American Sabbatical 109: 5/11/97


5/11.. Monticello to Harper’s Ferry.

Monticello for breakfast. Will it be to our taste? Jefferson is a hero to many of our friends and acquaintances. When asked what historic site they most wanted to see, or recommend, Monticello was often the answer. This is the iconic site, because of an iconic man.

Even early on a Sunday the lots are jammed and the bus cues forming. It’s an $18 nick for two, which gives you a $2 bill back out of $20. A Jefferson $2 bill. Cute.

Peggy does the tours, as usual. I play with my paintbox on the sunny main lawn. Maybe I’m jaded from all this historicizing, or roadburned.. Jefferson just doesn’t enthrall me. He used to be my hero. Champion of the common man. The eclectic genius with a golden quill, who envisioned an American pastoral for everyman. That blushing portrait has faded with the years, for me. Rereading Dumas Malone this year made him seem insufferable.. or was that Malone? I felt more comfortable going overhill with Boone than being master on this mountain top. I wondered if being on the ground at Monticello would rejuvenate the Jefferson myth for me.


Bryce's Monticello

It didn’t. If anything, it confirmed my distrust of good master Tom. Monticello felt a bit like the work of a back-to-the-lander with a million dollar trust fund. The agricultural experiments and accomplishments are not to sneer at. Even the most avid organic gardeners we know would have to do homage to Jefferson’s gardens. Likewise the architectural innovations, expressions, and delights, are remarkable. But Monticello feels like an owner-built you can’t resell. It's a monument to Jefferson’s creativity, a work of art perhaps. It isn’t a house anyone could live in. Too many cramped rooms, and a manse unworkable without slave labor.

That’s the kicker. Is it unfair to judge by anachronistic standards? Jefferson was a planter by birth and rearing. At least he SAID “all men are created equal.” Why do I balk at an estate that couldn’t function without slave labor (or a Parks Department budget)? I can’t escape the image of him waving his hand and having them lop off four feet from the top of this mountain. Or having children make nails to sell for petty cash. It just doesn’t feel like a shrine to everyman. It has an aroma of American Noblesse. We can’t quite escape it, can we. Our media Princes. Our People Magazine mentality. Did Tom shtup the brown nanny? See the next installment.

View from Monticello
Mount Vernon didn’t give me that message, which is a puzzle. George’s digs felt like a home, even though his ghost has been trampled out by the herds. Tom’s aerie is a showplace which still impresses visitors. You have to ascend a lofty height to view it, and you are supposed to be a little breathless. Gee. I am awful two-faced. I loved Graceland, and didn’t get a Jeff back from that 20.

Maybe Jefferson was the model for the American Idealist. The man with the grand vision trapped in contemporary limitations. The fact he died bankrupt and Monticello had to be sold certainly suggests that his head was in the clouds up here on the mountain. Perhaps we honor him as a fellow dreamer.

(Memo #106)


May 11 Monticello

Who? Thomas Jefferson

What? his beloved 5000 acre plantation home

When? inherited at 14, died there in 1826

Where? outside Charlottesville on a mountain top in western Virginia

How? constant renovation, addition, improvement

Topics: plantation life, Thomas Jefferson, inventions, agricultural, plantation economy, cottage industries

Questions: How does Monticello illuminate Thomas Jefferson’s character and interests?

Peggy at Tom's

There are many different types of place recognition as we travel. We have visited places we’ve only read about, comparing the visual reality to our mental image gained from text. Are the words of the early descriptions borne out by what our eyes see? A second type of recognition comes when we’ve seen illustrations or paintings of a place. Did an artist capture the light and vegetation and lay of the land? Moran expertly caught the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, I thought. A third type of recognition was waiting at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s beloved estate outside Charlottesville. I have seen illustrations and photographs and films of the house. I should “recognize” many views and rooms and specific artifacts (the inventions he created). But my knowledge was still piecemeal. The tour would give me the whole context, how the rooms relate to each other, how the house lies on the land, what Jefferson saw from his windows.

