poplar forest

This is the main house at Poplar Forest, which is located near Lynchburg, Virginia, in Bedford County. It’s about 90 miles from Monticello, which was the main and most famous residence of its owner, Thomas Jefferson. Though you can’t see it too well in this photo (which is from Google Earth), the architecture of this mansion is very evocative of the Jeffersonian style: octagonal building with a dome, Greek Revival style, with a very “country gentleman” feel to it.

Though nearly everyone has heard of Monticello, Poplar Forest is much less well-known. Jefferson wanted it that way. Toward the end of his presidency, Jefferson anticipated that when he eventually retired, he would have to entertain guests at Monticello; that was customary in those days, and in any event the precedent had been set by the first President, George Washington, who threw the doors of Mt. Vernon open to all comers. If you could get there, you could literally walk up to Mt. Vernon off the street and be given a guest room and stay for as long as you like. (Mt. Vernon’s renowned hospitality is the subject of my short story “The Stranger of Mt. Vernon,” published in the President in the Bathroom collection). This happened at Monticello too. Jefferson knew he’d need a retreat far from the public eye, so he began building Poplar Forest on land he inherited from his father-in-law. After he left Washington in 1809 he spent much time here. Sally Hemings, his slave concubine, also lived here with her children by Jefferson; it is thought that they were kept here to keep them out of the public eye and avoid scandal, as Hemings’s children highly resembled their father.

Poplar Forest has been on my mind this week because I’ve been working on my dissertation, Ten Years of Winter, and one of the major sources for it is Jefferson’s weather book, which contains numerous notations on weather conditions taken here. It was a lovely retreat, but of course it had the stain upon it of having been built and staffed by slaves. I like to think of Jefferson enjoying a glass of wine from his cellars here. Though it passed out of the Jefferson family in 1828, the house eventually came into the ownership of a private foundation dedicated to preserving it. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.