Sunday, June 29, 2008

22. Thomas Jefferson's Virginia

We said goodbye to North Carolina and continued into the beautiful state of Virginia. With the swamps and gators of the lowcountry behind us, we were now passing through rolling farmlands, pastures and bright green grasslands, separated by thick deciduous forests. Traffic was light and there were fewer bugs on the windshield. Driving through central Virginia is like driving through a park. There's lots of greenery and even occasional small hedges, special groves of trees and neatly maintained flower beds within the highway medians. Grass is everywhere and the transportation folks spend a lot of time and money mowing the medians and shoulders. We noticed that there are very few billboards and other signs. In fact, the lack of highway and street names and directional signs gave us fits a few times. We would drive for miles trying to figure out which highway we were on.

Our campground was about seven miles off Interstate 64 and not far from the small town of Louisa, Virginia. Getting there involved a maze of narrow twisty country roads, poor directions and increased stress on the navigator. Bonnie had to call twice for directions, but we finally found it and squeezed the RV into a wooded space for three days of local sightseeing.

The park was on Lake Ruth Ann, far from highways and very quiet. It was a good place for kids and a good place to hike, fish, play in the pool or watch birds, squirrels and fireflies.

Bonnie has family roots in Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey but hasn’t seen most of her eastern relatives for a long time. She has been gradually tracking them down and arranging to visit as many as possible to make the most of this opportunity. It was a happy coincidence that her cousin Kathy and husband Ernie live a short distance from our campground. Bonnie and Kathy hadn’t seen each other for 44 years. They had a lot of catching up to do. They invited us over to their home for dinner and we had a nice evening talking about family and old times not forgotten. That's Ernie at the head of the table with Kathy to his left, across from Bonnie.
Charlottesville is the former home of Thomas Jefferson and he left his mark on everything. Most of us remember him as the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the U.S. Monticello, Jefferson’s plantation home, is one of the most famous buildings in America. You might have seen it on a nickel. It was a major destination for us.

We were somewhat familiar with Thomas Jefferson from school, but knew very little about his life and accomplishments. He was amazing. During his 83 years, he was a farmer, a lawyer, a Virginia legislator, a delegate to the Continental Congress, Governor of Virginia, Minister to France, Secretary of State, Vice President and, finally, President. He also played the violin and was an avid reader and book collector. He could read in seven languages. During his presidency, the Louisiana Territory was purchased from France and Lewis and Clark were sent to explore the west.

Jefferson taught himself about architecture from books and designed his home at Monticello. It was a new version of the classical styles of ancient Greece and Rome (neoclassical). It has 33 rooms and took more than 40 years to build. It’s the only house in the United States on the United Nations’ World Heritage List of international treasures.

Beneath the house are some interesting passageways that connect the living quarters to the food and ice storage areas, wine cellars, a brewery, an early indoor "privey", some of the slave living quarters and other outbuildings. These structures were built very solidly and will probably last a very long time.
Thomas Jefferson was very interested in gardening. His plan included flower and vegetable gardens, two orchards, two vineyards and an 18-acre ornamental grove. His vegetable garden was 1,000 feet long and included over 330 varieties of vegetables and 23 kinds of peas, his favorite veggie. His hilltop home overlooked most of his 5,000 acre plantation. It was noted during the tour that free workers and more than 600 slaves worked together on the plantation during Jefferson’s lifetime (not all at the same time). Jefferson inherited many slaves and many others were born and raised there.
Jefferson died on the Fourth of July, 1826, the 50th anniversary of America’s independence. He was buried in the family cemetery at Monticello. His grave and those of his immediate family are at the tall obelisk in the far left corner of the photo.
From the deck of Monticello, high on the hill, we could see a bright white domed structure in the city of Charlottesville in the valley below. It was the Rotunda at the University of Virginia. Jefferson strongly supported education. Following his presidency, he designed and founded the University of Virginia. He designed the Rotunda to resemble the Pantheon in Rome.

The Rotunda became the focal point of the Academical Village in the heart of the campus. It was completed in 1826 but had to be rebuilt following a fire in 1895. It’s a very impressive building and still very functional. During our self-guided tour, we tried to stay out of the way as the third floor dome room was being set up for a banquet.

The Univ. of Virginia campus is very colonial in appearance. Most of the buildings, sidewalks and even streets are brick. Although the campus has grown considerably, the original plan that Jefferson designed is still its heart and still functions as he intended.

