Poplar Forest offers Taste of Monticello 20 Minutes from School

With springtime just around the corner, many of us are growing restless for adventure and exploration. If you are one of those students who is planning a day trip escape route, you will not have to travel far.

In a reader poll by USA Today, Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest was ranked among the top 10 tourist attractions in Virginia. A convenient 20-minute drive from campus, Poplar Forest is the perfect destination for a day trip that does not actually take all day.

It may not be the esteemed Monticello, but the entwinement of history and tourism at Poplar Forest reflects the true heart of our nation’s third president.

“To know Jefferson without knowing Poplar Forest is like reading a person’s public letters but not their private journal,” Travis McDonald, director of architectural restoration for Poplar Forest, said.

Nestled in the countryside away from public scrutiny and steady streams of White House guests, Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest was an oasis from which he could draw contemplative and creative refreshment while enjoying the more simplistic parts of life.

“Poplar Forest was a place for Jefferson to retreat from the craziness (of presidential life) and read, write and think,” Manager of Programs and Education Mary Massie said. “Here, we’re given insight to who Jefferson was as a citizen, architect and lifelong student.”

Designed by Jefferson himself around the time of his second inauguration, Jefferson’s retreat home at Poplar Forest is the culmination of years of studying classical architecture and building and rebuilding Monticello.

“He took bits and pieces of what he had learned (and) liked and mashed it all together here,” Massie said.

The staff at Poplar Forest is not just telling Jefferson’s story, though. Through exhibits, elective tours and playwright vignettes, the staff tells the stories of the enslaved men and women who lived and worked on the plantation.

“They’re very moving because they’re inspired by real stories that we know happened here,” Massie said. “You’ve got to know where you came from to know where you’re going. Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers, the enslaved people that lived here—they’re all vital to our history.”

Restarting in March, guided tours of the house are offered daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free with regular admission, the Enslaved Community Tours are available on weekends.

Admission is $8 with a student ID—half-off the regular price to enter (who knew Flames Passes were good for more than meal swipes?).

If you have room for a visit between classes, Massie recommends Tuesday and Wednesday mornings—there is no crowd and the guides can tailor the tour to your Jeffersonian interest.

There are plenty of self-guided things to do as well, and you can do them at your own pace and leisure.

“It’s really important for people to study their history, but not just from a textbook,” Massie said. “Get out and see the real stuff if you can. A lot of people think that if they go to a museum they’re stuck there all day, but Poplar Forest isn’t like that.”

If a Liberty student needs CSER hours, it is a great place to get them in.

After going through a brief training process, students can start clocking hours as tour guides or museum shop associates. To apply, contact Mary Massie at (434) 534-8107 or mary@poplarforest.org.

“It’s an opportunity to think about Jefferson’s legacy in civic engagement and how students can get involved in encouraging democracy,” Director of Programs Wayne Gannaway said. “(And) as a slave plantation, it’s a good place to think about the legacy of the Founding Fathers and slavery and what that tells us about our world today.”

Whether it is the history or the scenery that draws you to Poplar Forest, Massie added that walking along the same paths that Jefferson strolled centuries ago is an incomparable opportunity to gain a more intimate visualization of who he was.

“Monticello is vastly important to the study of Thomas Jefferson, but Poplar Forest is just as much, if not more so,” Massie said. “We don’t have one significant event that happened here, but without Thomas Jefferson and the other founding fathers, we wouldn’t have America. Seeing their homes and how they lived privately is vital to understanding where their mindsets were.”

A full list of Poplar Forest’s upcoming events can be found at poplarforest.org/events.

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