Every April, when Monticello was "enlivened by the reanimation of birds, flowers, the fields, forests and gardens," Thomas Jefferson left his mountaintop on a three-day journey in search of "the solitude of a hermit." His hermitage, which he had designed himself, lay on his Poplar Forest plantation in Bedford County — "the best dwelling house in the state, except that of Monticello; perhaps preferable to that, as more proportioned to the faculties of a private citizen."
As Jefferson's life at Monticello, a Mecca for respectful pilgrims as well as mere sightseers, became more and more public, his need for periodic doses of privacy increased. At Poplar Forest, he could escape what his granddaughter Ellen called "the bustle and hurry of an almost perpetual round of company," exchanging it for "rest, leisure, power to carry on his favorite pursuits — to think, to study, to read."
By the time Jefferson had entered his seventies, a pattern of retreat had emerged. He made at least three annual visits: at the height of spring, in late summer, and in early winter. The following itinerary is based on his journey to Poplar Forest in the spring of 1816. Quotations are from his memorandum book and mileages from an itinerary Jefferson made during one of his journeys.
"Set out for Poplar Forest." On his seventy-third birthday, probably shortly after recording the first spring planting of his favorite "grey" snap bean, Jefferson stepped into his carriage and gave Israel and Gill Gillette the signal to depart. As not a drop of rain fell between April 6 and May 11, the landau's tops may have been down, and its occupant may have looked as George Flower found him at Poplar Forest later in the year: "His dress, in color and form, was quaint and old-fashioned, plain and neat — a dark pepper-and-salt coat, cut in the old quaker fashion, with a single row of large metal buttons, knee-breeches, gray-worsted stockings, shoes fastened by large metal buckles."
Here the landau crossed Carter's Bridge over the Hardware River. Less than a mile before the bridge the ringing of a bell could be heard through the sounds of trotting horses and jangling harness. Jefferson recorded mileages with an odometer, which had been given him in 1807 by its maker, James Clark of Powhatan County. He mounted it on the wheel of his carriage and particularly extolled two of its special features: it divided the mile decimally into dimes and cents and chimed like a clock every ten miles. Jefferson found "great satisfaction in having miles announced by the bell as by milestones on the road."
Here Jefferson reached the James River at Warren and spent the night, as he did the first night of almost every journey to Poplar Forest, with the first citizen of Warren, Wilson Cary Nicholas. This great friend had served as governor of Virginia, his daughter had recently married Jefferson's grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph, and his bankruptcy during the Panic of 1819 would deliver the "coup de grâce" to Jefferson's already crumbling fortunes.
"Warren. vales .50 ferrge & watermen 4.D." Jefferson first began using the English term "vales" in 1786, when he left gratuities for the servants in his London hotel. After tipping Nicholas's servants, he crossed the James River by ferry.
By mid-morning, the landau reached the gate of Gibson's tavern, two miles south of the little Buckingham County community of Glenmore, but did not turn in. As his hermit's solitude at Poplar Forest was not intended to be entirely unrelieved, Jefferson may have had two female companions to shelter from the cool winds blowing over the open landau. Granddaughter Virginia reported that "in his journeys to Bedford, he always took two of us along with him. I often now think of those journeys, generally made in good weather, and with every attention to our comfort. Early in the morning, he was sure to have some additional wrapping to put over the shoulders of each of us, generally a large cape off from one of his cloaks, and if the weather was cold we were wrapped in his furs." A number of letters identify the fur of choice, a wolfskin pelisse given to Jefferson in 1798 by General Thaddeus Kosciuszko. Jefferson suffered a great deal from the cold in his later years and this pelisse accompanied him often in his travels. During one December trip, he had "(thanks to my pelisse) felt no more sensation of cold on the road than if I had been in a warm bed."
