Thomas Jefferson inherited a plantation in Bedford County, Virginia (near Lynchburg) from his father-in-law in 1773. It was already named Poplar Forest after the trees that grew plentifully in the area. The plantation of almost 5000 acres was about the same size as Jefferson's better known property, Monticello, 90 miles to the north. Poplar Forest is a National Historic Landmark and a Virginia Historic Landmark.
For the first thirty years or so, Jefferson managed Poplar Forest in absentia because he was busy with the American Revolution, the founding of the United States, and being President. He and his family did stay at the place for a couple of months in 1781 when they were hiding out from the British. Finally, in 1806, Jefferson came to oversee the laying of the foundation of the new house he had designed. He planned Poplar Forest to be his "villa retreat" where he could read and garden in solitude, or with his family. The house, much like Monticello, was based on Palladian country villas that Jefferson had seen during his travels in Europe. It was octagonal, the single story consisting of four octagonal rooms and a central square dining room with a skylight. The ceilings are twenty feet tall in the central room. Jefferson used many large windows around the perimeter, the ones in back were three-sash floor to ceiling windows that could be opened and used as doors out to the back porch, overlooking the garden. The house had only two bedrooms, two tiny front rooms (possibly occupied by servants), and a study or library. Poplar Forest is considered Jefferson's architectural masterpiece.
Around the house, Jefferson landscaped nearly five acres of grounds, surrounded by a circular drive lined with paper mulberry trees. He paid one of his slaves to dig the sunken lawn behind the house and the dirt was used to build two earthen mounds, one on each side of the house, that screen the two octagonal privies from view. The lawn was lined with shrubs and the mounds planted with trees and flowering bushes. Jefferson loved gardening more than any other pastime, and he laid out several small flower beds around Poplar Forest.
After Jefferson retired from public life in 1809, he began to visit Poplar Forest more often. As more and more people were coming to see him at Monticello (usually arriving unexpectedly and staying for several weeks) Jefferson often made the two or three day journey to his retreat, about which few people knew. Jefferson added a wing of four rooms to the east side of the house in 1814. This "Wing of Offices" contained the kitchens, smokehouse, and storeroom, and Jefferson liked to take his evening exercise strolling on the flat roof. In 1823 Jefferson's grandson, Francis Eppes, moved into the house with his family. Jefferson did not visit the place again before his death in 1826. Eppes did not like Poplar Forest (maybe because the roof leaked or because it wasn't big enough for a large family) and sold it in 1828.
Poplar Forest was owned privately until 1984. In the 1840's the house caught fire, and the owners used the opportunity to rebuild it as a farmhouse. They added a second floor, bricked up some of the windows, and modified some of the original rooms. Later owners finished the cellars, which had never been done in Jefferson's time. When the nonprofit Corporation for Jefferson's Poplar Forest took over the property, it was decided that the restoration back to Jefferson's plan should be done with accuracy and great attention to detail. Archaeologists worked on the house and grounds for years before any reconstruction was begun. Poplar Forest opened for tours in 1986, but the house exterior was not finished until 1998. The entire roof was rebuilt and the wooden interior floors were relaid. In addition, all the plaster was removed and the brick walls stabilized with new bricks and mortar. All of the restoration work has been done with methods and materials as close to historical accuracy as possible, in order to preserve the house as Jefferson built it. Excavation of the east wing began in 2000 and it is expected to be completely rebuilt by 2004. The landscaping too is receiving attention from archaeologists, who have located the positions of many trees and shrubs from Jefferson's time, as well as the locations of the vegetable and flower gardens.
Poplar Forest is open to visitors daily from April to November except Thanksgiving Day, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The guided tour of the house lasts about 40 minutes, and it is much more informal than at Monticello. In addition, many fewer visitors come to Poplar Forest, so the tour groups are smaller and visitors have more access to the guides for questions. Another great thing about Poplar Forest is that although most of the original furnishings are lost or owned by other groups, the restoration includes building many replica pieces that visitors can touch. At Monticello, where the furniture is either Jefferson's original or antiques from the period, a person is not allowed to touch anything; but at Poplar Forest, the tour guide invites guests to sit in the chairs and touch the bricks.
Admission is 7 USD for adults, 6 USD for seniors, and 1 USD for children six to sixteen years old. Anyone less than six years old gets in for free.1
Besides the guided tour of the house, there is a self-guided walking tour of the grounds and slave quarters, archeological exhibits in the cellars and in two other buildings on the property, a hands-on history exhibit, and a gift shop. The hands-on history exhibit is open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in a tent near the gift shop. On the level of elementary school children, but also fun for adults, the exhibit contains examples of crafts, tools, and games from colonial times. Visitors can try out a replica of Jefferson's polygraph (a machine that allowed him to copy documents), or learn about weaving wool into cloth, or build a wooden bucket, or make bricks, or play colonial games such as quoits (a little like horseshoes), ball and cup, and hoop rolling.
Poplar Forest is no longer the center of a large tobacco and wheat plantation. A modern subdivision has been built right up to the edge of the grounds, but is screened from the house by a row of trees. A golf course is situated on one side. The Corporation for Jefferson's Poplar Forest is buying up the surrounding properties as they become available, but they have not yet decided what to do with the land. The restoration of the house and grounds is ongoing, and it is fascinating to visit and observe the work taking place.
For lots more information about Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson, the archaeology, or the Corporation for Jefferson's Poplar Forest, see the website http://www.poplarforest.org
1. I last visited Poplar Forest on August 17, 2002. Prices and tour hours were accurate at that time.