You may not find this terribly rewarding unless you're included here, so this is a good time for casual and random browsers to turn back before they get too caught up in the sweep and majesty of the proceedings and can't let go.
Jefferson's Monticello & the Montgomery Hall jungle with the Ottawa gang
Marlowe, Dmitri, and young William are visiting for a few days and came intent upon taking the 'From Slavery to Freedom' tour at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate near Charlottesville, Virginia. So here we are, 24 April 2023.
Some of us visited here way way back in the old days, when things were more informal, and recently, put off by the present Visitor Centre and thronging crowds and shuttle buses, with a banner donor's name on it far larger than Jefferson's, we lost heart and went away again. But now that we're here (not cheap!), the centre is actually very nice . . .
. . . with its own café (not cheap!).
In addition to self-guiding roaming about, there are several guided tours led by expert docents, and we're going to learn some of this lore at first hand. As it turned out, we heard and were shown a vast lot of fascinating stuff.
And there's a shuttle bus up the hill to the house, with an unidentified ticket checker and Thomas Jefferson himself welcoming us shuttle bussers.
The life-size bronze statue (possibly a bit idealized?) is meant to represent Jefferson at about 70 years old, having retired to Monticello in 1809 after his two terms as US President. Apparently it was made by Stuart Williamson after 'Monticello curators and StudioEIS artists carefully studied the life portraits of Jefferson'.
A picture of well-dressed determination. And enviable fitness (yoga? jogging? bench pressing? isometrics?).
Having departed from David M. Rubenstein's Visitor Centre, and been shuttled up nearly to the front of the house, we now await our tour guide and learn all about Thomas Jefferson's pros and cons for the next 2½ hours. Here's the layout, and the classy website is at https://www.monticello.org/.
To one member of our party who has long thought of Thomas Jefferson as very likely the greatest post-1492 American ever, the voluminous anecdotes about the great man's pros were very welcome, and the voluminous details about the cons were certainly troubling.
We're loitering along Mulberry Row, which when the 25 buildings of the original Monticello plantation were still standing was the functional main street of the enterprise, including a white workmen's accommodation and the 'Negro quarter', and various workshops, from carpenters, vegetable gardens, iron forgers and his commercial enterprise for producing then-valuable iron nails for sale (using underage black nailmakers).
This is not the place to summarize Thomas Jefferson's life, since nowadays we've all got Wikipedia and the Monticello website at the click of a mouse. Suffice it to say that he was born in 1743 to a father who owned considerable plantation lands along the Blue Ridge piedmont, and when that fellow died in 1757 and the estate was divided between 13-year-old Thomas and his brother, he fetched up with this 5,000 acre plantation, upon which, after he'd reached his majority at 21, he later had the central hill cleared and started building the manor house of Monticello.
What is clearly the most impressive thing about the way the curators and historians of the Monticello foundation have designed the programme here is the detailed but fine line they tread in dealing with the grand paradox of this legendary prophet of human rights and the independence of individuals alongside a plantation owner who owned 600 black slaves over his career and freed only a few of them in his will, two of his sons by the slave Sally Hemings (or Hemmings).
Jefferson's wife Martha (1748-1782) died after ten years of marriage, and only two daughters of theirs survived into adulthood. Martha's father had passed along some of his own slaves to the Jeffersons, including six of the children he'd fathered with one them, amongst whom was Sally (born in 1773). She was thus of mixed race herself (therefore legally black at the time) and the half-sister of Jefferson's wife. He never remarried but brought Sally with him to Paris in his time as US minister there and treated her and her relatives preferably, including eventually his own six children with her, in the work and accommodations of Monticello.
This is our docent for the tour, a knowledgeable PhD (in music), Kyle Chattleton, who'd fallen in love with the history here and could not only chatter on with an interesting repertoire of information and anecdotes about all parts of the tour, but also provide still more stories about any other random questions we could ask him.
Here's the front of the house with another tour group getting their prep talk (Jefferson would have called it the 'east front'; the 'west front' is on the other side).
We commence, into the . . .
. . . entrance hall, which Jefferson had kitted out as a sort of museum and planned to display specimens and artifacts from Lewis and Clark's explorations, for which he had secured Congressional funding in 1803.
The original materials sent back by the explorers in 1805 were broken up with the dispersal of the estate after Jefferson's death in 1826, but they've been reproduced here with new materials. Jefferson was massively in debt when he died, and the property had to be sold off by his estate to cover the obligations. Luckily the house appears to have been owned serially by people who understood its significance.
Jefferson's study, or 'Cabinet' as he called it, on the west side of the house, is furnished with a device on which he could write on one side, with armatures that would reproduce a copy for his files on the far side.
The recreated Library -- only the shelves under glass, towards the bottom on his bookcase, were his own; the others have been brought along to recreate the atmosphere.
In 1814 the British burned the Capital and the Library of Congress, and Jefferson, who had assembled the largest personal collection in the US, offered to sell it to replace the losses; Congress bought the lot for about $24,000, the core of the modern Library of Congress (though a fire in 1851 incinerated nearly 2/3 of the c.6,500 of his original books). (After the sale in 1815 he began a new collection, but its several thousand volumes had to be sold off at auction in 1829 to pay down the estate's debts.)
