When Tracy Frist bought Bellevue, a 19th-century home in rural Craig County, it could have remained a private hideaway.
Instead, she and her husband, Bill Frist, made it a mission to share the history of the brick, Federal-era house and its grounds. When a reporter arrived for an interview, the Frists were talking in the kitchen with a half-dozen visitors, including a young couple who came to ask about Bellevue’s apple trees.
Interviews are by appointment only, but casual passers-by on scenic Virginia 42 will soon be able to stop and read a historic marker, funded by the Frists. The text was approved in June by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
“The site for the Bellevue marker will need to be approved by a VDOT traffic engineer, and then a cost estimate for the installation will have to be approved by VDOT’s Integrated Directional Signing Program, before I can order the marker,” said Jennifer Loux, highway marker program manager for the Department of Historic Resources.
Tracy Frist, 60, is an equestrian, farmer, businesswoman, teacher, and writer. She holds master’s degrees from Hollins University and a Ph.D. from Purdue University. She serves on the boards of Hollins and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Bill Frist, 70, is a heart and lung transplant surgeon who was Senate Majority Leader during part of his two terms as a Republican senator from Tennessee. He’s on the board of the Nature Conservancy and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
They met in 2014 at an event at Princeton University, where Bill Frist earned a degree in health policy.
“We were just talking over five or 10 minutes,” Bill Frist recalled in an interview at Bellevue. They chatted about where they grew up and people they knew. About a week later, Tracy sent him a picture of her home. Bill had grown up in a house that was similar, though not as old. That’s when their connection started, Bill Frist said, sparked by a shared appreciation for the feeling of time and place embodied in old houses.
“That was a mutual love affair, for him to even appreciate that,” Tracy said. “It takes someone very special that understands that connection.”
By Tracy Frist’s account, it was Fate that put Bellevue in her hands.
Located on Cumberland Gap Road (Route 42, a Virginia Byway), Bellevue (“beautiful view”) was built circa 1833 for merchant Robert Wiley, around the time the Virginia legislature authorized a turnpike from Botetourt County to Cumberland Gap, gateway to the interior. It’s easy to imagine families perched atop heavily loaded wagons, westward bound, creaking past Bellevue’s front yard.
The two-story brick home is one of the few antebellum buildings in Craig County. Points of interest include attic rafters fastened with wooden pegs and carved with Roman numerals, shallowly projecting chimneys with stepped shoulders, a limestone and sandstone foundation, and two towering trees in the front yard — a Norway spruce and a Norway maple, each around 90 feet tall.
A trough in the kitchen was once filled with water piped from Sinking Creek Mountain, to keep milk and other perishables chilled. Tracy Frist uses the trough for dry storage, but the pipeline still works, she said.
Enslaved African-Americans labored on the farm. A slave cemetery is nearby.
Around 1860, a small Greek Revival building was added in front as a doctor’s office for Oscar Wiley. He served as a Confederate army physician and later as president of the Medical Society of Virginia. In 1863 Oscar Wiley was forced to guide Union troops during Brig. Gen. William Averell’s raid.
On the door to the closet beneath the stairwell, someone penciled the date September 18, 1864, and the names of Benton Wiley, Sallie Wiley and Annie Scott Wiley. The significance of the date, and reason for writing the names, is a mystery the old house keeps to itself.
Around 1900 a two-tiered porch featuring sawn and turned millwork was added to the front. Other early 20th-century additions include a potato cellar built into the side of a bank, and an ice house with sawdust-insulated walls, shaded by a pear tree. A nearby creek was dammed in cold weather to provide ice.
As the seasons came and went in Sinking Creek Valley, so the generations came and went. The Wileys were buried in the graveyard. Bellevue passed out of the family. In 1936 it was sold to Kate Farrier for $800.
Tracy Roberts Frist grew up in the rural hamlet of McCoy, west of Blacksburg in Montgomery County. She attended tiny Long’s Shop School, then Prices Fork Elementary and Blacksburg High School.
One of their neighbors was Tommy Adams. His mother and Kate Farrier had attended Hollins together. At age 12, Tracy Roberts first came to Bellevue, a place that had connections with books, Hollins University, doctors, history, nature, and horses, all of which would loom large in her life.
“The sort of repetitive continuing intersection of destiny and fate and subject is fascinating in the place,” Bill Frist said. “You’ve heard her as a little girl, and then coming back, and it captures the organic nature of it.”
Young Tracy got to know Kate Farrier. “So as a little girl, I would listen to her talk about reading because she was the librarian for the county and that was her bookshelf right there,” Tracy said. “I would listen to how to sit down and act proper and table manners, and all that came from Mrs. Adams and Mrs. Farrier that owned this house.”
Did she ever dream she would come back to Bellevue as the owner?
“Yes. I planned every minute of this.”
Tracy went on to a multifaceted career. She taught school in Indiana, Texas and Oregon, taught at Purdue, and ran a sign business and a horse training facility in Texas.
She came back to Virginia, and in 2004, bought Bellevue. “Bellevue is a pivotal and huge influence on me. I think everything that I am, everything that I have done, I feel like has been bottlenecked through this house and what it has taught me.”
Tracy Frist wrote about Bellevue in an essay published in the New Castle Record in 2010.
“At 12 you have no clue about ownership of things such as a house, your lens of ownership is far simpler, like a pair of shoes or your school notebook. At 12, my ownership relationship was a large pony named Blue and his cheap, but cherished, bridle.
“Ownership, he taught me, is a fleeting thing. It is a sharing of space and time, a partnership of things living or inanimate, brought to life by love, sharing and caring.
“So now standing in front of this house 30-some-odd years later, and the papers say I have ownership. I look at its two-story bricked face and its windows glazed gazing and glowing amber-red in the late afternoon. October sun heat resting warm in the hand-made bricks.
“I have ownership.
“I lay a hand on a brick, hoping to feel a pulse of the farm lives before me. The brick is crumbly and dry, old and strong. I wonder what ghosts I will find in its attic, what treasures in its wooden barns, what adventures in its bumpy green fields.”
After meeting Bill Frist, Tracy wanted to share Bellevue with him. Among other things, Frist, who has led numerous medical mission trips, was drawn to the old doctor’s office in the front yard.
“There’s a serenity and a feeling of caring and healing and service,” Bill Frist said. “So to have it manifest itself directly, not just symbolic, but directly by a physician, right here in this house, and actually practicing and delivering that care 50 yards from here means a lot.”
Tracy and Bill got married at the circa 1885 Old Salem Church and had their wedding dinner at Bellevue. “So it was perfect,” Tracy said. They split time between Craig County and a home in Franklin, Tenn.
“Why do we want to share this place with the public? It was shared with me,” Tracy Frist said. “So therefore, I have shared this place. Ever since I took ownership of it, I began writing, I began publishing and began telling stories, opening the door, trying to have people just like that young couple. It terrifies all of us that are older, that the culture is going to be lost and the history is going to be lost. So from the very beginning, it was so important for me to have a historical marker when I’m gone, to make sure that this place has its story told, because it’s so easy just to see it disappear.”