Having travelled on what are now county routes 627 and 602, the equipage arrived at the Raleigh tavern, kept by Daniel Guerrant, just west of Buckingham Courthouse. Halfway through this long day on the road, one might have expected the travellers to take some refreshment there, but it is evident from the memorandum books that Jefferson stopped at inns during the day only for breakfast or to feed his horses. He was no exception to the rule observed by one of his Monticello visitors, Mrs. William Thornton, that "Virginians do not stop more than is absolutely necessary at taverns in travelling." Jefferson himself said that "cold victuals on the road" were "better than any thing which any of the country taverns will give you." One of his granddaughters described their roadside picnics: "Our cold dinner was always put up by his own hands; a pleasant spot by the road-side chosen to eat it, and he was the carver and helped us to our cold fowl and ham, and mixed the wine and water to drink with it."
The carriage arrived at the tavern kept by Major Henry Flood just northwest of Old Appomattox Courthouse in what was then Buckingham County. They had finally reached a major thoroughfare, "the great main road" from New London to Richmond, now state route 24. According to granddaughter Ellen, "we always stopped at the same simple country inns, where the country-people were as much pleased to see the 'Squire', as they always called Mr. Jefferson, as they could have been to meet their own best friends. They set out for him the best they had, gave him the nicest room, and seemed to hail his passage as an event most interesting to themselves." Flood's tavern was Jefferson's favorite second-night lodging, and it was probably the location, called "Ford's" in Henry Randall's account, of an encounter that entered the fund of popular anecdote about the travelling ex-president. At this tavern, Jefferson engaged in a conversation with a local parson, first on the subject of mechanics. The parson found his interlocutor so knowledgeable he thought he was an engineer, and after the next topic, agriculture, had been exhausted, he was certain he was talking to a very great farmer. Finally their discussion of religion convinced the parson that his companion was another clergyman, "but he confessed that he could not discover to what particular persuasion he leaned."
"H. Flood's lodgg. &c. 4.17."
"Hunter's breakfast 2.08." Robert Hunter's tavern was on what is now state route 24 near Concord on the present Campbell-Appomattox county line. In the eyes of his granddaughters, even on the third day on the road, Jefferson was the ideal travelling companion: "His cheerful conversation, so agreeable and instructive, his singing as we journeyed along, made the time pass pleasantly, even travelling through the solitudes of Buckingham and Campbell counties over indifferent roads."
The travellers reached Campbell Courthouse (now Rustburg). On Jefferson's return journey in May, the landau's axle broke somewhere in this vicinity. Jefferson's enslaved butler Burwell Colbert always accompanied him on the journeys to Poplar Forest and rode behind the carriage on Jefferson's saddle horse. When the axle broke, Colbert probably rode to the nearest settlement for assistance, while Jefferson remained behind, entertaining his granddaughters if they accompanied him, or reading if alone. He always carried a book in his pocket on his travels and, according to his granddaughters, that book was usually a tiny Latin edition of the lives of distinguished men by Roman historian Cornelius Nepos. Jefferson confirms this by mentioning "a little Cornelius Nepos I had in my pocket" on a journey the previous fall.
The carriage forded Flat Creek.
After three long days of travel, Jefferson arrived at his destination. Burwell Colbert and Israel Gillette exchanged their roles as travelling attendant and postilion for those of butler and assistant waiter. The Randolph granddaughters turned to their books, drawings, and embroidery. And Jefferson settled in to a routine governed only by his own wishes and the rotation of the earth. He casually dispensed with the Copernican system in one tranquil report from his retreat: "the sun, moon and stars move here so much like what they do at Monticello ... that they afford nothing new for observation." Each day offered unobstructed enjoyment of solitary indoor occupation in the morning, exercise on horseback in the middle of the day, and the company of family members at the appointed hour for society at the end of the day. At Poplar Forest he passed his time "in a tranquility and retirement much adapted to my age and indolence."
- Lucia Stanton, 1985. Originally published as "The Road to Poplar Forest," in Spring Dinner at Monticello, April 12, 1985, in Memory of Thomas Jefferson (Monticello Keepsakes 36) (Charlottesville, VA: Thomas Jefferson Foundation, 1985).
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