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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.