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A Little Piece of Monticello

Anna Berkes

Back in the 1920s, when the nascent Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation (my current employer, now called the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc., and not to be confused with the Monticello Association or the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association) was trying to scrape together the cash to purchase Monticello from Jefferson Monroe Levy, they found themselves a little short.   So they conceived a cunning plan, of course – they would sell short-term mortgage bonds to willing supporters as a way of a) footing the bill, and b) getting their interested audience invested (literally) in the success of Monticello as a historic site.  Genius, right?*

I was not previously aware of any of this.  Generally, in the context of my job I’m not aware of most things until somebody asks me about it – then I make it my business to become the World’s Foremost Expert on that one little topic.  Which makes for a weird, patchy knowledgebase with lots of random blindspots – I might be able to give you a dazzling dissertation about something, or I might be clueless as a fencepost about it.

Between you and me and the rest of the Internet, the latter was in fact the case when we were contacted a few weeks ago by someone at Ohio State University; they said they were processing an archival collection and had came across what was apparently a mortgage bond for Monticello.  But, any state of cluelessness about something is also a golden shining opportunity to educate oneself.  That’s why we got all these books and papers lying around the library.  So I went digging into the archives and found this.

300 of these things were issued, maturing in 1, 2 or 3 years.  The one above is a class A mortgage bond, issued to Henry Alan Johnston, the secretary of the Foundation.

As for the one Ohio State contacted us about – well, apparently Monticello had some famous friends.  That one was issued to Richard E. Byrd – that’s right, polar-exploring Byrd!  (Not to be confused with big-wig-wearing, diary-writing, lady-chasing William Byrd, or recently-deceased Senator Byrd.)

The Byrd Polar Research Center has been busily digitizing items from Richard Byrd’s papers and artifacts, and have a whiz-bang online digital collection.  You can now see Admiral Byrd’s Monticello mortgage bond right here, in all its glory.

Oh, and about those mortgage bonds – Monticello was all paid off and debt-free by 1940, so if you’ve got one in your attic, sorry, you don’t own a piece of Monticello.  But it does mean that someone you know was very nice to Monticello long ago, and that’s something to be proud of!

*Update: Some more information has come to my attention and, just to clarify, here’s how the bonds worked: the TJMF purchased the bonds.  Every time somebody donated $1,000 to them, the Foundation would cancel one bond and present it to the donor with their name on it.

Legacy NID: 


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