The piercing ring of metal striking metal mingles with the sizzling fumes of a roaring forge. On Mulberry Row, a worker pounds smelted ore into nails, a mainstay of life at Monticello, circa 1790. Nearby, two men shape softened wood into strips for baskets. Another, a cooper, bends wood into barrels.
If you are fortunate to happen upon Thomas Jefferson’s beloved home on a community weekend, interpreters bring the daily work of a colonial estate to life. Before, during, and after his presidency, Jefferson housed and fed up to 100 people – free and enslaved – who tended the gardens, worked wood, spun flax, and otherwise kept everything in motion while he tended to the business of running a country.
On my first visit to Monticello, Mulberry Row was bustling with reenactors. Today, it’s a quieter place, as John and I arrive on a rainy afternoon to experience our first piece of Presidential history together.
The Roots of Monticello
Standing tall over the busy estate is the house, an architectural monument reflecting the mind of the man who called it home. It commands a sweeping view of the surrounding countryside, the foothills of the Blue Ridge. Jefferson called this the “Little Mountain,” his favorite boyhood playground. By 1768, he’d acquired 5,000 acres and began building his home. The untimely death of his wife Martha in 1782 spurred him to public service. After he first traveled to France, Provincial architecture affected him to the extent he re-designed and remodeled his home upon his return in 1789.
After the shuttle bus drops you off within sight of Monticello, you are free to roam until its time to meet your tour guide. Excepting the home’s interior, the grounds are self-guided and well-interpreted. Mulberry Row, the site of neat gardens, was also a small community of enslaved, indentured, and free workers on the plantation.
Those who worked directly in the household and with the stables would spend much of their time in the Dependencies, as Jefferson called the wings that extended out of the basement of Monticello. A long, all-weather passage runs beneath the house – a first in home design – and at each end of the passage is a privy, built into the ends of the basement.
It’s here, walking through on your own, you see where food and drink was stored in the Ware Room, where meals were prepared in the kitchen, a large cistern for rainwater storage, and other unexpected finds. The North Terrace shelters the stables and an igloo-shaped icehouse with an earthen top. Providing fuel for the icebox, the 16-foot-deep icehouse held 62 wagon loads of ice! The South Terrace shades the kitchen, smokehouse, and dairy.
It’s important to meet your tour guide in a timely manner. Our guide, well-versed in Thomas Jefferson’s personal and public life, parried all sorts of questions from our group. Although we weren’t allowed to take photos inside Monticello, she pointed out details that made for a memorable visit, including a wealth of Early American artifacts unduplicated in any museum.
The architectural quirks of Monticello reflect Jefferson’s inventiveness and practicality. Each room is an octagon or a half-octagon, to spread light evenly around the room, banishing dark corners. Thanks to plenty of windows, the rooms seem to meld into the outdoors.
The entrance hall contains no grand staircase – Jefferson considered it a waste of space – but provides access to all major rooms. To the east, the sitting room, decorated in a soft blue, served as the central command post for family business. Behind it, Jefferson’s library looks out onto the tree-draped porch and greenhouse. Adjoining is his observatory and bedroom, with a high skylight and creamy red velvet walls. In another space-saving move, Jefferson’s bed is built in between the walls of the two rooms, so he could climb out of bed into either room!
Parquet wood floors add a distinctive touch to the formal parlor. The adjoining cozy dining room, decorated with watercolors of Niagara, Natural Bridge, and other geologic wonders, features a Jefferson-designed revolving “serving door” and wine-bottle-sized dumbwaiter that allowed servants to send the meal into the room without entering the room.
Inside the pantry, modern technology – of Jefferson’s time – is displayed. He is said to have introduced both the pasta (“macaroni”)maker and the ice cream maker to America, bringing them back to Monticello from one of his European trips, and he served both dishes to his guests.
James Madison and his wife Dolly frequently visited Monticello – enough so that Jefferson set up a first floor guestroom especially for them. With its own private terrace entrance, the room features beds tucked into alcoves, to save floor space, and a goodly amount of storage space above the beds.
A Planned Plantation
While the formal tour focuses on the home itself, wandering the lawns and gardens of Monticello provides a well-rounded picture of Thomas Jefferson’s estate. The thousand-foot-long garden terrace was a place he experimented with over 250 varieties of vegetables, keeping detailed notes on their growth. His orchards bore 170 different fruit varieties, a diverse mix of Old World and cultivated American species.
Jefferson’s deep love of botany, cultivated during his friendship with botanist William Bartram and visits to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, meant regular shipments of new and rare plant species arrived at his home. In 1806, he designated a portion of the estate the Grove, a portion of which became an arboretum of his “pet trees.”
After Jefferson’s passing, the plantation fell into disrepair. It wasn’t until 1939 that the Garden Club of Virginia began restoration of the formal flower gardens, based on Jefferson’s detailed notes and drawings and the locations of perennial bulbs that continued to bloom, no matter how unkempt the gardens and lawns, after 115 years. Care was taken in 1977 to re-establish Jefferson’s vision of the 18-acre Grove, with glades and thickets and scenic views amid a forest with a gentle, open understory.
Established in 1987, the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants has a mission to collect, preserve, and distribute historic plant varieties and promote appreciation of the origins and evolution of garden plants, particularly those that Jefferson held dear. A legacy that the President would appreciate, the Center holds educational classes and forums, runs a garden shop at Monticello, and sponsors the Heritage Harvest Festival each fall.
From the top of the mountain, all things must descend, and so it is when you visit Monticello. You can take the shuttle bus, of course. Always on the lookout for a hike, we chose to follow a trail that dropped downhill from Mulberry Row towards the woods. It led us past the Monticello Graveyard, where Jefferson and family members lie under the canopy of the forest that covers Little Mountain. At the age of 83, Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after the Declaration of Independence. His dear friend and fellow Founding Father John Adams died a few hours later on the same day.
Beyond the graveyard, the trail drops more gently down the mountain, a wide path paralleling a stream. It crosses the road that the shuttle bus takes before depositing you back at the Visitor Center. If you didn’t take the opportunity to explore it earlier, do so before you leave.
Monticello’s caretakers are the non-profit Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, and Monticello is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The grounds are busiest on weekends and during the summer months. While you may roam the grounds on your own, you may only walk through the house by joining a formal tour. Monticello, at 931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway, is not far from Charlottesville, Virginia, a college town with ample accommodations.