Danny and I took a break from DC today and headed to Monticello.
It was only a week ago that I realized Thomas Jefferson’s estate was only two hours from DC, and I’ve been curious about it for years. Since my childhood, I’ve heard the word Monticello mispronounced frequently, as I
grew up two blocks from a street by that name. For the record, it’s pronounced: MON-ti-CHELL-o, and it means "little mountain".
Programming my handy GPS, we headed southwest from Arlington, stopping at a McDonald's once out of the DC metro area. There had been word of traffic accidents on the beltway. Fortunately, we were heading in the other direction and the ride was pleasant – especially after we got onto a country road. Danny and I were greatly amused to see a large sign at a local shop: WE HAVE CRABS! I wanted to stop in a recommend Kwell.
We rode up a winding road toward the visitors’ center, only opened a few weeks ago. While on the way in, my cell phone rang with a call from Mark about putting on Mason’s special harness. Mason has been doing well, and not giving Mark too much trouble, although Mark’s dogs are not used to being herded like sheep.
The tour begins with a 15 minute film about Jefferson’s life and Monticello. It pulls no punches, and notes Jefferson’s contradictions and flaws, especially regarding the fact that Jefferson, who wrote eloquently
against slavery, kept slaves himself – and even fathered at least one child with slave Sally Hemings. As if that weren’t enough, apparently Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife (who died when Jefferson was only
39). Unlike, say, the Reagan Library – which conspicuously fails to mention the Iran-Contra scandal – Monticello gives the unvarnished truth. The private organization has even gone so far as excavating the slave
cabins and other structures where slaves and some paid laborers worked.
After the film, we headed via bus up a steep path to Jefferson’s home (it has been featured on the back of the US. Nickel.).
The house tour is scheduled to prevent overcrowding, so we looked around outside.
The main house is bracketed by two large semi-underground wings which were called dependencies. The South wing included a kitchen, smoke house, and quarters for the cook and for domestic slaves (including Sally). At the end of this wing was the original one room house where Jefferson and his wife lived while the main house was being built. The North wing included a laundry room, horse stable, and ice pit which was large enough to keep food cold well into the hot Virginia summer. Both wings contained a privy. The wings were connected via an underground passage that ran underneath the main house.
The kitchen was especially well designed, with four charcoal burners and an oven. Rather than having a waiter serve the food to guests, the cook would bring the prepared dishes to a room underneath the dining room, and raise them via a dumbwaiter hidden behind the dining room fireplace. Jefferson and guests would serve themselves.
Our tour time approached and we headed toward the house. The entry room was filled with artifacts from Jefferson’s time, including many Native American items sent by Louis & Clark. The entryway was crowned by a clock which told not only the time but day of the week. From there, we toured several rooms, the most interesting being Jefferson’s combined bedroom and office, where there were numerous gadgets. It was there I was surprised to learn that Jefferson had only one patent to his name, for a special plow. Many other items credited to Jefferson, like the polygraph, were improvements on others’ ideas.
After completing the tour, Danny and I headed down Mulberry Row toward Jefferson’s grave. Actually, it’s a small graveyard which is owned by Jefferson’s descendants and fenced off.
We then headed down the path back to the visitors’ center, spending too much money at the gift shop before going on our way.
On the way into Monticello, we had spotted a tavern, and decided to go there for lunch. Michie Tavern is a 225 year old restaurant which serves buffet style dishes as they were prepared in the 18th Century. I had no
idea fried chicken was available back then. But it was, and Michie’s beats the hell out of KFC. There were also baked beans but I like the Boston variety better. The only modern item on the menu was Pepsi, but I’m not
complaining. Emily, our charming waitress, gave the history of the place and insisted on getting us more food from the buffet. We were well filled!
By the way, Michie’s is situated in a recreated Colonial village, but Danny and I skipped that and headed back to the hotel for a nap.