If you’re a fan of American history then Virginia is for you. From the Revolutionary War to the Civil War to the terrorists war on America, from the earliest pioneers to famous explorers to our country’s founding fathers, America’s story can be found in every town and region of Old Dominion.
This is the third time we have visited Virginia and we have barely scratched it’s surface. After leaving Luray we made an unscheduled 2 night stopover to Charlottesville. The reason was Thomas Jefferson’s beloved Monticello.
We had a perfect Autumn day for our outing. Blue skies, low 70’s, and plentiful sunshine. Good thing we got an early start because I believe half of Charlottesville had the same idea. Our first stop was the visitors center where we watched a short film on Monticello, Italian for “little mount” and picked up a map to give ourselves the lay of the land. The visitor center also has a model of the plantation, a cafe, shops, and an exhibition gallery which we toured prior to leaving. From here you can hike uphill for a half mile to the house and grounds, or you can do what we did and take the shuttle.
Since we had time to kill before our scheduled house tour began we decided to explore the north and south cellar passages first. The North Passage housed privies, storage, and the wine cellar with its ingenious dumb waiter. The dumb waiter was designed to securely hold several wine bottles, each in its own slot, that with a pulley system could be transported up to a hidden cabinet in the dining room’s fireplace. Once deplenished, the empty bottles could be returned back to the cellar using the same method. This enclosed passage way also allowed easy access to the ice house, stables, and carriage house. The South Passage likewise held privies, more storage, and the beer cellar. It gave access to the kitchen, cook’s room, smokehouse, dairy, and slave quarters.
We then met with our house tour guide at the bottom of the front portico’s walkway. House tours are given in small groups of about 20 or so. We were told no photography was permitted while inside the house and under no circumstances were we to touch anything. Our guide led us onto the front steps where another of Jefferson’s designs was pointed out to us, his weather vane whose wind direction could be determined without ever having to leave the shelter of the porch. An avid weather watcher, Jefferson recorded wind direction and velocity, humidity, and weather conditions twice a day, every day, for 40 years. Our guide informed us that 90% of Monticello’s structure was original and explained how the columns, stone facade, and bricks were made. Amazed, I reached out to stroke the stone facade to feel it’s texture for myself. I was quickly admonished for doing so. Needless to say I was more than a little embarrassed. I knew not to touch anything inside BUT I had no idea that extended to the outside as well.
Our tour included the parlor where Thomas Jefferson displayed artifacts from Lewis and Clark’s expedition of the Louisana territory, as well as a variety of horns and antlers from North American animals, and even bone fossils. Jefferson was a man of many interests. Another of Jefferson’s inovations is located in the parlor, that of the Great Clock which displays the time as well as the day of the week. It is so well designed that it has only been tweaked twice in 200 years and still keeps accurate time. Other rooms on the tour were the dining room, tea room, book room, guest bedroom, and Jefferson’s chamber and cabinet.
The book room was where Jefferson kept his library of 6,700 books. During the War of 1812, the British burned the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., along with the congressional library. Jefferson sold his book collection to the government which became the nucleus of the present day Library of Congress. Jefferson, not being able to live without his books, soon began to purchase more. He was a firm believer in an educated society being essential to democracy. This belief extended to his slaves who were educated if they so desired and to the founding of the University of Virginia.
Jefferson spent much of his time in the study connected to his bed chamber. Here, were many other innovations of his time, a polygraph machine, a copying machine, and the first Kindle type reader to name a few. The adjoining chamber is where Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after Congress approved the Declaration of Independence.
After our tour was complete we explored the plantation grounds beginning with the south lawn which is depicted on the back of the U.S. nickel, the gardens, and Mulberry Row. Mulberry Row derived it’s name from the mulberry trees planted along it. It was the center of plantation life. The homes of enslaved, free, and indentured workers and craftsmen were housed here alongside buildings such as the forge and the joinery. This is also where the Hemings cabin was located.
