Piecing together the past

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Poplar Forest opens today, remembering Jefferson’s return to the retreat 200 years ago

By John Barnhart

ne of Bedford County’s premier historic jewels, Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, opens for a new season today. Governor Tim Kaine will be on hand for this year’s event.


    Long before he became our third president, Thomas Jefferson became governor of Virginia, serving as its first governor after the Old Dominion joined 12 other colonies in declaring their independence from Great Britain. The state house where Virginia’s General Assembly still meets today was designed by Jefferson.

    This year marks the 200th anniversary of Jefferson’s arrival at Poplar Forest after leaving the White House at the end of his second term as president. Jefferson originally went to Monticello, near Charlottesville, then settled in at Poplar Forest.

    The unique house was still a work in progress when Jefferson first moved in, according to Travis McDonald, Poplar Forest’s director of architectural restoration. McDonald said Monticello was overrun with visitors and Jefferson wanted peace and quiet.

    “Jefferson kept this a secret,” McDonald said, noting that Jefferson, in his letters, referred to the house without revealing its location. He entertained very few visitors there.

    The house is an octagon with stair wells on each end giving access between the main floor and the lower level. The center of the main section is the dining room, a perfect 20 by 20 by 20 foot cube with a skylight. All other rooms, including Jefferson’s bedroom, connect directly to it.

    The eight-sided design allows for lots of windows, filling every room with light. One room, referred to as the parlor, has multiple wide windows going from the floor nearly to the ceiling. McDonald said that he believes this is where Jefferson had his library and did his reading.

    The restoration is still a work in progress, just as the house was in 1809. McDonald said Jefferson moved into basically a shell of a house. Restoration has been a slow process and McDonald described the early stages as something like vertical archaeology. Workers slowly and carefully removed everything added after Jefferson’s death on July 4, 1826. Taking the walls down   to the original interior brickwork also meant that they were able to discover what color most of the rooms were originally painted.

    Actually, they weren’t painted. McDonald said that the lime plaster used had to cure for a couple of years before it could be painted over with oil based paint. However, you could apply a colored lime wash over the plaster in a matter of weeks. That’s what Jefferson did, creating pastel colors, and they’ve been able to recover fragments of plaster with that original lime wash and analyze the pigments.

    Not everything inside will be totally restored. A couple of rooms will be left with the brickwork exposed. In other places they left restoration work in a partially completed stage. This is because they did the work just as it would originally have been done. The partially completed restorations lets visitors see these details that would otherwise be covered.

    Work on Jefferson’s wing of “offices” has been completed and this structure will be open. These  “offices” consisted of a storage room, a kitchen, a laundry and a smokehouse. The roof is a deck that Jefferson could walk out on directly from the house. A house with a deck was unique back then, making Jefferson a good 150 years ahead of his time on that feature. He designed it with a system that allowed a flat roof to drain and Poplar Forest workers have duplicated it with an exception. They’ve added a modern membrane as Jefferson never solved a little problem — the gutter system kept rotting.

    They’ve also added a rail around the deck, necessary to comply with modern safety codes. This is a modern stainless steel rail. They chose this route, rather than make something Jeffersonian appearing, because the original had no rail.

    The kitchen, along with the hearth common in all houses at the time, had a number of special features. It had a brick oven for baking and “set kettle,” a system that provided a continuous supply of hot water. It also had a stew stove, something that Jefferson had seen in France. It had three separate grates; hot coals would be placed on them. Cooking would be done over these, making heat control easier. It also required a cook trained to use it.

    Some later owners, 30 years after Jefferson’s death, tore this all out and built a conventional mid-19th century detached kitchen house. Jefferson’s kitchen was very innovative for the time and they may not have understood it.

    In overseeing the restoration work, McDonald has a lot of help. The basic construction was underway while Jefferson was in the White House and he had to oversee the work without actually being there. As a result, there is a great deal of correspondence between Jefferson and the workmen doing the work.  There is also a good deal of correspondence between Jefferson and some of his slaves. This was at a time when it was illegal to teach a slave to read or write, but Jefferson apparently made provisions for that anyway.

    All the fine interior work was done by a slave named Jim Hemmings. Hemmings had a slave work crew working for him and travelled between Monticello and Poplar Forest with or without Jefferson. He was one of the slaves who wrote regularly to Jefferson to appraise him of the progress.

