If it’s an out West experience with back East convenience you crave, head for this historic spot in Virginia’s wine and horse country.
On a beautiful October morning, I’m driving across rolling pastures and manicured paddocks where horses peacefully graze, past roadside markets, and along undulating country lanes bordered by old hand-laid stone walls. The thick woodlands covering the surrounding ridges blaze with vivid fall colors glowing in the sun. This is autumn in Virginia — a season whose beauty is best enjoyed not in the car but in the saddle, which is exactly what has brought me to this bucolic bit of horse and wine country.
At the bottom of a hill, I see what I’ve been looking for: A sign with three running horses and a Western-style ranch entrance gate tell me that I’ve arrived. Up an elegant driveway lined by well-kept wooden fences, a piece of American history seems to unfold, with a hint of colonial back East, a touch of the Civil War, and a generous taste of rustic out West. This is the historic Marriott Ranch, which was restored to its original antebellum glory by J. Willard Marriott, the hotel-family scion who bought the secluded spread in 1951. These days, the exclusive Inn at Fairfield Farm, located near the center of the ranch’s 4,200 acres, welcomes guests for a Western experience in the heart of the East.
The lovely grounds, historic accommodations — the James Marshall Manor House and the Baroness Cottage date to the early 1800s — and the inn’s wonderful meals are of course a real draw to this pastoral paradise outside the northern Virginia village of Hume. But another of the main attractions at Marriott Ranch is riding through this vineyard-laden countryside when the trees put on their fall display — something I’m about to experience firsthand.
I’m greeted by ranch sales manager Kelley Moss, and we head off for the stables, where we meet up with head wrangler Bill Moss, Kelley’s husband, and the rest of the group. Bill grew up tending herds in Oklahoma and has been providing Marriott Ranch guests with a true Western experience for the past 16 years. He and Kelley met 21 years ago when Kelley, a Virginia native and an avid horsewoman, headed to Oklahoma fresh out of college to barrel race and rope.
After a tasty lunch of roast beef sandwiches, grilled vegetables, baked beans, and an array of cheeses, we saddle up for a leisurely afternoon ride. We cross broad pastures surrounded by thick woodlands displaying their palette of gold, red, and orange, then climb up one side of a mountain and down the other on tight switchbacks. We let our horses drink in Fiery Run Creek, which meanders through the property. As we ride across a pasture, we come upon a lone stone chimney standing in the middle of the field. We learn that Jesse James’ assassin, Robert Ford, was raised on Fairfield property in a small log cabin; the original chimney is all that’s left of the place.
Legend has it that Jesse James himself stayed at Fairfield, and although this remains to be proven, Marriott enjoyed entertaining his guests with the story. James wasn’t the only legendary visitor: World leaders, including presidents Reagan and Eisenhower, have come here to enjoy the Western lifestyle just an hour from the nation’s capital.
On our return to the ranch, there’s a team roping demonstration in the ranch’s outdoor arena. “All of us like riding, roping, and the Western lifestyle,” Kelley says. “It’s fun for us to get together to rope because there aren’t many places around here where you can do it.” We watch the action seated on a fence rail as the sun sets over the golden-hued wooded ridges.
The evening finds us in the living room sipping merlot and nibbling hors d’oeuvres. Dinner is served in the elegant colonial-style dining room painted in a soft butter yellow, its Monticello-style windows looking out on a gorgeous autumnal landscape. The exquisite menu includes lamb sirloin chops, chipotle honey grilled salmon fillet, and cabernet beef tenderloin with mushrooms and onions. The perfect prelude to a good night’s sleep, when plush bedding pairs with open windows letting in the crisp nip of fall.
After a breakfast of fresh fruit, homemade pastries, smoked Gouda, and fried green tomatoes, we head for the stables. Before saddling up, Bill gives us a few pointers on the art of driving cattle, which is what we’ll be doing today. “Longhorns are wilder than Black Angus,” he warns. “Don’t ride in front of the herd, and don’t crowd them too much or they’ll scatter through the woods.”
For more than a century, Fairfield has been home to some of the finest cattle in America (in fact, at the time of the Civil War, the area surrounding the village of Hume, then known as Barbee’s Crossroads, had very large cattle ranches that employed many of the locals). Today, in addition to its 1,000 head of registered Black Angus cattle, Marriott Ranch boasts a small herd of 50 longhorns. After riding along wooded hillsides, we come upon the cattle, spread over a brush-covered pasture.
We start pushing them up until we reach a wooded area. The trail meanders down through the woods and the cattle soon breaks into a trot. The rain of the night before brings out the earthy scent of wet leaves and dirt. More accustomed to herding cattle across the Wyoming range, I find it peculiar to see longhorns among oak trees. The experience is nonetheless fun and challenging.
I am riding flank, slaloming through the color-drenched trees when Bill suddenly instructs me to ride ahead quickly to fill a hole to prevent the cattle from going through a marshy area. I hit a trot through the trees but can’t catch up with the lead animal. The rest of the herd follows. We manage to catch up with the herd in an opening. Just as we start pointing them in the right direction, a lone steer bolts for the woods. Soon another one breaks free. To prevent the whole herd from breaking back, two accomplished riders in the group dart through the trees after the renegade critters. They manage to bring them back, and we ride another Technicolor hour without incident, eventually reaching a lush pasture where the cattle will spend the night.
That evening, we are treated to a tasty Western barbecue with live guitar entertainment at the ranch’s Old West town. As tender, juicy steaks sizzle on a grill, we sit around the campfire reminiscing about the highlights of the day. Tied to a hitching post, our horses doze off. By the time we finish eating and ride back to the stables, it’s evening. Everyone is quiet riding through the darkness, the cool fall air inviting us to another good night’s sleep. It’s the last ride of our stay, and I imagine in the silence that everyone is thinking that the adventure we shared in the woods of Virginia will be over too soon.
But there is a moon over Virginia yet to enjoy — ample time to reflect on Marriott’s talent for knowing a special property when he found it. I now can relate to what he wrote about this place in his diary: “A beautiful place, hard to leave.”