The 1221-mile trip from Twin Fountains RV Resort in Oklahoma City OK to Charlottesville KOA in Charlottesville VA included overnight stops at Graceland RV Park & Campground in Memphis TN and at Southlake RV Park in Knoxville TN. It was long but, thankfully, less eventful than the trip from Apache Junction AZ to Oklahoma City. Charlottesville KOA is about eleven miles from town (I had no Verizon service – cell phone or WiFi) but the park provides an internet connection so I wasn’t completely stripped of my planning abilities. The RV park is adequate but is on the lower end of the KOA spectrum. As my buddy George Carlin once said, “Somewhere there is the world’s worst doctor. Might he be yours?”
History buff and presidential nerd that I am, I had to make a stop in Charlottesville. James Monroe's Highland and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello both with Charlottesville addresses and James Madison's Montpelier in Montpelier Station VA, some 25 miles northeast of Charlottesville, had all been in my crosshairs for some time. Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, site of the April 9, 1865 surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee to Union General Ulysses S. Grant to end the
James and Dolley Outside the Visitor Center
James Madison's Montpelier - Montpelier Station VA
Civil War, is a mere 62 miles southwest of Charlottesville. All four have been on the old bucket list since The Great Adventure
began in 2010 and, truthfully, it’s hard for me to admit that it has taken this long for me to get to central Virginia to see these absolute “must see” attractions.
Thursday morning, I made a requisite stop at the Charlottesville Visitor's Bureau to supplement my internet information and to have some questions answered. Then I was off to James Madison's Montpelier
. The original land patent for the Montpelier estate was granted to President Madison's grandfather, was further developed by Madison’s father and then honed by Madison himself. Although Madison was a verbal opponent of the morality and the whole notion of slavery, he realized the necessity of the institution to the southern economy and kept dozens of slaves at Montpellier and, indeed, passed them along to his wife, Dolley, in his will.
I arrived in time to participated in a supplemental presentation, The Enslaved Community, which examines those enslaved at Montpelier, most notably Paul Jennings, the most well-known slave from Montpelier. Born in 1799, Jennings went to the White House at age 10 when Madison became
President and served as Madison's body servant from 1817-1835. Eventually, and after Madison's death, Jennings was purchased from Dolley Madison and freed in 1845 by the northern senator Daniel Webster. Jennings continued to live in Washington DC, where he worked and himself became a property owner. In 1848 he helped plan the largest slave escape in United States history, as 77 slaves from the Washington DC area took to a schooner with intentions of sailing up the Chesapeake Bay to a free state. They were captured and most were sold to the Deep South. Jennings was noted for his account of Madison, A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison
(1865), which is considered the first White House memoir.
The multimedia exhibition, Mere Distinction of Colour
, occupies the cellars of the mansion and explores the history and legacies of American slavery, both at Montpelier and nationwide, with the north cellar analyzing the economics and legacies of slavery and the south cellar exploring the story of slavery at Montpelier. Montpelier has an active descendant community, some of whom have genealogical proof of their ancestry, and others who are connected through oral histories that have been passed down through generations. One of
the unique features of this exhibition is that its’ development was guided by living descendants of the slaves who once inhabited Montpelier and the story is told with the voices of those descendants. The exhibition is the culmination of decades of archaeological and documentary research conducted by Montpelier staff and advisors, and the exhibit lists the names of everyone known to have been enslaved at Montpelier throughout Madison ownership.
Montpelier has been owned by numerous private parties and few artifacts on display can be authenticated as having belonged to President Madison; however, the attraction is nicely furnished such that the interesting story of our fourth President and his wife can be told. Being an historical nerd and a presidential buff, I highly recommend the site. The story is amazing. Oh yes, interior photography is allowed.
My next stop was the James Madison Museum
in Orange VA. The name of the facility is somewhat misleading as it is a local museum near the area where James Madison lived and died. One first encounters a very nice, well documented collection of sidesaddles. The role of Negros during the Revolutionary War era is examined, and a nice collection of poorly documented (mostly) agricultural
equipment is presented. Then, finally, early American Presidents are presented – and not just James Madison as the moniker James Madison Museum infers. Four of the first five U.S. Presidents were born or lived in the Charlottesville/Fredericksburg VA area, and many were friends before their tenure in office. Indeed, the seven of the first twelve Presidents of the United States were from Virginia, Zachary Taylor (#12) was a second cousin to James Madison (#4) and John Quincy Adams (#6) was the son of the second President, John Adams. Talk about a “good ole boys club!” Don’t get me wrong. This is a nice museum that is worthy of a visit if time allows, but don’t expect what the name implies.
