May 2016 – Charlottesville, Virginia

For those of you that follow our posts I apologize for not posting a blog for nearly a month, but after spending a week near Charlottesville, Virginia, we spent three weeks at my son’s house in Maryland and I had very little time (or interest) in working on this blog.  Therefore, this post is nearly a month old, but I will see what I can remember.  Our trip back into central Virginia was uneventful and we even managed to move without it raining on us.  Since it rained nearly every day for the past week, as well as, the next week, this was an accomplishment in itself.  As we pulled into the Heavenly Acres Campground, we wondered how it got its name.  Neither of us was impresses with what we saw, but since Good Sam has it rated as 7 out of 10 for appearance we should have not been surprised.  The staff were very friendly and we did have a pull through site, which was about the best feature of the campground.  Most of the sites, including ours, was overgrown with weeds and the condition of the seasonal RVs in the campground was very poor.  Their idea of decoration was to plant flowers in old bathtubs scattered along the roads and the boxcars they used for cabins were in very poor shape.  On top of all this, the bathrooms were single stall out-houses with flush toilets that tended to be clogged much of the time.  Suffice it to say we would not stay here again.


Even though the campground was not the best we have stayed in and the weather was terrible with rain nearly every day, we were glad we had returned to central Virginia.  Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello is located in Charlottesville, but since we had visited it in the past, we put it low on our objectives for the week, which means we did not visit Monticello due to the weather.  However, we did drive over the Skyline Drive in Sheanandoah National Park over to Staunton, Virginia to visit Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday.  Thankfully it did not rain on Wednesday until late in the day, but it would not have mattered since nearly all of the day was spent indoors, especially since the small formal garden was closed while they dealt with a disease killing their boxwoods.  Since this a Wednesday morning at the beginning of May, there were not many visitors to the site, in fact, we were the only visitors until just before noon.  Consequently we got a private tour of Woodrow Wilson’s birthplace.  In fact, this is known as his birthplace since the family only lived here for a couple of years before moving to Georgia.  Consequently, I doubt he remembers this home although the family continued to have connections with Mary Baldwin College that was just down the hill.  The home was built by the Presbyterian Church as an inducement to attract a good minister and was the main reason Woodrow’s father moved his family down from Ohio.  Although Staunton has grown over the years so the home is considered part of downtown today, at the time is was all alone at the top of the hill.  Therefore the back porch of the home was designed to be a showplace with nice columns and two stories since this would be the view from the center of town.  In comparison, the front porch is very modest in comparison making this an odd house.  In fact, the church used their home as a meeting place and church socials to be hosted by the minister.  We had a great time with our tour guide and actually made him late for his next tour.  While the home itself was not impressive on the inside, they had a number of period pieces that were interesting.  For instance, the wood burning stove in the kitchen had burners over the firebox and a totally enclosed baking oven on the back of the stove that set out in the room.  The museum itself was a bit of a disappointment, consisting of only a couple of rooms with small exhibits about Woodrow Wilson’s education and political career.  I did learn a couple of things I did not know about Woodrow Wilson.  For instance, he is our only President with a Ph.D. degree and he was the President of Princeton University before running for public office.  The most interesting parts of the museum were the 1919 Pierce Arrow limousine that he used during his last years as President and was purchased for him after retiring.  The have done a great job in keeping the car in perfect condition and even take it our for parades a couple of times a year.  It weighs more than my Ford F350 truck!!  The basement of the museum is also interesting, as they have created a full size model of the trenches the soldiers fought in during World War I, which dominated most of his Presidency.  I had hoped for a more extensive Presidential museum like we have visited for later Presidents.


Due to the weather, we did not do anything the rest of the week.  The campground did not even have laundry facilities, so we decided to just wait until we got to William and Kristen next week.

However, the weather forecast for Saturday was suppose to be clear, so we took advantage of the forecast and visited James Madison’s Montpelier, which was less than 20 miles from the campground.  Although there was no forecast for rain, it did manage to produce a shower while we were there.  Thankfully we were inside on the tour when it happened.  Even there were signs at the entrance to the property, we were initially confused by what we saw.  Instead of a grand mansion, our first impression was this was a horse farm.  Along with the horses, pastures, and stables we could see, there was also a full racetrack and jumps for what looked like a steeplechase track.  In addition, we almost got told to pull into a very muddy field of a lot of tents that was going to be a wine and cheese festival that afternoon.  This was all before you can even see Montpelier.  It turns out, that while all of this was part of the property, it was modifications made by the duPonts who bought the property in 1901 and turned it into a very large Thoroughbred horse ranch with multiple stables, pastures, and racetracks until Marion duPont Scott bequeathed the property to the National Trust for Historic Preservation with a $10 million endowment in 1983.  Although in Madison’s time it was a large tobacco plantation, the National Trust obtained the property with the stipulation that it continued to be a horse ranch as well.  Since 1934 the National Trust has been working to restore the house and grounds immediately surrounding to the condition it was in when Madison retired there after his Presidency.  This meant dismantling over half of the mansion, but thankfully the duPonts had maintained the central portions with only modest modifications.  They have also built a nice Visitor Center that includes a small cafe, the duPont art exhibit, and a room that reproduces Marion’s favorite room in the house. It is a striking Art Decor style room with the walls full of family pictures of the horses, family, and friends.  There are a number of tours available for the house, including specialty tours.  For instance we could have chosen a tour of the house that focused on James Madison as the “Father of the Constitution” or a tour of the ongoing archeological works.  We chose to take just the standard tour of the house, which began with a short video about James and Dolley Madison.  We learned that James Madison inherited this 5000 acre plantation from his father, which began as a 2000 acre patent by his grandfather in 1723.  Madison’s father, James Madison, Sr, built the original two story brick home in the 1760s which was expanded by James, Jr in 1797 to accommodate his mother in one wing and he with his new wife, Dolley, in the other.  During this period it actually had two front doors.  The final stage of construction during his Presidency added a large drawing room and wings on both sides of the house.  They have done a great job in the restoration which is now fully opened to the public.  There is a great tour of the downstairs and you are free to tour the bedrooms upstairs and the two kitchens in the basement.  In the back there is a large leveled backyard used for entertaining and a nice walled formal garden with statuary and flower beds.


After eating lunch in the truck, since the weather was cool and wet following the showers, we walked over to the family cemetery where James and Dolley Madison are buried along with a short side trip over to the slave cemetery. While the gravestones of James and Dolley are today miniature monuments, at the time of his death they were very simple headstones and the slave graveyards had no gravestones in evidence.  We then walked back up to the Visitor Center to take a quick look at the duPont art exhibit and Art Decor room before proceeding out the back to some extensive trails.  The trails provide access to some hardwood trees well over 100 years old and thus are termed “old growth” although none of them date from the time of James Madison.  I suspect all of those trees were cut at the time for construction purposes.  Even then the majestic oaks, yellow-poplar, and maples  made for a mature forest you rarely see.  Thankfully it did not rain again that day and we had nice 2 walk hike through some beautiful forests.

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