The center of downtown Charlottesville is a long pedestrian mall. The main street was closed to vehicular traffic in the 1970s. During that era, many cities closed their main streets to create similar pedestrian malls. Unfortunately, the shopping public didn’t like to walk and preferred to drive directly to the stores. Consequently, most of the malls failed and the streets were reopened to vehicular traffic. However, Charlottesville did something right and its mall flourished. Today, it’s full of color, activity, busy shops, outdoor cafes, etc. It’s a real “people place” and a fun and relaxing place to be. After some window shopping and lots of walking, we took advantage of the environment and had a sandwich and cool drink in the shade of the mall trees.

We had our eye on Richmond and Charlottesville was not one of our destinations. We stumbled onto it and are glad we did. It’s in the scenic foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, has a large university and medical center, lots of interesting history including the homes of some other presidents, convenient (and free) shuttle bus service, and many other attributes that make it a very friendly and nice place to visit. Ron was ready to park the RV and make it his home, but Bonnie insisted on moving along down the road. Next stop . . . the Nation's Capital.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

21. Moving North through the Carolinas

Bonnie took care of business at home, celebrated the high school graduations of two grandsons, and returned to Charleston on June 14. The next morning we pointed the RV north on US-17 toward Myrtle Beach. Friends and other folks we met along the way told us Myrtle Beach was a “don’t miss” destination, so we decided to spend a few days there. It’s very commercial and beach oriented with lots of traffic. The beaches were beautiful but, like many places we’ve been, were lined with condominiums and hotels and “public” access to the beach was very limited. We managed to find a place to park within walking distance and had a nice time on the beach.

The RV resort was in a very convenient location. It overlooked the intracoastal waterway, was a mile from the main beach and very convenient to everything we wanted or needed. It also had a very nice recreation building, large swimming pool and the best laundry and rest rooms that we’ve seen so far.

Next door to our RV park was Barefoot Landing, a very interesting specialty shopping center with an assortment of small shops and restaurants built partially on a boardwalk around the edge of a 17 acre lake. It was a great place to browse.
Our next stop was Wilson, North Carolina. It’s a charming medium sized community of 48,000 people, located along I-95 about 45 miles east of Raleigh. The North Carolina countryside is beautiful but the terrain is still very flat. Wilson is a couple hours inland from the ocean, but its elevation is only 147 ft.
The downtown Visitors Center hostess was overflowing with southern hospitality. She seemed thrilled that we came all the way from Seattle to spend a few days in Wilson. She gave us an official proclamation making us “Honorary Citizens for the Day.” The proclamation, when placed on the dash of the car, also gave us free unrestricted parking in all pay lots and parking meters. Pretty cool. She loaded us up with maps and knowledge about the city, then sent us on a self-guided walking tour of the historic district. We started at the County Library.

Many of Wilson’s homes and commercial buildings are 150 years old or older. It’s no Charleston or Savannah, but the town has a lot of pride in its heritage and we could see preservation activities going on everywhere, including the diamond in the rough in the photo below.

Another thing this area takes seriously is tobacco growing, which is still the state’s #1 agricultural crop. We’re not users of the product, but curiosity and our quest for knowledge led us to the Tobacco Farm Life Museum. It’s a small unique museum full of interesting information about the changing lives of the families who grew tobacco for a living over the past hundred years or more. Several old preserved buildings from local tobacco farms are part of the museum complex and help illustrate the very basic lifestyles of the families. The lives of tobacco families were quite a contrast to the opulent lifestyles and expensive mansions of the plantation owners of Savannah and Charleston.

Wilson is also the home of the minor league baseball Wilson Tobs, which is short for tobacconists. Their mascot “Slugger” is a tobacco worm, of course. Ron got a kick out of that. He wanted to go to the game on Saturday and see the Tobs “smoke” their opponents, but severe thunderstorms were coming our way so we passed.

Ron wanted to stop at the historic depot and watch the arrival of The Carolinian, a passenger train from Charlotte to New York. So, we sat and waited. The train was 20 minutes late, but worth the wait.

Raleigh was a short side trip away, so we spent a day poking around North Carolina’s capital city. We especially like to see state capitol buildings. This one was not as fancy or ornate as most, but it’s one of the finest examples of Greek Revival civic buildings in the Country, and is a National Historic Landmark. It was completed in 1940. The previous wooden State House burned to the ground in 1831 while careless roofers were trying to fireproof the building by installing a zinc roof. Taking no chances, the new capitol was built primarily of locally quarried granite with interior walls of stone and brick, and with very little wood. It’s very solid and has withstood nearly 170 years of storms and earthquakes with barely a scratch.