According to the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention & Visitors Bureau, Hatton Ferry
in Scottsville VA is “…a historic ferry across the James River and the only poled ferry still operating in the United States.” Historical! One of a kind! Count Uncle Larry in! The hours of operation were listed as 9-5 on Saturday and 12-5 on Sunday. Also, “Under ideal conditions, a round-trip crossing takes about 30-45 minutes.” No problem. The web site listed "for current conditions" (high water closures, etc.)
was a dead end; so, on Saturday, April 27, 2019, I drove several miles on narrow, scenic, winding, relaxing roads only to find the river too high and treacherous for ferry operation. Another fly has landed in the ointment. Sooo, with the raging river serving as a dead end of sorts, I found myself backtracking several miles on narrow, winding roads that were much less scenic and relaxing this time.
I decided to hit a fast-food restaurant in Appomattox VA before making my way to Appomattox Court House National Historical Park
. The Battle of Appomattox Court House
was fought on the morning of April 9, 1865. It was the final engagement between Confederate General Robert E. Lee's beleaguered Army of Northern Virginia and the Union Army of the Potomac under General Ulysses S. Grant. Interestingly, the Civil War did not end abruptly but rather waned gradually with over a dozen major surrenders that occurred between April 9, 1865 and June 23, 1865. Also interestingly, the surrender terms were not outlined in a formal surrender document but in letters and/or notes exchanged between Lee and Grant. Appomattox Court House did not affect me with the solemnness of Gettysburg or many of the other Civil War battlefields I have visited;
however, there is an overwhelming sense of relief and finality. At last, the bloodshed was over! Appomattox Court House has no modern buildings containing a modern movie theater, as do many of the other National Park Service sites; and there were no ranger-led programs offered. In that sense it didn’t rank as high as other sites; however, the half-dozen or so buildings in the park appear to be original (it’s hard to say with certainty) and enhance the feeling of having “walked in the footsteps of….”
It was with a certain amount of reservation that I instructed my GPS to take me to Schuyler VA and the Walton's Mountain Museum
. Schuyler is the birthplace of Earl Hamner, a novelist and a television writer and producer. He is best known for his novel Spencer's Mountain
that was inspired by his own childhood and formed the basis for the film of the same name. His novel, The Homecoming: A Novel About Spencer's Mountain
, was the inspiration for a television movie of the same name and the television series, The Waltons
. I used the word reservation earlier. I have found in my travels that many “famous people and places” have had their name exploited to
The Classic View of Jefferson's Plantation House
Thomas Jefferson's Monticello - Charlottesville VA
lure an unknowing public to an inferior, overpriced attraction. Unfortunately, that is the case with Walton's Mountain Museum. The museum is housed in a former schoolhouse, and former classrooms serve as John Boys Room, the Kitchen, the Living Room, etc. Before I paid the admission fee, the attendant candidly pointed out that the only artifact that actually was used during the filming of The Waltons
was the pony cart; HOWEVER, I had already incurred the greater expense - time and fuel. Other artifacts, save the numerous unsigned photographs of cast members and The Waltons
toys, books, lunch boxes and other paraphernalia, could have come from any of thousands of farmhouses across the United States and can be seen in hundreds of museums across the country. No authentic costumes. No authentic props. Disappointing, yes; but what the heck – it was pretty much (well, sorta) on the route home anyway, and it’s The Waltons
! Good night, Grandpa.
I had dedicated the entire day, Sunday, April 28, 2019, for my visit to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello
in, as I have noted earlier, Charlottesville. The web site is complex with no less than ten, count them TEN, different tours listed – some offered year-round, some
offered seasonally. With each option requiring a back and forth maneuver and not wanting to take notes on the cost, times, etc. of each of the options nor to note what would be included in the various packages, I decided to wait until I arrived and forfeit the small discount offered to the on-line buyer. I did see that the tours of the first floor of Monticello are non-refundable timed tickets. An hour early or two minutes late to an unfamiliar destination are both bad outcomes - another good reason to purchase after arrival.
From the web site, I had decided to take two add-ons off the table before I headed to Monticello. The $35.05 premium for a tour of the second floor (the “Behind-the-Scenes Day Pass” at $65.00 vs. $29.95 for the “Monticello Day Pass”) was completely absurd. The story of the best documented enslaved family in the United States, the “Hemings Family Tour,” is offered year-round but only at 1:30 PM, and, oh yes, for a premium of $28.00 online or $31.00 at the ticket office. Other tours are offered only at certain times and many are seasonal. Upon arrival, I learned the Monticello Day Pass on
the day of my visit included two guided tours – the “Gardens and Grounds Tour” and the “Slavery at Monticello Tour.” That was enough to enlighten and delight on any given day!