I knew it was called a “mountain”, but figured it for a foothill with gentle incline. I was wrong. It is high and steep, though the car road gently ascends in loops. Jefferson had two roads up to the heights, one more fast and steep for the visitors in a hurry, one more gradual for carriages (and modern cars). There are grand views from his summit, the eastern plain fades off to a haze, the mountains rise in the west, Charlottesville lies below (Jefferson could watch progress on the university he designed through a spyglass). He actually had his slave laborers cut about four and half feet off the top of the mountain, “shaved” it and left it level and bare. He complained that he had to walk a few hundred yards to a clump of trees to escape the summer sun outside. The gorgeous trees that overhang and shade the main house at Monticello today were not part of his experiences (they include three of the many trees he planted, however).

Monticello is not “set” in one year; the guides constantly explain additions and changes that Jefferson made at different times. For example, the original building was one-storied, he added a second story, expanding it from 8 to 21 rooms.Sixty-five percent of the furnishing at Monticello belonged to Thomas Jefferson, many other things are exact replicas (the books in the library are the same titles and editions as the ones he owned). The researchers have used letters and journals and books and paintings by Jefferson himself, his family, and visitors (also archaeology on the site) to gain knowledge about every aspect of Monticello. The house used to have cut flower arrangements from the gardens (which have been restored to the form he knew, as much as possible). It turns out, however, that large indoor floral arrangements in vases were not the mode of his day, so they have disappeared from the mansion. It made me think again that historic houses, even the best, represent our reconstruction of the reality. We can never really reproduce what Jefferson knew and saw and planned. Not only do we experience a place with all the sense knowledge of our age, but the place itself has aged (brick LOOKS different after two hundred years!). The garden guide noted that the lawn Jefferson knew would not have been as neat as the one tourists see since today we use a lawn mower that gives an even four inch cut while Jefferson’s lawn was cut by scythes and sickles which give a ragged appearance.

The rooms at Monticello were smaller than I expected, often reached by narrow hallways. Because Jefferson loved the octagon and used this shape, there are some odd nooks and crannies! The library is a double room (about fifteen by thirty) and the dining room is a room with a dining nook off it. Jefferson’s personal distaste for stairways (“They are a waste of space, drafty, expensive!”) meant that Monticello is missing the grand rise and sweeping bannisters in a central hall that are in Virginia plantations houses (his 24 inch “wide” stair is tucked away to one side). He does have a large entrance hall which served as his personal museum and as a ballroom (there is a musician’s balcony).

Monticello has endless details that show Jefferson’s interests and skills. It is a very personalized house full of art. There are busts and paintings of people he admires (from Columbus to Lafayette and John Paul Jones and other “American worthies”). He had 48 paintings in one room! His passion for music shows in his violins, pianoforte, and harpsichord. His interests in natural sciences is evident everywhere inside and out. There are mementos from friends and colleagues (artifacts Lewis and Clark brought back, mastodon bones excavated nearby), items from his own travels (he brought 87 crates back from France!). The museum has a number of maps hanging (from his collection of 350 atlases / globes / maps). The library housed his 6700 books until he donated them to reestablish the Library of Congress after it burned in the War of 1812.

Some of the innovations and inventions in the house are well known (the dumbwaiter, the bed “between” two rooms, the polygraph contraption of two linked pens that made copies of whatever he wrote). Many were delightful surprises, like the mechanical door, the weekly clock, the three “stage” floor length window that can be opened up completely to use as a door, the stand that held five books open on a revolving structure. ALL beds were built into walls to save space. His bedroom was two storied and the space above his bed is his closet (reached by a ladder!) and provided with three round portholes in the wall over the bed so the clothes would be aired!

