A look back inside John Warner’s life in the Piedmont

Written by Heidi Baumstark 

Horses — and the land they live on. These are the magnets that draw people to the Virginia Piedmont.

Those who belong to the fox hunting clan — plus lovers of open spaces — have been lured from various backgrounds to this corner of the Commonwealth. They include politicians, actors, Olympians, plus horse, history and farm enthusiasts. 

One who made the list? The late U.S. Senator John Warner from Virginia, an avid fox hunter, who claimed the Middleburg area “home” when he lived at Atoka Farm in Marshall, between Middleburg and Upperville. 

On a brisk fall Sunday afternoon, the Virginia Piedmont Heritage Area (VPHA) held a commemorative program with several panelists titled, “John W. Warner III: A Retrospective” on October 17, at Trinity Episcopal Church in Upperville. Fitting, since that’s where Warner worshiped when he was in the countryside. (As a side note, though the church dates to 1842, the present stone structure from 1951 was built as a gift by two of its members: Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, Warner’s former in-laws.) Following the program, an outdoor reception was hosted at Warner’s former Atoka Farm, now home to Mr. and Mrs. Peter Hitchen. 

Brief Recap of Warner’s Service

On a global scale, Warner’s service includes World War II, the Korean War, and an appointment as the nation’s 61st U.S. Secretary of the Navy. Closer to home, this D.C. native represented Virginia in the political arena as a five-term Republican U.S. senator spanning three decades. 

Even closer to home, he was a proud advocate for historic preservation in the Piedmont playing a crucial role in the advent of traffic calming circles along U.S. Route 50 in Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville, and for saving the 200-year-old stone Goose Creek Bridge in Upperville, which was the site of the June 21, 1863, Civil War Battle of Upperville, a prelude to the Battle of Gettysburg. For his role in historic preservation, VPHA (then known as Mosby Heritage Area Association) honored Warner with the organization’s 2008 Heritage Hero award in an afternoon ceremony on September 13, 2008, at the historic 1834 Huntland estate outside Middleburg.

Peter Hitchen, owner of Atoka Farm, welcomes guests to his property (Dulany Morison at left). Photo by Heidi Baumstark.

Warner: Personal, Military and Political Life

Warner was born on February 18, 1927, in Washington, D.C., and he died at age 94 on May 25, 2021, in Alexandria, Virginia. His first wife from 1957 to 1973 was banking heiress Catherine Conover Mellon, daughter of Paul Mellon — the famous art collector from Pittsburgh, philanthropist, and owner/breeder of thoroughbred racehorses at his Rokeby Stables in Upperville — and Mellon’s first wife, Mary Conover. All of Warner’s children: Virginia Warner, John Warner, Jr. and Mary Warner, are from this first marriage to Catherine. 

Warner’s second wife from 1976 to 1982 was actress Elizabeth Taylor; they lived at Atoka Farm, which became a prized site for political gatherings. In 2003, he married his third wife — Jeanne Vander Myde — who attended the VPHA program in Upperville along with Warner’s oldest daughter, Virginia.   

Warner enlisted in the U.S. Navy in January 1945, one month before his 18th birthday after graduating from Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C. (today, August Wilson High School). He served a year, leaving as a third-class petty officer. He went to Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1949. In October 1950, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps after the outbreak of the Korean War as an aircraft maintenance officer and eventually reached the rank of captain.

He resumed his studies, and in 1953, received his law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law; that year, he became a law clerk to Chief Judge E. Barrett Prettyman of the U.S. Court of Appeals. In 1956, he became an assistant U.S. attorney, and by 1960, he ventured into private law practice working with the prestigious D.C. law firm Hogan and Hartson (now Hogan Lovells). The following year, he married Catherine Conover Mellon on August 7. When the couple divorced in 1973, in the settlement, Warner acquired Atoka Farm, the estate that established him in the heart of hunt country. 

Warner served as U.S. Secretary of the Navy from 1972 to 1974; in 1973, he welcomed John McCain back home after being released from captivity as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. In the summer of 1976, Warner met Elizabeth Taylor when the British ambassador asked Warner to escort her to an embassy party on July 8, honoring another Elizabeth: England’s Queen Elizabeth II. The party was a bicentennial dinner at the British Embassy in D.C.; after all, Warner seemed an obvious choice since he was the head of the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration. Following a whirlwind romance, Warner and Taylor were married in a sunset ceremony on December 4, 1976, at his Atoka Farm. During their marriage, Warner became a five-term senator from Virginia from 1979 to 2009, serving 30 years in office. (He was the second longest-serving Virginia senator after Harry F. Byrd, who served for 32 years from 1933 to 1965.) 

Warner also fox hunted with Piedmont Hunt, the oldest hunt in the country established in 1840 as Piedmont Fox Hounds, founded by Col. Richard Henry Dulany. C. Dulany Morison (yes, he’s related to Col. Richard Henry Dulany), chair of VPHA added, “We must not forget what the late Senator Warner has done for our country and for our countryside,” and thanked the panelists for coming to share their stories.   

2008 Heritage Hero award recipient, U.S. Senator John Warner, was awarded this recognition for his preservation efforts on Sept. 13, 2008, at Huntland in Loudoun County. Photo courtesy of VPHA. 

Panelists Speak

The Honorable Trevor Potter moderated the panel discussion introducing Warner as an extraordinary American and Virginian. Potter served as Chairman of the Federal Election Commission and was General Counsel to the late Senator John McCain’s two presidential campaigns.  

L. Carter Cornick III, the first panelist, was Warner’s former Chief of Staff who worked for him for almost nine years. He is currently the Director of Government Relations and Communications at Arnall Golden Gregory LLP. 