The House of Representatives chamber is where the house of commons debated whether or not to join the Confederacy. They decided to go for it, and the Secession Ordinance of 1861 was signed here.
The original Governor’s office in the capitol is still used primarily for ceremonial purposes. The State Library and State Geologist's Office have been restored to their 1856 appearances. Most government functions have moved to more modern quarters. The Governor still lives in the 1891 mansion (photo) that has been home to the last 27 governors. The impressive home occupies an entire block but was not open to the public. Apparently, the Governor was at home.

A block or two from the capitol are several big modern multi-story museums of history, art and natural sciences. All were “free”. We did a quick tour and each was so interesting and well designed that we could easily have stayed all day. We also wandered down Fayetteville Street, the main downtown business street, and looked around the old market district.

Raleigh has a terrific farmers market. It's two or three miles from downtown and open all day every day. It has lots of fresh fruit and veggies and Bonnie found some very good fresh corn, blueberries, white peaches, "safe tomatoes" and other goodies.
A short 30 miles from Raleigh is the city of Durham, home to Ron’s favorite college basketball team, the Duke Blue Devils. Being so close, we had to pay a visit to the Duke University campus. The college was created by James Buchanan Duke in the 1920s. Most of the buildings were constructed of local stone in the English Gothic style, which makes it appear much older than it is.

We stopped by the Cameron Indoor Stadium where the Blue Devils play their home games. The building was open, so we went inside and got to see the basketball court that Ron had seen on TV so many times over the years.

Mr. Duke wanted to create a central chapel that would dominate all other buildings on the campus and have a serious influence on the spiritual life of the students. The Duke Chapel is very impressive both inside and out. The interior is 63 ft. wide by 291 feet long. The gothic arched ceilings are 73 feet high. Stories from the Bible are illustrated in 77 stained glass windows. The chapel has three different types of pipe organs for different functions. The largest has 6,900 pipes. Free organ recitals are held every Sunday.

In addition to the organs, the Duke Chapel’s tower houses a 50-bell carillon. The largest of the bells weighs 11,200 lbs. The University Carillonneur performs a 15 minute bell recital every weekday at 5:00 pm. We stayed to hear the bells and it was an unforgettable experience.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

20. Charleston: Slavery and Civil War

This is the “Lowcountry”, a term often used to describe the low coastal region of South Carolina, generally between Charleston and Savannah. The local folks are proud of their Lowcountry traditions, cuisine, etc. As the name implies, the terrain is as flat and low as one can imagine. Rivers and waterways meander through marshes and around and through urban areas. It seems like a one-foot rise in the water level would flood everything, but apparently that doesn’t happen . . . very often.
The southern states flourished from about 1780 to the Civil War, the period considered the Golden Age of the South. Sadly, the prosperity was due in large part to slavery. Charleston was one of the primary ports into which thousands of Africans were brought and sold. When the population of Charleston reached 25,000, 14,000 were slaves and their families. Plantations were created, rice and cotton were major products and large beautiful homes were built in the city and on the plantations.

Bonnie was looking forward to the plantations. Fortunately, our RV park was close to three of the best. Each was unique. Middleton Place was in a beautiful setting overlooking the Ashley River. It had the first formal gardens in the country and most of them are still maintained. The main house was destroyed by Union troops during the Civil War but the site still has some secondary buildings, rice paddies and acres of grass, gardens and ponds.

Hundreds of slaves helped build and operate this plantation and some of their original housing (photo) and workshops have been preserved. The names, specialties and "market values" of all slaves were well-documented as part of the plantation’s record keeping. Some of those records are displayed in this building. Today, the gardens of Middleton Place are popular for weddings, concerts and other major events.

Magnolia Plantation was a few miles up the river. It’s main house was also destroyed in the war but was rebuilt and is now a museum house full of period furnishings and antiques. It also has miles of pathways through beautiful gardens, including a swamp garden, religious garden and other features.

Yes, there are gators in most of the larger ponds. This one was lurking in the reflections under a pedestrian bridge. They occasionally grab a wandering poodle for a snack, but otherwise don't bother anyone and are not a problem.
The third plantation home, Drayton Hall, was built in 1738. It’s the oldest surviving example of Georgian-Palladian architecture in the South. It too would have been torched by Union troops, but the quick-thinking owner designated it a hospital for contagious diseases as the army was approaching. They avoided it like the plague (pun) and the house survived. The family later moved to Charleston but continued to use Drayton Hall for vacations. It never had running water, electricity or a heating system other than fireplaces. This house has been “preserved” (not restored) so visitors can see the original construction, old bricks, plaster, glass, wood floors, paint, wallcoverings, fireplaces, and the oldest known hand-carved plaster ceiling (photo). The former Victorian gardens and orchards are long gone, but it’s still a real jewel in the rough.

