Poplar Forest, Popular Site

Part 2

After a detour through Bedford due to faulty navigation and a long winded explanation of how my traveling companion and I select our destinations, we are finally going to visit Poplar Forest.

The best way to reach Poplar Forest is to take Virginia Highway #811 off either #2211 or #460. Both lead to Va. #661 which is nothing more than a single lane path that leads up to the front entrance of Poplar Forest There was plenty of parking available the day we were there and there is a very nice Information Center/Gift Shop where you pay a modest admission charge and are greeted by a very nice hostess who will inform you when the next tour is scheduled. I don't mean this as a knock on Monticello but everything at Poplar Forest is more relaxed and less crowded than it is at Monticello. I visited Monticello in the early 60s and it was very pleasant. However, when I returned for a visit about a year ago, everything had changed. Bigger crowds, more complicated parking, shuttle busses, etc. It's true there is more to see at Monticello but the relaxed pace and intimacy of Poplar Forest has to be weighed against the impersonality and crowded conditions at Monticello We didn't even stay for the tour at Monticello.

Maybe it's fitting that the distinction I have described exists between Poplar Forest and Monticello because that's exactly the way it was and was intended to be when Thomas Jefferson was alive. Keep in mind that both were working plantations but Poplar Forest was Mr. Jefferson's ( that's how he is referred to in Charlottesville ) retreat from public life. He never stayed at Poplar Forest for over 2 months during the year and he never entertained at Poplar Forest. Our guide told us they have located only one reference to TJ having entertained anyone at PF. He spent most of his time there reading, corresponding with friends and governmental officials and checking out the plantation. The house resembles Monticello somewhat but is much smaller. Many of the features in both houses are ideas TJ developed as a result of his stay in France like the full length windows, ornamentation, flooring, and landscaping.

There is a large assemblage of box woods arranged in a circle in front of the house with a carriage path leading up to the front entrance. There is much to be done before PF achieves the level of restoration achieved at Monticello but therein lies the charm. You can see first hand many of the problems the restorers are confronted with and maybe someday you can return and marvel at the work they have done.

Currently, there is a wing missing from the house which contained many of the essentials for living such as the kitchen, smoke house, etc. Archaeologists have located the foundation of this wing and are actively digging for artifacts contained in the ground where the wing existed. The area is covered with plastic sheeting to enable the archaeologists to work year round and there is a model which shows what the wing will look like when it is completed. The wing is scheduled to be completed in around 4 years and is open to the public.

Poplar Forest has not always enjoyed the attention it is receiving today. It was built in 1806 and in TJ's own words, "When it is finished, it will be the best dwelling house in the state, except that of Monticello; perhaps preferable to that, as more proportioned to the faculties of a private citizen." A fire in 1845 was responsible for the house being converted into an ordinary farm house. The house was left to TJ's daughter and her husband but they sold much of the land and the house and moved to Florida.

In the 1960s, it was widely rumored that a group of local businessmen were interested in purchasing the house and converting it into a restaurant. A Dr. Johnson of High Point, N.C., a Jefferson admirer, learned of this and sent a check for $50,000 sight unseen to hold the house and property as an investment and which he ultimately purchased for $500,000. He sold it to the historical group that owns it today several years later for $1,000,000. Portions of the land have been sold off over the years so that only around 500 acres remain of the original 4,000. Poplar Forest is both a National and Virginia Historical Landmark.

Now for the UNC connection.

As we were entering the grounds of Poplar Forest, we followed an automobile being driven by a female up the narrow path to the house. I noticed the car had North Carolina license plates and I jokingly said to my friend, " That right, you North Carolinians bring all your money up here to Virginia and spend it like many of you do with the lottery tickets." My friend, who is a native Virginian, thought that was humorous and said he thought there was hope for me yet becoming a true Virginian. I told him not to get carried away with my attempts at humor.

When we arrived at the parking area, the lady in the car referred to parked near where we had parked and typically, I asked, " Hey, what part of North Carolina are you from?" She indicated she was from Greensboro and we carried on a conversation while walking to the Information Center. I asked what brought her up to PF and she said she was from Bedford and just wanted to check on progress of the restoration. I asked how she came to be living in Greensboro and she said her husband was a native of that city. She said he had his own Human Relations consulting firm before retiring but he had worked in Human Relations at Duke University before forming his own organization. I then asked her what her husband's name was since I had worked in Human Relations at Duke but I was reasonably sure he would be someone who came after me since I have been gone from Duke for over 30 years. When she told me his name I almost dropped to the ground. Her husband was a very good friend of mine while I was at Duke and he has visited my home in Richmond several times since we both left and spent the night. We had lost touch over the years and several attempts on my part to locate him had not met with success. After all of us expressed disbelief at what had happened, she said she would be talking with him by telephone that evening and she was going to tell him about our encounter.

Later, after I arrived back in Richmond, I received a telephone call from him and I led off with, " I hate to have to tell you this but I was with your wife today." We both chucked and continued to talk for almost an hour. We agreed to try and meet sometime soon since he is now retired.

Where is the UNC connection you might ask? My friend is a graduate of UNC and was a Morehead Scholar while a student at the Hill. I still can't believe it.

So there you have it. We'll try not to make a steady diet of non unc related articles, but this may enable me to get through the off season. Several people have been nice enough to e-mail me and express their feelings that they would like for me to continue even if the articles are not about unc sports.

As my folks used to say, " We'll see."

Chancellor Moeser is going to visit Richmond on May 3rd and speak to an alumni group. I'll let you know what he says.

