Thomas Jefferson, governor of Virginia, founder of the University of Virginia, author of our Declaration of Independence, and third president of the U.S., was born in Shadwell, Va., 270 years ago April 13.
Jefferson is closely associated with Monticello, his long-time Virginia home near Charlottesville that he designed, built, and continually altered over a period of four decades after moving into the home in 1770. The Charlottesville home, owned by a non-profit foundation since 1923, is a popular stop for travelers and welcomes just under a half-million visitors each year.
Less well known is another Virginia home of Thomas Jefferson, Poplar Forest. Located near Lynchburg, 80 miles southwest of Charlottesville, Poplar Forest became Jefferson’s “retreat” where he could relax, read books, and enjoy time with his family and friends. These had become ever rarer luxuries in Washington where he was continually occupied with issues related to the nation’s public affairs.
The house at Poplar Forest was constructed on a 4,800-acre plantation that Jefferson’s wife, Martha, inherited from her father in 1773. Jefferson served as Poplar Forest’s absentee plantation manager during his working years as a lawyer and public servant, and it was not until three years prior to the end of his presidency in 1809 that he traveled here to supervise the laying of the foundation for what was to become his retreat. His wife, Martha, had passed away in 1782 after 10 years of marriage. Following his years as president, Jefferson traveled to Poplar Forest three to four times each year for stays that would last for up to two months.
During his final trip to Poplar Forest in 1823, three years prior to his death, Jefferson turned the plantation and home over to grandson, Francis Eppes, who five years later sold it to a neighbor before moving to Florida. The house would subsequently suffer fire damage, pass through several owners, and go through major alterations before being acquired in 1983 by the Corporation for Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, a nonprofit with the goal of restoring and preserving the home and grounds.
AN UNUSUAL RETREAT
It is not surprising that the design of Jefferson’s retreat is unusual and quite interesting. The exterior is an equal-sided octagon with an interior divided into four equal-sided rooms surrounding a two-story central square with light provided by a large skylight. Two octagonal brick privies are some distance away, on each side of the home. The design was typical symmetrical Jeffersonian, but created headaches for subsequent owners who modified it.
In addition to designing and helping oversee construction of the home, Jefferson spent considerable effort planning and fiddling with the landscape. The retreat included a 61-acre fenced area for support buildings and grounds, the latter of which included orchards, kitchen gardens, shrubs, a tree nursery, and at least 14 species of trees. A road encircling the home was lined with paper mulberry trees. Jefferson gathered ideas for the home and landscape designs from his experience at Monticello and European and American homes and gardens he had visited and read about.
Interior work on the house and archeological work on the grounds at Poplar Forest are ongoing. Employees, students, and volunteers continue to search for evidence of Jefferson’s initial landscape along with later changes. They are interested in the locations of fence posts, roads, building foundations, and vegetation.
VISITING POPLAR FOREST
Poplar Forest is located in central Virginia, approximately 10 miles southwest of Lynchburg via U.S. Highway 221 and State Highway 661.
Guided tours are offered from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. from mid-March through mid-December (except Thanksgiving). A number of special programs are offered throughout the season. Admission is $14 for adults, $12 for seniors, $6 for youth age 12 through 18, and $2 for children age 6 through 11. AAA discounts are available.
Special events are offered throughout the year. On April 13, Jefferson’s birthday, Poplar Forest hosted the inaugural Thomas Jefferson Craft Beer Tasting. Jefferson considered beer to be one of his household “necessaries.” Two weeks later, on April 27, afternoon and evening programs will feature “Conversations with Thomas Jefferson and Benedict Arnold.” For additional information visit the organization’s website at www.poplarforest.org
David and Kay Scott reside in Valdosta, Georgia, and are authors of Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges (Globe Pequot).