A friend’s wedding called me to Central Virginia over the weekend. Not only was it a chance to grab one-too-many with some old college friends, it also presented the opportunity for a a short, three hour drive from my home.
But about 30 minutes in, everything stopped. My heart dropped. My jaw fell open. I realized I’d committed the greatest mistake a graduate of a small, southern, liberal arts college with a conservative heritage could make…I forgot my tie.
About an hour later, and a bit calmer thanks to the realization that there are plenty of Wal*Marts in rural Virginia, I spotted a sign for Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest. Never one to pass up an opportunity to see something related to my favorite Founder, I quickly adjusted my GPS and headed that way.
Jefferson inherited Poplar Forest after Martha Jefferson’s father passed away just one year after they were married (Thomas and Martha got married, not Martha and her father). Little did Jefferson know at the time, but Poplar Forest would become his primary source of income throughout most of his life. That income, however, wasn’t enough to sustain his extravagant lifestyle. He died in tremendous debt.
The house was built between 1806 and Jefferson’s death on July 4, 1826. It was America’s first octagonal house, which is cooler than it sounds because there are no dark corners (at least that’s what our guide said).
The house is worth several visits because they are in the middle of restoring it. It completely burned after Jefferson died, but the entire brick structure survived. It passed among a couple of private owners who put their own touches on the house. It was finally acquired by a nonprofit in 1983. They’ve been reconstructing it ever since.
I was most impressed with the privies. That’s the 19th Century’s Politically Correct name for toilets. There were two (not to mention TJ’s private, in-house bedpan). Each outhouse is about 110 feet from the house in opposite directions. I didn’t get to ask whether one was a woman’s and one was a man’s. There’s another reason to go back.
In all, I was impressed by Poplar Forest. It’s worth a visit next time you find yourself in Central Va. I’ve been to Monticello dozens of times, but this was my first visit to Jefferson’s private retreat. And that was a shame.
One of the things everyone was in a tizzy about at Poplar Forest was the fast-encroaching development. And they were right. Unlike a lot of historic properties, the Game of Life was being played in suburbs only a chip shot away from the house. But I didn’t complain because there was also a Kohls, which had an appropriately gaudy tie for my friend’s wedding…