It was Autumn, and here in Virginia, the leaves were just turning fiery red and burnt orange, and the newspaper had headlines advertising apple butter and a pancake jamboree (with real maple syrup). Eager to see a true Fall, Jeff and I jumped in the car and headed to one of the biggest college towns in the state: Charlottesville.
But contrary to the other hundreds of cars clogging up the small roads, we were not there for the home football game nor the Kelly Clarkson concert. We were there to do what we do best: explore. We parked the car right next to a small farmer’s market closing up for the day and wandered through the small town quad where there are tons of little boutique shops and restaurants. While we did love roaming in and out of several of those storefronts from the second-hand bookshop to the caramel apple stand, but we were eager to learn more about the small town.
Four miles from downtown Charlottesville is the famed Monticello Estate formerly owned by President Thomas Jefferson. We pre-bought our tickets for a tour of the house for a nice discount (highly recommend), but they were for a certain time slot. It seems as though the house is such a popular destination that pre-booking is almost a requirement to make sure you see the estate when you want to.
But we arrived very early so we could have ample time to explore the grounds before our tour. As soon as you grab your tickets, you’re met with a gorgeous courtyard and theatre room to watch a brief video about Thomas Jefferson and what Monticello represents in today’s America. While short, it did give us a better understanding of the mansion and what Jefferson was hoping to achieve.
“It is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state.” — Jefferson to Madison, Oct. 28, 1785
There is a small tour bus that can help those with difficulties walking to the house, since it’s a good half mile walk through a beautiful, although, rocky trail. The forest was just gorgeous, and we took our time studying the massive trees that reached the sky. And then, the trees parted, and we were standing at a small cemetery that held the Jefferson family, including the man himself. He had a massive monument resembling the Washington monument with his parents beside him.
A little further from the cemetery, up a small hill, you finally begin to see it: Monticello. It took Jefferson 40 years to finish this masterpiece, and while at first I thought this was excessive, later I came to understand that Jefferson merely wanted to somehow match the perfection of his surrounding land.
We walked through a gorgeous trellis covered in bean vines and walked directly into his garden, still maintained by the Monticello staff. His small vineyard sits a level lower and overlooks the extraordinary Shenandoah Valley.
When Jefferson was 26 years old, he inherited this massive tract from his father who was a famous surveyor. It started out at 5,000 acres, and he immediately went to work creating a massive farm using mostly slave labor, but it was the house that was his main treasure. Inspired by his Italian travels, he had the home completely retooled and redesigned to have a dome and columns which has become known as the Jeffersonian style.
We continued our way down Mulberry Row where the small farm sits still growing a plethora of fruits and veggies and found ourselves at the slave quarters, reconstructed and recreated with monuments and placards detailing life for those who worked the land. While there are many, many stories of Jefferson and Sally Hemings, I will let history tell those tales and leave this entry to the land.
With a few minutes still to kill before our tour, we look a quick lap around the front of the house to see the gardens and small fish pond. It couldn’t have been a more perfect day for enjoying the gorgeous grounds, and we soaked up as much vitamin D as we could before venturing inside the historic home.
We were first ushered to the front doors which held the original glass from eons ago. The slight warbling in the glass shows the handmade quality, which became the tell-tale sign of the modern improvements. Our tour guide was absolutely lovely in answering all of our questions and giving us an incredible look into the house, and once we walked in, we continued to be floored.
In the far corner, near the front door, Jefferson had rigged a contraption to tell the day of the week using cannon balls and an intricate pulley system. But his calculations were a little off, so he did have to cut into the floor and have Saturday in the basement, which we did find later when the tour concluded. But the other thing that caught my eye in the front foyer in between all of the Native American art and artifacts was a pair of massive antlers.
Unfortunately, no photos were allowed inside the home, so you will have to see this marvel with your own eyes, but these antlers are the last surviving memento from the Lewis and Clark adventure. It was truly astounding to see.
We weaved through the house from the front room to his library, where over 1000 books are housed behind glass, to a bright yellow dining room with a dumbwaiter that specifically for wine bottle transport. It was a lovely house with some incredible stories and history buried in the walls. One story was of Jack Jouett’s ride.
One June 3, 1781, Jouett raced through 40 miles of dense forest and tough terrain on horseback to warn then Governor Jefferson that the British were coming for his arrest. Jefferson picked up and ran to his Poplar Forest estate and successfully evaded the British.
A song was even composed for the heroic event.
Jack Jouett’s Ride
(From Charlottesville Daily Press, 1909)
Hearken good people: awhile abide
And hear of stout Jack Jouett’s ride;
How he rushed his steed, nor stopped nor stayed
Till he warned the people of Tarleton’s raid.
The moment his warning note was rehearsed
The State Assembly was quickly dispersed.
In their haste to escape, they did not stop
Until they had crossed the mountain top.
And upon the other side come down.
To resume their sessions in Staunton Town.
His parting steed he spurred,
In haste to carry the warning
To that greatest statesman of any age,
The Immortal Monticello Sage.
Here goes to thee, Jack Jouett!
Lord keep thy memory green;
You made the greatest ride, sir,
That ever yet was seen.
We did walk through the wine cellar on the way out of the estate vowing to learn more about the man and legend. Speaking of, he was one of the first to start grape growing thanks to his Italian friends and obsession. Today, Monticello is immortalized on the U.S. nickle and you can see the influence of his architecture on countless buildings including the University of Virginia.
On our way out of Charlottesville, we stopped by Carter Mountain Orchard, and I am here to tell you that if you’re in the area, this place is an absolute must. In the fall, it’s all about apple picking, but there are other times of year they are open for cherries, peaches, nectarines, and pumpkins.
We got there just before sunset and ventured straight to the Fuji fields up a steep hill so we could get the best vantage point over the grounds. After an hour of roaming in the orchard through several rows of full trees, we left with $10 worth of apples and two cups of steaming hot apple cider.
While our time there was brief because of the setting sun, it was one of my highlights of last year, and I so look forward to going back in the summer. And when we do go back, we have a lot more history to take in like the home of James Monroe, Jefferson’s close friend and ally.
But before then, there was another president’s home we wandered through, so stay tuned next week for Mount Vernon.