Jefferson studied architecture. The house is full of careful details in wood, plaster, iron. He incorporated every kind of column into the house (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian). Each room is finished with carved woodwork, wall paper or bright paint (the dining room has an odd skull- cow- and flower plaster frieze symbolizing life and death). The dining room fireplace has inlaid delft tiles. Jefferson was the designer and he hired master craftsmen to live at Monticello. Often the Master would train slaves who would carry on the specialty after he left (slaves John Hemings, joiner; Isaac Jefferson, blacksmith). He even had a slave trained in France to cook the French cuisine he loved.

Jefferson wanted to decrease visual clutter so the “dependencies” (a plantation’s many outbuildings) are below the level of the house. They are under two great wooden terrace-walkways that reach out from either side of the house and edge the great lawn and flower gardens. Food had to be brought from a separate kitchen (typical of the time), but Jefferson’s was reached through a tunnel and up a stair!!!! The cook lived next to the kitchen.

Garden with a View

Archaeology is providing information on parts of Monticello that have not been well described before, especially the slaves’ lives and dependencies. There is a superb tour and brochure on Mulberry Row (the thousand foot lane a short distance from the house that had seventeen different buildings at one time). Jefferson owned over 200 slaves. Forty to sixty were usually in residence at Monticello.

More Gardens
One aspect of Monticello that is being illuminated is the small industries Jefferson started to bring in additional income. For example, he had nail production going in the blacksmith shop. Nail rod shipped in from Philadelphia was used to create seven types of nails (5-10,000 a DAY!). In the first year it made him $2,000. The workers were young male slaves, ten (!) to sixteen years old. He also had all the small production required to house, feed, and clothe a plantation population - a dozen female slaves worked spinning jennies, looms, and a carding machine to process wool and hemp produced at Monticello and cotton bought baled.

Jefferson’s plans led to thousands of new trees, terraced gardens, four walkways around the mountain. He ordered seeds and trees yearly from around the world (700 species sent by the Director of the Jardin de Plantes in Paris). He said late in his life, “I am an old man, but a young gardener.” The extensive and beautifully restored gardens show his passion. There are many small details that show his inventiveness, such as the clay pot covers he used to keep kale growing year-round. There is a wonderful tour of the twenty oval flower gardens around the house and great lawn, the roundabout garden, the orchard, the seed garden, the fish pond (where river fish were kept alive for the table!), the hops spot, and the two acre vegetable garden on a long shelf on the south side of the mountain (now producing gorgeous veggies for a local food bank). There is a garden shop where visitors can buy plants, books and seeds offered by the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants.

The scale and site of Jefferson’s creation made me remember William Randolph Hearst's San Simeon! Both men build mansions on mountaintops, both used huge numbers of men and huge amounts of materials to create their personal worlds. Jefferson’s labor was mainly slaves. He trained many slaves in specialized professions but did not believe they could succeed as freemen and he freed few slaves. Both Hearst and Jefferson went through their fortunes to create their dreams. Hearst had to sell many of his antiques to fund the enterprise. Jefferson left Monticello $100,000 in debt. The estate was sold at auction a few years after his death and it took his grandson until after the Civil War to pay off his grandfather’s debts!

Tom's Shade

Monticello is a beautiful spot shaped in one man’s image. How very empty it must have seemed when the great man died!

5/11.. cont.

Onward, was the Owlcry in the noontime lot. But which way? Back up onto the ridgecrest, which entailed an hour sidetrack and a slow road? Or onto the highway and into BosWash? The visitors at Monticello had been every shade of cosmopolitan except black (!), and the exotic perfumes and accents were as dislocating here, among the Spring flowers, as they had been at Muir Woods after a week in the scent of the redwoods. We weren’t quite ready for urban reentry, we decided.