“I was the most junior of senator staffers when I started,” Cornick said. “I learned what moved this part of Virginia—and Warner loved it all: water, mountains, land. He loved it all.” One of Warner’s defining traits: his curiosity. Cornick said he had an abundance of it. “It was electric,” he added. 

“I learned what moved this part of Virginia — and Warner loved it all: water, mountains, land. He loved it all.” 

— Cornick

Warner was a sailor, a Marine, an attorney, a DOD official, a senator; and every one of these jobs required an oath. “He brought honor to the institutions — and to the people — he served,” Cornick said with earnest. “It gave him a center. I have never met anyone who was so remarkably comfortable with challenging, opposing views. People challenged him, and it didn’t threaten him. He would say, ‘Let’s stop talking and start listening.’”

In 1980, Warner started supporting local conservation efforts and advocating for land preservation. His success as an advocate was in large part due to his natural ability to bring people together and find common ground.

The second panelist was the Honorable Frank R. Wolf, a retired congressman who represented Virginia’s 10th district from 1981 to 2015 in the U.S. House of Representatives. He first met Warner in 1978. Congressman Wolf’s staff worked with Warner on various issues spanning foreign and domestic policy, and their partnership produced several important preservation successes in the Piedmont heritage area. 

Wolf said, “Senator Warner was instrumental in preserving Civil War battlefields and supporting progress with the Journey Through Hallowed Ground,” acknowledging in the audience Cate Magennis Wyatt, the founder of JTHG, which is a National Heritage Area stretching 180 miles long and 75 miles wide from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, through Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. Another issue was the aging Woodrow Wilson Bridge that crosses from Maryland into Virginia; Warner was able to get funding for its repair. He was also key in getting metro rail extended out to Dulles.

Wolf reiterated that if traffic calming laws had not passed, the Gilbert’s Corner area along U.S. Routes 15 and 50 would be developed. “Warner was also head of the 1976 Bicentennial,” Wolf said. “I think that’s why he loved history. Last time I saw him was three years ago on [Capitol] Hill. He loved America; he loved Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley, the Piedmont. He was a patriot. God bless Senator Warner.” 

Mildred “Bucky” Fletcher Slater, attorney, ex-MFH (Master of Fox Hounds) for Piedmont Fox Hounds and lifelong friend, was the third and final panelist. She practices law in Upperville, specializing in conservation easements, real estate, probate, trusts and wills. Warner loved to fox hunt, and Slater and Warner spent years hunting together with Piedmont. 

Slater recalls, “I met John Warner over 60 years ago; he was a friend of my father’s. One time, we went foxhunting with the Rappahannock Hunt. We then had breakfast. My father suggested a canoe trip right after; John was a great sport, and he went along.” When he was appointed in 1972 as U.S. Secretary of the Navy, Slater said that “my father teased that he started Warner’s naval career” in reference to the canoe trip the three had taken together. Throughout their friendship, Warner and Slater enjoyed conversations about court cases, politics, and the countryside. 

 “[Warner] did so much for America because he could bring people together. I knew he was going to do something great. He wanted the best for Virginia,” Slater said. Cornick added that Warner’s obligation as senator was straightforward: “First, the U.S. Constitution; second, Virginia; and if there was any time left over; politics. He owned the responsibility. Leadership. You either have it — it’s in you — or you don’t.”

Reception at Atoka Farm

Peter Hitchen welcomed the crowd to his Atoka Farm that he purchased in March 2018. In 2017, previous owner Mike Smith placed the 350-acre farm into a conservation easement with the Land Trust of Virginia, the Middleburg-based nonprofit that partners with private landowners who want to protect and preserve their land. 

Hitchen said that some structures on the property originate from an early owner, Joshua Hoge, who was likely involved in the Underground Railroad that protected former slaves as they moved toward freedom in the northern states. The year “1850” is inscribed on the exterior of a stone chimney on the main house.

According to The History of Loudoun County, in an article by Waterford historian Eugene Scheel titled, “Underground Railroad – Journey to Freedom Was Risky for Slaves and Guides,” Joshua Hoge, a Quaker, lived at Atoka Farm, then called “Woodland.” Scheel writes that people had “little to do with the Hoges who went all the way to fellowship at the Goose Creek Friends Meeting,” which was a place of worship about 20 miles north. Goose Creek was a community settled in the 1750s by Quakers, who were opposed to slavery. After President Lincoln’s election in 1860, the community known as Goose Creek was renamed “Lincoln.” Today, the Village of Lincoln lies within the Goose Creek Historic District, which covers about 10,000 acres south of Hamilton and Purcellville.

Hitchen explained that when Paul Mellon owned Atoka Farm, he added the stone east portion of the house. The right section on the west side was added in the early 1900s. He said, “I remember coming here for parties in the 1980s and 1990s when Warner owned it.” Atoka Farm was often the gathering spot for Virginia Republicans and fundraising events when Warner ran for the Senate. Hitchen, also a fellow fox hunter with Piedmont from the early 1990s until 2002, was told that some of Warner’s horses are buried in the front yard. 

Horses and the open countryside attracted Paul Mellon to the Piedmont in 1937, and it brought Warner here, too. Horses and the rural landscape continue to draw people to this magical land called Middleburg. After all, it’s called Hunt Country for a reason.

VPHA is a nonprofit organization dedicated to their mission of teaching the comprehensive Heritage Area history and works diligently to keep communities involved with the Virginia Piedmont’s living museum. It’s comprised of 1,000-plus members and a board of volunteers. Membership and donations help ensure their ability to continue protecting the area’s landscape and its important history for future generations. For more information, visit VPHA at https://www.piedmontheritage.org/

This article first appeared in the December 2021 Issue.

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