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.