Part 1

As I mentioned on Tuesday, I will begin with this article a series of posts about 1 day trips my former boss and I have taken in Virginia over the past 6 years. Actually, we have ventured out of the state on several occasions, but the majority of our trips have been in Virginia east of Roanoke. We have found that to go west of Roanoke either requires us to get up before dawn, get back to Richmond later than we want to or an overnight stay, none of which are desirable. We may change this in the future but for now we are limiting ourselves to the area east of Roanoke.

First, you might be interested in knowing how we choose our destinations. We never, and I mean never, plan in advance. This seems to bother people a lot because we all are so accustomed to planning or pretending to plan everything we do. We still have people ask us where we are going on our next trip when we have told them numerous times that we don't decide where we are going until I show up at my friend's house at 8:00 on the day of the trip. We sit at his breakfast table while he has a cup of coffee and each has his say about where we might want to consider going that day. After each has spoken, we decide where we will go. Each person's suggestions are just that, no more, and we have never had a problem in making a decision. If one of us has a strong feeling about where they want to go, they say so and the other has always gone along with it. For example, one day I said I wanted to go to Chapel Hill. My friend who is not a UNC man immediately said, "Let's go." We have been known to change our minds in the middle of the trip. I remember once we were on our way to Rocky Mount, Va. when we decided that we wanted to go to Danville instead. We immediately changed the direction in which we were traveling and agreed that we could visit Rocky Mount at a later date.

Last Wednesday, we both mentioned Poplar Forest since there had been a lengthy feature article in the Richmond Times Dispatch describing the site several days earlier. We stopped at one of our many country breakfast restaurants we have located over the years and ate like we were going to be working in the fields. These places are not easy to find since most people eat breakfast in a fast food restaurant, on the run or in a convenience store. It's surprising how good some of the "C" store food is and the mom and pop operators tell us that you can't make it anymore unless you have hot food. Clientele is developed by word of mouth and those that survive make it very well.

In the 6 years we have been making our trips, until last Wednesday, we had never gotten lost. Well, there's a first time for everything. We were trying to follow instructions given us by the owner of a feed store and something must have gotten lost in the transmission. My friend traveled the Commonwealth of Virginia for over 30 years and he is an excellent navigator but mostly from familiarity. Please don't ask me to explain the difference between a Commonwealth and a State because I'm sure something will get lost in the transmission. All I know is that Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and maybe West Virginia are commonwealths. There may be more, I'm not sure. My navigator, however, has a problem with his eyesight so he is not very useful in reading signposts and maps. I finally realized something was wrong and pulled over to the side of the road and discovered that we were about 15 miles off course and on our way to Bedford, Va. rather than Poplar Forest. We knew the new D-Day memorial was in Bedford so we decided to continue on to Bedford and catch PF on our return trip.

For those of you not familiar with the D-Day memorial, let me explain that Bedford, Va. had the largest per capita casualties on D-Day of any America city. The population of Bedford at the time was 3200 and the number of D-Day causalities was 21 dead out of 35 members of the 29th Infantry Division which was a National Guard Unit mobilized after the U.S. entered the war. We were disappointed that the memorial will not be opened to the public until June 6th. They have a web site at www.dday.org.

We then decided to have lunch and we love to ask people in a small town where the best hot dog can be found. We were directed to a diner type restaurant where the owner had been open for only 3 weeks. He was from Pennsylvania Dutch country and made a pretty good hot dog. He kept telling us that his dogs were all beef not knowing that I am not all that opposed to having some filler in my hot dogs. I don't even mind a little Red Dye #6. As Mrs. RamFanatic says, we are all going to die of something. The chili was good and he had home made cake which I resisted because of my recent trouble with blood sugar.

A gentleman a little older than me came in and sat at the counter and ordered a bowl of chili. He turned to me and said, " Well, are we at war yet?" I told him I didn't think so and we struck up a conversation. Right in the middle of a sentence, he said, " North Carolina. Did you go to school there?" I realized he had seen the North Carolina emblazoned across my chest and answered in the positive. He said he had gone to UNC also. He explained that he was at Carolina in 1941 when we entered World War 11. His grades were not good enough to get a draft deferment, so he tried to enlist in the Navy in hopes of becoming a Navy pilot. They discovered during his physical exam that he had an overbite and was rejected for service with the Navy. He still expresses bewilderment at being rejected for military service because of an overbite. He then went to the Army, was accepted and eventfully became a bomber pilot. He chuckled when he told of receiving a notice from the Navy 6 months after entering the Army asking him to come back for a reexamination. He thoroughly enjoyed writing them back telling them he had been accepted into the Army Air Corps and was in pilot training.

I was surprised to learn that he has not returned to Chapel Hill since he left in '42. Of course, there is always the possibility I misunderstood him but I thought that's what he said. He now manages a marina on Smith Mountain Lake.

We talked over old times. Fortunately, I knew some of the old sports names at UNC even though his stay at UNC was before my time. He said he was the roommate of the backup to one of Carolina's star running backs, Jim LaLanne. I have been told LaLanne was often teased about a song popular at the time, a Hawaiian tune that went like this " Sweet LaLanne, heavenly flowers" and so on. Not the kind of thing that would have been welcomed by a macho football player in the late 30's. What's more, the tune was so identifiable that I'm sure Jim was weary of it before he left the Hill. And being called "Sweet." Them was fighting words back then. Sort of like the song by Johnny Cash named " A Boy Named Sue." I can really relate since my legal first name is Francis.

I didn't think this article would run this long so I will have to postpone the Poplar Forest segment until next time. Maybe I'll get better, as time goes on in, fitting the articles into predetermined space allotments.