Poplar Forest: Historical Interpretation
Posted By Mary Massie
Thomas Jefferson designed his octagonal villa at Poplar Forest as a personal retreat. At Poplar Forest, Jefferson was able to concentrate on the things that meant the most to him: studying, reading, writing letters, designing much of the University of Virginia and spending time with two or three of his grandchildren. Here he was able to achieve the peace he desperately craved after retiring from public service. Unlike Monticello, the home he built in the 1770s in Albemarle County, Poplar Forest was an unknown piece of property to most but Jefferson’s close family. At Poplar Forest, Jefferson didn’t have to worry about hoards of visitors showing up daily needing to be entertained. Here Jefferson could relax.
However, Poplar Forest was much more than just Jefferson’s private retreat. It was also his most profitable plantation. From the time he inherited the property in 1773 until he bequeathed it to his grandson, Francis Eppes in 1823, the 4,819 acre property was a tobacco and wheat plantation. Its proximity to the James River made shipping hogsheads of tobacco to Richmond relatively easy. Of course, its use as such a plantation necessitated the practice of slavery. At the height of its production, Poplar Forest was the home to roughly 94 enslaved individuals who mainly worked in the tobacco and wheat fields. The dichotomy of the property as both a working plantation that required the use of enslaved labor and as a personal retreat used as a getaway for the master has demanded a new view of the property. As the Corporation for Jefferson’s Poplar Forest works to incorporate the lives of the enslaved men, women, and children who called the property home into the interpretation of the site, a big opportunity has presented itself to help facilitate this challenge.
Poplar Forest’s next big project will further the exploration of the intertwining of the enslaved population’s work on the property with Jefferson’s use as a retreat. Beginning in 2017, the Poplar Forest Parkway Project will break ground on a new access road to the site. The Poplar Forest Parkway project will not only create a more visible entrance onto the property, but will allow visitors to travel almost 2 ½ miles through fields used to grow the cash crops Jefferson needed to maintain his lifestyle. The Corporation for Jefferson’s Poplar Forest currently owns roughly 617 acres of Jefferson’s original property, but until now, only about 50 of those acres have been accessible for interpretative opportunities. With the creation of our new entrance parkway and the addition of numerous walking trails, Poplar Forest is thrilled to explore new ways to better interpret the economics of the slave system and how Jefferson himself grappled with the institution he loathed yet profited from his entire life.
Poplar Forest is thrilled to be hosting the VAM Historic House Forum this year. Along with showcasing some of the new interpretations that have been created in the past few years, a panel discussion with staff members from several historic house sites throughout Virginia will illuminate ways different sites are reinterpreting their venues. The day will begin with a tour through Jefferson’s beloved retreat home, followed by a boxed lunch in our Visitor Orientation Center where participants can discuss amongst themselves their impressions of the site. The main event, a panel discussion will follow lunch around 1 p.m. featuring speakers from Poplar Forest, Menokin Foundation, Stratford Hall, and James Madison’s Montpelier and will take place in Jefferson’s historic dining room, a perfect 20’ cube in the center of the Poplar Forest villa. The day will conclude with participants taking an Enslaved Community Tour, seeing parts of the property not included on the house tour.
The VAM Historic House Forum is a great opportunity for participants to hear first-hand from several historic sites how they are taking advantage of new interpretive prospects. Hear the latest news about how each of these sites are interpreting their properties differently and converse with other participants about their impressions and ideas of how historic sites can better interpret their complete stories. The Corporation for Jefferson’s Poplar Forest hopes you’ll join us for this exciting and unique opportunity to get personal insight into developing interpretation ideas.