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Boxwoods removed at Poplar Forest

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By John Barnhart

    Finding Thomas Jefferson’s driveway wasn’t what Poplar Forest archaeologists were looking for when they dug up the boxwoods in front of the building. They were actually looking for a bed of roses.

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     However, Jack Gary, Poplar Forest’s director of archaeology and landscapes, thinks he and his team of archaeologists may have discovered its original paved surface.
    Gary had the old boxwoods removed because they were not part of the original Jeffersonian landscape and his goal is to make the landscaping look like it would have when Jefferson was there. He knows that the boxwoods were planted by the Hutter family, which purchased the house some years after Jefferson’s death.
    “It’s always tough to remove historic vegetation,” Gary commented.
    Gary had mixed emotions about removing the boxwoods because they had been growing there for almost 160 years.
    He knows this for several reasons. He has read Hutter family letters from 1854 and 1855 which sound like the boxwoods had just been planted. His staff has also found that the boxwoods are planted in a layer of fill that consists of material from the mid-19th century. It contains a lot of plaster pulled from the house sometime after it burned in 1845. The Hutter family reconfigured both the house and the landscaping after this fire.
    “They went for a more fashionable landscape at the time,” Gary said.
    Boxwood mazes were in fashion at that time, so that’s what the Hutters planted.
    The fill is a foot deep and it appears that the Hutter family took debris from the house, dumped it in the middle of the home’s circular drive and planted the boxwoods in it. This allowed them to both find a good spot to dump the debris, close to the house, and upgrade the landscaping.
    An additional piece of evidence was a piece of pottery they found under the fill layer. It was from pottery made by an English firm between 1833 and 1846, long after Jefferson’s death.
    The boxwoods were not Jeffersonian and their root systems made it impossible for archaeologists to dig in the center of the circular drive.
    “All this is being done so we can restore it back to its Jeffersonian appearance,” Gary said.
    Gary has reason to believe that there was originally an oval bed of roses in the center of the drive. Documentation Jefferson left behind refers to oval rose beds, but only mentions generally where they were. His team has found some of them and they are easy to spot once the soil above them has been removed. They look like dark stains contrasting against the bright-red clay.
    “We can find remains of that rose bed,” he said.
    He hasn’t found his bed of roses yet, but he’s found some surprises. One is what he calls “linear feature.” Gary applies that name because he does not yet know what it is. It’s right below the fill layer and consists of dark material that is about three-fourths of a foot deep, three feet wide, 53-feet long and runs diagonally through the circle, which is 80 feet in diameter.
    The other surprise is what Gary believes was probably the drive’s original paving. It consists of very rough cobblestone paving made of local quartz and quartzite field stones and is 12-feet wide. In some places it lies directly over hard-packed red clay. In other places, where archaeologist have carefully removed cobbles to see what is under them, they’ve found the loamy soil of what may have been the plantation’s earliest plowed fields from the middle of the 18th century. The land was a tobacco plantation from 1760 onwards.
    The cobblestone paving is really rough, but the archaeologists have found that they had originally been packed with sand, creating a much smoother surface. Gary said this would have been far superior to the roads of the time which were rutted, and worse. He said carriages in the early 19th century were sometimes badly damaged by hitting stumps in the road.
    Gary believes it will take 18 months of work before they will be ready to restore the circle to its original appearance. Meanwhile they have been carefully documenting each boxwood. They started out by taking photos of the maze from the ground and from above, using a remote control helicopter “which has been a really neat tool,” Gary said.
    Now that the boxwoods have been cut down, surveyors’ laser transits to precisely mark the position on a grid of two-by-two foot squares. They settled on this grid because they know the boxwoods were originally planted two feet apart.
    “We’ve also rooted clippings from the boxwoods,” said Gary.
    These are being conserved at various places, including Monticello and Lynchburg’s Old City Cemetery.
    “The idea is, if we ever want to replant it as it is, we can do it,” Gary said.
    The rooted clippings mean they can replant it with the original boxwoods.
    Gary noted that the decision to remove these old boxwoods was a decision that was made with great care. Poplar Forest’s board of directors, landscape advisory panel and the Garden Club of Virginia signed off on the idea before the project began.