July 06, 2009

Visiting Thomas Jefferson


his past weekend we continued a family tradition—we spent July 4th at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest home. This was only our second year doing this, but it has become a favorite family outing.

A Revolutionary War officer

Our first visit to Poplar Forest was last year on July 4th—one year ago. We had seen the local signs about “Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest,” but did not fully comprehend what that meant. I don’t remember ever being taught about this portion of President Jefferson’s life, and it is a fascinating segment. Frankly, when I saw the signs for Poplar Forest I thought it was just a big forest of poplar trees that Thomas Jefferson had planted or protected. That image is not remotely close to the reality.

Poplar Forest was Jefferson’s retreat while he was being targeted by British forces. Martha Jefferson inherited the property and when they used it to get out of the fire-line, Thomas Jefferson recognized the beauty of the property and began his plan to build a retirement home there.

The sword swallowers   [ Web site ]

While he was living in the famous Monticello, Jefferson sent detailed architectural and landscaping plans to Poplar Forest. The residence had been built by the time Jefferson left public life and he spent the final years of his life living primarily in this home.

Kim taking advantage of the shade

The majority of Jefferson’s archived writings were written here on this property. He was able to commit himself to thought and writing when he was here—away from the many well-meaning, but ever-present visitors.

On July 4th each year, Poplar Forest hosts a wonderful event celebrating our nation’s independence, which was spurred along by one of our nation’s most inspiring documents—the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson.

The event on the Poplar Forest property includes entertainment and education, all served up in period style. We signed up for the continental army and David was given a musket to carry while being trained for the Revolution. We heard a story teller who was chock-full of great tales from early America. We saw demonstrations of basket weaving, flax preparation, blacksmithing, lace making, pottery making, beading, and much more. We even saw a male and female sword swallowing team that also swallowed fire.

All of this was done by highly informative and friendly costumed players.

As an eclectic aside, we found another unusual educational tidbit during our visit—an active archeological dig site on the grounds. This is the ongoing archeological excavation of the grounds surrounding Poplar Forest. We got to meet the archeologists themselves and found them to be an impressive group of people. They ranged in age from a recent high school graduate to a retired man in his late 60s who moved from Ohio to Virginia to take part in this archeological effort.

One of the archeologists at work

The folks at this dig site were approachable and willing to answer questions, explain what they were doing, and brag about the things they have already discovered. David was so excited by seeing the care and respect these folks were showing as they carefully brushed away small amounts of dirt to reveal what appears to be a cobblestone path or foundation about a foot and a half below the surface.

One of the archeologists explained to us that this area seems to have been the site of a metal working shop and possibly stables. He explained that they are using Jefferson’s detailed notes about the grounds to guide their dig sites and then merging those notes with what they find to determine what these grounds have looked like over the couple hundred years since Jefferson built this property.

Period costumed flute player and his daughter

But the most inspiring part of the day was the reading of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. This document has been referred to as “the American scriptures,” and it does seem to hold that degree of reverence. But the amazing thing to me is how applicable this document is to our situation today. Our founding fathers fully recognized the danger a government can pose to its own people and they worked hard to protect the citizens and to give them “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Thomas Jefferson was greatly concerned about over taxation and the strength of the American dollar. And the founding fathers set a course for our nation that has made us strong, promoted individual achievement, and created a strong financial system. But our government has strayed long and far from those founding principles and we are now engaging in things that are potentially disastrous to our financial standing and our personal freedom.

It was truly inspiring to stand with 400 or so other quietly respectful people gathered below the house and hear Thomas Jefferson’s words read aloud. If you live anywhere near Central Virginia, you should put this on your calendar for next year’s Independence Day. It will be a day well spent.

Presentation of the colors - by the Lynchburg Boy Scouts

Learn more from the Poplar Forest web site.

Read the Declaration of Independence. If you use the Scribd embedded document below, you may want to click on the Full Screen Toggle on the top-right of the window. It will make it a little easier to read. When you’re done, click the toggle again to return to this screen.


  1. Good to meet you on the Fourth, sir! Thank you for your kind words to us at the show and for supporting Poplar Forest for this event.

    We hope to see you next year and look forward to seeing more of you in cyberspace!

    Have you visited www.streetofcards.tv? yet?


    Alex & Charon* The Swordswallowers

  2. It was great meeting you too, Charon. I checked out your FB page and love your tattoo work. You're quite talented. And I would love to photograph you. You look like you'd be a wonderful subject! I bet you and Alex are a hoot when you're not working.

    Thanks also for the link. I had not seen this before. I'll have to share it with some of my illusionist friends. We're all amateurs, but we love doing it.


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