Jefferson's bedroom off the Cabinet (a private place; his wife had passed away long before this part of the building had been built (and Sally had her own room in one of the outbuildings)). He died in this room in 1826, with family and retainers all round him.
The 'Parlor', for entertaining and what not, adjoins the bedroom and looks out onto the west portico. It's got half a gazillion portraits round the walls, mostly of famous folks (ready? -- a partial list:
George Washington, Americus Vespucius for some reason,
John Locke, the Marquis de
Thomas Paine, and a few of Jefferson himself).
Some busts of other worthies as well
And this cute piece of work (a find for fans of beheading paintings) -- he bought it in 1785, and a lot more, during his time as US Minister to France and listed it as a copy of John the Baptist's being carried in by Herodias, the wife of Herod Antipas, by Simon Vouet, an early 17th century French painter in Italy until later recruited by the French king Louis XIII.
Wrong, alas: it's a 1692 copy of a 1631 work by Guido Reni, one of our favorites (though this copy doesn't show that to best advantage), and that's actually meant to be Herodias' daughter Salome, Herod's stepdaughter.
After the parlor we come round to the dining room -- Jefferson clearly preferred small gatherings. Our guide listed off some of the dishes on a typical menu there, which (to a non-southerner) sounded distressingly awful.
The adjacent 'tea room' looks out onto the north terrace.
Now we're out round the back side of the house -- sorry, the 'west entrance' or 'west portico' -- for more information into the West Lawn and its pleasant surroundings.
The West Portico with the Parlor within
Part of the West Lawn. Monticello has been designated a National Historic Landmark, of course, in 1960, but 'Monticello and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville', both designed by Jefferson, were also designated as a single UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.
Just off the side of the west lawn is a neat row of original functional buildings, now with a gift shop, rest rooms, and what not.
-- Wait, no! Not before 5 p.m., no way.
We presently enjoying our intermission after 1½ hours, just time for more informal discussions with our guide before regrouping for the rest of the tour. There are several managed tours available, of which this one is the longest and most thorough -- there is a notable amount of attention to the slavery issue amongst them -- as well as the self-guiding option.
Back past the West Portico with the famous Dome. Generally, though Jefferson's bedroom was below, the second floor and Dome housed bedrooms for family and domestics.
That's either the north terrace or, oh wait, no, it's the south terrace. We just checked the website.
We shuttlebussed back down to the Visitor Centre for a few follow-ups from our docent, and then copped a ride back up to walk along what's left of Mulberry Row. That's the 'textile workshop', established in 1814 with a 'spinning jenny' and other stuff, 'where a team of enslaved women and children labored in the 'small spinning and weaving establishment'.' The operation was intended to provide coarse clothing for 'the 130 enslaved people' on the plantation.
One of the surviving 'houses' for the slave families.
Dmitri and Marlowe, perhaps imagining getting by in a one-room shack with six children or whatever.
As mentioned above, the curators here walk a fine line between the deserved Jeffersonian hagiography and a realistic vision of what was really going on here, certainly grim to our modern perceptions.
That appears to be the east entrance and north side access to the terrace
One of the two iron forges on the site, providing both for the plantation's needs (plows, pots, various tools) and for the builders working on the manor house itself. At the end of Mulberry Row, we continue down the path to the Visitor Centre, pausing only at . . .
. . . Jefferson's obelisk in the family graveyard. He wrote his own epitaph before he died at 83 years old in 1826, describing himself thus: 'Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, Of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, & Father of the University of Virginia'. He neglected to mention having been the ambassador to France, US Secretary of State, the Vice President and then two-term President -- just sticking to the more important things.
Thus we continue our descent along the path back to the David M. Rubenstein Visitor Centre and move on to various other pursuits this afternoon . . .
Like the Montgomery Hall jungle . . .
. . . in full outrageous bloom now. We're just walking round the shorter Yulee Trail, a 50-minute jaunt amongst the runaway vegetation.
Attractive scenery throughout the trail system. Whenever one of these awful dead things collapses onto the path, we've noticed, the dedicated staff have got it sawed up and dragged out of the way promptly. Off the path, of course, Nature Reigns.
Like this aesthetic atrocity
And this! All part of God's Plan, presumably, but why?
A pleasant walk indeed, and there are two other, longer, trails on offer, which we normally prefer when there's time.
A slow-motion battle for survival in a cruel world
The sort of vision that jolts us awake in the middle of the night
Emerging briefly from the jungle, we've wandered over onto the nearby Scout Trail for our finale.
A selfie moment
Back into a bit more jungle
Sounds of hilarity from not far off -- there's a picnic pavilion just up the hill, which no one makes use of without bringing at least two boomboxes with appalling music.
We're about to emerge directly onto the carpark -- can't ask any fairer than that, can we?
Putting cats through their paces
-- Hey, Choupette, what's this?
-- It's prey, obviously.
How many small Burmese cats can vault a meter off the floor, for no sensible reason? It's just a bouncing red blur.
We'd thought Choupette had outgrown the mouse-hand gag a long time ago, and . . .
. . . Melvin, too!
Next up: A photo gallery of the Luray Caverns, Virginia