Prior to the Civil War, slavery was prohibited in the northern states but not in the South. The South saw the handwriting on the wall and prepared to break away to protect their rights. Abe Lincoln vowed to abolish slavery and was elected President in 1860. This triggered the division of the states. South Carolina was the first to secede from the Union. Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana quickly followed.

The first shots of the Civil War were fired in Charleston on April 12, 1861. Fort Sumpter guarded the entrance to Charleston harbor. That's about all I remember from my U.S. History classes. This vacation has been one big history field trip and much more interesting than it was in school.
The Confederacy was taking over and demanded that the U.S. troops leave. When they refused, the Confederate army shelled the fort, took it over and held it for the next four years. During that time, they experienced a two-year siege, during which 46,000 shells were fired at the fort. Some are still lodged in its broken walls. The structure is not what it once was, but just standing on this historic site was a very moving experience.
In 1861, shortly after the war began, Union troops occupied Hilton Head Island and immediately freed about 1,000 island slaves. These were the first slaves to be freed as a result of the Civil War. Most of them had nowhere to go, so they stayed on the island and practiced what is now called the “Gullah” culture, which is celebrated during a month-long Gullah Festival every February. Not knowing much about slavery, it was interesting to learn that as many as 12 million Africans were transported by slave traders who were making deals with African kings. Only about 7% of them came to North America. The rest went to the Caribbean, Central America and Brazil. The importation of slaves into the U.S. ended in 1808, but the trading (sale) of slaves continued for nearly 60 years before being abolished. The story is told at 6 Chalmers Street in Charleston, the site of the last remaining portion of Ryan’s Slave Market of 1859.

Many old guns and monuments to the Civil War are found in Charleston’s Battery Park. The term “battery” refers to the large group of guns and cannons that worked together to protect the city from intruders.

Charleston is known as “The Holy City” because of its many beautiful churches. But it’s residential and commercial districts are also very impressive. We loaded up on maps and brochures at the Visitors Center and started walking south through the commercial district along Meeting Street and King Street toward the Old City Market.
Being on these old business streets is like stepping back in time (if you can ignore the modern vehicles). Most buildings are architectural classics, well maintained and full of thriving businesses, including upscale stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue. Bonnie had a great time window shopping and darting in and out of the shops. She found some very good buys while Ron was ogling the architecture. Unlike Seattle, coffee is not a big thing around here. A Starbucks is hard to find.
The Old City Market buildings (1841) stretch for several blocks on Market Street. It’s a casual flea market sort of operation selling everything from produce, trinkets and souvenirs to high quality art, jewelry and handmade sweetgrass Gullah baskets.
We were hot, hungry and tired of walking when we spotted the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. After visiting the site of Forrest Gump’s park bench in Savannah, we couldn’t pass this restaurant by. Keeping with the theme, we ordered a plate of big delicious shrimp and a tower of onion rings. It was delicious and the waiter was happy to capture the moment for us.

Like Savannah, Charleston also has many old neighborhoods with narrow brick streets, shade trees, pocket gardens, iron fences and gates and tons of character and charm. While the city is known mostly for firing the first shots of the Civil War, it was also the first city to establish a chamber of commerce, a municipal college, a city museum and the first to adopt historic district zoning (1931) to preserve its architectural heritage. Today, the historic district includes more than 2,000 buildings. Many are more than 200 years old and 73 predate the Revolutionary War.
We toured several historic homes and took many more pictures than we can include here. Many of the largest and most expensive homes are along the Bay Street waterfront where Bonnie is standing. It was fascinating to learn how each home played a unique role in local history and about the colorful personalities involved. It’s amazing that these houses have been around for 200 years or more and have survived earthquakes, hurricanes, fire, war and termites.

We spent two weeks in Charleston. During that time, Bonnie flew home for a week to take care of some business and help celebrate the high school graduations of grandsons James and Andy. Ron did a little relaxing and solo sightseeing, but spent most of his time researching the road ahead and doing minor maintenance on the motor home. We love Charleston and could easily spend another two weeks here. But there are other places to go and things to see, so we’ll move on down the road.