    The slaves who worked on building the house and doing the landscaping were paid for this work.

    Jefferson heated the place with 15 fireplaces and cooled it with open windows. McDonald said that they’ve changed that a bit, but you won’t notice this modern touch. That was deliberate. All heating and cooling is carefully placed out of sight. Heat is provided by a hot water system under the floor. It radiates heat through the thick floorboards creating a layer of warm air that goes from the bottom up. McDonald said that this radiant heat system makes a place feel warmer at a lower temperature than a forced air system.

    In the summer, the place is cooled via Jeffersonian methods as much as possible. When Central Virginia’s hot, humid summers get too much for 21st century folks, they can resort to several cooling systems. All actual equipment is located away from the house and the cool air enters the house through the two stair wells at either end of the building.

    Once the house gets to a particular temperature, it tends to retain it due to its thick brick walls. McDonald said that they are 16 inches think at the bottom and 12 inches thick at the top. It took 250,000 dark red bricks to build the house. They were made from Bedford County clay and the kiln where they were fired is not far from the house.

    Poplar Forest is an ongoing archaeological dig. Jack Gary, director of archaeology, said that the first focus was the house. An early phase located the foundations of the “office” wing.

    The second focus is the landscape with the goal of making it look like it did in Jefferson’s time. The house sits in a wide circle bordered by a circular road. The house sits in the center with a line formed by the “office” wing on one end; mulberry trees on the other form a line that bisects the circle. The line terminates, on each end, with a mound and a red brick privy.

    “The privies are an architectural statement,” said Gray.

    Jefferson, by the way, did not like outhouses. He got spoiled by the flush toilets he found in Paris while serving as the American ambassador there. Those, unfortunately, weren’t possible in Bedford County 200 years ago.

    The north half of the circle was left natural. Jefferson left a number of mature poplars in place, and some of them are still there. If you stand on the house’s front porch, you can see three large, gnarled poplars that were already 30 years old when Jefferson moved in.

    The south side had plantings geometrically arranged. Archaeologists have located three oval flower beds and the spots where clumps of ornamental trees were planted at the corners. Gray said they have letters from Jefferson instructing his slaves to plant the ornamental trees at the house’s corners. This information presented the archaeologists with a dilemma. How do you locate the corners of an octagonal house? They managed to do it.

    Archaeologists did this by carefully digging, stripping the soil away layer by layer until they found the planting holes. These appear as stains, the soil in these holes is a different color from the surrounding soil. They can also take soil samples and send them to a lab which can identify plant species by pollen grains in the soil samples.

    They also believe they’ve found the nursery site where Jefferson’s landscape plants were grown. They’ve found remains of a good deal of household rubbish and they know that a gardening practice of the time called for this to be dumped to amend heavy clay soil. They’ve also found fragments of pottery in planting holes that correlate with what they find in the nursery. In one case, a pottery fragment from a planting hole fit with others from the nursery to form a side of one pot.

    Archaeology is also shedding light on the approximately 100 slaves that worked the plantation. They’ve located some of the pre-1812 slave quarters and found bones from cattle, pigs and sheep – from rations they were supplied. They have also found bones of game animals and they know the slaves raised chickens and had gardens and fruit trees.

    The cabins are long gone. To give an idea of them, archaeologists have erected what Gray called a “ghost structure.” The cabin housed two families and each family space was about the size of a small bedroom. There would have been an in-ground storage pit under each family space, and a loft, providing an additional sleeping area overhead. Gray said that small, free farmers in the area would have lived in houses that weren’t much larger.

    Archaeologists have also found silver Spanish coins. Three of these have holes in them and they know, from oral histories collected in the 1930s, that the slaves would string these coins and put them on children as ornaments. A silver coin on a string would also be used as a teething object for babies, and archaeologists have found one with indentations that a lab identified as being the imprint of small, human teeth.

    Poplar Forest is open from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. every day except for Tuesdays. The open season runs from April 1 through the end of November. Group tours for groups of 20 or more are available by appointment. Poplar Forest’s main entrance is on Bateman Bridge Road, which branches off Va. 811 (Thomas Jefferson Road). For more information, go to www.poplarforest.org.