Joel Wheeler was a caretaker of Monticello in the mid-nineteenth century. Before coming to Monticello, he was Benjamin Franklin Randolph's farm manager at Carter's bridge (Round Top) farm.
When Uriah Phillips Levy took possession of Monticello in 1836, Thomas Jefferson's estate was in less-than-pristine condition. Levy hired Wheeler, a local resident, to direct needed repairs and renovations. Levy – who resided at Monticello only for brief periods – and Wheeler are credited with doing a commendable job of restoring and maintaining the house and grounds over the next fifteen years.
Wheeler stayed on at Monticello after the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 and Levy's death in 1862, and apparently became more cantankerous — and less concerned with upkeep — as the years unfolded. When Benjamin Franklin Ficklin purchased Monticello from the Confederate government in 1864, the property was in disrepair. "The place was once very pretty, but it has gone to ruin now," wrote a young woman who visited in the summer of that year. "The parlor retains but little of its former elegance, the ballroom ... on the second floor has a thousand names scratched over the walls." Maintaining property in Virginia during and after the Civil War was difficult at best, but Monticello's decline in the 1860s and 1870s was evidently aggravated by its longtime caretaker.
During the war years, when he was not being paid by the Levy family, Wheeler charged groups to use the Monticello house and grounds for parties, picnics, and other activities, while doing little to discourage souvenir-taking. Wheeler also, according to various accounts, planted vegetables on the West Lawn, allowed pigs to roam the property, stabled cattle in the basement, and stored and milled grain in the parlor. "As for maintenance of the house, [Wheeler] seems not to have done anything," noted historian Melvin I. Urofsky. "The gutters fell away, the roof rotted, rainwater flooded the basement, and the elements took their toll on every part of the great house."
After the Civil War, Monticello was restored to the Levy family and Wheeler was able to keep charge of the property while the Levy family squabbled over Uriah's estate. When Jefferson Monroe Levy bought the property in 1879, he determined that he had to remove Wheeler, who by that time, according to Urofsky, "believed he owned Monticello." But Wheeler wasn't easily dislodged; it would ultimately take a court order to terminate his two decades of control and evict him from Jefferson's mountaintop.
- Based on "Caretaker Contributed to Monticello's Decline," Monticello Newsletter vol. 17, no. 2 (Winter 2006).
931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway
Charlottesville, VA 22902