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Poplar Forest

Searching for the Overseer’s House

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As our blog followers know we find Poplar Forest an interesting, thought provoking and unique treasure in the Lynchburg, VA area.  This month we are highlighting some current archaeological work being pursued at Poplar Forest.

During the summer of 2017 the first archaeological steps to locate the overseer’s house were begun. Located on a lot adjacent to Poplar Forest students from the annual Field School in Historic Archaeology and Landscapes conducted a six-week study of a plot of land.  Excavating a total of 26 shovel test pits and 7 five-foot excavation units many “treasures” dating to the late 18th-early 19th century were found.

Artifacts included handwrought and machine cut nails, window glass, melted glass, fragments of ceramic vessels, an iron buckle and a coat sleeve button.  A large quantity of slag, the waste product from blacksmithing, was also found.  It is now assumed that the area studied is only the edge of the site and that it probably extends onto other properties located just outside of the land currently owned by Poplar Forest.

Why is the location of this house important?  The structure was likely one of the earliest to be built on the plantation, possibly as early as the 1760’s.  This structure would have been a center of activity until Jefferson built the octagonal retreat house in 1806.  Determining the whereabouts of the overseer’s house will assist in determining how the plantation was originally laid out in the years prior to the construction of Poplar Forest, Jefferson’s retreat house.

It is thought that Thomas Jefferson wrote the majority of his book, Notes on the State of Virginia, in the overseer’s house while he was convalescing after a fall from his horse.  The book is a statement of Jefferson’s principles and is a reflection of his wide-ranging tasks and talents.  It deals with culture, comments about social phenomena and his political and social philosophies.

As always, a trip to Polar Forest will teach you something new or expose you to a new idea or thought presented by Thomas Jefferson.

 

 

What’s Behind the Name Poplar Forest?

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Rear view of Poplar Forest showing the poplar trees of Thomas Jefferson’s time.

Whether you live in the Lynchburg, VA area or not we know many of our readers and guests at The Carriage House Inn Bed and Breakfast have taken the time to visit historic Poplar Forest.  While touring this magnificent house and the grounds did you ever wonder why Poplar Forest is called Poplar Forest?

Thomas Jefferson built his retreat adjacent to a poplar forest, in Bedford County, in part to honor the majestic tree that grew prolifically in the woods surrounding his property.

Thomas Jefferson was an experienced builder.  While building his retreat he specified certain woods for specific uses and functions.  The heartwood from old-growth poplar trees was prized for exterior as well as interior features.  Poplar wood was used for structural members of the house such as joists and  rafters.  It was used for the Doric balusters of the classical roof balustrade.  The trim found both outside and inside the house were hand-molded from poplar wood.

Poplar wood is scarce today due to the fact that a living tree must be felled in its prime.  If left to become a full, mature tree–in 200-300 years–the heartwood will rot and disappear.  The poplar wood used by Jefferson was sawed by hand with pit saws operated by enslaved labor.

Surrounding Poplar Forest, the mansion, you will see five Jefferson-era poplar trees on the north side of the house.  Today these trees are more valuable as historical landscape features rather than sources of lumber.  In 2000 one large poplar tree was taken down.  It did have some usable heartwood that has been used for moldings in the house: bases, chair rails, architraves and entablatures.  This interior trim is also being made by hand, as in Jefferson’s day.

The next time you visit Poplar Forest, as there is always something new to see or experience, take a few moments to walk the perimeter of the house.  Look up at the magnificent poplar trees.  Imagine Thomas Jefferson and his grand daughters staring at these same trees, many, many years ago.

As extra incentive to visit and tour Poplar Forest if you visit on Saturday, May 12th an architectural restoration talk and tour will be offered.  During this special talk and tour you will learn how the restoration architects, architectural historians and craftsmen are meticulously restoring Jefferson’s vision for this stately mansion.  These tours are at 11 and 2 on the 12th.  Reservations are suggested.  Regular tour admission prices apply.