds on the property on the outskirts of Warsaw, then Catherine’s raising of flowers and plants. They even landed a restoration series on a cable network that provided much of the funding for needed repairs to the mid-Georgian plantation house, which was built in 1764 by Col. John Tayloe II, perhaps the richest Virginia planter of his generation.
And in the past few years, the Emerys have added other business ventures: dove and waterfowl hunt clubs on the property that sits along Cat Point Creek, as well as an annual bluegrass concert that Tayloe keeps refining each summer to get the sort of intimate and rewarding musical experience he wants to share with the 1,200 or so who buy tickets.
This year, the Northern Neck concert is a two-day affair—June 28 and 29—something new for the Mount Airy show.
On Friday night—another tweak is starting the shows about 5 p.m. to hopefully get cooler temperatures—the show will open with a performance by the group Carolina Blue, followed by Josh Grigsby and County Line, a band local to the Northern Neck.
On Saturday evening, the second show will start with a performance by Southwest Virginia’s Junior Sisk and Rambler’s Choice, followed on the stage by Ralph Stanley II & the Clinch Mountain Boys. Rhonda Vincent & the Rage are the evening’s headliners, she the Grammy Award-winning artist who some call the “new queen of bluegrass.”
All of this happens on a stage that sits in front of the classic house built of brown sandstone in what Emery calls “the deer park,” a bowl-like area covered with grass and dotted with tall sycamores, oaks and magnolias that he says will provide welcome shade on warm afternoons.
Two special things are in the mix: The Rappahannock Oyster Co. will provide free oysters from 6–8 p.m. Friday to those attending, and Saturday night a special tribute is being arranged for John Starling, who passed away recently.
Details about the tribute to Starling, a Fredericksburg doctor and member of the seminal bluegrass group The Seldom Scene, are still being worked out. Emery said it will happen Saturday night with that evening’s performers being joined onstage by some special guests, probably performing some of Starling’s songs.
Emery noted that other generations of his family have come to Mount Airy to retire, able to support the house and grounds with retirement income.
“But Catherine and I arrived in our 40s, so we’ve had to come up with different things to do on the property to bring in income,” he said.
Emery said a book about the property and his ancestors demonstrated that they’re not unique in their approach to trying to find different ways to bring income to the property.
“Irons in the Fire: The Business History of the Tayloe Family and Virginia’s Gentry, 1700–1860” by Laura Croghan Kamoie, noted that his early forebears well understood that it makes sense to have as many ways of earning income as possible on a large property like Mount Airy.
“When John Tayloe II came here from England, instead of deciding to focus on just one way to make money and support the property, he and John III also came up with 12 different ways,” said Emery. “They had an iron furnace, and 10 different farms growing different crops on each farm. They didn’t know what would succeed and what would fail so they were constantly looking for things that did work.”
He added, “Catherine and I have taken up that spirit and approach, knowing that we can’t just do one thing and make enough money to keep this property going. If one thing fails, we have to have nine other things that are working.”
Beyond that connection to this historic property—where Declaration of Independence signer Francis Lightfoot Lee is buried with wife Rebecca—Emery said he likes the notion that the annual bluegrass concerts are repeating another bit of history at Mount Airy.
He said that in Mount Airy’s early days, people visited both for horse races (it’s where some of the country’s first Arabian Quarter Horses were imported) and for live music performed outdoors.
“I like to think that when John Tayloe II and III were here, they probably had musical groups out here performing under the trees,” said Emery, who in earlier years staged bluegrass festivals at the nearby historic plantation Menokin. “Deep down, I have a feeling that this farm and this house are musically inclined.”
He added that he gets a special sort of feeling when he’s out in the audience and hears strains of banjo and mandolin.
“When that happens, I get a really calm feeling that we’ve all been here before,” he said.