But we had been more revved than we realized. When we struck the high road again, we discovered that here the Skyline Drive is a fee paying park ($10), and the speed limit is 35 MPH. The grand processional pace of park worship. And maddeningly slow for Owl riders. We’d been happily cruising the Blue Ridge at 45, which suited the road, kept us alert, and allowed us to gawk without risk. So I slalomed the the skyline.. for about 5 miles.. until a trooper spun round in the road and busted me. Can you believe it? We’ve traveled the US at a slow crawl, and now get pulled over for doing 49? The young buck let me off with a warning, but I chafed at the pace for the next two hours. Road rage in the mountains.

Spring is less advanced on the Skyline. We are farther north, maybe a smidge higher. The wildflowers don’t seem as rampant, and there are some undeniable acres of standing deadwood. Is this acid rain at work on the tops? It’s as grand as the Blue Ridge up here, looking west into the Shenandoah and at the Appalachian Massifs beyond. Eastward the land is flattening out, though, and the piedmont peopling up. The parkway is mobbed. The traffic is spaced and rigorously holding to the creep, so you don’t notice how many cars are going your way, but it’s thick coming at you, and the parking lots are full. The costumes are urban and suburban, so this is a wilderness daytrip for BosWash and beyond. It’s chill early Spring on the ridge. I can’t imagine how thick the mob must be in Summer.

Peggy made me stop and walk a stretch of the Appalachian Trail to cool out, and the sight of through hikers carrying as much as Owl did cheer me. Dan Boone with his parched corn and musket, or John Muir with his pockets full of crusts, would be astounded at what today’s hikers find absolutely essential for a wilderness experience. The ferocious intensity of one young man who huffed past us cured me of my haste, and we descended into Front Royal at a gracious pace.

It was going to be hard to avoid history from here on. The Shenandoah had been the breadbasket of the Confederacy, and Lee spearheaded his attacks on the North through here. Antietam and Gettysburg are where North and South blundered against one another and left the ground hallowed. I wanted to see Harper’s Ferry, where John Brown had made his prophetic assault, because the old Harpers engravings showed a romantic cleft in the mountains with the rivers rushing through. This is where the Shenandoah joins the Potomac.

We were merged into the Sunday night stream of homeward bounders. Carloads of tired kids, harried adults, and sporting gear. Cherokees and boat trailers. We were on the Shenandoah Bridge before we realized Harper’s Ferry was on the other bank. Hung a Uey, and turned into another tourist Mecca. Hadn’t expected the whole town to be an historic recreation. A nineteenth century brick city spills down the steep highstreet and puddles up at the river’s edge. Stuffed with visitors lugging trophy sacks and Nikons, wearing that dazed “am I seeing it all?” look. We saw the roundhouse from the car, then we turned tail and climbed the long hill back to the highway. Too burned to browse.

The wide Shenandoah is a ladder of rapids here, and kayakers were putting in and playing in the whitewater. The roadway is lined with Royal Paulonia, with their gorgeous gobs of purple blooms and shiny gray bark. A spectacular gateway to West Virginia. A slice of which you rocket through.. and you're in Maryland.

We’ve sidled east of the central Appalachians here. The blue ridges are making a wall off to our left. The country is rich rolling factory farmland, dairy in particular. Washington’s milk machine. The barns are magnificent. Emblems of Jeffersonian America. Forerunners of the Pennsylvania Dutch ahead: square in plan, huge, with louvered windows and fancy woodwork trim. We’re beginning to see fieldstone houses, too, and the meticulous loving care of immigrant German farmers.

But the sun is going down and our eyes are glazing over. Peggy finds a Super8 listed in Hanover, Pennsylvania, and we try not to get distracted by all the echoes of the Civil War to our right and left. We’re homing in on the Bowdoinham beacon. Marching across Maryland without a pause.

We get lost in Hanover, and it’s a pleasure. One of those 19th century milltowns which is still vibrant and cared for. Rows of proud brick townhouses. Victorian brickwork city center. Handsome factories and residences all commingled. It feels like a town you could live in, and the accents are Yankee. I see a building I want to draw in the morning. We settle in with a smile. Two more days of Owling to go.

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