Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest (Virginia)

Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest

Virginia is rich in Presidential history, with 4 of the first 5 Presidents hailing from the Commonwealth. While most people know about Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, fewer people know about his country retreat, Poplar Forest. Located in the picturesque mountains around Lynchburg, this historic home has plenty of outdoor space to enjoy during these fall months.


History

Thomas Jefferson and his wife, Martha, inherited Poplar Forest in 1773 from her father’s estate. At the time, Jefferson served as a member of the House of Burgesses. In just a few short years, he would be known as the “pen of the Revolution” for his work on the Declaration of Independence, along with other revolutionary documents. 

Poplar Forest first comes into history as a place of refuge when Jefferson flees capture by the British at Monticello in 1781. Over the years, Jefferson used his architectural skills honed by his time in France to design a home at Poplar Forest, laying the foundation in 1806. After his years as President, he would come to Poplar Forest several times a year, staying for weeks at a time. His granddaughters accompanied him on many of these trips, and in 1823, Jefferson visited for the last time. At the time, he gave Poplar Forest to his grandson, who ended up selling the home a few years after Jefferson’s death on July 4, 1826.

The home changed hands several times over the next 150 years, with its interiors altered by a fire in 1845 and by the changing needs of its owners. Thankfully, the original structure of the home survived and is now a historical site for all to enjoy.


Visit

Poplar Forest is located in Forest, Virginia, about 15 minutes west of Lynchburg. It’s in the middle of a neighborhood and golf course, sitting on land that was part of Jefferson’s original estate. Be sure to take the main entrance to the home off of Thomas Jefferson Highway (not the back way through the neighborhood). This way, you can view the home from the entrance road, as it was seen in Jefferson’s day.

Poplar Forest is open for both grounds visits and interior guided tours. If choosing the 45-minute interior tour, be sure to purchase your ticket ahead of time to ensure room on the socially-distanced tour. There is ample parking and even a dog kennel on site for your furry friend!

You will enter the site through the gift shop/visitor center.

Check in for your tour or purchase your grounds ticket here. There is a short 13-minute movie that is shown in the adjacent building for those participating in the interior guided tour. 

After the movie, the tour will continue outside. There are many places on the beautiful grounds to explore. My son’s favorite place was the mound on this side of the home. Your kids can run up and down, playing king of the hill!

My son also liked seeing the brick octagonal necessary or privy. It’s a long walk from the house to it!

The sunken south lawn is beautiful and was inspired by the bowling greens that Jefferson saw in Europe.

The tour will spend about 20 minutes on the west lawn, among the tree groves that were specifically designed by Jefferson himself. He was very specific about how far apart the trees should be to maximize their enjoyment and utility.

The tour will take you around to the front of the house, which faces north to the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The original carriage turnaround has been preserved under a protective covering. 

The tour will then go inside the home for a 20-minute tour of the first floor rooms. We enjoyed hearing about the thought and detail that went into every aspect of the home, including the innovative 5-sided bricks!

Since the home is octagonal, the exterior rooms are uniquely shaped. The end rooms also contain an innovative stairway to the outside. Evidently, Jefferson hated staircases in homes since they waste so much space!

You will see Jefferson’s bedchamber, which includes space for an alcove bed just like at Monticello!

The middle room is a perfect cube and serves as the dining room.

Since it is a completely interior room, Jefferson designed a skylight to allow in sunlight.

The parlor looks out onto the south lawn and contains a replica of Jefferson’s famous polygraph machine (which made a copy of all of his correspondence).

Each room contains some Jefferson-inspired items, such as the rotating tables and windsor chairs (note the bar across the bottom, which comes from an actual drawing of the chair by Jefferson’s granddaughter). 

The home has undergone extensive conservation, and this is shown clearly in the final room on your tour. In this room, you can see the many layers between the home’s brick structure and the interior walls. 

You can also see the fireplace restoration process and the unique way the fireplaces are constructed. 

This is a great behind-the-scenes (or wall!) view of the home!

The tour does talk about Jefferson’s use of enslaved labor at this home, including the craftsmanship of John Hemings. Thankfully one of the original doors built by Hemings has survived and was used to save items during the 1845 fire!

After the tour is over, you can spend time exploring the east lawn, including the patio over the 1814 wing. There is another mound to explore here!

One of the most interesting places to see is the 1814 wing where the smokehouse, laundry, and kitchen were located. 

You can also explore the museum, located in the basement of the main house. The exhibits here discuss Jefferson’s life at Poplar Forest and the enslaved workers who lived here. 

You can see the wine cellar, located directly under the dining room.

If your kids still have some energy, walk from the east lawn to the slave quarter exhibit, found behind the overseers home/1857 slave dwelling.

You can also explore the archaeology labs and exhibits, if open. During our visit, this building was closed but you could view some items displayed in the windows. There is also a hands-on-history pavilion that was closed during our visit due to COVID. 

Don’t forget to visit the great museum shop before you leave! My son found lots of items that he wanted there, including this adorable colonial dog shirt!

If you can’t visit in person, check out its fantastic virtual tour! If you’re homeschooling or virtual schooling this year, you may also be interested in the site’s educational information, including a virtual scavenger hunt for kids! 

Poplar Forest should be on your list of must-see Presidential sites. Its location in the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains makes autumn a wonderful time to plan a visit! 


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7 thoughts on “Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest (Virginia)

  1. Thank you for posting this! When my daughter and I drove the Blue Ridge Parkway two year ago, we had considered stopping here (we were coming from Richmond). We ended up passing on this (too many places to visit!), so this is a wonder summary of what we missed 😀

    Like

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