Thomas Jefferson inherited Poplar Forest in 1773 and created a villa retreat on the farm for his retirement. Poplar Forest was a private place where he found the solitude to read, write and pursue his passion for architecture and gardening. It was also a plantation where as many as 94 enslaved people lived and labored, providing income.
The private, nonprofit corporation that owns the property is headed by a 19-member Board of Directors and was formed to lead the rescue of Jefferson’s endangered plantation retreat from intensive development. The rescue began in early 1984 when the group took title to two of the parcels of land at the heart of the retreat. In 1986, Poplar Forest opened for tours on a regular basis and hired its first director; followed by professional archaeology and restoration staff in 1989. Increasing support enabled the Corporation to purchase 500 acres of the original plantation and embark on a painstaking process to conserve, research, and authentically restore Jefferson’s design for his retreat and the heart of his plantation. Archaeologists have completed a broad survey of the majority of the property, excavated an attached wing of the main house, identified the sites of two Jefferson-era slave quarters and an antebellum quarter, and located some of the features associated with Jefferson’s designed landscape.
Exterior restoration of the octagonal house began in 1993 and was completed in 1998, earning an Honor Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Interior structural restoration followed the next year; interior plastering has been completed and work on the finishes (trim and molding) is underway. The completed restoration/reconstruction of the “wing of offices” in 2009 marked the completion of the entire exterior restoration of the architectural portion of Jefferson’s retreat design.
Education has been an important component of Poplar Forest’s mission with docent-led tours, special programming, internships and annual intensive classes in archaeology and restoration for undergraduates, graduate students and teachers. Since 2000, educational programming has intensified for school children with the introduction of an annual student field camp, an interactive hands-on history center offering a “learning by doing” approach to history education, and a distance learning program entitled “Shaping the World: Conversations on Democracy” which is streamed to schools throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Poplar Forest is located in Bedford County, Virginia (in Central Virginia’s Region 2000), approximately four hours by car from Washington, D.C., and two hours from Richmond, Virginia. Daily Amtrak service from Washington, D.C. to Lynchburg also increases access to Poplar Forest from the Northern Virginia area and the entire Amtrak corridor north of these points (Philadelphia, New York and Boston). Visitors from all 50 states and over 80 foreign countries have explored Poplar Forest.
In Shaping the World: Conversations on Democracy, a class of students is chosen from a regional school to talk with Thomas Jefferson (portrayed by Colonial Williamsburg’s outstanding living history interpreter, Bill Barker) and one of his contemporaries. Past programs have featured guests such as John Adams, George Washington, and Patrick Henry. The program reaches limitless classrooms of students and teachers statewide. Discussion and further exploration is supported through lesson plans (which address several of the Virginia Standards of Learning Objectives) and activities located at www.poplarforest.org/education/shaping-the-world. The 2010 edition of the program (featuring Jefferson in conversation with Patrick Henry) won a “Gold” award in the education category of the 3rdAnnual Empixx Awards (administered by the American Pixel Academy).
With over 35 hands-on activities, this program brings history “alive” for children, allowing them to experience what living in Jefferson’s time was like. Children hand-mold bricks, write with a quill pen, make a bucket, lie on a slave’s bed and sift through soil to find artifacts. The half-day program (which includes a tour of the retreat and archaeological site) is geared toward students in kindergarten through middle school and serves schools throughout Virginia and beyond. The State Education Department grants recertification credit to area teachers who volunteer with us and work with the visiting school children.
We offer three field schools for adults: an intensive two-week-long program focused on architectural restoration (teaching participants about the process of planning and implementing a museum-quality project); a five-week field school on historical archaeology (instruction and in-depth exposure to field and laboratory techniques offered with a graduate credit option); and, a weekend restoration workshop (providing hands-on techniques for restoring your own home). We also offer a one-week Summer Field Camp for rising 4th and 5th graders which teaches students about archaeological and restoration practices.
Launched in 2011, this evening allows adults to explore some of the diverse subjects that interested Jefferson. The lectures are held on the roof of the wing of offices – a space which Jefferson used for reading, studying and thinking. Subjects addressed in 2011 included: music – featuring a violinist, singer and Celtic harpist; hops – the practice of brewing beer during Jefferson’s time; and, the experience of launching the nation’s new democratic government – featuring New York author Richard Goodman who spoke on the period when Jefferson, Washington, Hamilton, Madison, and Adams began the task of governing the new nation.
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