I began my Jefferson day with a stop in the Visitor Center to see the introductory film "Thomas Jefferson's World" and then proceeded to the shuttle pick-up point. I can only immediately think of two other major “famous people” attractions that are as finely tuned and as professionally presented as Monticello – Mount Vernon, home of George Washington, and Graceland, home of Elvis Presley. One tour guide accompanied our group for the entire tour while other attendants precisely opened doors to keep the groups moving smoothly through the mansion. Unlike many mansions where each room opens into a hallway, doorways connect each room at Monticello so there is no backtracking but an effortless one-way progression room to room. Our tour guide was entertaining, interesting and knowledgeable, but, unfortunately, photography on the first floor of the house is not allowed.
Outside and in the basement level of the mansion (where photography is allowed), I made my way through exhibits including, "The Life of Sally Hemings." The brain
trust at Monticello had seen fit to include the entire audio/video presentation online – "The Life of Sally Hemings.
" I then joined the guided “Slavery at Monticello Tour” which focuses on the experiences of the enslaved people who lived and labored on the Monticello plantation. Since timing is everything, I opted to forego the guided Gardens and Grounds Tour.
My last stop was at the Jefferson Cemetery. I found it interesting that Jefferson left explicit instructions regarding the monument to be erected over his grave. He supplied a sketch of the shape of the marker and the epitaph:
“Here was buried
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
& Father of the University of Virginia”
There is no mention of the Bill of Rights nor of his Presidency. Interesting. Although I thought it pricy at first (it is Monticello, you know), the basic tour, the “Monticello Day Pass,” is well worth the money.
Monday found me making my way to James Monroe's Highland
in, yes, Charlottesville. Confused. That is the word that pervades every thought I have and every sentence I type. As best I can determine from information provided by the
tour guide, a movie presented before the tour and snippets I harvested from the Internet, the main house standing on the property at 2050 James Monroe Pkwy, Charlottesville VA was never a home to James Monroe in any way, shape or fashion. His domicile burned to the ground sometime after he sold the property. Archeologists are only now discovering the foundation and location of the Monroe structure. Disappointed – a gross understatement. The visitor never learns the truth until the money has been paid. I suppose the “salt in the wound” is that photography inside the house that SOMEBODY lived in is not allowed. The positive aspect of the experience was that I learned a lot about Monroe. In good conscience, I cannot recommend James Monroe's Highland to any except those with ample extra time in the Charlottesville area and several extra dollars in their bankroll. Michie Tavern
in Charlottesville sounds cool, and it is – a little pricy for a very limited buffet eatery, but cool nonetheless. The food was quite tasty, and the supply was endless; however, I have to temper my endorsement by saying, the surroundings are worth half the price of the meal. I felt like
Jefferson’s Statue in Front of the Rotunda
The UV Rotunda & UV Tour - Charlottesville VA
I was a colonial throughout the experience and expected Franklin, Hancock or Revere to walk in the door at any moment. This definitely is not a dining experience for the picky eater. Of course, I had to top off a single helping of mainstays with a dish of peach cobbler ala mode! Oh, yes, the tavern is up the hill at the top of the parking lot. The gift shop is near the parking lot entrance.
After lunch, I drove into Charlottesville to see the Rotunda at The University of Virginia
and to take the tour of the rotunda, I thought. I learned the last tour would begin in five minutes (I was at the Visitor Center some 20-30 minutes from the Rotunda by the free Charlottesville trolley), but I decided to take the sightseeing loop on the trolley anyway. On Tuesday, April 30, 2019, I drove back into Charlottesville specifically to see the Rotunda and to take the tour of the rotunda, I thought. The Rotunda was designed by Thomas Jefferson as the architectural and academic heart of the University and stands at the end of what he called “Academical Village.” Jefferson believed that learning is a lifelong process, and that interaction between
faculty and students is vital to the pursuit of knowledge. Jefferson modeled the Rotunda after the Pantheon in Rome. Construction began in 1822 and was completed in 1826, shortly after Jefferson’s death on July 4 of that year. Built at a cost of almost $60,000, it was the last structure to be finished on “The Lawn.” It turns out the tour is of the University! We learned how the first 40 male students lived and learned, how the sundry wars affected the student body and how minorities and women were finally routinely admitted to the institution. The tour was interesting, but make no mistake – it is not what I had returned to Charlottesville to see. After the tour, I headed to the Rotunda for a “self-guided” tour. After having seen many state capitol rotundas, the Rotunda at The University of Virginia is, to be kind, ordinary.
I had a nice time in Charlottesville. There is a lot more to see and do, but I was so preoccupied with things presidential that I barely scratched the surface of the other attractions. The community is old and, therefore, has narrow streets and is not the easiest to navigate; but the
people are friendly, and I never felt in jeopardy. Will I return? Yes, if there is time!!!
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