“John & Priscilla Hemings lived a cabin similar to-or even better than-the dwellings of many poorer free whites. Yet the material comfort suggested here did not lessen the enslavement of the Hemingses. All enslaved people, as property, endured the constant threat of sale & separation from their families subject to the needs & wishes of their owners, a reality that no poor free person had to endure. Physical violence & force were the hallmarks of bondage but the threat of separation to enslaved families was an equally powerful & devastating aspect of the American slave system.”
(Like many enslaved people, Jefferson’s slaves were consumers in plantation based & local economies. To earn money, they raised poultry & sold eggs to Jefferson’s family. Jefferson rewarded the best workers as an incentive to increase their productivity. The slaves, with their earnings, purchased goods from Charlottesville to enhance the comfort of their home.)
( Spirituality helped sustain the lives of the enslaved people. The slaves at Monticello were allowed to worship without interference. Later in the 19th century, increasingly repressive laws prohibited slave assemblies in Albemarle County, including worship services.)
( The reason I’ve gone into detail about the enslaved at Monticello, particularly the Hemings family is because of Sally Hemings, 1773-1835, an enslaved lady’s maid. DNA test results in 1998 indicated a genetic link between the Jefferson & Hemings families. Based on existing scientific, documentary, & statistical evidence & oral history, Monticello & most historians believe that years after his wife’s death, Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings’ children, Beverly, Harriet, Madison, & Eston.)
Taking advantage of the day, not to mention we’d be going downhill, we opted to walk back down to the visitors center stopping at the Jefferson family plot on our way. President Jefferson too is buried here in a site chosen by him in 1773. Although Monticello is deeded to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the cemetery is owned by an association of Jefferson’s descendants and is still used as a burying ground to date.The epitaph he wrote for his tombstone reads: “Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.’
Monticello additionally offers 4 other tours, the Gardens and Grounds tour, Slavery at Monticello tour, Hemings Family tour, and a Behind the Scenes House tour. I would’ve loved to have taken all of them but not wanting to leave Beau caged for too long, we just did the one.
Monticello is a continuing work in progress. Ever changing as new facts come into focus. During our visit there was restoration work being down at the stone stable house, the north promenade, and at the joinery chimney.
On our final full day in Charlottesville we woke up early to get fresh potato flour doughnuts from Spudnuts since we’d heard that they often run out of doughnuts by about 10 am. A decades old coffee shop in the old part of town recommended by fellow blogger and most of the time RVer Sherry. We bought an assortment, enough for 2 days breakfasts. We agree, they were all delicious but our favorites were the pumpkin and the coconut.
For dinner we dined at the historic Michie Tavern (pronounced Mickey, like the mouse), circa 1784. The 18th century inn offers traditional Southern-style fare of the time period. The servers wore period attire as well. Afterwards we took a self guided tour of the inn and grounds. A very unique and interesting place.
“Necessary” or “Necessary Houses” & “Privy” are a few of the 18th century terms used to describe an outhouse. Old newspapers would often describe plantations for sale where the owner noted how many “Secrets”-another name for the outhouse-were on his land. Many privies were located near or concealed by the garden. By this photo I assume after sharing your bed with a stranger for the night, one felt no compulsion against sharing the toidy room as well.
Now, a little about the campground we stayed in. The Charlottesville KOA was typical of what we find at the majority of the KOA’s we’ve been in. It was rustic, old, in need of upkeep, and highly overpriced. Our voltage was fine but the Verizon signal, the park’s free wifi, and the water pressure were all poor, as was the site quality. Grass was hard to come by much to the chagrin of all the dog parents in the campground. The website states there is a fenced doggy play yard and indeed there is however it was unkempt and had numerous large toadstools growing in it. None of the dog parents we met utilized it. As far as location goes, it’s perfect. Just far enough out of town to be away from the hustle and bustle yet convienent to all of the historic attractions. It’s also the best of 3 camping options for sightseeing in Charlottesville.
Until next time, here’s lookin’ at you kid…….